A Jewel Of Hope In Darkest Africa

Susan Page
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Wednesday - July 18, 2007
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Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Charles Kinguru is afraid, and his pained expression shows it. His busted lip, black eye and badly bruised ribs reveal why. Only last week a gang of eight young men attacked him with a baseball bat as he walked home from a friend’s house. His tiny two-room brick home in Dondora, where he lives with his wife, a young daughter and an older son, is just on the periphery of the now media-infamous Methare Valley slums (nicknamed “Kosovo”) in Nairobi, Kenya, where the ultra-violent Mungiki gang has been inflicting terror upon its citizens.

While Charles struggles with condemning these young men, often from horrific circumstances who have no jobs or futures, he nevertheless calls them “thugs.” Mungiki members employ classic, Mafia-style extortion to intimidate business owners and families alike into compliance.

“The ‘matatu’drivers must pay $1,000 shillings (roughly $15 US) to Mungiki every day or they will be killed,” says Charles, his badly injured left eye wincing. Matatu are filled-past-capacity, dangerous mini-vehicles that provide the only public transport to Methare Valley dwellers, some 1 million in a shack-crammed, garbage-strewn area just six miles long.

Reacting to public outcry, the government ordered scores of Nairobi police into the area with permission to shoot any suspicious young men on sight, as well as systematically roust from their homes anyone suspected of harboring Mungiki. (Ironically, this “extreme” police action made international news, while the slum’s appalling conditions go unreported.)

Given his recent assault by the gang, Charles’ primary concern for his son, Gideon, 21, is curious, yet understandable.

“I am afraid for my son, who is in technical school, that he may be shot by the police by mistake.”

Standing in the aisle of our small rented bus, Charles addresses 18 of us from the Heart for Africa mission on the potential dangers of simply driving through the Methare slums toward his house.

“Make sure all your windows are closed,” he instructs.

Thugs have been known to reach through windows and grab jewelry from the ears of women or cameras from hands. Street children, orphans, are desperate, he reminds us.

Charles employs a few widows with children to make jewelry that is in turn sold in America through HOW (Helping Orphans and Widows). HOW purchases the jewelry to sell in the U.S. and Canada to support projects that Heart for Africa funds for its Africa partners - established orphanages and care organizations - in Swaziland, Malawi and Kenya. The jewelry-making enterprise also provides funds for the Tumaini School started by The Living Word Church. It now employs eight teachers and feeds one meal to students who can’t afford school - or food. The day before, we attended church in Living Word’s ram-shackle tin-roof church, with one bare hanging light bulb; instead of the worship service, the rousing songs and skits by the children illuminated the dark structure.

HOW, founded by Canadian Janine Maxwell (also vice president of Heart for Africa, www.heartforafrica.org), serves as a superb model for giving a “hand up” not just a “handout” in Africa. Expensive, unpredictable customs regulations and potential pilfering of mailed items, requires travel to Africa for ordering and picking up jewelry stock.

But jewelry is just one aspect of this Heart for Africa mission that for me started at New Hope Orphanage in Swaziland three weeks ago, then moved to Malawi’s rural communities through Somebody Cares Malawi, and now to Kenya with local partner, Grace Outreach Assembly. Tomorrow we join another 55 North Americans at an orphanage in rural Tumaini for 10 days of garden-planting and fence-building.

It’s clear as I spend more time in Africa (my fourth trip) that HIV/AIDS is more devastating to communities and families than reported. Men, women and children are dying at rates far beyond stated statistics. Orphans are literally everywhere - in huge numbers, many infected. Village chiefs will tell you. Grandmothers of dead children will, too. Even a pharmaceutical rep from Cairo told me that Zambia, where he regularly meets with doctors, is 65 percent infected, 25 percent higher than reported. This health pandemic is greatly underestimated by the general public.

Despite this alarming report, the vast majority of people, especially African children, are bright, hopeful, happy-spirited, gracious and grateful - so worthy of a second thought, a visit, a prayer, a future. Caught between cultural/ tribal practices, disease, corrupt governments, broken promises and no status, the children - especially girls - need help. So do those like Charles Kingure who step up for them. A little from each of us goes far here and progress, though slow, is possible.

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