Companionship

"If I cannot prolong your dance, I will proclaim it. I will proclaim your dance to God and to the world." 
  - Jeremy Funk

The Mathare Valley is Kenya's largest informal settlement, better known as a slum. It is "informal" because many of the estimated one-half million people who live there do so illegally, squatting on land that is technically not theirs. Mathare is an old rock quarry that flourished in Kenya's colonial and early post-colonial days. Now it is a wasteland of tin shacks snaking along the contour of the Mathare River, a mile or so in length and about a quarter- to a half-mile wide in most places.

Today I will visit Mathare for the first time. My guide and companion is Peter, a thirteen-year-old boy from the community center where I intern this year as a social worker. Peter and I have just dashed across Juja Road, the busy street separating my home in Eastliegh and Peter's in Mathare. Nothing I have seen in Eastleigh thus far, no matter how impoverished the people there, no matter how dilapidated the area's streets and buildings, could have prepared me for our trek into Mathare.

Peter hobbles in front of me as he leads me through the narrow corridors and muddy pathways toward his home deep in Mathare. He hobbles because of the wound on his leg, just below his knee. The wound, along with a similar one on his forearm, came three years ago when he fell while playing here in the slum. Left untreated for these past three years, it has festered and rotted its way to the bone in both his arm and his leg. But it is with a joyful limp that Peter takes me to his home, almost skipping at times, darting around corners of buildings, ducking below clotheslines and between shacks into unseen corridors. It is all I can do to keep up with him and his excitement.

The paths we walk are now muddy from yesterday's rain shower and are a slippery shade of grayish brown. I notice that along the sides of our pathways flow open drainage canals filled with a similar colored liquid that in places spills over from clogs in the drains. I walk gingerly through this slick mixture of once-blood-red clay and the opaque sewage. Although my feet are sealed up in my Vibram-soled hiking shoes, I tiptoe and hop from rock to rock. Peter, who is limping confidently ahead of me, looks back now and then with a grin as if to reassure me that we are nearly to his home. He is wearing flip-flops, the shoes that he wears almost every day.

Peter's house stands at the end of a row of houses like all of the houses in Mathare, a one-room hut of tin sheeting with spindly tree branches for a frame. His mother welcomes me into her home with a huge smile, saying "Karibu," and "Wa na mahali tafadhali," gesturing toward a stool near the corner of the room. So I sit as she and Peter hurry out the door. I am left to my senses. Immediately I notice the smallness of this house - one room for Peter's entire family, which is composed of Peter, Peter's mother, and his three younger brothers, two of whom sit perched on the side of the bed with their feet dangling and their eyes fixed on my every move. Peter's other brother is somewhere nearby with Peter's mother. He is strapped into a kanga on her back like so many other infants in Kenya, his head dangling to the side, looking over his mother's shoulder, taking in the world and all of its newness from inside his little hammock. The floors are dirt and why that surprises me I am not sure. The room is filled with the heavy stench of wet diapers and sleep. This room has no windows, making it oppressively dark except for the beams of bright sunlight that shoot across the room through tiny holes in the tin sheeting. I realize then that Peter's house is not impervious to the elements. I wonder to myself how much of the torrential rainfall we have been having drips through these holes and how much of the runoff trickles and streams across the floor. My eyes meet those of Peter's brothers and we sit, looking deeply into each other's worlds, lost in their peculiarities. Our profound gaze erupts into giggling that fills the room.

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JACK BRACE is a Charter Class Krista Colleague (1999). During his term of service in Kenya he partnered with the PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer Program and worked with homeless and street youth in the Mathare Valley slum settlement of Nairobi as well as near the town of Chuka on the eastern slopes of Mt. Kenya. Prior to his work in Kenya Jack volunteered for three years with New Horizons Ministries in Seattle, where he served and loved homeless youth. Jack is currently living with his wife Elisabeth in Princeton, New Jersey while studying at Princeton Theological Seminary.