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What an American writer learned about faith in Nairobi’s Mathare district by kelsey timmerman

The night is dark and all that is Nairobi’s Mathare slum is unseen: the valley lined with rusting tin shacks, the mother sleeping on a wooden bed with her foot on the floor to act as an early warning in case the nearby river happens to rise, the food scraps and plastic and cardboard and people in various stages of decomposition and degradation. Darkness makes the slums smell better. Behind a wall of sheet metal, a carefree whistle rises into the darkness, a puddle seeps out, forming tributaries of soap and islands of dirt. An arm darker than the night rises above the wall, its armpit washed by an invisible hand. Someone passes and says something. “What did they say?” I ask James, one of my hosts for my overnight stay in the slums. “They say that you are easy to see,” James says. I look down at my arms. They are covered in blond hair and all day enticed the children of Mathare to pet me. They glow. You may have heard of the slum of Kibera. Kibera is Africa’s second largest slum and appeared in the movie The Constant Gardener. Mathare is Nairobi’s other slum, home to more than 500,000, where only 5 percent of adults have formal jobs and 80 percent of kids don’t go to school. James is 16. He has a crooked-toothed smile and the beginnings of a mustache. We make small talk while waiting for his cousin, Thomas, to finish showering. Thomas is dirty from a soccer game that began with him expertly gliding past stampeding defenders and, after the sky opened, ended with him sliding and falling in the mud like a mere mortal. I watched the game with Thomas’ younger brother, Moses. Moses is too shy to speak to me, but his smile, equal parts top and bottom teeth, and his eyes speak volumes. When he beat me at thumb wrestling, he didn’t say anything—just beamed. When he pointed out a rainbow, he burst with pride. When the downpour

started, it was Moses who brought a banana leaf for me to hold over my head as a sort of umbrella. “When it rains,” James says, “the water is warmer.” The water isn’t actually warmer; it just feels like it. But it’s not my place to correct James. “Have you ever taken a warm water shower?” I ask. “Only in the rain,” James says.

Faith, Laundry and Mzungus I’ve come to Africa with a group shooting a documentary for Life in Abundance, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that helps churches in impoverished areas lift their communities out of poverty. The days are hot and exhausting, but it’s always the moments we stop to pray that make me sweat the most. When would it be my turn to lead the prayer? The last time I prayed, I think it was for a puppy. I was an altar boy in a Catholic church. I nearly burst into flames. Not because some higher power threatened to smite me, but because my buddy Matt sat up in the choir and made faces at me until my face exploded with redness. When this happened, I would rub my hamstring, acting like I had a cramp. After Mass, I would limp off to religion class. “Are you OK?” someone would ask. “Yep, just this darn hammy of mine keeps cramping,” I’d say, as if I was walking off the football field. The only thing about Sundays I looked forward to was the box of doughnuts before religion class. Going into this trip, I knew faith would be front and center, and at some point mine would be called into question. I had this dated and naïve idea that faithbased NGOs dangled food in front of the hungry and said, “Pray to our God and we’ll give you seconds.” I wasn’t sure what to do. Do I stay in the closet and hope I’m not called on to bless the food or share some spiritual insight? Or do I step off the plane and announce, “The heathen has arrived!” or state, “I don’t have faith in Jesus like you do”?


RELEVANT 49 | January/February 2010  

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