By: Professor of Religion Rev. Derek Nelson
Wabash students were confronted with a lot today. There is a renaissance term called “chiaroscuro” where extreme contrasts in light and dark shading make for a dramatic composition. It was that kind of day.
We visited two wonderful schools, including one in the slum of Mathare, where the contrasts between hope and hopelessness could not have been starker, and then visited a mall to buy souvenirs and essentials for the week in a setting that looked more like Beverly Hills.
Our host, Father David, founded the two schools we visited. They are called “Mamma Africa” after their Italian patron. When Father David was studying in Rome two decades ago he learned of the need of a blood transfusion for a newborn baby. The blood type was extremely rare but David happened to have it. His donation saved the boy’s life and the mother named the boy Africa in honor of the Kenyan priest whose gift made the difference. Later she funded these projects in Kenya. The primary school is in the slum and children walk to school in the morning (5 AM!) and return home at night. The secondary school is in the country side and is residential. Both offer a way forward in life, a cherished oasis in the grinding dessert of poverty and a sparkling example of true community. Their choir sang two songs for us and we reciprocated with a booming, if not altogether in-tune, rendition of Old Wabash.
But the contrasts were hard on our guys. “Why do some make it out and others never will?” one asked. “Aren’t we just being voyeurs looking in on this awful poverty?” worried another.
In our conversations about this ethical question the consensus emerged that having our consciousness about this be raised meant that our lives would be different, that we would commit ourselves to ‘living humanely’ in a way that bent the world away from terrible poverty.
One of our Kenyan friends, a university student accompanying us on our trip, surprised us by saying, “It was uncomfortable for you to be there, but just seeing that people cared enough to visit and try to understand gives the residents there some hope. They were thrilled to see you.”
In our discussions after the visit I asked my table of six people what would be the first thing they would do make a difference in Mathare. None gave the same answer. Alex Rotaru ’22 saw the value of education as a way out and voted for school funding. Davionne Garrett ’22 saw the urgency of clean water access and thought short-term improvements were more important. Clarke Criddell ’22 thought better-paying jobs were the top priority because education doesn’t always lead to employment here and infrastructure like water could be paid from better wages. This kind of learning and debate is absolutely priceless and just cannot be replicated in a “neutral” comfy classroom.
As we got on the bus to leave the Mamma Africa school, one girl called out, “Don’t forget about us!” I am certain none of us on this trip ever could.