Another Day in Kenya – Chapter 4
Where Are You?
Both babies drifted off to sleep during our drive through the Nairobi night, but woke when we arrived at the guest house. Jedd fussed, and I knew it was well past his orphanage bedtime. I stayed with him in the room while the others went to dinner. He sucked his thumb quietly while I studied him in wonder.
When David returned with Justin and Jacob, we tried to get our three sons into bed; but, wired after his too-close-to-bed-time nap and the disorientation of a ten hour time change, Justin screeched in protest. Jedd cried. Jacob kept telling the little ones, “Be quiet!”
Finally, we rescued Justin from his port-a-crib. Jacob announced that if Justin was going to be up, he would get up too! Jedd cried harder. David and I surrendered: we switched on the lights and threw a pajama party. I held Jedd while the other two played. Justin kept crawling over to Jedd, offering him his blanket, and touching his hair. For awhile they passed a box back and forth. Jedd drank it all in with those big brown eyes, but he always smiled when Jacob talked to him. From that very first night, for about a week after, Jedd decided he belonged in my arms and would not be leaving by choice. I agreed only too happily with this arrangement, but thankfully he allowed his grandma to hold him so I could shower.
Within our first forty-hours in Kenya, we met more desperate people than I’d known in my entire life. Street mothers, hardly more than children themselves, with babies strapped to their backs appealed for help through car windows. Random strangers shared their stories – a man with five siblings lost three in their twenties; a woman whose husband died from AIDS and whose son was also sick with the disease was rejected by her family because of the stigma; a thirteen year old street boy lost both parents and knew no other relatives; a pastor said he was continually busy with funerals and people in search of food. People freely expressed their frustrations with government corruption, lack of jobs, low wages (one guest house employee earned $975/year), scrounging up school fees for children, and stress that not only damaged health, but killed. And, of course, the orphanage with it’s one hundred and thirty kids, ages 0-10, and the slum surrounding it, haunted every waking moment.
The heaven and the hell of Kenya overwhelmed me – a place with people of infinite courage and warmth, and a place of extreme suffering. I asked Jesus, where are you in this place?
Justin vomited through our third night in Kenya. David stayed back with him while the rest of us went to a church in the slums.
Blinking in the transition from blazing equatorial sunlight to sacred shadows, we hesitate in the foyer. The sanctuary stretches before us, an ordination service for new Sisters already in progress. Rows of simple benches packed to capacity march along concrete floors. I spot an open space in the back, but two Sisters in blue-trimmed white saris hurry our way. They motion for us to follow down a long, narrow side aisle. We are the only foreigners present, and I feel awkwardly conspicuous as they lead us to the very front. One of the Sisters bends and whispers to a woman on the end of a row with children piled all around her. She shuffles more little ones to her lap and beams a welcoming smile.
We settle on the creaking bench, but I am too distracted to notice much of the proceedings. My new son of three days nestles warm and secure as I cradle his body into mine. I wrap my big pale fingers around his tiny brown hand. I feel a strange mixture of pride and apprehension. What do all these strangers think of me as his new mother? He begins to fuss. Suddenly flushed and sweaty, I fumble for his bottle; then sink back in relief as he sucks contentedly.
I glance around covertly. Other mothers cuddle babies or keep an eye on children crouched at their feet. The women are probably the same age as I am. I contemplate the vast gulf between their life experiences and mine. Dignified, erect postures contrast their social status, alluded to by faded, ragged clothing and simple plastic flip-flops.
A little boy leans out down the row and catches my eye. He smiles, waves, and mouths, “Josephat!” I don’t recognize him, but he knows my son. Then I realize that the children perched and wiggling down the length of the bench are from the Mother Teresa Home. I wonder if Josephat’s adoption is the fairytale ending the little boy longs for as he snuggles into his bed late at night, alone in a crowd of sleeping orphans?
I look beyond the children. Rows and rows of white-veiled women contrast sharply with the rich, dark wood of the church. A massive painting of an African Jesus presides over the celebration.
Out of the corner of my eye I notice my oldest son, Jacob, age 4, traipsing down the aisle with my mother-in-law towards the back of the church. They follow a Sister, and I lose sight of them in the crowd. I wonder where they are going.
Then a jubilant, lilting song in Swahili swells through the congregation. Older girls from the orphanage dance, arrayed in blue and white, leading a procession down the center aisle. In their midst I spot Jacob, head held high as he carries a rose to the altar.
The music fades and a priest addresses the congregation. He describes the life to which these women are committing. He takes the rose from Jacob and places it in the hand of a postulant. He asks her to pass it hand-to-hand, missionary-to-missionary. He explains that their lives will be like the rose, continually passed from person to person. Like the rose, they will become ragged and spent. Their very lives will be their offering. Even so, they will spread hope and beauty to many.
The Presence of God seems to permeate the sanctuary as nine new Missionaries of Charity recite their vows in strong, confident voices. Their joy is palpable as they pledge to live for one year in poverty, chastity, and obedience, and to give their whole-hearted service to the poorest of the poor. I clutch my son a little tighter. Thanksgiving surges through my heart for the women whose earlier vows granted him a chance to live.
After the service, the Sisters walk the dusty, rutted roads back into the heart of the slums, carried along by lively chatter. We return in a rented vehicle. The newly ordained sisters are the last to arrive; and, as they pass through the gate, cheering and applause erupts from the crowd. The girls from the orphanage burst into song and dance. Laughter ripples through all. Joy floods the compound; and, for a moment, seems to drown out the misery just beyond its walls.
I realize Jesus is answering my question, I am here.