Umeshiba?

“Umeshiba?” I ask little George, in Swahili. (“Are you full?”)

He looks up at me lazily. He is mentally disabled, and he cannot feed himself. His bib has some food on it, but not too much. Some of the children I fed smiled. Others stare blankly. But  after each feeding session, the bowl is demolished, the spoon licked clean.

“Umeshiba?” I ask again, tickling his protruding bellies.

Sometimes that’s the best question you can ask a child in Kenya.

Earlier we went to Mother Theresa’s Home in Huruma (a slum in Nairobi). My director told us to “look for Jesus” in the people we interact with. I saw Jesus in the eyes of Marine and Christine and Moses and little Georgiana. I saw Jesus in the workers and the Sister nuns who devote their lives to this ministry of taking care of the “least of these.” I saw Jesus in Hailey, who made the children balloon hats; and Kelsey, who cuddled the smallest child, who could barely sit up in her crib. I saw Jesus in Jennifer, who began dancing and singing, doing her best to cheer up even the most non-responsive child sitting drowsily in her chair. I saw Jesus in their tiny fingers and smiles and in each kiss on the head. My director said that the human spirit transcends the cerebral cortex, and I couldn’t have put in a better way. Even the simplest reaction communicates that there is someone there, a human spirit, inside. These kids, although limited in many ways, still can experience love, compassion and provision, even if they do not respond in the cosignatory way we expect.

I don’t mean to sound romantic about it. After all, they are orphans. They are helpless. Some have literally been thrown away in trash sacks, are found by police, and handed over to the Sisters. These are what the Bible calls the “least of these.” But it’s not God’s fault. We must realize that we humans do this to one another. As Mother Theresa said, “God does not create poverty. It was created by you and I because we don’t share.”

And just a personal note, orphanages are close to my heart, because I was abandoned as a newborn. I lived in an orphanage, tied to a high chair, until my adoptive family welcomed me into their new family and into a new life. I don’t pretend to understand what these kids have gone through, but I see the redemptive element to their story.

Even though there is brokenness and sorrow in their stories, there is sacrificial light that shines brighter. From my perspective, these children see the best of humanity. They have been shown great injustice in this world. But they also have been shown great mercy and grace by the individuals who take care of them, the individuals who do “small things with great love for God.”

Behind the walls of Mother Theresa, they experience a good quality of life, one that their senses can enjoy. They enjoy tickles. They enjoy their names being called. They love bubbles. They have simple books and learning materials. The children at the Mother Theresa’s home in Haruma are able to achieve their fullest potential, which is more than many of the children running around the slum of Haruma can ask for.

This work of feeding disabled children, laundering piles of sheets, providing 24-hr medical treatment for mentally disabled children and women is not glamorous work, but it is beautiful work. The love they experience isn’t fuzzy. Most are tied to chairs so they can’t hurt themselves. Some have to be force fed so they have enough nutrition in their little bodies. The workers don’t have the time to be constantly swatting the flies away from their tiny eyes and mouths. The love isn’t fuzzy, but it’s raw, and it’s real, and that’s what makes it beautiful to me.

Lessons that I’ve learned at Mother Theresa’s? Do a thankless job, out of love, not for affirmation. Devote time and energy consistently, and commit to those that you vow to help. I’m not sure yet in which capacity that I will help the “least of these,” but I long to find my “Calcutta”–the place of ministry that is dear to my heart and that I am passionate about; a place that even if it’s hard, it feels like it’s home–like Mother Theresa did long ago. The Mother Theresa children’s home is a little piece of heaven among all the chaos of the slum suffering; it extends compassion to those who are hurting. Maybe this sounds romantic. It’s better– it’s rubbing dirty fingers and kissing tiny heads and rubbing swollen bellies.

(The Mother Theresa quotes are taken from a book called Finding Calcutta by Mary Poplin.)

 

 

 

 

Feminism in Kenya?

During my 7-weeks, I began asking Kenyan women this question: “What does it mean to be a woman?”

Women replied boldly: “Women are the soul of the family.”

“Women hold things together when everything is breaking.”

“Women are a pillar, men don’t do anything.”

One man even said, “Women are everything.”

With these bold statements, however, they also described the innumerable responsibilities they had in their homes. As traditional roles of homemakers, Kenyan women were responsible for all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, raising children, managing shops/small businesses, harvesting food, shopping, church activities, etc. Implications for these responsibilities? Some younger, unmarried women told me they are taught to believe that if there’s a problem in the home, it’s the wives’ fault, never the husbands’. If the kids have bad values, it reflects poorly on the mother. If the kids are spoiled, it’s the woman to blame. When I asked what the man’s role was in the home, one Kenyan said, “to live on the women.”

The Kenyan women I met have immense pressure placed on them by these gender roles, but something that struck me was that they would describe their responsibilities, never their rights. They never complained, but assumed their gender roles with dignity. They unashamedly make bold feminist claims like “Women are strong! Women can do anything!” because they can back up those claims as married/single/divorced women who play major and vital roles in their homes and communities and churches. The Kenyan women I spoke to found their identity primarily in their families, as many in collectivist societies tend to do. Many people in Western culture find their identity in their jobs or careers. I think it’s easy for Americans to do that because ideally your career celebrates you as an individual–your interest, your passion, your skill set–and therefore, a fulfilling career is an extension of yourself. 

I personally find such rigid gender roles distasteful, but I respect the Kenyan women I met who performed those roles faithfully. They were strong, amazing women. They did everything, and they knew it. Even the single moms didn’t blame the men who failed them; they were still faithful to their families, put their kids first, and lived sacrificially. They demonstrated that to be a woman, from a Kenyan perspective, means to be sacrificial, community-minded, responsible, and serving.

 

Imago Dei in the Slums of Mathare

What does it mean to be made in the image of God?

Genesis 1:27 says “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

It’s a powerful idea. One interpretation that I appreciate is that to be made in the image of God means to be creative; essentially, we reflect his image by being creative. We make things. We think of new uses and new ways. We redefine and reinterpret.

My team went to Mathare Valley today, one of the oldest and biggest slums in Nairobi. We are told that 70% of Nairobi’s population lives on 5% of it’s land area. There, we saw people picking through trash, looking for things to sell or things to eat. It’s not that they can’t create, or are not creative people, but they have no means to create. They are focused on merely surviving. Four-year-old children are sent from their little metal homes to search for a meal for the day–they were made in the image of God, yet scavenge around in trash for food. Some mothers give their children beer, because it makes them feel full and sleepy, and it stops them from crying for food. The crime of the slums, as one staff put it, is that in the fight for survival, people in the slum cannot create, make or dream. They were made in the image of God, yet they scavenge around in piles of trash. Even 4-year olds are sent to the street to find something to eat for the day. Some children sleep on a chair. Some children believe that it’s okay to hit girls. Some 13-, 14-, 15-year old boys will be dead in the next month because of gang run-ins with the police.

Our director said, “Children grow up believing that the world looks this way, that the world smells this way (garbage), that the world feels this way (abuse, beating). They cannot climb the ladder because they cannot even get on the ladder.” As victims of violence, abuse, neglect, or abandonment, they cannot even touch the ladder.

In Meru Country, the place I spent 3 weeks with a host family, many people pick tea leaves everyday. It’s hard work, but it puts food on the table. Most people in Weru (the town I was in) don’t have running water or electricity, but they have a mosquito nets and their gardens and some have a cow for fresh milk. They’re working, they have some means. Many people would say that they are in poverty, but it’s enough.There is a drastic difference between Weru folk who have work, and those in the slum picking through trash. My standards of poverty have definitely shifted.

(I’m actually back from my experience in Kenya, but I kept a daily journal and I also posted email updates for my friends, family and donors. I wasn’t able to access this media website in Kenya, so here are my blog posts.)