Real Stories: In the harsh Mathare slum, a bright spot

Joe Mason is a ONE Regional Faith Organizer in Missouri, and recently traveled to Kenya to document the work of faith groups who are making an impact in their community.

Walking along the narrow alleys in this community of 800,000 cramped citizens, I have to maneuver carefully in order to avoid the rusty, sharp edges of makeshift roofing. But this isn’t the only hazard in navigating through one of Africa’s largest slums. My footing is unsure. There seems to be a stream of foul-smelling sewage running right under my feet. I have to cautiously be on the lookout in all directions, just to make forward progress. One misstep and I could either end up in the waste that runs through this entire neighborhood, or worse, end up with a large gash across my forehead from the jagged scraps of old metal hanging from the shacks that the poor call home. This is Mathare Valley.

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Soon I begin to see little faces peeking out of open-air windows, curious about my business in their territory. Their tiny homes don’t come close to providing any type of refuge from the rampant crime that persists in this shanty town. Yet they quickly crack a smile as they spot my camera, some of them eager to take a peek in the viewfinder. I love to see their joy in such a dismal place as this.

Most of their parents have come to the city seeking work, but when they don’t find it, they are forced to live in a slum like Mathare. Unable to afford to send them to school, the parents are forced to deal with the guilt that nags at them every time they look into their children’s faces. With no education, these little ones are likely destined to follow in their parents’ footsteps and end up in a place like this, if they survive at all. I ask a young girl named Faith about what it’s like living in these conditions. Her reply comes as no surprise. “I don’t like living there. The place is dirty. You can’t sleep because of the bad smell,” she says with a cringe.

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Jane

But the story doesn’t end here. Recognizing the urgent need in this part of Nairobi, Rev. Peter Nuthu and his wife Jane decided to take action. About a decade ago, Peter and Jane became pastors of the New Mathare Assembly of God church, located just a few yards from the slums. The church, a part of a vibrant network of growing congregations known as the KAG (Kenya Assemblies of God), has quickly become a symbol of hope to many in Mathare Valley. The Nuthus began serving lunch to street children in Mathare almost immediately, providing them with a much-needed meal once a week. As this couple gained the trust of the community, many children began pouring into the now-popular worship center on weekends. An increasing number of children and adults began attending worship on Sunday, quickly changing the demographic of the church forever. But Peter and Jane weren’t concerned that their new congregants were a bit rough around the edges. They knew that the children of Mathare Valley must be welcomed in church, and weren’t concerned about their ragged appearances or even occasional disruptive behavior.

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“We have to do like Christ. He fed the hungry. He welcomed the unwanted. He ministered to all kinds of people in the society. And we as Christians need to follow Jesus, because He is our example,” Jane passionately states as she looks over a new campus that was birthed out of the desire to do just this. What started as an impromptu feeding program for a dozen street children has blossomed into the Mathare Child Development Centre (MCDC), which feeds, clothes, and educates 1,156 children that live and dwell in the slums. “Mama” Jane, the director, has even overseen the addition of dormitories to house the orphans among them. “Our Father in heaven cared for us, he gave us his only Son. It is the will of our Father that we care for one another,” explains Peter, who now preaches to hundreds on Sunday mornings at the church.

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As I walk with Jane around the campus, she tells me a story about Angel, an orphaned infant who was left to die on a heap of trash nearby. A few years back, someone heard a tiny cry coming from a plastic bag among the refuse, and discovered a newborn baby inside. Appropriately named after her rescuer, Angel was dropped off at MCDC and taken in by Jane and Peter. As we approach a group of children slurping down a fresh bowl of morning porridge, Jane points out Angel to me. She is a healthy, happy young girl now, five years old. She receives three meals a day, a high-quality education, a nurturing environment, and an abundance of love. This is just one of many stories of children who were given hope and a future because of the Nuthus’ burden for the youth of Mathare.

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USAID administrator Dr. Raj Shah recently stated, “If you are poor, and you live in the slums of Kibera outside of Nairobi, you’re most likely going to get your healthcare and your education from institutions of faith.” I would assert that the same applies to Mathare. Faith-based organizations are playing a vital role in not only aiding the poor and destitute in and around Nairobi, but are implementing important development programs to ensure that this cycle of extreme poverty ends here.

I’m once again encouraged to see a concentrated effort, led by people of faith, to tackle the giant known as extreme poverty. I’m reminded in the book of Isaiah that God’s heart is truly for the poor and suffering, as the prophet reminds the reader to “spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry.” When I read this passage, a smile comes to my face, and I recall Peter and Jane Nuthu, who are truly “spending themselves” on behalf of the children of Mathare Valley.