By: Andrew Kim (Vol. II, Issue I)
The following is a journal entry from summer 2012, which I spent engaging in global health work and traveling in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Sudan.
On Tuesday of last week, I took a break from my work at Kisumu Medical and Education Trust and went into Obunga, the slum across the street. Sophie, an older local Kenyan community health worker who devotes all of her extra time volunteering to improve the lives of the people in her slum, guided us through.
Sophie has four children of her own and four whom she has taken in as her own, all orphans because their parents had succumbed to AIDS. She spearheads a community campaign to help such vulnerable children. Members of the slum community, who already have so little to support themselves, chip in whatever they can to help feed, clothe, and educate these children at this small school. We walked into the exuberant shouts of “Mzungu! Mzungu!# How are you?” We shook every one of their hundred and some little hands, sometimes covered in snot and dirt, always eager and innocent.
Afterward, Sophie showed us a pharmacy, her own house, and a few other community members’ houses. She kept on repeating, “This is Obunga.” She repeated it as a plea. She repeated it with the jadedness brought from decades of such poverty; but also with the hope for Obunga’s future.
Irene’s home still stands out most in my mind. To get there, we walked through two football field lengths of wooden stalls filled with people gutting, skinning, cutting, drying, and cooking fish. Within five seconds, a neglected piece of fish would be blackened by a film of flies. This was the livelihood of some of the Obunga residents – they took the “bad” pieces of fish from the fish plant nearby and sold them. We learned later in class that among the populations most at risk for HIV/AIDS are the people in the fishing industry because the transactions between the fishermen and the women who prepare and sell the fish often involve sexual favors. I never could have imagined.
Irene’s house is about 20 meters beyond the stalls of fish. There is a small rectangular enclosure of trees with a small opening. One wall of the house is the wall of the fish plant, and the other three are rusty, corrugated iron scraps. It’s about the size of three or four bathroom stalls. Irene lives as a single mother with her eight children in that dark house, which fits one bed, one wooden bench and one coffee table. I’m happy to see that they have mosquito nets.
We enter her home, greeted by the friendly call of “Hodi, hodi!”# to which Irene replies “Karibu.”# We speak to Irene and listen to her story. Irene’s oldest daughter, who is visibly pregnant (2nd or 3rd trimester), peeks her head out to meekly say hello. Some months ago, Irene’s husband raped his daughter and got her pregnant; then, he left Irene and his eight children to deal with the consequences. They have not heard from him since. In the midst of this tragedy, as my heart wept for them, I saw a sign hanging from their ceiling that read, “This house is protected by the blood of the Savior.”
Later on, I was listening to Hillsong’s “Oh You Bring,” and thought deeply about the lyric that says, “Jesus you’re everything I need.” How little do I know the meaning of those simple words? When have I ever lived as if He were all I needed? In the midst of her affliction, Irene knows the depth of these words. Even as her husband has raped her daughter, even as she must now work and feed and care for eight children (and soon a grandchild), she still hangs that sign in her house, proclaiming in life what we so often sing without thinking.
Here in Kenya, in my visits to the slums of Nyalenda and Obunga, I feel like I have found an understanding of why Jesus said “blessed be the poor” more than I had at anytime before in my life. Having nothing, or close to nothing, one can show by test of faith that Jesus is all one needs. By no means does this imply that we should not have a heart for serving the poor.# But it does mean that we have so much that we can learn from the poor, and perhaps we learn something so much more important from them than we could ever teach. Truly, “has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?”
Now, Sophie is trying to connect Irene to our NGO’s microfinance division so that she can start a partnership from an outside source of fish and sell for a higher price in Obunga. She will purchase for 30 and sell for 60, and hopefully this will help provide for the family. I pray that it will. And in the midst of it, I pray that she does not fall prey to the exploitative sexual industry related to fishing.
As I left Obunga to go back to Millimani#, the tangible, visible contrast in the oppressing wealth disparity suffocated me, it crushed me. God had put this experience on my heart, and with it, such a heavy burden of sorrow for the people and paralysis in how I am to respond. How does one deal with a slum? Can these current short-term microfinance and public health initiatives ever build a slum up enough to rise above its “slum-status”? Where does the economic, social and health development for a community like this come from? Where can we find examples of successes? Will it always have to be a government-enforced displacement, like the tenements of New York City, which merely transposes the issue to other places? I have no idea. I only know that I will devote my life to serving and empowering such vulnerable populations. I have prayed that He would break my heart for what breaks His, and He answered. I hope that I remain broken until the problems are mended. I don’t want this motivation to be yet another transient passion that passes as a shadow of the experience in Obunga.
Lord, let me constantly be broken down if necessary to produce a passion to act; and let me constantly be encouraged by hope and by successes, that I may know that my actions are not in vain.