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Faces of hunger

Journey into the crying slums of Nairobi

By Hal Donaldson

Our white Toyota descended into a canyon of poverty known as Mathare Valley. Scantily clad children chased the off-road vehicle as if it were a white horse carrying today’s savior. Hovels made of tin, mud and wood lined the dirt road that led to a garbage dump in the heart of Nairobi, Kenya’s most infamous slums. Children and goats combed the trash heaps for morsels of food. Several kids lapped water from an open sewer that trickled like a dying stream.

Dozens of waifs — their faces smudged and noses running — surrounded us as we arrived at Malango Kubwa Assemblies of God church. Africa Foreign Missions Director Don Corbin and missionary Ron Hanson stepped from the vehicle into a swarm of children wanting to shake their hands.

Hundreds of eyes pleaded for help, hoping we would reach into our pockets and shower them with enough coins for a bowl of rice. Don and Ron knew that desperate gaze far too well, having devoted years to helping children in Africa.

When World Missions Communications Director Randy Hurst and video producer Tim Schirman broke out their cameras, boys jostled with each other to get in front of the lenses. Later we learned they equate having their picture taken with receiving financial assistance from the West.

Pointing to the scabbed scalp of a young boy, Hanson said, “We see disease like this everywhere. People can’t wash. Many die. There’s no medicine, no hospital. And, meanwhile, diseases like AIDS continue to spread.”

A puny boy tapped my arm and opened his mouth to wiggle a decaying tooth. This was no innocent game. The boy’s mouth was infested with sores, an ugly rash spreading across his cheek. I attempted to describe the painful sight to Randy and Tim, but my voice broke and tears followed. Finally I walked away without a word.

Again children pressed in around me. A boy tugged on my shirt. I pivoted only to cringe at the sight of his terribly swollen face. He resembled a battered boxer, his puffy eyes nearly shut. My gentle “hello” sent him scampering away, his bare feet pounding the dirt like someone running for his life. I wanted to give chase and deliver the child to a hospital, but a member of the church warned me not to stray from the site. Because people are desperate, he said, crime is rampant in this place. I stared absently as the boy’s frail frame disappeared through a hole in a fence. Regret surged through me, knowing I had the power to help an endangered child but did nothing.

An estimated 60,000 children live on Nairobi’s streets. Many of them make Mathare their home. About 180,000 people inhabit 15 villages that comprise Mathare, and the Assemblies of God has one of the few churches in this disease-infested community.

Some street children are orphans, but many are forced to the streets by single mothers who can’t afford to feed them. Young children scavenge to survive. They sleep under sheets of cardboard and plastic, or simply wander the city night after night.

Kids as young as 6 sniff glue to remove the hunger pangs. They carry tubes of glue and cans of paint thinner to ease the pain, oblivious to the permanent damage these lethal chemicals can cause.

Throughout the city — day or night — children under the influence of glue can be seen sleeping in vacant lots and doorways. Medical experts contend that if kids are not reached within the first few weeks of using glue, most will be hooked for life. And even if they find help, many are lured back because they can’t find a consistent source for food. In one case, a pack of kids resumed sniffing glue because the city cleaned up a garbage dump that had served as their “grocery store.”

Desperate for food, children resort to thievery and violence and girls as young as 10 turn to prostitution.

Malango Kubwa feeds 210 children twice a week and has a school with about 100 students. “We could do so much more if we had a larger facility and resources,” Pastor Harun Ndungu says. Along with his congregation, he has served this needy village for six years. Months ago, when the church announced plans to launch a school, thousands of children came to enroll. Sadly, thousands were turned away.

Each day countless children — their faces pressed against the church’s cast-iron fence — peer through the bars at the privileged few. They wonder why these kids are well-groomed, well-fed and wearing clean uniforms — and they are not. On one side of the fence there is hope and full stomachs. On the other are neglected kids donning uniforms of their own — torn T-shirts, short pants and bare feet.

As we hopped in the vehicle to leave, Don said, “We need to pray God will inspire people to give to the Africa’s Children* fund so we can work with more churches like this one. You see, when a local church feeds people, something more happens. The church is here; it doesn’t leave. The pastor and people care for these kids. They show them the way to Christ and bring them literally into God’s family. We can’t stop anywhere short of that.” He paused as if pondering the urgent need and weighing how many lives are at stake. “The children of Africa are its treasure,” he said, “yet they are often devastated and forgotten. The Kenya Assemblies of God is reaching out to the kids in this city. The gospel is in action here. But together we will do even more to reach them. In cooperation with the national church, a $200,000 project has been approved to build a center that will touch kids all over the city.”

We visited another Assemblies of God church, Nairobi Mathare Valley Christian Center, located on the edge of Mathare. Since 1995 the church has ministered to hundreds of children each Saturday. The outreach began when 12 malnourished children wandered onto the church property and Pastor Peter Nuthu and his wife gave them bread and tea. The children kept coming back, and the Nuthus responded by offering them food, baths, medical care, lessons in reading and writing, and Bible stories. Word of the church’s benevolence soon spread throughout the community. Today more than 300 children come every Saturday to receive care and hear about Jesus, and attendance continues to mount.

“For some of these children it is the only warm meal they will have all week,” says Nuthu, “but sometimes we have so many come that we run out of food.”

As Don and Ron mingled with the children, cradling them to their sides and patting their heads, I drifted to a corner of the dirt lot that had become a haven in an unmerciful world. I watched as dozens of kids huddled around the large pot used to cook rice on an open fire. To them the pot represented survival. For $28 the church feeds 200 kids, enabling many of them to stay at home and stay in school. What a small price to pay to rescue these children, I thought.

At that moment, I could almost see Jesus — the Savior — passing through the village and children flocking to Him for food and affection. I bowed my head and prayed that Jesus would stir His people to give so children would never have to be turned away hungry. Then I reached into my pocket to pay for next week’s rice.

*Africa’s Children is an Assemblies of God World ChildCare program that provides food, clothing, schooling and other necessities for the poor and suffering children of Africa.

Hal Donaldson is editor in chief of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

Originally published November 1, 1998.

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