Facing Challenges in Kenya

Justin Bartkus, a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame, recently returned from touring CRS projects in Ethiopia and Kenya with his mother, CRS Board Member Dr. Carolyn Woo. Here, Justin shares impressions from project visits in Kenya.

June 1, 2008—I actually am writing this from home in South Bend, but only because we were without Internet access for our last three or four days in Kenya! We did and saw so many things that it would be impossible to describe them all.

Two of our days in Kenya were spent in Mombasa, a hot and humid (and very poor) city in the southeast of the country on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Here we visited an AIDS clinic, witnessed a support group meeting for married couples living with HIV and ventured into an urban slum. We also spent time in Nairobi visiting with the papal nuncio to Kenya and the local cardinal. I’d like to comment on two of our experiences in particular, as they both left a deep impression on me.

First, while in Mombasa, our CRS delegation had the opportunity to visit the home of a recipient of HIV treatment supplied through the local Catholic Church in partnership with CRS. The woman with whom Archbishop Kurtz, Kenya country director Ken MacLean and I met was named Selena. She was an
incredibly inspiring woman.

Selena and her son with members of the delegation.

Selena’s husband died in 2002, and she has five children. Last year, she received the news that she had tested positive for HIV. She is a tenant in a small mud house with corrugated steel roofing. She pays 400 Kenyan shillings a month (about $6.50—not cheap for her) to rent a mere two rooms of the house.

It is hard to imagine how agonizing it is to learn that one has the virus; she knew that her life would never be the same. Yet she faithfully takes her antiretroviral drugs and has had the courage to head up a support group for other women living with HIV in the neighborhood—not an easy task considering how people with HIV, especially women, are often stigmatized and belittled in this culture. Selena is also an active participant in a local savings and internal lending community (SILC), which helps empower disenfranchised women to assert economic independence. She was not only courageous but also very funny, pleasant and good-willed. You could tell that she had a huge heart, and even though her life must have flashed before her eyes when she learned of her HIV status, she has remained strong (and her youngest son is really cute, see the picture!). To see someone who lives life with such fullness in spite of such difficult circumstances illustrates what true hope looks like and how it translates to action.

Another of our stops in Mombasa was the office of the Coastal Interfaith Council of Clerics (CICC). In response to the political violence earlier this year in Kenya, a group of local Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and Hindu religious leaders banned together to examine the roots of these conflicts and preach messages of peace to their congregations. Undoubtedly, many of these men met resistance from their flocks; in such times of upheaval, cooperation and solidarity are often trampled by division and vengeance. In the Mombasa region, the work of the CICC was certainly felt in dissolving the religious tensions that followed the controversial elections. The ironic thing was that the conflicts between Muslims and Christians on the coast were really not about religion at all. When resources are scarce and land is contested, opposing groups will latch onto religious differences as a justification for prejudice and violence toward each other, even though this is not the real problem.

We heard one story about how Catholic Archbishop Lele of Mombasa stood in front of the doors of a mosque that was about to be burned by a mob of angry young Christians. He told them that in order to burn the mosque, they’d have to kill him first. Hearing that, the mob laid their torches down. What tremendous courage.

I also was impressed by the fact that the clerics of the CICC admitted that there did exist tension among them several months ago when they first met, and to an extent, there still does. Fortunately, theological differences didn’t prevail over the urgent need for collaboration in resisting the post-election religious violence. I thought it tremendously wise that they have postponed theological debate so as not to let those differences get in the way of the work they have to do. The CICC is a shining example of leaders of various religions coming together in effective collaboration without reducing their respective faiths to a watered-down, “least common denominator” belief system.

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One Response to “Facing Challenges in Kenya”

  1. moses wanyonyi wanjala Says:

    Your document has highly helped me contemporary in youth in development work.it has basically enlightened me to look at how to confront the youth to take an uproare in designing their on programmes that targets them.Iam a student in the university of Nairobi taking a common course in youth in development work[commonwealth youth programme].otherwise i highly appreciate your document.

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