I stand with my two sons Jacob and Justin, our friend Jenny, and my mother-in-law Joann, staring out over mountains of garbage as far as we can see. The expanse is simply staggering in its immensity. In the distance, massive machines move the refuse. The stench is so thick, it’s actually visible in thick haze and drifting smoke. I see movement, a man, like a furtive ant, scurrying over a hill. We notice other humans dotting the apocalyptic landscape. We stand wordless, trying to comprehend what we see.
We learn from our Kenyan friends that this, the Nairobi city dump, is also a fiefdom subject to the law of the jungle. Wealthy “lords” rule with guns, growing rich as impoverished slum dwellers sort the trash.
Hordes of people subsist all along the perimeter of the dump in a slum called Korogocho, one of Nairobi’s most dangerous. We are “safe” only because we walk with residents. One of our guides slings an obscure bag over his shoulder, hiding my camera. We carry nothing. People watch us passing by, eyes veiled and wary. We visit a medical clinic and a church, beacons of hope in a desperate place.
Korogocho is home turf to our Kenyan friends, Elicah and Alfred. They first sent a team to minister to the slum in the early 1990’s. The members were mugged and beaten. They were tempted to give up, but steadfastly earned the trust of a few young people, discipling and equipping them to reach their own people and eventually to become pastors. From that humble beginning, Alfred and Elicah established two thriving churches in Korogocho, eleven more churches serving poor areas of Nairobi, and eight churches along the coast. Additionally, they started schools and set up educational scholarships.
As Elicah witnessed the plight of women to provide for their children through abuse, disease and lack of dignity, her heart broke. She dreamed of something better for them.
After walking through Korogocho, we settle in the living room of Elicah’s flat, grateful for respite from the slum chaos. A rap at the door, and Mildred enters. Elicah’s face beams as she introduces her friend. We feel humbled as the two women wash our hands with a pitcher of water caught in a bowl, and then serve us tea.
Elicah describes the small group of women who comprise “Kumbatia” (Swahili for “to hug”), the artisan group she founded: Mildred, mother to three children; Doricas, mother to five girls; and Clarine, mother to five children. Elicah trains the women to sew, taking turns on one machine, while they share their lives and pray for one another. On Sundays, they visit the sick and others in need in the community.
Clarine arrives with adorable six month old son, Reward. We join the women in their workshop, an adjoining room in Elicah’s flat, to admire their handiwork: baby blankets, hair scarves, aprons. After the shock of the dump and the bleakness of the slum, the vitality of their relationships with one another and the vibrant colors of their creations seem even more startling.
Reluctantly, we realize it is time for us to leave. As our new friends walk us to the waiting car, three more of Clarine’s children arrive. With her brilliant smile, she gathers her little ones near; and I think to myself: this is why we do this. This is why Pamba Toto exists. If we can help these mothers fight for their children just one more day through the ravages of poverty, if we can give them an ounce of courage and provision to keep their children close and fend off orphan-hood, it’s worth any effort we can give.
Then again, if you add your heart and energy to ours, it starts to add up…
From their hands to yours…
products made by Kumbatia, available through Pamba Toto:
(special thanks to Jenny Lau, Brittin Morrell, and Everly Crouse for modeling!)