My time in Kenya was filled with so many stories. It’s impossible to find one that encompasses my experience. There were amazing stories of triumph over adversity, heartbreaking stories of abuse, stories of hope and joy, stories of incredible violence. And everyone on our team heard different stories; had different experiences with different children so I thought I would share the experience that was unique to me. It is not the most horrific story I heard or experienced and not the most hopeful either, but it is the one that will not let go of my heart.
The Ecclesia team ran two one week camps that each had about 150 kids. We had 18 of our own American leaders and 10-15 Kenyan leaders depending on the camp. Needless to say different kids are drawn to different leaders, no two relationships are the same. Sometimes I think that their little hearts can just recognize something familiar in yours, without words even. I had the amazing privilege of having such a connection with Mary.
The second day of camp I noticed a little girl in our group tripping over her own feet. I looked down and saw that her filthy, tattered, converse-type sneakers were mislaced and knotted. She had folded down the backs of the shoes to cram her feet in but they were not staying on very well and she couldn’t keep up with the other kids. I asked if I could retie her shoes. After some pointing and hand signals she nodded and sat down on the ground. I took off her shoes to find paper pieces falling out that were used to try and plug holes and keep her feet warm. I took the laces out of the shoes and went to work on the knots. Once I had finally untangled those I relaced the sneakers and put them back on her feet. She looked up at me with a shy but toothy grin.
Most of the children I met from Kibera had shoes that that we would have thrown away years ago, socks with holes in the heels and toes, and so many with horribly infected wounds on their feet that have never been treated (some kids had never seen a band-aid). But what touched me about this first moment with Mary was the simplicity of the problem. No one had looked at her feet when she put on her shoes in the morning. No one had looked at her feet when she left the house to travel 40 minutes on the bus to camp. No one looked at her feet when she got on or off the bus. And no one looked at her feet when she arrived at camp. It broke my heart.
After I took Mary’s hand to help her up that day I was rarely without it interlocked in mine. She found me immediately at the beginning of each day and never parted ways with me if she could help it. I had to run an art project one afternoon and as I looked to the bottom of the hill that we were on I saw Mary standing there. My teammate, Naphtali, called up to me, “She told me she’s waiting for you.” While I was doing about an hour first aid and other kids were clamoring to see what treasures the first aid bag held she just patiently waited. During the days I spent with Mary I got to help her with a lost tooth and a bit of a bloody mouth, remove a bee stinger from her hand and dry her tears, help her make a necklace and a journal, meet her entire family and see her home in Kibera, meet her teacher and see her church. All with very few words. But I don’t think it was words that were needed. She would sit in my lap, take my hand and analyze every detail of my fingernails, crack my knuckles, wrap my arm around her as tight as possible, or take my hand and put it over her eyes and bury her face in my arm. God teaches us a universal love language that allows us to show anyone just how important and valuable they are. I can only hope that I was able to give back a fraction of love Mary gave to me those two weeks. And strive to love in the beautifully, open-hearted, humble way that she does.
A Little More Information on Mary and Kibera:
Mary is a 6 year old little girl born and raised in Kibera. She lives with her Mother (Margaret), brothers: Samson (8) and Eugene (2), cousin (Quinta, 12) and her mother’s friend and daughter. They live in a mud room half the size of an average bedroom. There is a bed that takes up half the room and crude wooden furniture that fills the rest. Mary sleeps on a wooden bench every night.
Kibera is the largest slum in Africa. Approximately 2 million people live in an area the size of Central Park. There is no plumbing within the community so a stream of garbage, human waste and dead animals flow freely down the streets and paths. The children play in piles of trash. 1 in 5 children in Kibera will not live to see their 5th birthday and 66% of girls will trade sex for food by the time they are 16, many begin by the time they are 6 years old.
The education of these kids is their only hope of getting out of Kibera. But education is hard to come by. Although Kenya claims to have “free” primary education students must pay for desks, uniforms, school supplies, extra classes and state tests. Most families cannot afford this; in fact only 8% of girls in Kibera will ever get the opportunity to go to school. In response to this, informal schools have popped up in many of the churches that scatter Kibera. But these schools have no desks, no books, and no supplies. The teachers are not paid and most have no formal training and very little, if any, education themselves.
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