Another Day in Kenya – Chapter 15
God’s Hands and Feet
At that point, with the failure of our second case, no one would have blamed me if I packed up and high-tailed it home. There are some who tell me they admire my courage. But, which is harder – to leave a child you consider to be your daughter, placing her back in an institutional orphanage without a family, or to simply make it through one more day in Kenya in case it might the day she is one step closer to going home with you?
As much as I longed for my husband, son, family, and friends in the US, it never crossed my mind to give up as the second case concluded. Without a doubt, God sustained me with His Presence; but He also surrounded us on both sides of the world with people who became His Hands and Feet.
There are no words to express our gratitude for how our family and friends in the US generously and sacrificially upheld us. My mom traveled with us initially and returned a second time in March. My father-in-law spent the first long six weeks with us, even as he encountered health challenges. Two brother-in-laws and my mother-in-law sojourned with us. One of the students, Leah, from our 2004 Global Project team came to help. Family members, my husband’s co-workers at Young Life, people from our church, and other friends prayed, provided meals, took care of Jacob, and even gave anonymous financial donations.
In Kenya, too, people who hardly knew me listened to my story with compassion and tried to think of ways to help us. The longer I was there, the more acquaintances became friends. The wife of one of the workers where we lived committed to fast and pray with me one day a week for Lily’s adoption. We came to know some of the staff very well as we practically lived with them after we moved into the flat. Morathii and Muchira, brothers who worked as groundskeepers/security guards, went out of their way to extend kindness to my boys as they went about their work and invited us into their homes.
Michael, our friend who I hired to drove for us, remained a stalwart support to me and source of delight to the kids. Eventually I hired Janet, sister to one of the cooks, to wash our laundry as a way of providing much-needed income for her and also relieving me of many hours of work. Her love and concern for our family sustained me through many challenging weeks.
Many mornings, Hellen, the cook where we lived, arrived at work with mandazi for the boys. I discovered she and I were born the same year, yet our lives contrasted hauntingly. Her husband abused her and drove her away from her home area. She fled to Nairobi with two young sons in search of work, and struggled to eke out survival on minimal wages. Despite her own formidable challenges, she listened to me, day after day, with compassion. She invited us to visit her home.
We took a matatu with her, much to the delight of the boys. We alighted at a gray, drab conglomeration of muddy dirt roads and nondescript cement block buildings. Hellen guided us to a low, narrow metal door which opened into a two story building. A courtyard in the middle erupted with laundry, hung on lines suspended across the open air of both stories. We wound our way up a rough cement staircase to the second floor, past the communal bathrooms, to Hellen’s one-room, windowless home, shared with her sons and mother. Hellen happily stirred a huge pot of my favorite meal in Kenya, lentils, in the corner over a jiko. I felt like maybe Jesus might have felt when the woman anointed his feet with her costly perfume. Hellen struggled for daily existence, yet prepared a feast for us. I was humbled and overwhelmed by her kindness and generosity.
Even as they promised, the Karaus became my family. They went to great lengths to care for us, visiting and hosting us innumerable times as family members came and went from the US. On one of the days between visits from US family, Lily fell ill. She refused to eat and her forehead felt warm. She cried and cried. Nothing alleviated her discomfort. She wasn’t sick enough to take to Gertrude Gardens; and as a sojourning foreigner, I lacked even the name of a pediatrician in Kenya, much less contact information. My one solace – I knew that soon my dear friend, Pastor Karau, would stop by for a visit.
I tucked Lily into a large piece of cloth and swaddled her on my back, Kenyan-style. Normally she preferred to be on the go, out-and-about meeting people and discovering new sights. I set out down the dirt lane outside our compound, my two five-year-old sons trailing behind. I hoped the rocking of my movement and the distractions of the streets would ease her discomfort. As I walked beneath the red-grit-coated-trees, she continued to wail.
At last I saw the dust kicked up by the approach of Pastor Karau’s car. He pulled up alongside. The lone White woman in the area with a Kenyan baby tied to my back and accompanied by one White boy and one Kenyan boy of about the same size, I was easily recognizable. We climbed in. Trying to talk over Lily’s crying, I explained our predicament.
Soon we were back at our little “home.” Pastor Karau settled into a chair in the afternoon light and cradled Lily on his lap, uncharacteristically silent. Her whimpering faded. I sat across from him, certain he was praying for her. After a few moments, she climbed down and indicated that she wanted a cracker. I felt her forehead, now cool. She sat on the floor between us and began quietly playing.
There were no fireworks or theatrical announcements, just an amiable visit with a dearly-loved friend, enjoyed more fully with customary cups of chai; and then he departed as humbly and non-dramatically as ever.
And I stood there watching him drive away, awe seeping into my bones as surely as the dust swallowed him again. There I was, a single-parenting mother of three young children, alone and helpless, far from home, with few options and even less ability to access them. And in my hour of need, God ever so tenderly stole into our situation through the tender presence of a Kenyan pastor.
One day we visited the Karaus at Mathare Worship Centre, the church founded by the Karaus in 2004 in the second largest slum of East Africa.
Pastor Karau greeted us, surrounded as usual by children. Inside the church, Pastor Karau picked up a tiny boy with blistering skin. The child’s eyes were empty and withdrawn and his ragged clothes hung on a skeletal frame. I wondered when he last smiled. His skin was raw with a condition called “weeping eczema,” a genetic disease. Creams to control the oozing outbreaks exist, but cost $50/month at the time. The boy’s parents were lucky to earn $6/week. Somewhere in the dancing and singing crowd of children at the Saturday Bible Club that morning, the boy’s older sibling also suffered from the disease. It wasn’t just the boy’s skin that broke my heart, though. He could easily pass for three-years-old, even though he was five. The Karaus tried to arrange meetings for the parents with therapists to discuss testing for other diseases as well as nutrition, but the mother proved difficult to find and the father never showed up for the appointments.
I touched the boy’s head gently, feeling helpless.
Mathare Valley is the kind of place where girls sleep around, hoping to contract HIV so they can die; where babies are commonly found abandoned on trash heaps or in the river at the bottom of the valley; where parents send children under the age of ten-years out to get money wherever and however they can, and beat them if they return empty-handed. Most people born in Mathare Valley die there, perpetuating a vicious cycle of generational poverty and hopelessness.
Dominic, a young member of the church, took us for a walk. Diesel fumes and speeding matatus on one side and shanty kiosks on the other, we picked our way along the main road. Then we turned to the right and began a descent. It rained the night before and our path oozed thick with mud. Loosely aware of streams of people on either side, I concentrated on where to place my next step. Jedd, like many young boys, loved mud; and it was all a game to him. What he didn’t know was the composition, attested to by the stench. Since the only toilets available were public and pay-for-use, flying toilets – plastic bags filled and tossed – littered the corrugated metal roofs.
The ground leveled out a bit and I felt steady enough to look up. My senses imploded with details – children running through the mud in flip-flops, chickens and goats rummaging through trash, the smell and crackle of frying food, salesmen with goods slung across their bodies calling out, people sitting, standing, walking, everywhere. Dominic led us past a gate, spilling children out onto the path. This was the orphanage where he grew up, where one couple cared for a hundred orphans. We ducked under a low passageway between structures and emerged to snaking lines of traffic. Soon, we saw Mathare Worship Centre up ahead.
After a year, the church was already bursting at the seams. They held “keshas” – overnight prayers – three times each week, Saturday Bible Club for community kids, and Sunday services. A nursery school served about 30 kids, serving lunch to kids who otherwise might not eat that day. Other ministries included a micro-loan society, teen mentorship, and support groups for single HIV positive mothers. A medical clinic provided reduced-fee care. In this building, Pastor and Mama Karau gathered and held people close who were rejected by the rest of society, like a little malnutritioned boy with blistered skin.
The Karaus could have served anywhere besides the slums. They were offered many positions by other churches when they felt the calling to leave another church in Mathare Valley where they served for twenty years. Before becoming a pastor, Pastor Karau earned good wages as an accountant. But they heard and heeded the Lord’s directive to start Mathare Worship Centre in an unreached corner of the valley. It seemed their vision for people no one else cared about knew no limits. Although many of their friends refused to even visit the church, because they found the place and inhabitants too repulsive, the Karaus kept dreaming of a better day for the people of Mathare Valley; and they were willing to pay the price of the dark night as they waited for and worked until dawn.
Back at the church, a mob of youngsters greeted us. Beneath their curious smiles, I knew untold miseries lay. But, I also knew the light of Jesus was dawning in Mathare Valley through the Karaus. And where Jesus is, there is always hope.
I could not remain unchanged by three months of immersion in both the misery and the heroism of the people who became my friends in Kenya. Now that I had seen and shared in their hardships, how could I turn my back? By my third month in Kenya, as I contemplated next steps in the legal battle for our daughter, I felt deeply the powerlessness of people subjected to corruption and systems that make no sense. I lived daily in the agony as well as the thrill of desperate dependence on God. Even though He seemed to answer my every prayer the opposite of what I (and countless intercessors in the US and Kenya) asked, I felt His Presence profoundly. The thought of going home filled me both with longing and revulsion. Of course, yearning for my family burned my heart severely; but I could not un-see what I had seen, nor deny the suffering I witnessed. I no longer belonged in my old life. Most of all, I could never forget the inexplicable joy of people like the Karaus and the Mother Teresa sisters, who laid down their lives for others. Or the ways I experienced what they did as time and again, God showed up in the hour of impossibility. My husband, although not physically present with me most of the time, was undergoing a similar transformation. He understood and sympathized with my inner wrestling.
I was living in an upside-down kingdom. The more I experienced of it, the more confused I felt. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, I found myself suddenly lost in a most unfamiliar and unforgettable place – physically, emotionally and spiritually. Even if I left, I knew it would never leave me.