Next Stop – Nairobi
I have arrived in Kenya. I am surrounded by thick hot air, and incredible (yet scary) driving! My driver said, “Show no fear – gun it and go” as cars sped around and honked. Men try to make their way through the mayhem riding broken down, taped and wired together bicycles – only some actually have seats. Huge vultures circle in the sky above the slums, waiting for their next lucky break. Good morning, Nairobi!
The group I’m with is impressive. They are so knowledgeable and focused on the work at hand. James Copple, Founding Partner of Strategic Applications International (SAI) and the Servant Forge Foundation, is spearheading the group. He and his wife Colleen have taken me under their wings, and I’m eager to learn so much from both of them. Jim is highly regarded both nationally and internationally, and sits on numerous advisory committees for President Obama. His work spans thousands of miles across the world, creating positive change. He assured me we all bring something unique and valuable to the table and it’s true; we comprise a dynamic group.
For the following week, from early in the morning until late at night, the partnership for the Kenya Gender Based Violence Initiative meets, which consists of the International Rescue Committee, UNICEF, Tough Angels, the University of Kenya, and Nazarene Ministries (a faith based organization). The initiative was created to compile a design and strategic plan for GBV, targeting 4 refugee camps in the Turkana region. Violence has become rampant amongst the refugees, largely due to misogyny, displacement, conflict between the diverse tribes, and transactional sex for crumbs of food. I have come to understand that these acts of rape are perpetrated for different reasons than in South Africa, and so I meet another devastating new learning curve.
I was able to tour the GBV hospital in Nairobi and met an active 6-year old girl, whose skinny long arms and legs were moving so fast they were tangled up in the sheets. Simultaneously, her coal black eyes cautiously sized me up. Yet, her toothless grin shined when I said, “Hey Girl, you are so brave!” Her Mother, also present and recovering from surgery, explained that she herself had been raped and required hospitalization. She had her daughter taken to a child care facility while she was hospitalized. Upon her return, this mother discovered that her daughter had had been severely raped, and contracted a raging STD while staying at the facility. The little girl was hospitalized and was recovering from reconstructive surgery to mend the damage to her tiny body. The mother chose to report the rape to the police, but met strong resistance because the owner of the child care facility was a powerful man. She pressed on with the charges, and as a result, was raped again as a coercive means to be silenced. When I met her, she was in the hospital again for more surgery from this second rape. The mother mainly looked at the floor as she retold the story but when she made eye contact, I could see the soul damage she’d suffered. She was desperate and broken.
After learning more about the background of the area and the lack of resources available, we left for Lodwar, Kenya – the host community to the refugee camp in the Turkana region, Kakuma. We traveled in a little plane and rode a bus into the village. As I stepped off the bus I could feel the pulse in my temples from the heat, the dust in my lungs that was the consistency of flour, and the whir of Kenyans dancing and singing as the door opened. They moved to the bus door and hugged and clapped our arrival.
Lodwar, Kenya and the situation I soon became aware of made me feel like I had simultaneously traveled to the edge of hell and experienced moments of the divine. Famine and disease add another dimension to the violence and it’s hard to decide which is more evil. Still, these Kenyans engage in soulful eye contact and want to be near. The children smile and want to hug and touch me. The smell here is unbearable at times and I have to focus on not gagging or vomiting. I have felt ashamed of myself when the foremost thing on my mind is disinfectant soap and my own physical discomfort.
At times, I still have to reach for strength beyond myself but it has always appeared when summoned. I know I’m here for a reason and truly, I’ve trusted my intuition which continues to tell me we are making progress and this work will save lives. Unfortunately I recognize that through time, the mind adjusts and dissociates to seeing trauma and tragedy. We become able to “function” without it daily filleting our souls open. What becomes the healing salve is the resiliency of the people I want to help, their ability to cope and their willingness to love in the face of such struggle. How do they still dance, smile and sing? They are the wise ones. They are so happy to be alive and grateful for their gifts. I have looked for God, but saw no sign of benevolence in Lodwar. If I’d asked one of the locals, however, they would’ve told me God was everywhere in that little village.
It feels ironic that I have given up my paying job, traveled to the far reaches of the world, and made it my daily mission to bring help to those suffering from abuse – and in the end, it is they who’ve helped me and taught me about love and honor for life. They are my wise teachers and that’s a life altering experience no amount of money can buy. For what this mission of Tough Angels has taught me, I will forever be changed, stronger, and a little closer to the Divine . . . not by my actions, but by those I’ve come to help.