As a sequel to John Guiney’s recollections last issue, we publish here another narrative to mark October’s status of Mission Month. It is a story about a mission to vulnerable women and children in a Nairobi slum in St. Joseph the Worker Jesuit Parish-Kangemi.
An estimated one billion people now live in slums on the fringes of cities in many parts of the world. That’s about one out of every six people on the planet. According to the United Nations, next year, for the first time in history, half the earth’s population will live in cities. In the city of Nairobi in Kenya nearly 2.5 million people live in poverty in the slums and urban areas. In Kangemi parish, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Wambui, a mother of four children, lives in crowded conditions alongside 150,000 other people.
Life in a slum
Because they are unplanned, slums usually have no basic services like running water, sanitation and electricity. There are outside toilets which are shared by thousands, there is no garbage collection, street lights or postal deliveries, just mud paths and few services.
Wambui and her four children live in a single room in the heart of the slum. Her home is made of cardboard, tin, plastic, wood or other materials. Her house is typical for many families; generally five or six people live in a single room with little space and no privacy. Violence is rife and security is minimal. They share one outside toilet with 25 other families. Life is wretched, especially during the rainy season when sewage and all waste materials flow in the same direction as the floods.
Without sewers or clean water and with people squashed together, disease spreads easily. Wambui’s husband, John, died five years ago of AIDS. This disease is the silent killer in the slum. Wambui discovered soon after his death that she was also HIV positive. Following a course of medication and counselling in the parish clinic and with the help of the parish community, she got the courage to face the future with her four children.
The Dollicraft Program and Sewing Project.
In 1986, Sr. Cecilia, a Missionary of Africa Sister, set up a program for the most vulnerable women in the slum parish – those suffering from HIV/Aids, single women, those experiencing domestic and sexual violence, those undergoing female genital mutilation, or those being economically exploited. As a way of supporting and enabling these women to become self-sustaining she gathered a small group of women together to initiate a self help program.
The aim of the project was to train vulnerable women from the Kangemi slum in income generating programmes, such as sewing, doll making and craft work, so that they could start their own small industries and generate a reasonable income for themselves and their families. The program was very successful and through counselling and other supports it continues to build up the confidence of the women of Kangemi.
Today they make thousands of dolls and other household decorations that are eventually sold to Canada, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland. Contact with those countries is made by the expatriate sisters who work in the slum. The women also learn how to make church vestments, tourists clothing, African shirts and wares and they get paid from the proceeds of the sale. After two months of training they graduate and are given a loan to start a small business in the market.
Wambui joined this group three years ago and it was life changing for her. She is slowly becoming self reliant, she can feed and clothe the children, buy basic medicine and plans to move to better rental accommodation. She is educating her children in the local parish school.
Through the support of the parish priests, (two Irish Jesuits, Frs. John K Guiney SJ and Gerry Whelan SJ have worked for 12 years in this parish) this project has supported women like Wambui to live a life of dignity in the poverty of Kangemi and helped them raise their families.
The Upendo pre-school
In 1992 a pre-school was opened to help the children of HIV positive women to go to school and prepare them to enter into the mainstream primary school system in the parish. The role of this pre-school called Upendo (love) is to accompany and educate the children of HIV positive mothers and plan foster care for them when their mothers die from AIDS. It also helps to raise the awareness of the community to the plight of Aids orphans in their midst. Wambui’s last born daughter, Mercy, is in the Upendo school and after repeated sickness she too has been diagnosed with HIV. But with medical care, basic nutrition, the support of her mother and community, she is living a normal life and attends school every day. Wambui has hope for the future despite the poverty of her surrounding and the challenges she faces every day.
Mission is about bringing new hope to people; showing those who are on the margins of the world that they are not forgotten. Wambui’s life has been transformed from a state of wretchedness to one of new life and dignity. She is a miracle of the Gospel which was brought to her not only in words, but especially in action through the compassion and loving service of others. This indeed is mission.
If you would like to help us to continue to fund services to the vulnerable women in the Kangemi slum parish or in other places where the Irish Jesuit Mission Office serves, please send your contribution to: The Director, Irish Jesuit Mission Office, 28 Upper Sherrard St. Dublin 1