My eyes open once more, this time back in my and Jenny’s room at Little Sisters’. I lay there for a second and, as per tradition so far, soak up all the sounds floating in through the cracked window. I take a deep breath in and then exhale. Wait a second. I can breathe normally. My nose isn’t stuffy or running anymore! Upon this realization, I start taking note of how each piece of me feels. My throat is no longer scratchy. I sit up in bed and breathe deeply for a few minutes; the urge to cough (which was so nonstop and deep in my chest yesterday) is totally gone. Somehow, by some miracle, this virus that I was expecting to last for at least another week is totally gone. Praise God.
With abundant joy in my heart at my healing, I get dressed and go to breakfast. I tell everyone who asks that I’m feeling almost 100% better; I’m jubilant this morning. I was still soaking in each piece of this trip as best I could even with the sickness, but if I had the choice, I’d much rather soak it up feeling like my normal self, and now I get to. What a blessing.
I’m one of the lucky ones. About half the team has been sick since arriving in Kenya: about half with a stomach virus, and half with whatever I caught, some sort of respiratory virus. Thankfully most of those who had the stomach virus are doing much better. However, the respiratory virus is hanging around for the most part, as most respiratory viruses have a pesky tendency to do. When I say I’m better, I’m the exception and not the rule.
Today we are going to Mathare for the second time. When we went on Monday, half of the team spent the day at Mathare Worship Center teaching classes to the kids and doing workshops (this is where I was placed), and the other half went to Mother Theresa’s orphanage to serve there for a few hours. Today we switch roles. Myself, Isaac, Mitch, Colleen, and about six or seven other team members will go to Mother Theresa’s.
I’ve heard alot about this orphanage so far. The half of the team who went there on Monday said it was heartbreaking and powerful and touching all at once (much like almost everything else in Mathare). Colleen, one of the team leaders, adopted two kids from Kenya, and each of them came from this particular orphanage, so it holds a very special place in her heart. Once more, I’m at a loss for what to expect.
We all pile onto the small bus and say hello to our driver Ezekiel. After dropping off half the team at Mathare Worship Center, we drive another 10 minutes away and eventually come to a very high wall with barbed wire on top- this is the gate to Mother Theresa’s. I’m thankful there’s a wall here…. it’s smack dab in the middle of the slums. Trash everywhere, putrid smells, human beings curled up into balls along the road, shielding themselves from everything around them. I’m glad the kids in this orphanage have at least some sort of a shield, some sort of a wall between them and this, but I already wish more than anything that these kids could be completely removed from this sort of environment altogether. I wish they could actually get to grow up in a family, laughing and playing and knowing they are safe and loved, having choices, getting to develop their talents and carve their path….. unfortunately I know that will never be the reality for almost every child on the opposite side of this wall.
We drive through the gate and it closes behind us, and upon getting out of the bus, one of the nuns who serves here walks out to meet us. We get a partial tour; the grounds are clean, there’s some trees and flowers around, and no trash in sight. It’s a shocking contrast from what is right outside the wall. We learn that we will be serving in the disabled ward, and are reminded not to take photos (a visitor from another organization took advantage of that privilege a few years ago to make money for themselves, so Mother Theresa’s doesn’t permit it anymore). I guess that when the last connection team came here, there was a baby ward that the teams served at, where the need was endless: diapers that always needed changing, babies that always needed fed and often wanted but rarely were able to be held. There’s only so many nuns working here, and they do their best with what they have and I already respect them so much. The reality is that there just aren’t enough people to fully meet the needs of every child here, but there’s also no denying that the kids here are infinitely better off in this orphanage than they would be on the streets of Mathare. The baby ward isn’t a part of Mother Theresa’s anymore because they changed their system. Instead of taking in newborns and babies, the sisters are encouraging moms to come in with their babies to continue nursing them and to learn how to care for them. It’s a mother-child system instead of a typical orphanage, and they are still in the process of developing this ward and testing how successful it is.
One of the largest wards here is the disabled ward. The sister leads us through a small hallway and explains why this ward is so important. In Kenya, those who are disabled or handicapped are viewed as cursed, and are often either abandoned or abused because of it. We walk through a wide hallway and come into a large room with what looks like a huge crib in the center of it. It’s probably 8×8 feet, at least. It’s fairly dark, and there’s childrens music playing from a small boombox, and two sisters are keeping an eye on the ten or so kids who are napping and resting in the crib. The sister guiding us keeps walking, and we come into a courtyard sort of area, where there’s probably at least 40 kids. Most are in chairs or high chairs; many are restricted either by the trays of the high chairs or tied to a chair or bed by one foot. We were warned about that and told not to be shocked and not to untie them. To our first world eyes, that is unbelievable and unjust. But again, because of the limited number of people here who are able to help take care of all these kids, it’s for the good of the kids, to keep them from getting up and hurting themselves. If there were more resources available to them, these kids could be cared for much “better” by our standards; however, the reality is that there’s a concrete ground, sharp gate, and maybe six or seven sisters to feed, change, and love all of these handicapped kids. They’re doing their best to keep each child as healthy and safe as possible. We aren’t here to fix; we’re here to help, at least for two or three hours, in whatever way these sisters need help.
It takes me a few minutes to gain my composure. I don’t know how to best serve these kids, so in my not knowing I simply dive in head first and decide to love them with all the love I can possibly muster. Most of them don’t understand words, but they understand affection and love. I walk over to one beautiful little girl who is strapped into her high chair. She keeps making a fist with her right hand and banging her right ear; her spine and neck are distorted, causing her head to appear to be tilted towards her right shoulder. Her eyes are slightly crossed and she clearly has both a physical and a mental handicap, but she is smiling as wide as I’ve ever seen anyone smile. I simply hold her left hand and smile and make faces at her. When she starts mindlessly banging her right ear with her fist, I gently put my hand between her ear and her hand. She responds to touch, and calms down and smiles wider and giggles. I find out from a sister that her name is Christina.
I sit with her for about thirty minutes, and then a sister brings me a bowl of food to feed her. I start feeding her as best I can. More of it is on her face than in her mouth, but she is still smiling and laughing. Eventually she finishes about 75% of her food, and shortly after, a sister comes over to me and lifts Christina out of her chair because it’s time for her nap.
I look around at the team. It seems that everyone has found at least one or two kids that they have latched onto. Many members of the team are feeding the kids lunch; at this point, some of them have fed two or three kids. I can’t imagine what a task it is for the few sisters here to get all of them fed and changed and down for naps and loved. But it is evident that the sisters very genuinely love each of these children individually with all their hearts. The sister who took Christina told me her name and smiled at her and gently stroked her face, told me a few things about her, and then proceeded to go give food to three or four other kids and love each of them in a way specially unique to that child. I’m amazed at how the sisters know all of the kids’ names and the ways they best receive affection and love; I’m filled with mad respect for each of these women.
My eyes eventually land on Isaac. He’s been sitting with the same young boy the entire time we’ve been here. This boy is strapped into a chair, and Isaac is slowly feeding him but also has one of his hands on the boy’s forehead, just tenderly resting there. The boy is smiling wide and his head is moving all around, but I notice that he especially responds whenever Isaac touches him. Isaac’s face is hard to read; he looks really deep in thought, and hasn’t moved the whole time we’ve been here.
I walk over to another small girl who looks like she is maybe four years old. She also has a mental disability, and a sister quickly hands me a bowl of food to feed her. This girl is harder to feed than Christina was; she can’t really keep it in her mouth, so it’s really going all over her bib and I have to keep using the spoon to scoop it up and gently push little bits of food at a time into her mouth. Sometimes she screams really loudly for no apparent reason, and then she’ll stop and keep sort of eating. A sister soon comes and scoops her up into her arms, wipes her face, and puts her down in the big crib for her nap.
Not long after that it’s time to leave. We slowly start to walk back out of the ward; Isaac is the very last to leave. The sister shows us another branch of the ward where there is a small ball pit and a few therapy rooms. We walk back through the room with the huge crib, and I see Christina on the edge of the mattress, her eyes following me as we walk out. We go back to the bus and eat the lunches that the sisters at Little Sisters packed for us. There’s a really weird noise that seem to be coming from a bunch of loudspeakers outside the wall; it only takes me a second to realize that it’s a Muslim call to prayer. I heard “music” like this in one of my music perspectives classes in college and remember that Islam is the second largest religion here after Christianity. I’ve never been in a place where I actually heard a call to prayer echo over a whole area- this is a first for me. It’s about 12 o’clock in the afternoon, and it lasts for at least twenty minutes before the loudspeakers turn off and the noise of the hustle and bustle of the streets soon fills the air again.
We go back on the bus and go to Mathare Worship Center once more, and spend the remainder of the afternoon in the daycare again. I’m thrilled to get to hold these kids once more. Every child I’ve come across here in Kenya is quick to receive love. Come to think of it, I guess that’s a common theme with every child I’ve ever met; they are quick to receive love and quick to give it. We should be too.
Getting back to Little Sisters, we all take time as a group to talk over and process the day. Any day in Mathare is a challenge to process because there’s so many feelings at once. Mother Theresa’s at once filled me with respect for the sisters and incredible love for each of the kids there, but it also made me angry knowing that this was probably as good as any of those kids would ever have it. It made me mad knowing that the only way to keep the kids safe was to tie them up, because there wasn’t enough manpower to care for each child individually in each moment. What also made me angry was knowing that so many simple things could have prevented many of the handicaps that we saw. For example, if some of the kids simply had their own mattress and a pillow to sleep on each night, many of the physical handicaps and neck/spine deformations could have been completely prevented. But they have no way to get a mattress and pillow for each child. So they do their best. I feel respect and appreciation, and also anger at the injustice of the bigger picture. These kids won’t ever have the chance to get the medical attention, therapy, and family love that they deserve because of the situation they were born into. And that makes me mad and breaks my heart.
Then Isaac speaks up. He talked about the young man he was with all morning at Mother Theresa’s. At first, he couldn’t quite figure out why he responded so strongly to touch. But then a sister told him he was blind. When he started to feed him, to let him know that another spoonful was coming, Isaac would touch the spoon to his lips or place his hand on the boy’s head. He said that the boy would be moving quite a bit, but would calm down the moment he touched his head or face. And he said he thought that was a lot like what God does for us. We can’t see what we’re doing or where we’re going or what’s happening, but God does, and he asks us to trust Him. He gently holds us, gently guides us, and tenderly cares for us and loves us no matter what. We can trust Him even though we can’t see, because He can. Isaac is softly crying. I’m crying. About 90% of the team is crying. And I’m learning that’s one of the most important pieces of the processing.
It’s a trippy thing, to go from an environment like Mathare or Mother Theresa’s one day to an environment like Sanctuary of Hope the next day. The kids at SoH have choices, opportunities, a voice. And that’s such a beautiful thing that I’ve never thought to be thankful for until now: what a gift it is to have a voice. To be able to be heard. To have choices in life. Tomorrow we have a field trip planned with all of the SoH kids at a park outside of Nairobi. I know it will be a day of laughter and joy, and I’m wiped from today. So I go to sleep, my head and heart spinning and broken and thankful all at once. I can’t believe tomorrow is our last full day here.