Friday, June 12, 2009

Education in the Slum

"I hand the Coke to Isaac, and he drinks it as fast as he can, but he stops half way, wipes his mouth and hands the remainder of the Coke to Ranaldo.  Usually, when someone gives me a gift, I selfishly take it home and play with it until it breaks.  I don’t think I would have shared my Coke with Ranaldo.

After buying them breakfast, Isaac and Ranaldo escort me to where their day begins and ends—the alley.  But before entering , Isaac pauses to pull out a potato sack from behind the bush.  He smiles as he explains the importance of hiding your valuables.  “If this is stolen, I have  nothing to sleep in.”   I don’t think I would have considered a potato sack as anything valuable, and I definitely would not have entrusted a stranger with such precious information.

         The boys take a right turn into an alley; the smell of burning trash and human feces engulf my nose before my eyes have a chance to survey their “home”.  Isaac takes me over to a corner of the alley where his friend, John, is sitting.  “Here is my friend, John.  He sleeps in the alley with us.”  John can barely lift his eyes to acknowledge me; he is too busy getting high on glue.  I wondered why Isaac was so quick to introduce me to his friend, John.  If I had a friend with an addiction or a socially unacceptable sin, I wouldn’t introduce him to a stranger.  Then again, I don’t think I am that good at befriending those with socially unacceptable behaviors…
         It really does not surprise me that I have to come to Africa to be reminded of how to raise the standard of my living, but I am a little embarrassed that today’s lesson came from an 11-year–old-street boy who has never been to school."


“Sluts,”  Jackson would mumble under his breath as he and his two brothers walk past Mary and her friends. The women do not bother looking up; they keep their focus on their hands as they bead their colorful bracelets and necklaces.  Mary and Josephine did not bother explaining that they had gotten AIDS from their husbands who had died years ago, and Sarah was too embarrassed to tell her story of being brutally raped in the slums when she was 18. The women keep their hands busy, glancing periodic smiles to one another.  The women are isolated and the violation of names and stigmas rival the violations their bodies have experienced, so the women draw closer to one another.  They are too busy trying to live to bother retaliating to those who’s hearts have already died.
       Four months pass, and Mary’s grows curious at the disappearance of Jackson. She saw his two brothers leave the slum, but never saw Jackson leave.  She slows down in front of his door and slowly removes the bucket from her head as she leans into the doorway.  There is Jackson, half naked and lying on the mud floor in a daze.  He had come down with tuberculosis and his brothers had abandoned him and left him to die alone. Forgetting her title as “Slut,” Mary runs and gathers the other women to help pick Jackson from the mud. The women use the money they had made from selling their beads to go and buy Jackson a bed. They lift him up onto the bed and spend the next four days tending to his medical needs.  When he is well enough to walk, they purchase him a bus ticket and send him to his home village to be cared for by his parents.
        Today Mary and her friends continue to gather daily to make beaded necklaces and bracelets to finance the next need that may arise in the slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

We Own the Time

“What were you most surprised at after your first visit to America?” I ask, Tito, a Sudanese soldier and pastor who has dedicated his life to protect the freedom of southern Sudan.
“I have never experienced a place without war, and that is very nice about America, but you people are so so busy. People just running around everywhere with schedules full of all kinds of activity. You know, David, you Americans own the expensive watches, but we Africans...we own the time.”

I will never forget Tito’s statement. It made me think about how many people all over the world fight for freedom and desire peace. They come to America because it offers both.

Tito’s observation of the American culture was also piercing. It penetrated backstage, behind the curtains of our lavish living and constant activity. It unveiled our often unrecognizable enslavement...our schedules.

I sometimes get frustrated when African events and meetings do not start on time. People often show up late with only the excuse of, “I was having tea with a friend.” Then I consider the culture. For a continent that has endured centuries of enslavement, they have refused to be owned by a schedule. When war and persecution encircle you, the only things you have to hold onto are your faith and your friends. Schedules, titles, money, and entertainment will not save you in the midst of war.

One of the first things God did when he set the Israelites free from their slavery was to teach them about the sabbath. He did not bring them out of slavery to watch them fall back into bondage. So He reminded them of the need to take time for rest and reflection.

While leading the Scottish out of slavery, William Wallace challenged his people and asked, “What will you do with this freedom?”
After speaking with Tito, I wonder what have we done with our freedom... have we used our freedom only to enslave ourselves? Sometimes the most difficult bondage to be set free from is a self inflicted one.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Photographing Beauty

Millions of photographs have been taken of women, many to exploit her beauty, some to show her needs, few to show her strength and dignity. The outward beauty of a woman is alluring and often draws the flashes of cameras wherever she appears. Cameras follow celebrities in hopes of capturing a momentary glimpse of this beauty. Once the beauty is captured, it quickly appears on the covers of magazines or flashes across the television screen. Photography is quick to celebrate the outward beauty of a woman and show her face at her most glamorous moment. Often the celebrity will know that the camera will be waiting on her, and she prepares herself to accentuate her most flattering features. There is beauty in these photographs, but what happens when there is no anticipation of a camera to inspire this preparation?

In developing countries beauty often appears without warning, without preparation, without an audience in mind, and without a camera to capture it. When a young woman gets up at sunrise to walk five miles to gather water for her family and pauses to smile and chat with friends at the water hole, her beauty appears. When a mother waits in line all day to have a doctor diagnose her sick child, her beauty appears. When a woman’s husband is slaughtered in a tribal war, and she walks for miles with her baby on her back to find refuge, her beauty appears. When she pauses to rest under the shade of a tree and turns to kiss her baby on the nose, her beauty appears. When a young girl tries on her bright yellow dress that she and her mom spent all day sewing, and her eyes glance at her father for approval, her beauty appears. When a woman labors all day in a field under the scorching African son with her son on her back, her beauty appears.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Webster defines destitute as “lacking the basic necessities for life.” What are the basic necessities to live though? Are they food and water or joy and companionship? In either case I have encountered it here in Ethiopia. Although the streets are speckled with smiles, destitution blankets the country.

The weight of it has grown heavy on me. Day after day I walk through the streets and watch the street children beg and the mothers huddled under tarps to protect their babies from the sun or rain. Embarrassed, I often keep my eyes focused on the concrete below... not embarrassed for what I see in them, but embarrassed for what they see in me.

They see a wealthy Westerner who has never gone a day without the option of eating, been homeless, or even gone without a pair of shoes. They see a Westerner who has never experienced war, been left alone, or gone without medicine or education.

Destitution, whether I see it in the hollow eyes of an American shopping at the mall or in the tears of a hungry baby in Africa, pierces my heart. It causes me to reflect on the blessings I have: Friends, family, food, shelter, health, joy, and plenty of shoes.

After getting over my recurring feelings of guilt, I recognize that I am not called to be embarrassed of the blessings in my life, I am simply called to share them. I am called to share my friendship, my food, my shelter, a smile, and maybe even my shoes. I think I will leave some shoes behind in Africa, and when I return to the Sates and enter a mall I think I will share some smiles.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

To Release the Oppressed

 “There is one. There is another. See all of the girls lined up on the side? They are getting paid about 50 cents a trick. Some areas pay as high as $15 a trick, but not much more than that,” Cherry shares with me as she gives me a dangerous night tour of the prostitution scene in Addis.  “Look, David, see that boy chasing the girl! She is running to the police stationfor protection. The boys are free to abuse the girls on the street. That is just how it is out here.”

            “For the last 15 years you have run Women at Risk and taken in these women to rehabilitate them. How did you come to have such a heart for the prostitutes?” I ask Cherry. 
“I grew up in Ethiopia and have seen these women on the street ever since I can remember.  I was raised in a Christian home and watched my Christian friends and family give little or no attention to the girls. They are not just outcasts in society; they are outcasts in the church. I just got tired of watching them be ignored, and so I began to build friendships with them, and what I discovered is that they are crying out for help. They want out, but are not sure how.  They want to be set free, but are not sure how to be released.”

           Cherry drives me through the most dangerous street in the city. The dim streetlights cast a hazy, yellow glow on the hollow eyes of the women, and the dark alleys lead into a hopeless abyss. Countless bodies of homeless men, women and children pile up on both sides of the street. Every ten yards there is lonely prostitute, waiting to see if she is going to make any money to feed herself or her children. I have never seen so many social outcasts or felt such destitution…I bet if Jesus visited Addis, I would find him here.

           Jesus restoring dignity to the woman at the well, and God redeeming Rahab the prostitute, has taken on a new meaning for me. When Jesus encountered the sick girl and said, “She is asleep, not dead,” the crowed laughed at him, for they thought she was dead and beyond help. Then he touched her, and her life was restored.   Whether it was the Pharisees of the past or the Pharisees of today, those who study religious law often declare prostitutes and others bound by sinful patterns to be beyond intervention. They are declared to be dirty and unworthy of entering the house of God. Maybe that is why Jesus had to go to the well to meet her. Maybe that is why those of us who call ourselves Christians need to reconsider whom we are called to serve. For it was Jesus who said that he was called to, “Preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and to release the oppressed.” Luke 4:18-19.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Educating Girls

Education is a needed foundation to the success of any culture. Like many cultures, women in developing countries are responsible for the education of the children. So when a woman is deprived of an education, it can have generational consequences. Educating girls can be one of the most effective ways to positively impact communities and even countries. As former United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan said, “Educating girls is not an option, it is a necessity.” For a variety of reasons, girls in developing countries are often left behind as their brothers go to school. One of the reasons is the expense of educating the girls, but not educating girls can prove to be even more costly to the family and community. David Bloom, an economics professor at Harvard states, “Girls’ education is now recognized as a cornerstone of development. Educated mothers invest more in their children’s schooling, thus improving both families’ and societies’ development prospects. Educated mothers provide better nutrition to their children, too, and their knowledge of health risks protects their families against illness and promotes health-seeking behavior more generally.” Due to the economic and social stresses, promoting girls education is not always easy and involves many levels of intervention. Businesses, educators, religious leaders, and the government need to support the movement and lead the reformation of education within the country.