I don’t know which affected me more – the old man sprawled out on a bed of garbage or the lonely baby crying out for comfort. I wanted to weep about both but I was too numb with shock. I had only been in Nairobi’s sprawling Huruma slum for about an hour and I was already anxious to leave.
Last month, I joined our project officers on visits to ministries Cross Catholic Outreach supports in Kenya. Between stops at two schools just outside of Nairobi, we had the privilege of spending a few hours with Sr. Pauline Nakayale and Sr. Dr. Miriam Duggan who help administer Hands of Care and Hope, a wonderful ministry that transforms the lives of slum children. These brave souls took us on a tour of the Huruma slum so we could see one of the schools they had established there. I was not prepared for the emotional impact it had on me.
Maybe it was the hopelessness of it all or the immediacy of the poverty. Seeing the children was the hardest on me. Their clothes were filthy. Most had no shoes. Yet there they were – running carefree on garbage-strewn paths, jumping across the open sewers, laughing and playing.
I noticed one little boy pulling a makeshift car he had created from a milk carton and a broken piece of string. He was standing next to his mom washing clothes in a dirty plastic bucket. Finished, she dumped the water into an open sewer flowing through the community. The stench of that sewer was overpowering.
As the sisters led us to the school, I noticed it was located next to a popular gathering place for the people – the dump. There, entire families could be seen scrounging for plastic bottles, aluminum cans and pieces of paper they would sell to recycling companies so they could feed their families. That’s when I realized what these slum children were up against. They came from nothing. They had nothing. But somehow, they could still find a ray of hope. The sisters’ school and mission were changing lives in the midst of this chaos. The Church was giving these children hope through the sustaining power of Christ.
The little boy with the toy car made out of a milk carton came to mind. Perhaps someday he will have a taxi business where he can drive his own car and accomplish self-sufficiency. I thought about the crying baby. Perhaps someday she will go to college. As I followed the sisters around the slum, Proverbs 19:17 popped into my head: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord.” It struck me that these nuns were the living embodiment of God’s greatest wish. And I prayed that someday I could reach the same level of selflessness.