by Elisa Morgan, ONEMoms in Kenya
I had to watch each step very carefully. The stench was indescribable. I ducked under clotheslines and around dogs everywhere. Children called out around me, “Hello! How are you?” They reached out and touched me. I smiled and called back, “Hello!” while jumping over muck of who knows what. All around me: rows and rows and rows of rooftops and alleys and chickens and women cooking and men loitering and tables of piled vegetables and dried smelly fish.
Kibera. The largest slum in Africa. Home to around one million people. Poverty like you can’t imagine. Filth you wouldn’t believe. HIV/AIDS and malaria and TB and you name it. Here 1 in 3 babies die before their first year and one in 6 moms. Malaria is rampant.
The ONEMoms arrived at Binti Pamajo (Daughters United) just one of the projects sponsored by Carolina for Kibera in partnership with ONE, and other efforts. Its founder, Rye Barcott, welcomed us with his staff. (You can read Rye’s story and learn all about Kibera: It Happened on the Way to War. Amazing!) This program for girls ages 11-18 provides a safe place for adolescent girls to explore the issues that are prevalent in their daily lives, including violence against women, sexual abuse, prostitution and HIV/AIDS.
After Rye’s greeting we were oriented, divided into teams and began a trek deeper into Kibera – about a fifteen minute walk for us – to the home of one of the young women alumnae named Betty. That’s where the careful footing, stench and stunning reality set in.
As I picked my path through sewage on the way back, I felt a deep appreciation for this young single mom of three who began each day at 4am to walk to get water: two trips of about 30 minutes each carrying two 20 liter jugs. The water bit slayed me. The only water available at all was that far away. It was anything but clean. But Betty was happily progressing with her life, grateful for the teaching she’d received that improved her life.
Hopeful – but oh so hard! And what a contrast to the day before when I’d walked through a glorious restored mansion and its lush grounds called Amani Ya Juu (Peace From Up Above), a sewing and reconciliation project for refugee women. We were gently guided through rooms of handsewn artwork: toy giraffes, beaded bracelets, quilts, purses – and then as we were welcomed by the working women in a large craft room of fabric and cutting tables we were individually embraced with hugs I will never forget. Dorcas from Uganda: “You are very welcome here.” Petronella from Nairobi, ”You are loved.” Esther from the Congo, “Peace to you.”¯ Over and over. Clearly these tortured souls had been redeemed and restored. It was as if Jesus himself repeatedly hugged me. Tears sprang up as I hugged back and took in the utterly gorgeous beauty around me. Fabulous.
But what a contrast to Kibera.
The way out of Kibera replicated the way in. Picking my path through sewage. Smells and unbearable odors. “Hellos!” and “How are yous?” Happy as I was for Betty and her girls, I felt such pain for Kibera.
Just then, crossing a plank bridge, a tiny girl about 4 or 5 years old ran from the side of the path and grabbed me, wrapping her arms around my legs in a hug. I stopped, received her small embrace with a large smile and patted her back. She was off as quickly as she’d come and I continued my trek.
In a hut in Kisumu where home testing for HIV/AIDS was performed, in a hospital in Siaya where moms and children were given malaria vaccinations, in Lwak Nutritional Center working to reduce the number of mother and child deaths, at Amani Ya Juu, and then today, in Kibera, likely the hardest place I’ve ever seen on this earth, I’m learning that healing comes in many forms. Sometimes in a vaccination. Sometimes in a classroom. Sometimes in clean water or better nutrition or a safe place to talk and live and learn.
And sometimes in a hug.
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Photo by ONEMoms