While we were absent, the lay missionary worked on her stuff and arranged our itinerary. She gave us a briefing and then took us to a church the next day after we returned from Nakuru National Park.
Then we went to Kibera slum, the largest slum in Nairobi. This was also where the lay missionary worked most of the time. We were not allowed to take any photos in the slum so I didn’t take my camera with me but we brought the snacks we bought at the supermarket the other day and some clothes we brought from home with us.
As we were walking towards the slum, we saw nice apartments and barbed wires on our left-hand side, and then the narrow little path we were treading on, then the slum on our right. The path on the left was clean but the path on our right was filled with rubbish. Kenyans liked to burn their rubbish on the roadside and that released terrible smell. Some of the rubbish they burnt must have been plastic. But here, even before we got to the entrance, if there was any entrance at all, of the slum, nobody dealt with the rubbish. I muttered, ‘what a huge contrast!’ According to the lay missionary, the slum kept expanding.
Apart from the lay missionary, a priest and a few staff from the church also came. We only tagged along. Some people living in the slum were sick, some were dying, while some wanted to make a confession but they couldn’t go to church because they were disabled. Hence, the priest came. This was what they usually do on a daily basis.
Inside the slum, the situation was worse. It was crammed, crowded, wet even when it was not raining because the paths were uneven and the rainwater was just trapped there, hence, it was also muddy and dirty. It was filled with rubbish too. As we walked around the slum, we could see some plastic canvases hanging between houses. Some of them dropped down due to the heavy rain on the previous day. They probably served as a huge umbrella to cover the paths to keep them dry. When the sun shone through the colourful canvases, colours like red or blue were produced. It looked pretty if it weren’t in the slum. I made it sound so romantic but it wasn’t at all and I don’t think the residents had the time to enjoy this kind of ‘art’. The ‘houses’ we went past weren’t houses at all. They were just wooden sheds. Residents dried their clothes on the clothes lines that connected between sheds. Each unit was super tiny. We were invited to go inside to visit the families. But all of us couldn’t squeeze in at the same time.
Each shed was way smaller than 10 square metres but it housed around 5 or 6 or even more people. It was dark inside because there wasn’t enough light. There was no toilet or shower inside the shed, you can imagine. These ‘facilities’ were scattered in different common areas outside. Remember, different kinds of people live in the slum. Anything can happen when the girls go to the bathrooms. The toilet situation is not something you can imagine too. Again, they were just simple wooden units with simple wooden doors.
But I really admire the kids who lived there. Despite their hardship (they probably don’t think it was hard), they went to church, led a happy life, volunteered to help other even more unfortunate people, and shared what they had with others. When we were in one of the homes, we gave the family a packet of biscuits. The kid (a teenager but he was still a kid to me) of the family opened it. Without any hesitation, he broke the biscuits into tiny pieces and gave them to a little baby sitting on the lap of a woman who was sitting next to him. The teenager introduced the baby to us with a smile, ‘he is my little cousin.’ The entire process was so casual and natural as if he had done it too many times. They didn’t have much to share but they shared every bit they had. How about the kids in richer countries? They would probably fight for the snacks. Possessing vs sharing. It seems the latter lives in poorer areas whereas the former lives in richer areas. Is it because richer people understand the concept of ‘possession’ more than the concept of ‘sharing’? Or the more you have, the more you are obsessed with your possessions and hence, the more you don’t want to lose? I honestly don’t know. But a Catholic nun told me this story: She and other Sisters visited some poor areas in Thailand many years ago. They played with the kids there. At first, everything went very well. But after they gave the kids new shoes, the kids were so afraid of losing them that even when they played, they kept an eye on their new shoes. They couldn’t focus on the games. I think this may have something to do with our sense of security. It seems it is human nature. So, the more you have, the more you feel insecure? The more you want to guard your properties? Buddhism particularly emphasizes the concept of ‘nothingness’. When you have nothing, you will not worry about anything. Nothing belongs to us and we don’t possess anything. Everything we have is transient and everything will eventually turn into dust including us. The things that will last are love and mercy like the love that Mother Teresa brought to this world. They won’t perish with the person. Once we have that sense of ‘belonging’, we also have the sense of ‘possessing’ and the sense of ‘controlling’. In fact, The Little Prince also said similar things about ‘taming’ which is similar to ‘possessing’ too.
We visited the slum a few times on a few separate days over our stay in Kenya. In between those visits, the lay missionary told us there was a Taize prayer retreat in a retreat house nearby and asked if we’d like to visit. Of course, the answer was positive.
The Taize prayer retreat was indeed a very special experience. The kids sang the songs so beautifully. They had such good musical sense. Their voices were like angels from heaven. We joined them for lunch as well. Unexpectedly, we met some French volunteers at our dining table. They came from France to help organise this event. After lunch, we had a chat with the kids. We could see that they were very curious about us but they were too shy to ask us any questions. So, one of us said, ‘if you ask us questions, any kind of questions, you will be given a small gift.’ It was a brooch painted with the logo of a Catholic youth organisation. All of a sudden, everyone, including the French volunteers, raised their hands! 😀 We all need motivation like this. 😀 They were so enthusiastic that in the end, we had to add extra time to answer their questions. After that Q&A session, we became very familiar with each other and we played together. Play time. I love play time. Who doesn’t? 😛
After the Taize prayer retreat, we visited the slum again. The lay missionary took us to visit the old Catholic school site inside the slum. It had been demolished though not entirely. We could still see some wooden beams, door frames, window frames and stairs at the site. We carefully walked around all these ruins and reached some classrooms which were not recognisable anymore. The lay missionary told us what classes and activities the students used to have there. We used our imagination to envisage the scenes just like what we usually do when we visit some ruins in historical sites.
At another time, some kids living in the slum joined us and took us to the ‘border’ of the slum (yes, it’s true. The slum is like another territory or another country within a country). As we walked, some toddlers came with their little hands stretched out to ours. I shook their hands. They then giggled and left. That was so cute. No, they didn’t want anything from us. They just wanted some love and a tender handshake from some strangers who happened to cross paths with them briefly.
When we reached the ‘border’ of the slum we saw the railway lines. Closely connected on both sides of the railway lines lied more sheds. The lay missionary told us, ‘The slum has been expanding beyond the railway lines.’ It definitely wasn’t a good sign. I don’t understand why nothing has been done to stop the sprawling of a slum and to solve the problem of poverty.
The lay missionary took us to visit the new school which was erected at another site outside but near the slum. It was a concrete building with a few storeys. It had a basketball court also. The students wore uniforms. According to the lay missionary, the kids really treasure this study opportunity. They worked hard and they were disciplined.
After visiting the border of the slum, the lay missionary took us to the border of Kenya and Tanzania where another priest worked.
The place was very far away from where we stayed so we woke up very early like 5am then took a pre-booked minivan there. If things went well, we could arrive there in the afternoon or so.
However, things don’t always turn out the way you want to. One of the girls in our group led a morning prayer in the minivan and prayed for an extraordinary experience…
Then our tyre broke on the highway…
We helped the push the minivan to the side of the road. It took the driver a long while to get somebody to come to help. We waited from the morning till almost the afternoon in the middle of nowhere. While we were waiting, we prayed the rosary.
Finally, we could continue with our journey.
When we arrived at the church, the lay missionary took us to the office of the priests. The priests were happy to see us and showed us around – a church, a few centres / meeting places, a playground and I think there was a primary school too(?). We saw some kids playing in the playground and a group of women having a meeting discussing women’s welfare. The priest then took us to a school near the no man’s land. On a geography field trip in high school, we stayed in a motor inn overnight. Our rooms were very far away from the shower so when we needed to take one, we had to run across the wet grassland in the rain (that place rained all the time). One of my classmates called that the ‘no man’s land’. That was the closest I could get. But I had never been to a real one. We were all expecting to see nothing there. However, since we prayed for extraordinary experiences, we found something different.
The ‘no man’s land’ wasn’t empty at all. In contrary, it was full of trucks loaded with goods crossing the borders. There were also shops selling snacks. Some of the people living there (yes, there were residents. I couldn’t believe it too) could recognize the priest so they greeted him. As we continued to walk, the priest pointed at an area ahead of us, ‘that is Tanzania.’ Wow! Then we crossed the border. Borders are only visible on maps and in our minds. They don’t actually exist. The nature doesn’t care about them. The sand and soil are the same after we cross the border.
Borders are just man-made.
After this interesting experience, we walked back to the priest’s office. He invited us for tea and chatted with us for a while. Then he started mass. We prepared for this mass the day before. The lay missionary suggested us to choose some songs so we checked the hymn books. As we were doing it, a tune came into my mind… ‘Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?’ I didn’t know much about the song but it just emerged. So, I suggested singing this song. I was quite surprised that everyone agreed. At the mass, the priest led the singing. He held a guitar and slowly started singing. His deep and beautiful voice echoed in the house, bounced back and forth into our hearts and souls. We started singing with him. Not only that, when we sang ‘here I am, Lord’, all of us burst into tears.
This is a song about calling and answering it.
That was a touching and a life changing moment for all of us.
A few years later, one of the girls in our group became a lay missionary and served in Cambodia for a year. And a few years after that, another one, that’s me, became a volunteer in Cambodia for nearly 8 months.
On our second last day in Kenya, the lay missionary invited us and the kids from the slum to the presentation of her Master’s dissertation. She told us she finished that with the help of the kids so she wanted to present her findings to them. In the conclusion of her dissertation, she suggested volunteers to get paid. The kids nodded while they were listening to her presentation.
I raised a question during the Q&A session, ‘if the volunteers get paid, are they not volunteers anymore?’ I asked this question not because I disagreed to her point but I was asking for a clear definition of the word ‘volunteer’. The lay missionary defended, ‘the volunteers are usually people who don’t have much already. They now devote their time to help others so to compensate for their effort and time, they should be paid. Not necessarily a lot of money but enough to show the appreciation.’ I do agree. I got paid some contingency money too when I was in Cambodia as I said in one of my previous blogs. I used to fancy being a volunteer in a wildlife sanctuary so that I could have close encounters with lions, tigers, etc. (thanks to National Geographic and Discovery Channels) and I did find such an opportunity but I had to pay to work there and it wasn’t a small sum of money. I hesitated and decided not to go in the end. I am not against that idea. These sanctuaries need funding and charging volunteers is one source of income for them but I guess I can also do other things to help like educating the people (yeah, education again) to respect all living things then we don’t need so many sanctuaries, refuges or shelters for animals. Maybe I am too naïve. But why do we always complicate things? Isn’t our world complicated enough? Shouldn’t we simplify things?
The only gentleman in our group presented our gifts including flowers and the painting we bought at the market, to the lay missionary. When she accepted our gifts, she joked, ‘I have never received any flowers from a guy before.’ 😀
A party was organized after that and all the kids were invited. (I always say ‘kids’ but they were actually teenagers.) We also bought a cake for all of them. The kids loved the cream and the cake was all gone within a few minutes. The lay missionary told us, ‘This is their meal for the day. They won’t eat again.’ Not because they were fasting, but because they were indeed too poor to afford a meal.
That ended our journey in Kenya.
But the story continued.
Not long after we returned home from Kenya, we received an email from the lay missionary telling us that one of the staff from the church who went to the slum with us passed away. We were shocked. When we were there, he looked healthy. We didn’t know what happened in details. The only thing we could say was RIP.
P.S. The lay missionary finished her mission, went back home for a while and then returned to Kenya, where she still is, to start another missionary work.
12 – 17 August 2011
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