into africa: day one

On Tuesday of this week, my dad flew to Nairobi as part of a team invited by Christian Missionary Fellowship. I’ve heard from others who’ve participated in these trips how emotionally and spiritually exhausting (and fulfilling) they can be, and suggested that dad process the experience by writing his thoughts—and letting me post them on my blog. Here’s the first one.

“It is a hard trip,” Roy Lawson wrote me after spending a week in Kenya.

And, although I love to travel, my acquaintance with work sponsored by Christian Missionary Fellowship in the slums of Nairobi inspired some trepidation as I anticipated this trip.

I’m one of six in Kenya through March 17 led by Doug Priest, CMF’s executive director. He calls it a vision trip and told me how interest in Nairobi’s urban poor has multiplied in U.S. Christian churches and churches of Christ since he began bringing ministers here.

I realize now why the firsthand visit is so valuable. Even though Christian Standard has published more than one article from visitors to this work, words tell only part of the story. I couldn’t begin to grasp the desperate need faced here everyday until I encountered it myself.

CMF prepped us with facts about the slum where they work. It is packed into 1.5 square miles along the Mathare River Valley in the country’s capital city, Nairobi; 800,000 people live there. Their average income is $1.00 per day, and 40% suffer with HIV/AIDS.

And this is only one slum in this city. Keith Ham, serving with CMF here, told us 70% of Nairobi’s 5 million people live in slums like the one we visited today.

“This is the nicest slum home I’ve ever seen,” Doug Priest said of the tin-walled shanty where we sat for a few minutes this morning.

Maybe 12 x 14 feet, it is entered through a low door off a 14-inch alley bordered by similar huts jammed together as far as we could see. Jane, a single mother, lives here with her mother and two children.

A naked electric light bulb hangs from the ceiling. Sometimes power comes to it; sometimes not. A square-foot fiberglass panel on one side of the corrugated metal roof allows daylight to penetrate the dark hole. At nighttime, a government-provided light tower rising several stories above the slum banishes darkness, reduces crime, and sends a welcome shaft into this closet-home where Jane lives.

We sat on throws covering benches and some cast-off chairs. The walls were covered with an assortment of paper and cloth. A panel of see-through curtains, something like might have hung at my grandmother’s window, dangled behind Jane as she spoke to us.

“Welcome to our home,” she said. And the CMF-employed social worker who led our tour through the slum helped Jane explain her business. She cooks a stew and sells it on the street to earn her income.

I listened to her story and smiled at her and tickled the belly of her babbling toddler whose runny nose Jane wiped on the child’s shirt. And I sighed with relief as we finally stood to leave and escape back into the noontime sunshine that penetrated the narrow aisle between Jane’s shanty and those beside it.

This is our privilege, we wealthy visitors whose vision is broadened while our eyesight is blurred by the tears that flow when we try to grasp what we have seen and smelled in the slums.

I sit in the comfortable surroundings of Gracia Gardens, the guest house where we’re staying, and reflect on my opportunity to come and see—and walk out of—the oppressive poverty of these people.

Surely we who are blessed with the means to walk away cannot ignore what we have experienced, as if we could ever forget it.

And there is hope. Christ’s love IS making a difference here. I will try to describe how in my next post.