In the summer of 2008 Sheldon Fernandez spent several weeks working in Kangemi, a large slum on the outskirts of Nairobi. Under the auspices of the African Jesuits Aids Network (AJAN), he assisted with infrastructure projects and HIV/AIDS education, but also had the opportunity to work with the school children of Kenya. The following essay recounts the very last day of his trip, when Fernandez discovered some hard truths about one of his students.
By SHELDON FERNANDEZ
Published January 23, 2014
Faith is out in front, leading the way in her plain grey T-shirt.
“An unusual, but appropriate name for a social worker,” I’d told her when we’d first met. Her reply had been flat that day.
“My parents were religious,” she shrugged indifferently, but in time we’d nurtured a respectful relationship.
Accompanying us is nine-year-old Melvin, a boy I’ve taught for the past six weeks in the slums of Nairobi. Like most things he does, Melvin paces dutifully in silence, a heavy and distracted air about him. It’s my last evening in Kenya and we’ve been hiking for forty minutes, a trip Faith assured me would take only fifteen. By now I’ve acclimatized to the contradictions of slum life: the ecstatic smiles of malnourished children and idyllic terrains that cradle rusted tin homes. Africa may be the Continent of Darkness, say the local priests, but only then do you appreciate the light.
“How much longer?” I ask, my patience withering under the Kenyan sun.
“Stop whining,” taunts Faith. “Why can’t you be like little Melvin and enjoy the walk?”
Melvin resists the invitation to smirk and marches quietly ahead, an inscrutable cog that wheels us along. Today we are making what Faith calls an ‘unannounced checkup,’ an investigation of a child’s living conditions and general welfare.
It is only in the past few hours that I’ve been struck by Melvin’s strange seriousness, but it’s been there all along. In the coming days I will go home and watch homemade videos of my class and extract him from the sea of commonality, his lithe body swinging and singing with the rest of the children, less joyful and lively.
Because of my class surprise earlier in the day, all I really know about Melvin is his dislike of sweets. A basket of Cadbury goodies in front of them, the children had surveyed the shiny wrappings with gleeful curiosity before shyly taking a piece of Kit-Kat or Dairy Milk. Those lucky enough to have tasted chocolate before downed their brown chunks with delight, while their less fortunate classmates prodded and pricked the mysterious goo before doing the same. Melvin, however, had pocketed his treat silently and retreated into his private world.
If there exists such a thing as the poor part of a slum, we enter it now. As this ignorant traveler has discovered, gradients of misfortune find their way into even the least inhabitable of places. Rampant overpopulation, malfunctioning sewage systems, and mass unemployment have transformed parts of the land into a seedy pool of feces and garbage.
Rampant overpopulation, malfunctioning sewage systems, and mass unemployment have transformed parts of the land into a seedy pool of feces and garbage.
While I pause at the sight of infant scavengers sifting through the trash, Faith mentions that Melvin makes this journey twice a day, to and from school, unaccompanied and amidst unsavory idlers, some of whom are staring at us now. “Give me your backpack,” she whispers. “A foreigner’s pack might conceal valuable possessions, whereas a Kenyan like me would be wise enough to leave them at home.”
Handing over my belongings, I suppress the urge to ask Faith about the wisdom of wearing her gold necklace; prodding her seems about as foolish as walking here alone at night, an undertaking that Melvin braves with alarming regularity.
A Kenyan slum is not a community, but rather a quilt of communities stitched together by the common thread of poverty, each patch with its own texture and makeup. Faith and I soon enter a square of low-cost living, the bottom stratum of the slum where the brittle housing and unwinding infrastructure is overwhelmed by thousands of inhabitants. Negotiating an uneven dirt pathway and a collapsed wooden fence, we come upon two of these inhabitants, squatting on the bleached gravel, nearly motionless. Their shabby clothes and impassive expressions are common in this area, where the idleness and warm climate coalesce into a thick, soporific energy.
“These are Melvin’s brothers,” says Faith.
They are both younger than Melvin – five and three years old I’m later told – and what strikes me first are the irregular oval shaped eyes of the smallest boy, which look as though they’ve been stretched to one and a half times their normal size and seem to amplify his frightened glance when Faith embraces him. Though unaccompanied children raise suspicions in the West, they are ubiquitous in Kenya, where youngsters must learn to occupy themselves as their parents make a living.
Since arriving in Nairobi, I’ve learned the quickest way to impress children is to charm them with Western gadgetry, a trick I employ now by showing the younger boys a digital picture of themselves. They stare at the camera indifferently, nearly as static as the electronic rendering on the screen itself. They’ve seen this before, I think to myself.
“Melvin, show us where you live,” says Faith.
The boys’ home ignites in me an impulse that six weeks of slum-life have failed to eradicate: utter astonishment that people live ‘like this,’ followed by the guilty recognition that destitution is rarely a choice.
The three boys lead us to the family home, a worn-down metal shack that more closely resembles a large portable toilet than permanent shelter, and when Melvin opens the door it certainly smells like an outhouse. Though the windowless room is only partially lit, the sprinkled sunlight is sufficiently chilling. Decaying in the middle of the rock floor is a damp, putrid mattress surrounded by what a Westerner might classify as junk: a broken suitcase overflowing with ripped clothes on one end; cracked, non-functioning appliances at the other alongside a collection of dust-covered pots and pans. Ignoring the pink stained snowsuit hanging above the bed, I find myself standing in what feels like an abandoned military bunker, and its crusting mildew and decrepit stench ignite in me an impulse that six weeks of slum-life have failed to eradicate: utter astonishment that people live ‘like this,’ followed by the guilty recognition that destitution is rarely a choice.
Turning to Faith, I ask who these children live with, but her rueful sigh is answer enough. We are the first adults in this shelter in some time. Melvin’s mother died from AIDS two years earlier and her husband, like many Kenyan fathers, had quickly fled. The crippling consequences are self-evident, and as I gather from Faith’s composure, a common a reality in Nairobi where parentless homes flourish with indiscriminate cruelty.
“Stay here,” says Faith “I’m going to go talk to the neighbors.”
Against the stillness of their blank expressions I’m not sure who’s more intimidated. “What do you guys eat,” I ask, uncertain if I’m prepared for the answer. Melvin motions to a corner of the room and a tiny tin of vegetable fat, the type of tin my mom often used to hide nuts, pastries and other delectables in the family basement back home. There are no concealed goodies in this container, however, just the white cooking paste that Melvin and his brothers have lived on for the past few months. The two older boys stare ashamedly at the floor. My mind is swollen and numb, in disbelief over the realities that fate has engineered.
Still alone with the children, I do what first comes to mind: place Melvin’s youngest brother on my lap and clutch him tightly. If it’s possible for a three-year-old to exude defeat through body language, he does so now. His lifeless posture, permanent frown and dreary eyes reflect a grimness that I’ve never seen in a toddler. Holding him in silence, my whirlpool of thoughts begins to order itself.
I start to wonder if Melvin understands the gravity of the situation. He must – the school he attends certainly provides a reference point of normalcy. What about his brothers? Do they think that nightly spoons of vegetable fat are a means of staying alive, or just bland dinner meals? Who puts whom to bed? Do they simply collapse together on this wet mattress when it’s sufficiently dark? What about nightmares and weekends and potty-training and sicknesses? Within minutes, my quest for understanding has devolved into an uncontrolled stream of incredulity.
The door opens sharply, and within seconds a stranger is guiding Faith around the home, mumbling in incomprehensible-to-me Swahili and gesturing animatedly towards one area of the room and then the next. From his indifferent expression I sense that Melvin knows this man, who is now holding the tin of vegetable fat and motioning to Faith as if to say, “what can I do?”
In the aftermath of his mother’s death, Melvin informed us, his father began taking extended and mysterious trips, and though this neighbor had been given money for the children’s safekeeping, he had pocketed most of it, tossing them the occasional piece of fruit. Faith later told me that this man had described the way in which the boys had been abandoned and had pleaded for financial assistance to care for them.
Faith and her visitor soon exit the house, leaving the boys and me alone once again, the youngest quivering on my lap. This has been an extraordinary day in the life of this small child, the regularity of cold neglect punctuated by the sudden flurry of adult attention. Then again, is there any facet of this boy’s life that is not extraordinary?
The day’s commotion takes its toll, and he tears up with the ordinariness of an overwhelmed three-year-old. The unmarried, childless man in me lifts him instinctually off my lap, unsure what do, pining for the luxury of parental deference, a luxury that died in this house two years ago. Or so I thought.
Melvin walks over, takes his brother from my hands, wipes away his tears and showers him with what I can only describe as maternal affection. His nine-year-old fingers trace his younger sibling’s cheek bones, working their way down and about his chin through the contours of his face, removing the residue from his tears and dirt-covered skin. He holds his brother in stillness until the crying starts to soften. Gradually, the house is silent once again.
Melvin’s other brother looks at me with an expression I do not quite understand. Since entering the house this is first time I’ve gazed into his eyes. He is, I realize, the forgotten part of the tragedy, unfairly sandwiched between the sobering responsibilities of the first brother and the microcosmic innocence of the third. Looking at him, I think of my own brother, a victim, in his words, of middle-child prejudice. At the moment, it seems a universal principle.
I want to apologize to these children for the insight I’ve gained at their expense, and for the monstrous hand life has dealt them.
The four of us continue to sit in silence, and I am mystified. Is it sadness or shock, anger or paralysis? I want to relive the last six weeks with hindsight so I can help. I want to buy the family food for a month, or give them to my wealthy cousin in Toronto who’s been trying to adopt a child for years. I want to return home to an elaborate dinner and my downtown lifestyle free of guilt. But mostly, I want to apologize to these children for the insight I’ve gained at their expense, and for the monstrous hand life has dealt them. One death is a tragedy, said Stalin, a million is a statistic. He was right.
Faith finally returns, having collected the necessary data. “We have to leave,” she says. “Say your goodbyes.”
I turn to Melvin and give him an extended hug, a newfound respect for my succinct student. “Be good,” I say to him. “Faith will help you.” I hold his brothers one last time and it is awkward and forced; they still don’t know what to make of me or my visit.
The door closes with a thud and we’re off, maneuvering around sewage and debris on the narrow dirt road. “I forgot my camera,” I tell Faith, “give me a second.” The boys are startled when I return, their final surprise of the day. I retrieve my camera and as I turn to leave I see a shiny, rumpled Kit-Kat wrapping on the floor. Scanning their faces, I realize that one of the boys isn’t eating. “You’re a good brother,” I say to Melvin.
Faith and I walk in silence for a long time. It is a long trek home so we pick up the pace – the darkening sky is beginning to attract the drunkards and harlots and the slum will soon become a simmering cauldron. Debauchery, as I’ve discovered, is a ‘nocturnal enterprise’ in Kenya.
“So?” she finally asks.
“You are not the first. And neither are they. This is one of many such homes.”
Yup, Stalin was right.
“Faith, do you have faith?”
She smiles at the wordplay. “I do.”
“How? From what, from whom?”
“I think you need to reflect on everything you’ve seen today.”
Faith is an enigma, I decide. She always has been. Perhaps you need to be an enigma to do what she does, to ride the pendulum of hope and despair. Or maybe the journey simply makes you one. We walk together in the cowering sun. My last day in Kenya.
Copyright © Sheldon Fernandez 2014
Sheldon Fernandez is a computer engineer, humanitarian, and aspiring artisan. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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