The faces of Africa


teacher_jen_malawiby Connie Berry
Sun editor

From Oct. 9 to 21, I traveled to Kenya and Malawi with two other Catholic journalists, Patricia Zapor from Catholic News Service and Liz Quirin, editor of the Belleville Messenger. The trip was led by Jen Hardy and John Rivera, both in the communications department at Catholic Relief Services headquarters in Baltimore. Quirin lives in the same town as many members of my father’s family. How ironic that I would spend two weeks in Africa with a woman from Belleville, Ill. My aunts probably read Quirin’s Catholic newspaper much more often than The Catholic Sun. That was only the beginning of my “it’s a small world” experiences. The others occurred when I discovered Quirin had met our diocese’s Father Peter Major when she visited Sudan several years ago. Then later I would meet people at CRS in Malawi who know Peter Daino, also from the Syracuse Diocese.

Zapor and Quirin have both traveled extensively, writing stories involving the church all over the world. They were an enormous help in easing my anxiety surrounding everything from navigating airports to having sunscreen ready when I needed it. They were an incredible help to me and I am sure we will be friends for life. Among the three of us, we likely asked every question possible regarding culture, geography, and who was the most popular singer we heard on the radio. We shared everything from tiny packets of laundry detergent to each other’s water bottles before the trip was over. I’m not sure I could have made such a trip without their great support.

In upcoming issues, I will focus on various aspects of the trip. We traveled throughout Kenya and Malawi visiting CRS projects in the field and experiencing life there first-hand during our brief stay. I will try to report in chronological order and will include updates as I receive information.

Our first stop after nearly a day of airplane travel was Nairobi, Kenya, a large city with a population of approximately three million. I was ill-prepared for the traffic we encountered when we left the airport. CRS employs drivers at the international offices and thank God for that. The men we had for drivers were incredible both as a source of information and because of their driving expertise. I saw one traffic light in the entire city. And no one paid any attention to it. I’m still not sure what was more nerve wracking — roughing it out in the bush in northern Kenya or being driven around Nairobi.

We finally settled into a hotel that evening and were to meet again early the next morning to begin what would be the first of the daily trips out into the surrounding communities. It seems almost impossible to me now, but our first trip out into Nairobi was to Kariobangi, a slum with population estimates of more than 500,000. The squalor we encountered in the slum was so incredibly intense that when we compared notes and photos later in the trip, we discovered that out of the five of us, none of us had taken more than a few photos. It seemed improper to even document the horrendous conditions in that place.

All of the television commercials and programs on the National Geographic network did nothing to prepare me for the reality of seeing raw sewage flow through the narrow passageways between the tin shacks of Kariobangi. If I close my eyes, I can see it still.

I was led by the hand through passages only a couple of feet wide with a sort of “canal” of the gray sewage water flowing through it. The smell alone gave me a headache. Woman after woman took me into her one-room shack to show me where she lived. Many of the shacks had a large pot filled with excrement and urine out in the open. One woman showed me how her family uses paper bags for a toilet because they have no metal pot to use. They would dump it into that gray stream of sewage water at some point. Some had a sofa of sorts or a pallet of some kind in what would serve as a living room. They told me their children and grandchildren, as many as eight or 10 people, slept there. A couple of the women we met held jobs and showed us a home with two rooms rather than one. Only one shack I saw had working electricity and wires with tape on them hung from the ceiling.

The slum is literally a maze of tin and cardboard shacks. It was easy to get disoriented walking through them. One lady came out of her shack to show me a bag full of medicine she takes for HIV. I found out later it isn’t really going to matter whether or not she has access to the drugs because she has no access to proper water and nutrition, which she will need for the drugs to work.

There was a group of mostly women who explained to us how they gather a small sum of money together and put it into a simple banking system so that someday they will be able to complete the concrete block homes they began a long time ago in Kariobangi. It must be discouraging to sit among all that concrete not knowing if or when your home will actually be finished. The concrete homes would be a huge step up from the tin and cardboard shacks they live in now. Also, the shacks proved a dangerous shelter during the 2007 post-election violence. Protesters made petrol bombs and dropped them on the shacks.

We met a lot of people that first day, notably Father Paulino Mondo who runs Holy Trinity Parish in the middle of the slum. His parish offers social services and currently his people are dealing with inflated food prices and malnutrition, along with the usual violence that springs from ethnic disputes. Kariobangi is not far from the gas line explosion that killed dozens of people in September. Many were engulfed in flames and jumped into a nearby river. Father Paulino told us there was no help for the people when that event occurred, and now he said, it’s like it never happened.

Father Paulino, a Comboni missionary originally from Uganda, spoke about life in Kariobangi. His order opened the parish there in 1969. Lately, he said, he has shortened the length of his Sunday Masses due to parishioners fainting for lack of nourishment. He told us babies have been left at the church because parents cannot feed them.

“We have slums with huge populations of people starving or malnourished,” Father Paulino said. “Some places in Kenya you can drive a whole day and not pull 200 people together. You give me a whistle to blow and I’ll have 2,000 people here in five minutes.”

He explained that the dense population and lack of food often leads to violence and clashes among people from different tribes.

“All the tribes are here,” Father Paulino said. “There is famine and when there is famine people become rude and hurt each other. They don’t share and they may take things by force. There’s no work. People walk up and down the streets all day. There is starvation. You may die by yourself. Who do you cry to? All the talk about the food crisis in Somalia and Northern Kenya and the drought …within the city of Nairobi thousands die every day. Even the government wants to deny it. In three months the garbage has not been collected here. Now you see people picking through the garbage for food.”

Despite the surroundings of Holy Trinity Parish, hope is evident there. The religious education program thrives and there is a dispensary to take care of the sick. There are programs to help train young women and men in marketable skills. Everywhere are signs of the poor helping each other.

Vincent Okore, 37 years old, utilizes the social programs at Holy Trinity Parish. Okore said he searches for work every day. When we spoke, he had recently lost his baby daughter, four-year-old Shantel, and his much younger wife was having great difficulty dealing with their loss.

“She is young, 22,” Okore explained of his wife. “It is hard to get her mind off of it. It is all she thinks about. I pray to God and maybe he will give me another child.”

Shantel had gotten sick and wasn’t improving despite the medication they got for her at a dispensary. The frantic parents took her to a larger hospital but it was no use. She had typhoid and died in their arms. Okore said she was saying their names as she died and her eyes were filled with sadness. If the loss of his daughter was devastating, it was made all the more difficult by the fact that he has no money, no food and parents who are telling him maybe his wife has some type of curse and that’s why his baby died.

“In our culture, if you look someone in the eye, you might die,” Okore explained. “My parents say there are differences between us and that my wife is not good for me. My parents don’t want me now because of this so they are no help to us.”

Okore hopes to one day open a mechanic shop.The church helped him get training in that field. Okore is also part of a group of neighbors working together, sharing what they have and building peace in their community. Their environment can be dangerous, especially when drought, national and international events cause food prices to rise. The community is also made up of people from many different tribes. Okore said they must learn to live and work together peacefully.

Okore said his rent is equal to $4 a month and his landlord is kind to them when they have to pay it late. Some days Okore and his wife skip meals and drink sugar water instead. “I don’t mind so much,” Okore said.

CRS partners with Father Paulino helping him provide services to the people in Kariobangi. The schools in the slum are run by the Catholic Church. It is hard to imagine what the people would do without the presence of the church and CRS. There is a lack of clean water, Father Paulino explained, and this leads to disease. Whenever a water program is put in place by the government, officials then walk away sometimes before a program is functional, he said. Father Paulino has a radio show and writes for Catholic publications there. He told us a kilo of sugar cost 60 shillings six months ago. The same kilo is 200 shillings now. “We’re not using sugar,” Father Paulino said. “I’ve given it up. It’s too expensive.” A liter of petrol was 86 shillings in March. In October it was 117 shillings. “We live on rubber,” Father Paulino said. “Everything is transported by car. The whole world was focused to fight Libya but we get cheap fuel from Libya. Because of the Somali pirates those who do invest here have run away because the Horn of Africa is not secure.”

Father Paulino has been in Kariobangi for nine years and in Kenya for 23 years. He said he sees hope when the children are educated and make it out of the slums, returning to help others when they get older. His parish office is open 24/7. “We don’t close the door to any people,” Father Paulino said. “There are Muslims here and they do come for food and our dispensary. We nurture peace here. Ethnic groups are very important here. We try to make sure the children mix. The tribes have totally different cultures, languages, way of dressing and behaviors. If they met someone from their tribe in New York City, they would say, ‘My brother is here.’”

Father Paulino said more and more people arrive at Kariobangi every day. When they cannot find work, water or food in their villages, the people head to the city.

“Last Sunday two children were abandoned here,” he said. “Their parents have no food. Still nobody comes to look for them.”

Father Paulino does not employ guards or have weapons at his parish compound. “Maybe I should be afraid. But there are more of me. If they kill me another priest will be sent here,” he said. “We are missionaries and we don’t give up and we don’t run away.”

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