People tell me this is one of the more powerful chapters in Embracing the Gray. When it was initially published as part of my blog in 20067, it garnered more views than any entry I've ever composed. I know it was one of the hardest pieces I've ever written.
I met a little girl in Kenya twelve days ago. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get her out of my mind’s eye: agonizingly shy, utterly quiet, and a countenance void of expression. She wasn’t even four years old, but she was all alone…
Having criss-crossed every time zone on the planet in my humanitarian work and having spent time in all but one continent (Australia), I’ve seen my share of intense poverty.
I’ve seen it in the muddy tidal plain undercutting the stilted shacks in Guayaquil, Ecuador… the stifling heat rising off the packed streets of Chennai, India… the putrid odors of waste that permeate the old slaughterhouse district of Arusha, Tanzania, known as the Hyena Zoo… the dense conflagration of suffering that is City de Sol on the bay at Port au Prince, Haiti… the seemingly never-ending wave-after-wave of squatter barrios surrounding the world’s largest metropolitan sprawl (over thirty million) in Mexico City… the rotting bamboo and child sex-trade of Bangkok’s red light district… These are just some of the epicenters where the downward cycle of poverty churns into a deep vortex. It’s as if the underground reservoir of Hell is breaking through the surface in certain areas, and everything within miles gets sucked into its hopeless realm.
Even though I have developed the ability to experience it, I have never grown used to it. The intense odors of open sewers, rotting refuse, charcoal pits, and yes—even decaying flesh—burns the eyes and nostrils, often bringing me to the brink of nausea. And always to the verge of tears. But I soldier on, usually because I am leading a group of less-experienced observers, and I try to keep a stiff upper lip and an even keel so as to keep everyone’s attitudes up.
But none of this background prepared me for the Methere Valley slum of Nairobi, Kenya.
Can you imagine 700,000 people crammed into an area the size of downtown Nashville? Approximately two miles in length and one mile wide. The lot on which my Tennessee home sits is 50’ x 150’. That same space in Methere Valley would house 100 dwellings and close to 500 souls. Over two-thirds of the population is under the age of fourteen, and there are at least 100,000 orphans there due to the forty-percent HIV/AIDS infection rate. Estimates are that one person dies there every six minutes.
As we navigated those streets with no names and even ventured back into the myriad narrow walkways (usually no more than two feet wide), we were told by our Compassion International guide, Moses, to watch out for “flying toilets.” Since there is no plumbing in Methere, people often relieve themselves in plastic bags and simply toss them out their window. If you’re not struck, you can certainly run the risk of stepping into untold millions of these literal fanny packs that are scattered everywhere and hanging from jagged tin roofing. Gullies have been dug between every cluster of shacks, and they all dribble urine, excrement, and waste water down toward the Methere River, which has long been choked with every sordid swill that mankind can create.
We were fortunate to be visiting during winter season in central Africa. Temperatures had been quite pleasant at seventy-five degrees each day, yet there were still abundant flies and mosquitoes everywhere in that breezeless valley. One could only shake his head wondering what it must feel and smell like when the heat index rises to 110 degrees: the humidity so thick that there is a constant brown cloud hanging over the dank slum.
There was nary a tree or shrub. Not one of us saw even a single blade of grass. Everything was variations of brown… from the rusted metallic scraps that made up most of the housing, to the rutted, constantly muddy pathways. Everyone’s limited wardrobe even had a brown tint due to the soiled water it was washed in.
I’ve said before that Compassion International’s child development centers are often akin to a beacon of light on a darkened shore. This was never truer than with the project we visited here. This church school is literally life-giving for the 390 children who are sponsored. They receive their only balanced meal of each day. They are blessed with a school uniform and the only pair of shoes they own. They are given malarial medicines, anti-retroviral treatments for HIV/AIDS, vaccines, vitamins, and regular health and dental check-ups. They receive additional tutoring to assist with their public education. These children know they can’t skip their regular school and still be part of the sponsorship program, so there is a zeal for education in this place. They receive additional skill training in areas like baking, carpentry, and even computer technology, to give them opportunities to find employment beyond their otherwise bleak futures.
They have a safe haven for recreation—an actual playground the size of two tennis courts. It’s the only open space of this type in this quadrant of the slum. It is sanctuary in the truest sense of the word. A shelter where kids are allowed (and encouraged) to be kids. There’s even a Scout program where boys and girls are learning disciplines and earning merit badges. What pride this group exhibited as they marched for us and demonstrated their teamwork! Other children sang for us, danced, put on skits, and recited dozens of Bible verses loaded with God’s love, hope, and redemption. The scripture is definitely a “living word” in this context, I can assure you.
Amidst all the ceremony and celebration, I noticed this tiny girl for the first time. She was pensively taking it all in. While other children were sprinting, jumping and gleefully punctuating the air with joyous laughter, this muted munchkin stayed anchored in a doorway to one of the classrooms. The orange knit cap and green jacket she was wearing were too large for her, accentuating her small stature. She had cocoa skin, and her big egg-white eyes with coal black centers showed much about her observant little mind.
When they broke us up into groups to play various games, I noticed her again across the courtyard—a silent sentry at her post. Expressionless, but obviously intrigued. Still waters run deep; I began wondering what she might be harboring.
While we were lead around to the various classrooms, the assembly hall, the kitchen, and the bathrooms (this is the only place the kids can actually take a shower), my eyes kept drifting back to the waif who was all by her lonesome. As we were given snacks of cookies and orange Fanta, I excused myself and took some over to her. After much prodding, she eventually grasped a cookie but was hesitant about the drink. My efforts to communicate with her fell on seemingly deaf ears, although our gaze did connect a time or two.
Over the years, I have heard that one of the worst side effects to the scourge of AIDS in Africa is the ridiculous belief that the only way for a man to rid himself of the disease is to have intercourse with a virgin. Since nearly every girl of menstruating age has been with a man, they have now begun raping younger and younger girls, hoping to be “cleansed” of this curse in the process. I can think of no more sordid or cruel lie from the pit of Hell than this. If people think there is no real evil in the world, they simply have not seen the effects of this malicious untruth in action. According to what we were told; in any given week, some of these sweet kids could have actually been raped on their way to the project. Moses told me that with awareness and better security, it is now happening to just a few each week… it used to be much worse.
Could this be what had happened to this innocent child? I asked one of the teachers about her. Shaking her head, she said, “This precious one has experienced way too much. She’s an orphan living with her older cousins. We’re pretty sure she’s been raped; she has most certainly seen too much horror for someone her age to process… That is why she is so quiet. We just try to be patient with her and love her.” We were then interrupted before I could ask more. It was time for the closing ceremony and goodbyes.
Hundreds of children gathered in a huge circle around the edge of the playground. Our group of seventeen American radio professionals was interspersed along with other Compassion staff. I convinced my little friend to take my hand and join me. The project leader stood in the center and began singing a chorus on which all the children joined in. It was one of those addictive African melodies with an accented backbeat. Within moments, we were all repeating a joyous dance step in cadence. One by one, he grabbed various ones of us from the visiting party to join him in free form expressions of dance in the center. All the children, the parents, and the teachers, were cheering at our clumsy choreography.
When the leader came to get me, I hoisted the little girl into my arms and proudly strutted into the dancing core: swaying, spinning, and dipping her. We were all singing with abandon and grooving in this communal act of acceptance and worship. I never heard my precious cargo sing, giggle, or even coo. But as we were getting on our bus, one of the teachers told me they had seen her smile for just a fleeting moment—for the first time since she’d become part of the project (had gotten a sponsor) six months before.
I bent down to say my goodbyes. I had been trying to converse with her numerous times during the day… with no results. I told her again, “My name is Mark. I want to pray for you, sweetie. Can you please tell me your name, so I can pray for you?”
Finally, she parted her lips, and I heard the faintest of squeaks.
I leaned in close and said, “Could you say that again, please?”
“Mercy. My name is Mercy,” she whispered.
I cried in my hotel room the rest of that evening as I searched my Bible for some solace.
But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God. (Nehemiah 9:31)
Do not hold against us the sins of the fathers; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need. (Psalms 79:8)
He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the LORD accepts my prayer. (Psalms 6:9)
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