The rickety matatu van hastily sped down the dirt road. I sat in the seat behind the driver on the right side, and peered out the dusty, half-broken window. I took a deep breath and sighed with apprehensive thrill; here I was on yet another dangerous adventure. I switched my video camera to night vision, and slipped the lens through the minute crack in the glass. It would be essential to capture as much footage of this mysterious place as possible.
Only moments before, my father and I sat together in our small guest house room preparing for sleep after a long day working in the slum of Mathare. It was almost midnight in the great, perilous city of Nairobi, not a time for white Americans to go out on the town. I sat silently on the edge of the bed, in my pajamas, journaling all the day’s events, when there was a faint knock at the door. Eamon Cunningham towered in the doorway with a devious smirk on his face. He was a tall, giant of a man, with a thick Irish accent. He and my father had done most of the planning for our church’s mission trip to Kenya. Although this was the first time all of us had been to Africa, it was the third for Pastor Bob, who was asleep a few rooms down the hall. All week we had heard the repeated precautions about the dangers of Nairobi spewing from our overprotective pastor’s mouth. I looked up at Eamon. I saw that twinkle in his eye and knew immediately he had an idea that involved risk and adventure.
Seconds later I sat in the back seat of David’s matatu, heading into an extraordinarily fierce division of Nairobi’s slums. Eamon’s teenage niece Maried worked in an orphanage in one of the roughest parts of the city. She had spent the night telling Eamon about the children’s implausible resilience, and how it had impacted her life. Maried was close friends with the owner of the orphanage, Mrs. Mary Chumba, and thought it would certainly make the children’s day if unexpected visitors arrived in the middle of the night just to see them. Thus Eamon summoned my father and me, and the four of us left our “safe zone.”
My camera captured countless images of the urban slums. We passed thousands upon thousands of vast fields of muddy, rusted, tin-roofed shacks, their walls constructed of feces, mud, branches, and garbage. The scattered buildings that dotted the area appeared bombed out and falling apart. The images of this crumbling infrastructure reminded me of CNN news clips from Beirut or Gaza City. The gut-wrenching, humid stench of dead animals, garbage, sewage, and burning wood rested in an invisible haze above Nairobi. The thick scent of fecal matter whipped through the dusty matatu as David rolled down his window. We entered what appeared to be a night market. Small, hut-like structures were erected on either side of the narrow, orange dirt road we travelled. Candles and lanterns were set up in each, revealing the products available. Fruits and jipati breads lay spread out in almost every structure. Hundreds of people walked these streets, buying and selling late into the night. It was like a scene from a movie. People scurried to and fro, robbing, mugging and beating each other as others walked right by like zombies in a world where these kind of daily acts were merely accepted as the norm. We passed an old, burnt, overturned matatu, with all the windows smashed out and what appeared to be an elderly man living inside. Screams and shouts came from some of these huts were apparently women were being raped according to our driver David. I looked around in awe at the horror around me and received a glimpse of the sinful fall of mankind.
I hid my camera under my jacket so it wouldn’t be seen that I was filming. The last thing I wanted to do was start some sort of riot. I felt completely out of place, yet I was enthralled to be there in the midst of this reality. Maried gulped down her bottle of spring water from The Great Rift Valley and handed it to me. I took a swig and handed it back to her, my parched lips devoured every drop. We hadn’t slept and knew we had to get up in only a few short hours, but we were in Africa, the enchanted land of peril and escapade! Suddenly, our matatu van came to a complete stop, jerking all of us forward. I grasped the cold, metal bar above me and leaned against the back of David’s seat, the metal springs bursting out of the stained, yellow foam dug deep into the palm of my sweaty hand. Maried crashed into me and my dad tumbled off his seat onto Eamon’s lap. Three men with rifles approached the van and started speaking very hastily to David in Swahili. They wore dark berets and their aroma of foul body odor could be smelled from inside the vehicle. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but it was clear by their tone that they were angry and were commanding David to do something. Fear enveloped my being as I sat there holding onto the seat and Maried’s arm. Is this how my epic life story would end? There was so much left unfulfilled; could this really be it? Countless thoughts flooded my mind. Were we going to be robbed? The four of us ducked down somewhat so the men outside wouldn’t see us. Americans in their territory late at night would only mean trouble. I remember plainly our heavy breathing as we silently lifted prayers of protection. One of the men tapped the tip of his rifle hard against the window. I shuttered and hid, feeling the sweat drip down my forehead and my moist clothing sticking tight to my skin. I crouched down uncomfortably, listening closely and waiting patiently. The bustle of shady night life could be heard outside the matatu’s frame. Catching a glimpse out the fogged up, dusty, broken window, I could see that our van was making quite the scene outside, winning the curiosity of those passing by. Moments later David handed over a few shillings to the men. They disappeared into the dark abyss of the multitudes of people. All of us sighed with relief and sat back up in our seats as the matatu moved onward into the slum, arriving safely at the Sons of King Jesus orphanage.
The risk of Africa thrilled me, and I’m glad I took the chance that night to meet some of the richest children I have ever met. I remember standing outside the vehicle as we were about to depart the guest house, thinking of how treacherous this mission was going to be. I conversed and argued with myself in my head, saying:
“Twenty years from now, don’t you want to say you had the courage to get in the van and go?” What an unforgettable experience. I thought of Simba from the Lion King and his famous quote: “I Laugh in the face of danger.” 😉
“welcome to the point of no return. It never, never leaves you. It gets in your system, and you can’t get it out… everywhere i go, there’s always Africa in the background, in the undercurrent. it makes everything bittersweet… but it’s so much better than that bus to work. And all of this questioning and wondering and wanting…. this is Africa, too” – Erin Caulder.
richest kids on earth