Friday, September 7, 2007

the mathere slum

Ever since my visit two days ago to the Mathere slum (muh-THAR-ay) here in Nairobi, I’ve been sorting through what to tell you about the visit. If you see the pictures without any explanation, I fear the result will be the usual caricature of poor places, the caricature that focuses on what people don’t have, the caricature that paints people as desperate victims, the caricature that points to the ground covered with trash and disease-causing agents and says, “See!! Look how terrible this is!” As with any caricature, those things would be true but would become less true when exaggerated out of proportion with the other things that are also true.

Jodi and I talked last night about my visit and about my sense that on this trip I still haven’t really witnessed complete desperation. She described a friend’s visit to another slum where the friend said there was a sense of hopelessness. In that slum, there were no businesses, no ways for people to earn money; and the place was filled with thugs and criminals and prostitutes, with people who, mostly out of desperation, have turned to dishonest ways to earn money.

That helped me begin to put words to what I observed: there were obvious needs in Mathere, yet there was also life and hope there. Children were laughing and playing. People were working. There might even be the possibility for people to change their situation if they choose to. Businesses dotted the road/lane/alley we travelled on to the orphanage we visited. Even in the midst of all the refuse, the air was not heavy with despair. So, it wouldn’t be fair to you for me to talk about visiting a place whose name—slum—carries such stereotyped impressions. It also wouldn’t be fair to the people who live there to reduce them to a category—the people who live in the slums—and all the assumptions and dehumanizing that accompanies that categorization.

It’s easy to get so sidetracked by the conditions in such places that you ignore the people who live there. They become just another prop that showcases the conditions, the conditions that are decried out of supposed sympathy for the people that live in them, the people who end up being overshadowed by and overlooked because of the attention their conditions claim.

On Wednesday, I accompanied Robyn Moore, a WGM pediatric nurse practitioner I know from Nashville and roundabout connections, and five other people to the Good Samaritan Children’s Home run by Mama Mercy in Mathere.

The story I was told is that 15-20 years ago when Mama Mercy’s own children were in high school, their friends’ parents started dying from AIDS. She started letting these kids sleep at her house. Word got around Mathere about this, and one middle of the night someone brought a baby to her that had been abandoned. Her orphanage grew from there. She eventually created an official non-profit org/NGO (non-governmental organization) so folks would know she wasn’t raising money for herself and to keep everything more obviously on the up and up.
Now she has over 100 kids at her orphanage. Volunteers help her sometimes, and there’s a social worker and a teacher who are part of the staff, but it doesn’t appear that any other adults live there full-time.

Robyn makes regular visits to the orphanage to try to help with care for sick kids and with preventative care. On this visit, Mama Mercy herself was sick. Various churches and organizations and missionaries help Mama Mercy. Someone has helped provide cows and pigs and goats and a few chickens for the orphanage. The animals are housed across the street.

Once upon a time, Mama had been told by the government that she had to improve the orphanage’s buildings. She hired someone to build a multi-story structure, but the person started the first level, didn’t build it with the correct support system to support more stories, and then skedaddled with the money. As one of the women visiting with us on Wednesday has said, “Cheating the orphans: that’s a ticket straight to hell!” :-) Unfortunately, that’s the type of thing I am hearing stories about often here: people who are just out to serve themselves. That’s why government corruption is so bad. Putting others’ needs above or even equal to your own is not a cultural value here, by and large. It’s sobering to see what it leads to when that’s not ingrained in either people or their culture. And when such qualities as selfishness are so deeply ingrained, change will only come slowly.

When I was in Ghana, we distributed reading glasses in two of the villages we visited my last week there. At the first village I was a little surprised to see all the pushing and jockeying for position when people lined up for the glasses. I had assumed that since these folks lived all together in this relatively small village, they would have concern and care for each other and would, for example, make sure the older people or people known to have bad eyes would get the first spots in line. But, that wasn’t the way it worked. That makes more sense now that I’ve heard more stories about the serving-myself attitude of many people in Kenya, at least, and often across this continent (that is a bigger generalization than I’m fully comfortable with making but is the generalization that’s been described by folks I’m crossing paths with here).

So, the needs in Mathere and specifically at Good Samaritan Children’s Home are great. For the orphanage, funds are needed to complete the new buildings. Several of the children and babies weren’t wearing underwear or diapers. Children are crowded pretty tightly into the sleeping quarters. One of the babies needs to be moved to a facility where he can get more one-on-one care for his condition. Mama could use more help with the kids, especially while she’s sick.

In Mathere there are problems with the presence of the mungiki, the organized crime/mob in Kenya, and the government’s attempts to reign them in. There are unsanitary conditions. There are slum lords charging ridiculous rent rates for sub-par housing.

Please pray for God’s presence in the midst of these needs. But, as you pray also thank God for the beauty that is there speaking of His presence and hope, from children’s smiles and giggles to flowers growing on the side of a building to Mama Mercy’s compassionate work to the made-in-His-imageness of the people who live in Mathere.


Cydil said...

thanks again, for showing us a shining light in a dark place.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the pictures - something of a conundrum there. Survival of the fittest takes on new meaning in that context. Keep up the Good Work...