Christmas in Mukuru Slums
Some may have the courage of an explicit faith in the truth of Christmas, while
Today’s newspaper heading captured my eye,’ The Tale of Two Christmases ‘ and it went on to portray the incredible disparity that exits among `Kenyans. While one group, admittedly tiny percentage of the population are busy shopping for gifts, making headlines, planning their annual holiday in `Mombasa or outside the country, buying gifts for themselves and others and of course dashing between one party and the next, the large majority of `Kenyans can at best stop, take a breath, go to church with their families, and just hope that they can feed their families and rest a bit with them.
So it begs to ask the question,’ which group is truly celebrating Christmas? ‘
And as I thought about this dichotomy, I imagined that there is yet another group out there and it is those that desire to live the Christmas feast in all its richness
Some others accept it (Christmas) only quietly in the unfathomable depth of their own existence, filled by a blessed hope without words…………….and the holy and silent truth that God has arrived after all and is celebrating Christmas with us.
I finished my retreat on December 23rd and had a day to return to my Mukuru slums and fulfill a desire which sough to celebrate the Feast by being immersed in the here and now of life of the many poor and struggling Kenyans.
I found our Public Relations girl(Margie) and nine women connected to Ruben Centre preparing to go out among the people of the slum with Christmas gifts for the poor.
‘So who are the poor?” I asked, and was quickly informed that the community health volunteers had identified about forty families struggling with the effects of illicit drugs that have flooded the slums.
The spirit of Advent drove me to pick up two bags of goodies and I joined in for to stay put would be to fail on all the promises of the retreat.
God has arrived after all and is celebrating Christmas with us………. But only if I am the incarnation of this God. Yes the real person Jesus is long dead, and God can only hope that people like me can put on the mind and heart of Jesus Christ. (Paul to Ephesians)
Several times in the past, visitors to Mukuru have asked me, ‘ Are drugs a problem?” and I generally replied with some thing like, “ Well alcohol is but other drugs I don’t see much.”
Different Community Health volunteers, led the way and the further we went led us around the slum and the longer it went on, the more I got immersed in the Christmas story. Celebrating Christmas is not remembering an historical event alone, but the authenticity of the celebration is tied up with how good am I at bringing a wee bit of the long promised peace and good will into the world of the most in need.
We come across (Imani), not her real name. She is busy with a bucket and a towel cleaning a house that is almost empty only occupied with a dirty old mattress and dirty bedding. We say hello to her and later she tells us that she is busy cleaning the house occupied by one of her son’s, 3rd born. He is mentally ill and his condition is getting from worse to worst to an extent that he sh*ts on his bed and all over the house, the same house he puts his head to rest after a long day of wondering around from one end of the slum to another. He never settles down unless when he is all worn out and needs to sleep. (Sobs....sobs...sobs...). Imani starts to sob uncontrollably with tears of pain rolling down her cheeks. Perhaps, tears of joy to get impromptu visitors who have set aside all things to just pay her a visit which is a very rare occurrence for her. She rarely gets any visitors apart from those visitors coming to complain about the trouble her son’s are causing the neighbours.
At this point, we get to know that Imani’s second born son is sleeping in the next room. He also has mental Illness and is not much different from his brother. Their mother spends all her day taking care of them and worrying for their well being every time they are out there in the world, the world of their own. Her husband passed on a few years ago and left her to care for the family of five all by herself and having to deal with two sons suffering from mental illness. The two have been in and out of hospital but Imani gave up on their medication as it was expensive to cater for their Mental treatment bills.
Apparently, Imani also has no idea what could have led to the mental problems being experienced by her son’s although she suspected they could have been involved in abuse of hard drugs that could have led to the mental conditions.We give her a small bag with Christmas gifts but for her it is not about the donation as much as it is about the love expressed to her by total strangers.
As we continue to move around, doing door to door visits families of people with different mental health illnesses who were helped to identify by Community health volunteers, we meet Mark (not his real name) an old man in his late sixty’s. He is a father of a 29 year old young man who has mental illness. Mark has been in and out of Mathari Mental Hospital to try find treatment for an illness that has denied him joy often giving him sleepless nights and worry-filled days. His son is mentally ill and even Mark himself cannot tell what led to his condition. His son leaves the house and walks for days without anyone knowing his whereabouts. He tells us that there is time he was called by a good Samaritan who knew him after he saw his son wondering around in Mombasa County. How he got there he does not know but he had been missing for a span of three weeks. When we get to the house, we find his son who is sited in the 10 by 10 single dark room. It is hard to see him but could definitely hear his voice chanting in a way we cannot understand. He does not recognize any of us despite having interacted with them a few years back. He sits in the house all day with his father looking after him. His mother and father separated and its only his dad who is around to look after him. ‘’He has improved after being to Mathari Mental hospital several times because right now he does not run away nor leave the house’’ explained his father when we asked him if there was any improvement.
After three hours in the sun. And managing to keep out of the sewers (not like one of the team) a huge part of myself had drifted away to another reality. Yes I / we were three old codgers on camels pretending we were on a mission to find the ‘ new born King’ and when we found him we would enter the stable and bow down before him and offer of respect all we had. However as much as I tried I found it hard to believe I was wise, rich and on a mission to find the saviour of the world. Each story of a miserable, pathetic and seemingly unsalvageable human misery delivered knock out blows to me, now in a world where I felt totally beyond my depth.
I found myself recalling the hope in the scriptures and songs associated with the first witnesses to that first Christmas, and yet deep down knowing truly how far I was falling short in delivering anything of substance to these people.
Be not afraid. Have nothing to fear.
(Hell this mother has no idea how she gets the strength each day to walk for water and then return and clean up the shit from her mad son)
I come to proclaim Good news… tidings of joy.
(Christmas day tomorrow and I guess it will just be one more day in your constant struggle to live)
Peace on earth to all people of Good will. (Our boys had no jobs, no hope and they just got addicted to this stuff)
I returned home in time to go to the evening Christmas vigil mass and again found myself caught between two worlds
Opening prayer…. God of love. The darkness that covered the earth has given way to the bright dawn of your Word made flesh.
Make us people of this light and may we bring it to a waiting world. Amen
I could only hope that in some small way I was among those people bringing some light in the dark world that I had witnessed in the day.
I left early and returned to Ruben centre. I was determined to be among the shepherds who were first to witness to the birth in the stable and so settled into my duty at the birthing unit. No ‘Mary with child came to pound on the gate and demand to be let into her stable. All was quiet. At midnight I went up to the Ruben F M and as the D J was winding up, I did get my moment to proclaim Christmas day is here and right on the gong of 12.00, I wished all the people of Mukuru a happy Christmas and a peace filled time. A few rang in and expressed their joy that the director could be among them at this time. I left wondering if any of the mad and drug addicts were listening and what might they have heard.
At 5.00am I declared the night a dud, and left. There was no baby in Ruben’s manger on this Christmas night.
Later I would return to Ruben about 12 hours later and finally there was the Mother and child. “ A boy,’ I proclaimed with great excitement and the team were calling him Emmanuel. I` had a nurse and Mum smiled and approved of the fuss and attention.
The next day I was back determined to live the Christmas story and yes this time it was to be. A mother was primed to deliver. I got engaged in the drama of new life coming into our world and especially in that very moment when the baby took his first breath. He was laid in the rescusitaire and the nurse sucked out meconium from his mouth and nose, and they massaged him and cried out to him to get serious and breathe, and he did, small gurgling sounds at first and then building to a healthy cry.
‘Mum listen to that,” I shouted. I finally had my moment of Christmas and the chance to herald what the Angels were singing about; Glory to God In The Highest…. In the form of an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes was among us.
I stared for half an hour at the little miracle before me, as it settled into a calm and steady breathing while occasionally looking out into his new world. Who am I to be part of this? And like Mary, How can this be? Yes! Yes! That holy and silent truth that God has arrived after all and is celebrating Christmas with us was born in me.
Written By: Br. Frank Director Ruben Centre and Margie- PR Ruben Centre