Mombasa. Just the word brings such memories to mind, as I’ve been coming to this city for 11 years now. Mombasa, Kenya – a city of contrasts: dust, dirt, poverty, wealth, loud music, the historic old town, horrible and smelly slums, malls, and humidity. Mombasa, I am sure, has great hotels, but right now, I am in one of the not-so-great ones. It is safe and clean, so I am not complaining. I am merely explaining the situation here: loud music fills my ears as well as the call to prayer from some nearby mosque. The fan above my head moves slowly, unable to penetrate the mosquito net above my bed which means tonight is going to be a hot, humid sleep. Unfortunately, that same mosquito net is also thick enough to stop light, so I am reading sitting straight up on an unforgivingly hard chair. The bathroom is attached to the room and one glance confirms that when I shower in the morning, the entire room will be wet, as the shower head is practically above the toilet (not quite, but just off) and the sink, with no curtain to stop water from soaking everything. It takes three flushes of the toilet to make paper go down, but since there is no garbage can in sight, I can’t do anything else with the paper.
There is a mosquito who will meet his maker tonight. He is one of those silent ones and he must die.
Yes, there are things that would make the hotel stay better, but it sure is a nice feeling to arrive at a place where people know your name and where you know theirs. There is a comfort to knowing that the food will be well prepared and that most likely, I won’t get sick. There are memories in these rooms, times of meetings here and times when I shared these spaces with other travelers who came to Africa with me. If we change the bathroom, get rid of the mosquito, put in some decent light, toss the mosquito net, shut down the music, and dispense with the call to prayers, it would feel like coming home. But, then again, it wouldn’t be what it is and I wouldn’t feel as though I’ve arrived.
Arrive, I did. I land in Mombasa right on time, at noon. My friend, Veronia Wanjiru, picks me up in full nun garb and we head out to the slums to do some work. First, we meet with a group of Community Health Workers who are taking part in a day of training. It is good to see familiar faces again and we greet each other with ease. A bit of Swahili and English is exchanged and I am asked to give a speech of some sort. These requests don’t fail to surprise me, but they should. This is common and I’ve learned to think on my feet.
From there, we visit a boy, Bernard. He is 17 years old and lives with him mom in an area about 7’ x 7’. Maybe 6’ x 6’. It is the length of a bed, squared. With one bed taking up the entire side of the room, three chairs cover the rest, as well as a small TV. What clothes they have been piled on the bottom of the bed, while some hang on a string that runs across the small space. There is a tiny window which, mercifully, allows some air to come in and we prop open the door to allow the air to circulate. Bernard was born HIV+ and when he was a baby, an illness took a portion of him mind. Now, he has great difficulty in learning and has been out of school for years and years. We came to discuss the possibility of him learning a skill which would give him something to do during the long days he sits at home, waiting for his mom to return from doing casual work (house cleaning, washing clothes, selling peanuts, etc).
Next, we visit Furaha, a girl whose been in the program for many years. She finished school and is now in tailoring school. She stands up when we enter and says, “Tanya!” in such a tender way, it brings tears to my eyes and we wrap our arms around each other. We hug for a while and I am so glad to see her. She looks well and she is proud of getting a skill. I encourage her to keep going, to do well, to excel in what she does and I find myself promising her a sewing machine if she completes the highest course so that she can start a business. I know I am asking for much as every single day, she must make the decision between eating lunch or taking a bus to school. Sometimes she doesn’t have the 20 cents required for the bus, so she misses school, but she assures me she will do her best, which is all we want from and for her.
A meeting with Veronica and Cecilia (a social worker and counselor) follows, as we sip passion fruit juice – we have dreams for these children and we go over each name, noting how they are, how we can help, what is the best for the child, how school is going for them, how their home situations are helping or hurting. My heart breaks a few times today. And my heart swells with joy at few times today. And all along, three women in a slum of Mombasa continue to dream big things for these children, even if big seems small.