Only hours after my arrival in Nairobi for the first time, in 2005, I was taken to Mathari slum, its rusting shanties lining a valley that gouges into the heart of Kenya’s capital. Mathari epitomizes the poverty that underlies Kenya’s vaunted stability.
I was with a U.S. journalist named Keith and two strapping Kenyans, Patrick and Vinny—one from the dominant Kikuyu tribe, the other a Luo—who served informally as our bodyguards. Young children shouted "Mzungu!"—meaning "white person"—and flocked around us, gently taking our hands. Adults were wary.
Last winter’s television footage showed Mathari and its huge counterpart, Kibera, erupting into bloodshed and flame fueled by an anger that is not so much "tribal," as our mass media tend to portray it—reinforcing popular stereotypes of Africa—but rather political and economic: an anger that was touched off by an election that might have ended the Kikuyu monopoly on power, had it not been rigged. Much of Kenya’s so-called "tribalism" is a legacy of colonial rule.
For Kenyan Friends this was a time of unspeakable anguish.
For me, Nairobi had been just a jumping-off place for getting to South Sudan. The Mennonite Guest House, where I stayed, offered an ever-shifting kaleidoscopic view of Americans and Europeans drawn to East Africa—many, I’m sure, for reasons as intense and enigmatic as my own, and some for pragmatic reasons: an African family from Tanzania was there for the ancient patriarch to have surgery; a Methodist woman from the Midwest was trying to retrieve the body of a missionary who had been struck by a coal truck while jogging in Nairobi’s difficult streets.
Never did I expect that Nairobi itself would make a claim on me. But I spent a lonely birthday and a Christmas there, and I got word of my father’s death, all in December 2005. And that walk through Mathari was my first hard look at Africa. It collapsed some of the myths layered in my consciousness, and brought me up against the very bones of African poverty.
When does a leading become a calling, and a calling a ministry?
I felt called to Darfur by something so deep within me and so far beyond me that I was swept along by it. I don’t pretend to understand it. I am only its agent. But it felt like love, and after three years it still feels like love.
What love is free from pain? The question was posed by Inazo Nitobe, a Japanese samurai turned Quaker who was an under-secretary-general of the League of Nations during the years leading up to World War II. Show me a love that is devoid of sorrow and pain, and I will show you a false and shallow love.
In the beginning, my calling was tightly focused on Darfur. Gradually it opened onto something larger and more complex.
I began to understand the region beyond: South Sudan and the other regions of Sudan struggling for existence, and the countries bordering on Sudan that are experiencing their own chaos and that bear their own deformities left from colonialism—as Kenya does.
Genocide raises the most basic questions about who we are—as individuals, as members of a religious faith, as a species.
What values do we want to see prevail?
What do we do with our complicity?
Within my own DNA there are Irish chasing Cherokee from their lands in North Carolina; there are Cherokee being chased. And further back, there is Africa.
In the distant past we all came from Africa. Some of us migrated north and across the broad Eurasian land mass, and finally across the ocean—eons ago, or more recently.
Now we in the global North have to deal with the damage wreaked in the past 400 years by white people returning to this ancient cradle of humankind to plunder it—to kidnap Africans; to take ivory, gold, rubber, and now uranium and oil.
We who enjoy the material benefits of the Industrial Revolution owe a terrible and largely unacknowledged debt to Africa. What do we do with that debt?
Virtually every human population has been the victim or the perpetrator of genocide, or both. Is this somehow imbedded in the idea of original sin?
Perhaps the greatest gift of Spirit we can receive is to discover a loving place in the whole.
In May and July of 2007 I returned to Nairobi, bracketing a trip again to South Sudan, this time with three "Lost Boys" visiting their Dinka villages for the first time in 20 years.
While in Nairobi I visited Kibera slum, home to perhaps a million people crammed in-to an area three quarters the size of New York’s Central Park. My host was David Ochola, a Luo who had grown up in Kibera and was now a pastor whose ministries included supporting two schools, a program for the disabled, and a program for matching AIDS orphans and street children with adult caretakers.
David seemed to me at the time unduly wary of potential violence. After I’d gotten permission to photograph some men holding fish at an outdoor market, he pulled me away, saying they were "becoming hostile." We talked to children, a prostitute, a seller of herbal medicines, a fixer of appliances with a little shop cobbled together from scrap plywood, a volunteer registering voters for the coming election.
At his urging we kept moving—he a sometimes elusive figure darting between corrugated shacks or scampering across ditches of foul gray water.
As he led me from one ministry to another, I felt my own ministry enlarge further. The last line of the poem "Taking" (p. 7) reflects this ambiguity.
In Kangemi, a smaller slum and less grim, I encountered a group called the Hamomi Children’s Centre. Started by Raphael Etenyi with seven children in 1999, Hamomi now provides schooling and healthcare for 100 or so children. Most started out as street children, including some 60 orphans who have been matched with guardians. The three volunteer teachers struggle along with their young wards to make ends meet, sometimes not knowing where their next meal is coming from. In 2007, their best year so far, they earned $100.
What impressed me was the light in the children’s faces at Hamomi, and the perseverance of the adults working with them.
Within the ugliness of Nairobi’s slums I found the human spirit alive and vital. As always, children whose smiles lit up my heart. And caring adults: the three struggling teachers at Hamomi Children’s Centre, and freelance pastor David Ochola working with children and handicapped adults at Kibera. Human catalysts for love and revelation of the larger dimensions of spirit.
If these photographs suggest the disturbing inequities underlying Nairobi’s surface stability, I trust they also capture the struggle for dignity, the commonality of the human dream.