|By Martha Ogonjo|
Many a time, we go about life as though we are sure of what lies ahead, remiss in savouring the simplicity of life and possibly, oblivious of the fact that we are in charge of the present moment.
Last month, Strathmore University staff had the opportunity of visiting Mukuru slums. The visit was organized by the University Secretary division and facilitated by Eastlands College of Technology (ECT), an institution strategically located in the slum area to re-ignite a sense of hope among the community members and to transform their lives through industrial training.
On our way, some participants engaged in tete a tete, with occasional outbursts of great laughter as they cracked jokes. Other participants were lost in deep thought, immersed in the expectation that lay ahead or perhaps reflecting on the encouraging words to lift the spirits of those they would meet.
We arrived at ECT in good time to start with a tour of the school. As we made our way through the various stations, I couldn’t help but reflect on how purposefully the institution is achieving its goal of transforming lives. The school aspires to provide students from the slum area with the technical skills they need to enhance their own and their families’ standards of living. While some students are fortunate enough to get scholarships, others struggle to make ends meet in order to enrol in the courses they want. Despite this, the ECT students’ tales are nothing short of examples of tenacity and endurance in the face of adversity.
Moses Muthaka, one of the employees of the institution, posed a real scenario question as we had a briefing session prior to tour of the slums: Would you applaud a young man for stealing in order to fund his sister’s education and keep her from becoming a prostitute, or would you shun the young man’s behaviour? I leave this for you to ponder, but such are the paradoxes of life. In order to provide context and prepare the participants for the abject circumstances they would soon face during their slum tour; he provided numerous examples. The mood of the audience became downcast and a blanket of sympathy rent the air.
After the briefing session, the donations we had carried were split into separate bags and the team was divided into three groups. While Mukuru has different villages, the three groups could only visit three villages: Mukuru kwa Reuben, Mukuru kwa Njenga and Sinai. Each group had a facilitator who was well-versed with the area and the families that were to be visited. I landed in the group that was visiting Mukuru kwa Reuben. Clutching onto our bags of foodstuff and clothes, we walked with haste while chatting with our facilitator, being acquainted with the families we were to visit. We passed along narrow alleys which separated dwellings on both sides, hopping one step after another to avoid the open running sewers.
The majority of the houses looked alike; modest one-room shacks made of corrugated iron. We arrived at our first destination, Waithera’s home. She is blind and partially deaf so we had to shout when speaking to her. She is also unable to walk due to the swelling and excruciating discomfort in her legs from spending so much time sitting on a couch inside the house. Her husband is a courier at Muthurwa market and so he leaves home at the crack of dawn in order to fend for his family. In a good day, he makes Ksh. 150/ Ksh. 200. As I scanned the room, I noticed that the house had no electricity. It was dark and it seemed they relied on the sunlight streaks that would stream through her small window.
The smile on Waithera’s face was priceless as she struggled to hear the facilitator introduce us and state our aim for the visit. We then presented the donation in her hand so that she could feel what was in the bags. She smiled, as she crossed her arms around her chest and kept on saying Asanteni sana kwa kunikumbuka (Thank you for remembering me). I couldn’t hold back tears.
This is just one of the families we met. I realised no amount of briefing can prepare one for the real-life context we encountered. The visit to Mama Gaceri was equally an emotional one. While we had not planned to visit her, we ended up in her home because the family we had intended to visit was not home. It so happens that Mama Gaceri and her three toddlers had slept hungry and she was merely hoping for God’s mercy to get food for her children on that day.
When all the groups congregated, the stories of dire need in the slums were similar. We were only happy that in a small way, we touched the lives of the various families that we visited. The conversations in the bus as we headed back to Strathmore were now different as the participants narrated their experiences from the visits and discussed opportunities of how to further assist the families they met. I recall a comment from one of the participants, “I will strive not to complain about my problems because what I have seen today has made me realise that I am blessed. There are bigger problems out here.”
And while the present is all we have; may we make the most of it and have hearts of gratitude for the big and the small that we have received. Through the monetary donations that were received, the Eastlands College of Technology was able to dispense the money to some boys to pay their outstanding school fees and return to school. A bereaved family was also able to settle an outstanding medical bill and eventually lay their loved one to rest.
*The names of the subjects have been changed to protect their identity.
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