Dan Olinger, one of our elders at Heritage, is leading an eight-week mission trip for college students to East Africa. Yesterday’s blog post in part described a slum near Nairobi and, more importantly, provokes Christians to think how we serve people living there.
It’s hard to describe in words what the conditions are like. The surfaces are all dirt; there is no paving, tile, or concrete. There is no electricity or running water. The surfaces of the homes and narrow “sidewalks” are uneven and filled with haphazard trenches, which run with raw sewage and water runoff from cleaning. The stench is astonishing. The homes are occasionally concrete block or mud but more often corrugated metal, wood slats, or just open. There’s rarely enough room to walk two abreast through the alleys. Chickens and dogs wander freely. Occasionally footing is pretty tricky; at one point the only bridge across a wide trench running with sewage is a truck bumper, for which we are grateful. In one alley we pass a table covered with large and relatively aged fish heads, adding to the olfactory complexity of the experience. Children are everywhere, sitting, playing, staring.
KIbera is allegedly the largest slum in Africa. (Soweto, southwest of Johannesburg, fights it for first place.) The thing that’s really hard to fathom is that people generally live here voluntarily. These and other major slums of the world–in Mexico City, Cairo, Shanghai–are the products of urbanization, mass migrations of people from rural areas into the cities to find work. Living decently in the cities is much more expensive than in the country, of course, so workers squat in these dense areas, not designed for human populations, free of sanitation and thus overwhelmingly dangerous to life and health. Many of the residents put on nice clothes every weekday and go to work in offices in the city; if you saw them on the sidewalk, you’d have no idea they live in the slum. They make a good wage and send the extra money back to their families in the country. It all seems so unnecessary.
Where do you start in ministering to these people? Do you open clinics, trying to hold back the cholera and dysentery and mortal dehydration, knowing from the beginning that you will be overwhelmed by the waves of human suffering? Do you install toilets? Connected to what sewer system? Do you want to make living here more comfortable, thereby encouraging a larger influx, which will just overwhelm whatever system you can cram into these few acres? Do you just preach the gospel, hoping to get them into the family of God seconds before the dysentery gets them? Can you minister for months, years in the midst of this place and not, like Jesus, be moved with compassion, moved to act in powerful and effective ways to alleviate their suffering?
What can you do? What?