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Friday, February 24, 2017
Africa diary: I
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 Fr Dave Stewart SJ, director of the Young British Jesuit Alumni is in Africa at moment visiting YBJA projects in several countries. He will be sending us diary pieces from his trip - as and when he can get an internet connection! His first reports below, has just arrived. (1) It's not easy to exaggerate the harsh poverty of Africa. Poor Africa, she cannot feed her children now and in another 10 years she'll have over 30 million orphans, about half the population of Britain, almost all the victims of HIV/AIDS. Already 6,000 of her people die each day because of the virus. Poverty is a cause as is the virus itself. Nyumbani Orphanage, where our YBJA volunteer Ciaran Ferris from Glasgow is serving as a volunteer, cares for 94 children on-site but maybe 1500 in the Lea Toto outreach in Nairobi's fierce slums. Nyumbani started a decade ago as a hospice but has evolved into an orphanage as patterns of need changed and as ARV drugs became a bit more available, from India and Brasil. The children who get to Nyumbani, all positive, are living longer but there are regular deaths still, and the little quiet cemetery, its headstones showing lifespans of 3 and 5 years, saddens you to the core. When dawn breaks here, at 4 South of the Equator, the verb is appropriate; it breaks, comes in a few minutes with hardly no sense of transition from night to day. But Nairobi's people are up already. Half the city seems to be walking, some of them jogging, along the broad bumpy red shoulder of the highway, heading for work or looking for work. Raking sunshine sharpens the African light, and the smoke from wood and charcoal cooking-fires, and the filthy exhausts form death-trap mutata buses running on shoddy fuel. This new day will be like yesterday. The sun will shine hot again and no rains will fall and the harsh struggle to live and to support a family will be just the same, unless it's worse. Kibera, probably the world's largest slum, will reek again as the temperature rises and the open sewers stagnate & stink. People struggle daily. The is no sign of an escape-route for so many in the slums, permanent refugee camps for these forced migrants from human dignity. Yet people are dignified, polite, welcoming. Some children will cry "Mzungu"! (white man) but will giggle as they do. The Mzungu visitors, aid-workers, missionaries have visited before and photographed and will do so again, and then return to the religious community house or the Intercontinental Hotel, hoping, desperate to lift these people from this harsh life. Sometimes it works. The children in school uniform, even here in Kibera, are the ones to notice. They can go to primary school in Kenya now, without paying fees, thanks entirely to debt-relief. It is possible, another world is possible. The visitors can get away from this place, wanting to be agents of change and wanting to waken the world of course, but we can still walk away. Yet as we walk away, we know that we have seen that it can be done and that this, the evidence of our eyes, has changed us. And so we remember that there is, must always be, faithful hope. As the writer and advocate for the poor Jim Wallis has said, "Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change". (2) 04.30 in Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta airport. The terminal is almost deserted, save for a few passengers arriving of a Cairo flight, some Kenya Airways groundstaff and that sight common to every international airport in the world, sleeping travellers, foetally hugging a rucksack, dreaming of arrivals. The best cappuccino in East Africa is from the Java House coffee bar - thank God, it's open already. But the barista is asleep on a ledge behind the counter while, crazily, on the wall-mounted monitor above, CNN interviews a woman who has no face. This traveller's need for breakfast & caffeine soon trumps the attendant's need for sleep, thus the situation calls for as polite a clearing of the throat as one can manage, and "Jambo" a couple of times. The reward for patience is not only breakfast but that delicious and disarming African smile "Asante Sano". Fr Jim from the Pedro Arrupe community had nobly stepped forward as airport driver, despite the hour. Nairobi, mostly, still slept. We have to watch for baboons even on the semi-urban road from Karen; none this time. Jim notes that he had once seen lion crossing. First at check-in, the reward for early arrival is an upgrade to a window-seat up front; every chance, then, of seeing Kilimanjaro. The terminal is waking up as is the Java House. Now we've two Nairobi FM stations competing with Larry King and the faceless guest. One's playing jangly electric E .African music while the other's a talk station hose hot topic is President Kabuki's failure to tackle corruption. Then the station breaks to an Abba song, heaven help us. Russian is being spoken at the coffee-bar behind me. Several well-fed South Africans have come and an Ethiopian Rasta fellow, assuming he's not observed, smiles to himself as he scrolls through his digital pictures. Now some Brits arrive, pink from too much high-altitude sun and, frankly, ridiculous in fake African smocks. You hope that the vendor made some money to feed a family just as you hope it's not too ungracious to avoid eye-contact and any risk of conversation.
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