This blog was hard to write, and may be hard for you to read, but it is life.
“The sharp stink of chicken droppings, the cabbage reek of vegetable rot, the dull grey stench of human effluvia blend with the smoke from charcoal fires and the haze of burning diesel to form a pungent aroma-‘Essence of Slum,’ a parfumier might call it-that clings to shoes and permeates the hair.” – It’s Our Turn To Eat by Michela Wrong (a book banned in Kenya because it exposes the government's corruption and greed).
Out of respect for the people I met and the fact that I was emotionally involved, I have not taken any photos.
This is Clemencia’s story.
I sat on the couch holding Clemencia’s frail hand, watching chickens as they walked in and out of the room. She looked at me and smiled with all the strength she could muster, making her cheeks round and her eyes sparkle. She looked so tired. Clemencia was born HIV positive 19 years ago. She has no family. A woman who could have no children of her own offered to take care of her. Clemencia began getting sick and was taken to the hospital where she was diagnosed with AIDS. She lives in Rhonda, one of Kenya’s slums.
Ben picked me up at 9:30 that morning at a café. Ben is a friend of Johnny and Kate’s who ministers to people with AIDS in the slums, offering them medicine and trips to the doctor (when money is provided) or simply a friendly face and a nice chat (when money is not).
We started at the chemist, getting unlabeled pills for headaches from the pharmacist who put them in a brown bag, labeling them, I hope, with their intended use. Then grabbed some porridge made specifically for AIDS patients to boost their immune system. We hopped on a matatu (a bus-taxi) that took us to the entrance of the slums.
We walked through the streets of Warik, stopping to greet folks Ben knew and to shake hands with the kids who peered curiously around corners whispering, “mzungu!” They stared shyly until I waved and greeted them with a typical Kenyan greeting for children, “Sasa.” They would then come in groups responding, “Poa!” Others not so shy would shake my hand, touch my white skin, or try to pick my pockets.
When we arrived at Clemencia’s, she was sitting on the couch looking not over 12 years old, a pile of bones held together by pale black skin and a jacket. I shook her hand and when I went to pull my hand back, she would not let go. I held on to her weak hand and sat next to her, covering her hand in both of mine. I didn’t say a word while Ben and the guardian conversed. I just sat and held her hand. “How much longer can she last?” I wondered.
As we left Ben said to me, “She is very sick, but she cannot make the journey to the hospital. She is too weak to travel these roads. We have to get her better.” Last Thursday, Ben took her to a hospital in Eldoret. She is not doing well and Ben does not know how if she will last. Death is inevitable for us all, but I pray deeply for this girl that her body will start reacting to the ARVs (anti retro virals), but if she is past that stage in her sickness, I pray God will take her peacefully, without pain or suffering. She has already suffered so much in her young life. Taking her home may be the most gracious thing our gracious God can do for her. There are thousands of other Clemencia’s, people with AIDS who have no money for medication, no friends or family to help them, who die without anyone noticing or caring. Clemencia's face will be forever engrained in my mind as a face for all the faceless, nameless people, people who die in the slums everyday without love or care, who die alone. No one should have to die alone feeling unloved like so many do in the slums.
This is Millie’s story.
We had to hurry to the hospital to see Milicent before visiting hours. Milicent (affectionately called Millie) has been held in the hospital against her will because she was not able to pay the hospital bill. In Kenya, this is a typical practice. Patients who cannot pay their bill either stay in the hospital until a family member or friend can pay their debt or until they die. If you die there, your body is thrown in a mass grave. If you have family who can claim your body, they must pay the debt or else your body stays with the hospital.
Rattling was coming from around the corner. Ben leaned toward me and whispered, “That is the sound of death.” Two men pushed a metal coffin through the halls between the patients, either to deposit a body in the morgue or to pick one up from the hospital beds. There are two or three patients to a bed. If your bed partner dies, you simply lay in bed with a corpse until the body can be removed. The sound is a constant reminder to the patients: “This is your future.”
Millie is a single mother from the slums, brought to the hospital because she was so sick with AIDS. She has been detained in the hospital now for over 40 days. Going in to the hospital, she had three children. One was killed while she was held in the hospital, the other two have only been seen a few times begging on the streets. Her house was raided and all her possessions stolen.
On our arrival, Ben said it would only take 3,000 ksh to get her out. The bill was 30,000 but he had told her story and the hospital had dropped it to 3,000. I happened to have exactly 3,000 on me. “Let’s get her out of here,” I told him. We went to the pay station and gave the money to the woman behind the counter. She handed us a receipt that told us she still had a total debt still owed of some 8,900. Ben looked at the receipt with sad eyes. “They are charging her every day she is held here,” he said.
We walked back to Milicent’s bed, bed 10. We stopped in the hallway. Ben looked toward the frail 30 year old who didn’t look over 15. “Poor girl,” he said, his heart breaking, “She’s packing her things.” Indeed she was. Millie was putting her few possessions in a neon orange plastic bag, smiling, ready to be let out of this prison.
Ben called her over, past the people who had showed up for visiting hours to see the others. I cannot speak or understand Kiswahili, but I did not have to in order to know what Ben was telling her. The life suddenly drained from Millie’s eyes. Her face fell. She stood facing us, not knowing where to look, not knowing what had just happened, only knowing she was still not free to find her missing children. I felt her heart breaking all over again, feeling the death of her child, the hopelessness her children on the streets must be feeling.
On the lawn a group of women wailed in each other’s laps over the death of a loved one. Nearby, some nurses chatted and laughed, hardened to the sadness and death surrounding them.
I cannot tell you in sufficient language the affect these encounters had on me. The first time I tried describing the look on Millie’s face to my parents, I sobbed. When faced with this kind of reality, many people start questioning, “Why God, why do you allow this suffering?” I’ve heard it said that God would reply, “I was going to ask you the same thing.”
If we want to see less hurt, we must begin with ourselves. In the movie Invictus, Nelson Mandela says, “If I cannot change when circumstances demand it, how can I expect others to?” Mandela had to change in order to help his country overcome the hurts of apartheid. If we are expecting others to change, we have to be willing to do so ourselves first. I cannot point to the government, or God, or my neighbors and ask, “Why is there so much suffering?” Instead, I have to point to myself and say, “Do something about it!”
Stop complaining about the world and do something about it. As Gandhi once said, "BE the change you want to see in the world."