Steve Charles—On Saturday night Professor Cook and six students headed for Machakos, a town of 200,000 about 40 miles southeast of Nairobi, to begin two days of visiting and teaching in rural schools near there. The rest of us will venture to either Eldoret or Kisimu to visit projects there on Sunday and Monday, leaving this Sunday morning open for another visit to the Kibera Slum.
DeVan Taylor had a contact near Kibera from his days at Brebeuf Preparatory School in Indianapolis, and a group of students followed him there. The rest of us were to attend Mass at Christ the King Church deep in Kibera.
But first we had to get there. Groups such as ours don’t simply enter Kibera willy-nilly—particularly with me carrying an expensive College camera to chronicle the visit. We rode in our van to a place a few blocks from the edge of Kibera, from which we were to be escorted to the church by parishioners. First we met two ladies from the parish, Rose and Domicilla, who welcomed us and walked us a few blocks between cars and buses toward the slum. This all seemed much ado about nothing—two women were all we needed to get safely through to the church? But then we met our real security team—ten more parishioners and their head of security. They all welcomed us as well, promised we would be safe, and said the vast majority of folks in Kibera would have no problem with us being there. But with a minimal and relatively ineffective police force, a population that was by definition transitory, and being conspicuously well-off ourselves, we were wise to take precautions.
So we walked into Kibera for Sunday Mass, the Wabash students, Professsor Warner, and myself in the middle, a Kibera parishioner on either side of us, with the head of security leading the way. We walked through the market area, stepping over trash and sewage and through a thick sort of mud, trying not to look for too long at any one person or market stall or shack.
We stepped over the metal railroad ties of the Nairobi to Kampala railroad, which runs directly through the slum. “Must be dangerous to have a train running right through the market,’’ I said. “How much do they have to slow down?” They don’t, I was told. “The trains speed up when they come through here.’’
Passing one small shack with a young mother and little boy standing in the entrance, my mind flashed an image of my daughter and grandson in their place. I swallowed hard to keep my emotions under control. So to keep my imagination at bay, I asked questions practically non-stop of Stephen, the man assigned to protect me.
A few facts—Kibera holds anywhere from 300,000 to close to a million people (estimates are literally all over the map) on about 600 acres. The government owns the land, and about 10 percent of the people own shacks and many sub-let them to tenants. The average size of a shack is 12 by 12, built with mud walls, screened with concrete, covered with a corrugated tin roof and all setting on a dirt or concrete floor. Eight or more people may live in each shack, many sleeping on the floor.
I never lifted the camera during our walk to the church, only pressing the shutter from my hip to record for my own memory and for writing later on. I recognized a familiar smell almost immediately—the ground smelled exactly like the soil in the Southside landfill in Indianapolis. I’d find out later that it was just as difficult to scrape off your shoes, too. Imagine shacks with corregated metal roofs perched at the edge of your local landfill and you get an idea of the conditions under which these folks persevere. I kept my head down, my eyes to the ground in part in humility and respect, in to navigate the terrain. Yet whenever I looked up long enough to catch someone’s eye and said hello, I was always greeted in return.
I couldn’t imagine how a newcomer could find his way through these miles of narrow walkways winding between shacks and stalls, but Stephen pointed out several ”streets’’ (narrow corridors no wider than a hallway in an American home) and told me where they led. “After a while, you can find your way anywhere,” he said.
Our path suddenly opened up to a soccer field—the widest expanse we’d seen since we’d entered, a welcome relief from all the bodies brushing by. At one end was the soccer goal, at the other was a compound wall protecting a small hospital where I was later told young girls had given birth to babies on concrete floors. Outside the wall was what appeared at first to be scoreboard of sorts. It was in fact a list of quarterly health statistics for the area, including births, death, the number those with various illnesses, the number of prenatal visits, the number of these who had missed those visits, the cases of HIV/AIDS (which is rampant here). A proclamation of the humanity here, like a declaration of ”we are here.’’ When I noted that none of the figures had been filled in, he said the census had yet to be done this year.
Down one more long alley and we arrived at Christ the King Church. Its concrete pillars and metal cross rise above the mud and metal shacks like a rock above a swirl of jetsam. The compound surrounding it houses a school and a cultural centre. The huge space inside the church gives ultimate meaning to the word sanctuary. No matter what religion, if I lived here I’d join this parish just to come here and sit.
For the parishioners of Christ the King this building means even more. In this transitory place where all that men promise has failed, faith offers something substantial. For the church to invest in a permanent structure in a place where everything else is temporary is a tribute to the faith of these people and an affirmation of their dignity and humanity. At least that’s what I had read at the church’s Web site as I prepared to write this.
But then the choir begins to sing—only in part because of where I’ve just been, they seem the most stirring and beautiful collection of voices I have ever heard. Passion, pain, and promise infused into every hymn. And I remember an old lesson—that as important as a church building may be, the people are the church. They are the sanctuary. And it is not the building that affirms their faith and dignity, but these people who both affirm and challenge ours.
It is astonishing to hear songs of praise and gratitude from people who live on a dollar a day. If I had such gratitude, how much might I be able to do with all that I have been given? I understand that these people need something we have to offer—there is much we could do for very little. But I also know that we need them so much more than they need us.
At the end of the service, Professor Warner thanked the parishioners for their hospitality and asks the students to introduce themselves. Michael Jon Mondovics got a big round of applause by praising the choir. He seems very much home here, and later on I found out why. You’ll find out, too, in the following entry:
Michael Jon Mondovics ’13—Home is the place where one seeks solace and serenity in all that surrounds them. Home is, as they say, “where the heart is.”
Today three students, myself, Professor Warner, and Steve Charles were given the opportunity to attend Sunday mass at a Catholic Church within the slum of Kibera. I will avoid using such a word from this point on for this “slum,” as we call it, is home to thousands of residents of Nairobi, Kenya. Kibera is the largest of its kind anywhere in Africa south of the Sahara desert. In this home to thousands my eyes were truly opened to that which one could call extreme poverty, poverty so great that I was almost moved to tears. Yet regardless of my emotions and feeling the furthest out of my element I have ever been, I saw hope of a promising future to those who call Kibera home.
We parked our van just outside Kibera’s residential limits, where we were greeted by two sisters who led us shortly down the street before pulling us aside to wait for more members of the congregation to meet with us. Mind you, we had yet to enter Kibera. Then we were greeted by 10 male parishioners who would be our guides to the Christ the King. They began to explain the extreme danger it was for such “folks as us” to travel into Kibera and together they would be our security team to prevent any harm that could fall upon us. Each of us had two parishioners acting as our own body guards.
For the first time in Kenya I was actually scared.
I can’t possibly put into words my first impressions as I entered Kibera. Kibera has no roads—just rocks and mud trampled over the past sixty years into uneven paths. As I looked about wide-eyed at the poverty all around I could not believe such a place could ever exist. I can now truly see why Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta was so moved to help all those sick and dying in the gutters of India. I was now witnessing myself people in very similar conditions.
As I pressed on through the winding streets up to the gates of Christ the King where we would attend Mass, the sights were almost surreal, and some place so foul that I could not even believe what I was seeing, where these people were able to survive. Yet that, at the same time, was the beauty of Kibera—it was home to thousands who not only survive, but who work, struggle to raise families,and, as we would soon see, worship.
For me the Mass at Christ the King was the most beautiful part of my entire Kenyan experience. And it may sound strange, but I felt like I was at home. As a Catholic, I was truly moved by what I saw there. The name Christ the King also holds sentimental value to me, for I am a graduate of a primary school and a former parishioner of Christ the King in South Bend, Indiana. In the faces of the parishioners of Christ the King I could see the true love and devotion that they held for their Catholic faith, especially through the voices of their amazing choir.
I was moved by the generosity of the congregation. On average a person living in Kibera lives on 1000 to 2000 shillings per month, that’s roughly 12 to 24 dollars per month. Yet almost every parishioner gave something during the first collection—and even during the second collection that benefited the needs of others. Such a devotion to their faith and their Church reaffirmed within me the truth and love that the Catholic faith has to offer even those who have next to nothing.
Temporary or not, Kibera is home to many. And during my short time at Christ the King, I, too, felt at home.