One of the most powerful – and devastating – parts of my trip to Kenya was visiting Kibera. Kibera is the largest slum in the world. It is about 5 square kilometers (about 3 miles) and is home to around 700,000 people (more on the weekends), most of whom live on less than a dollar a day.
My first reaction to visiting was excitement and amazement. I was amazed at the kindness and hospitality we were shown. I was excited to see the way the people cared for each other. If one is able to buy food, they will share it with their neighbors who have none. I met one widowed mother of four – living in a house that is significantly smaller than my bedroom – who, though she had next to nothing, actually adopted an orphaned girl out of compassion. Many groups of women start “merry-go-round” projects: charities where each woman in the group saves as much as she can throughout a month and contributes that small amount each month. One of these groups – I was able to meet the person who organized it – used the money they were able to raise to send orphaned children or children of widows to school.
On top of this, they seemed so happy to meet us and talk to us. The children would hold our hands and walk with us along paths covered with garbage and sewage. They had the most lovely and wonderful smiles.
So, my initial reactions were amazement at their hospitality and excitement at the great ways in which they care for each other.
About five hours after leaving Kibera, my reaction was completely different. As I reflected on the experience, some things fell into place… and I was devastated. I honestly can’t recall any time in my life when I cried so hard. I realized that over 20% of the children I met or talked to or walked with would die from AIDS. Several were already affected and showing some visible signs of it on their skin. I realized that over 25% of the girls’ first sexual experience would be a violent rape. I remembered seeing scars on the faces of children that had been obviously and badly beaten. I realized that several of the young girls would sell themselves into prostitution out of absolute desperation... when it’s either that or starve.
And I couldn’t stop crying. I kept thinking (and writing over and over in my journal), “God, why do you allow this?” “God, how do you allow this?”
Then I remember that the ministers of Parliament in Kenya make 10,000 shillings a month. Plus, housing is provided, as is a Mercedes Benz (due to this, Kenya has the highest amount of Mercedes per capita), an SUV, and a car for the wife. They have a food allowance, maids, security, etc. All living and luxury costs covered. Meanwhile, most people in Kibera live on about 50 shilling a day… and still pay taxes and rent.
The day after Kibera, I wrote in my journal: “I don’t think I’ve ever actually understood the problem of evil until today.” I am so used to reading about this sort of evil as a theoretical problem in a book, but the children and widows and Kibera took the luxury of the theoretical problem in a book away from me. It is much harder to deal with this information when you have a face in mind.
But there is another side. Although incredible evil is brought on these people from the outside, there is incredible hope inside. I have never experienced people living so close to the kingdom of God. In a place where there are more churches than toilets, the churches are working to provide education. They are also opening clinics and provide some treatment for AIDS and other diseases.
The worst part about this experience is the feeling that I will forget it.
We asked a pastor in Kibera if there was anything we could do to help. He told us that the best thing we could do to help was to tell about our experience.