There’s a smell to it that’s hard to describe: abject poverty. It’s not a putrid or unbearable smell as one might imagine. It’s not the kind of smell that hits your nostrils and makes you immediately resort to gasping for fresh air or clasping your hands over your face in an attempt to avoid inhaling at all.
But it’s an intense sweet and pungent stench that smells like nothing comparable, and it never leaves you once you’ve breathed it in. It’s hard to describe and it’s like no other, but it’s a stench that is unmistakably human and undeniably desperate.
The Virgo in me stood stiff and stared at two young women bent over, scrubbing clothes with dirty water in a 50-gallon drum cut in half that lay horizontal on the ground next to heaps of garbage and an open shed housing several starving cows. I guess it was somewhat of a makeshift laundromat in the slums of Mathare. I couldn’t bring myself to imagine what a bath might resemble here, until I realized that most of the people who live here were likely not to bathe for… well, not to bathe at all.
My heart nearly stopped beating when I scraped my arm on a nail sticking out from a leaning wooden pallet where we were walking up some steps. It broke the skin underneath my shirt but fortunately didn’t tear through the material releasing tetanus and God only knows what else through my body (though it clearly scraped the skin and drew blood to the surface of my sleeve). I, of course, immediately reached into my travel purse and pulled out an antiseptic wipe to ward off any bacteria for the moment and had the comfort of knowing I had travel antibiotics back at base camp; not to mention the tetanus booster shot I’d had weeks before.
There are over half a million people, mostly women and children, crammed into a one-half mile radius—living, dying, breathing, procreating, and somehow finding something to eat on a not-so-daily basis—in what most would consider God-forsaken circumstances by any definition. And if you truly don’t believe in the devil, then go to the Mathare Slums in Nairobi and take a look around; I assure you evil is alive and well, and even thriving there in the desolation of poverty.
Yet, in the midst of it all lives a woman offering mercy and kindness to children who are orphans. They call her Mama, and she is exactly that; one who offers herself as a candle in the darkness so that others can see the light where people live to survive and survive to live. It ain’t pretty but it’s home for her as she cooks the only food that many will eat for ever-how-many days since their last meal. And she, herself, is reliant on the generosity of others and the grace of God for provisions to provide for those who would otherwise go without.
Traveling north of the slums to the desert of Lodwar into no man’s land (or at least very few men), I find an abundance of women and children once again. They dance and sing joyfully upon our arrival, offering all they have when they have nothing but themselves to offer, and inviting me to sit with them on the ground … to sit with them in the spit and the sand and the sweat and the other bodily emissions that have gone before me on this sacred and holy dirt that we now call church. So there I sat in the midst of some of the most beautiful and haunting faces I’d ever seen, many of whom had never even seen their own reflections staring back at them. Can you imagine not knowing what you look like for most, if not all, of your life?
And there it was again, that stench of human desperation and dire need. Why does it seem like there are always more women and children, widows and orphans?
Back at base camp, I took a shower to wash off what I could of the day, but It permeated everything. I tried to wash it out of my clothes with soap and parasitic water. And therein lies the irony of what these people—my brothers and sisters—drink every single day that they live and breathe, and I use those terms loosely. Not only do they drink this water, but some of them walk several miles one way to retrieve it and carry it back to their straw huts.
He spoke to me one time in a quiet, but clear voice. It was a short, yet profound message. In my own personal angst and indignant self-righteousness, God humbled me in a most compelling way by telling me to simply take care of my brother. I knew exactly what He meant at the time and why, and I took action immediately. God speaking to you directly tends to have a “take immediate action” kind of effect, or at least it did on me.
I couldn’t help but hear that same message resonate in the ache of my chest as I threw my clothes in the washing machine in the comfort of my home with indoor plumbing and a refrigerator full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Not because I’m sorry for where I live or the family I was born into or the country I have the grace of living in by birthright. And not because of the business I’ve had the privilege to create and thrive within or the home and property I own or that I can jump in my car and drive to a grocery store close by and purchase any amount of food and water I want. But because of those who offered themselves as all they had when they had nothing else to offer at all, and the stench that will never leave me.
I am my brother’s keeper. We all are. And yes, of the widows and orphans, too.
Written by Mama Jan Smith
To read more about Mama Jan, visit jansmith.com.