The earth hurtles through space in all its breathtaking wonder; and yet, if you dare to look closer, you will find terribly brittle cracks. There, rivers of misery erode human existence into ever deeper, darker canyons.
Children ooze out of one of these cracks, known as Mathare Valley slum in Kenya. These little ones are born out of of every dysfunction known to humankind, in a place where desperate mothers encourage young teenage girls to sleep with any man who might provide sustenance in return. They scramble through the aftermath, abandoned by adults who neglect and abuse them or die. From myriad fissures, like ants ex-pulsed from the depths, they emerge with empty water vessels and plastic bags full of refuse, gather scavenged resources, and scurry back into the depths again.
Somewhere between half and a full million people live in Mathare Valley, the oldest informal settlement in Kenya and probably in Africa. About 60% of Nairobi’s population of 4 million live in informal settlements like Mathare Valley, which constitute just 6% of the land mass of the city. Many new residents migrate from rural areas in search of work and find themselves trapped in high density urban settings. An average family unit of 5-10 people in Mathare Valley, living in a 10′ x 10′ space without electricity or sanitation facilities, scrapes together about $50-80/month, paying an average rent of $30/month. (Special thanks to my dear friend, Steve Kariithi, Pastor of Mathare Worship Centre, for his research and experience based presentation on life in Mathare Valley.)
Although the government designates four schools to serve 100,000 kids in Mathare Valley, many families can’t afford the fees associated with a “free public education.” Instead, they send their children to “informal schools.” The gap in quality, with unqualified, underpaid teachers and unenforced standards, only sifts students further into the cracks. But, the schools provide a safe, constructive environment to pass the day and to sleep – after spending the night nestled under beds or other furniture or crammed into other corners, an entire class of kindergartners tucks their heads into arms folded on tables and falls fast asleep. And, free meals provided by these schools are often the child’s only source of nutrition.
Walking through the Valley, I see them, two young boys, peering from a crack. Their faces hover in the shadows, tentatively watching. They seem unsure of whether to flee or allow their curiosity to hold them there just one more moment. I take their photo, but it’s the memory of their tender souls now haunting my prayers.
As I pray, I also see Another, there, in the cracks: One who also sees them, witnesses every tear and keeps watch when numbness sets in. I see One who knows each boy by name and cherishes their every breath, One who is unafraid to follow them into every dark place.
I see them, I touch them, I remember them. Beneath their grime and rags, I glimpse the very image of God. Filling the space around them, I see His Presence, asking:
Will you follow Me into the cracks?