Maryknollers are among those joining our African brothers and sisters in the struggle to survive
- Christine Bodewes, in Kibera, Kenya
- Fr. William Frida, Nairobi, Kenya - St. Mary's Mission Hospital
- Vicky Simon and Kevin Mestrich, Maryknoll lay Missionaries
Christine Bodewes, in Kibera, Kenya
“Kenyan squatters have no legal rights and are abused to the point that our lawyers handled cases for 6,000 people last year,” Bodewes explains. The lawyers also work to raise public awareness about the injustices in the slums and to develop a community movement, involving business interests and political leaders, to influence change.
“When human rights are respected, development takes place. When development takes place, the poor benefit with jobs. When people have salaries, the business community benefits. The whole country develops,” Bodewes says. “But if nothing changes, insecurity builds fear and rage, especially among young people, that spills over into violence, and no one benefits.”
The volatility of current conditions can be gauged by realizing that the slum areas around Nairobi have a combined population of some 2 million, more than 50 percent of the city’s total population, yet slum dwellers live on only 1.5 percent of Nairobi’s land.
Fr. William Frida, Nairobi, Kenya - St. Mary's Mission Hospital
Kibera is one of those many areas in the world where an inflamed appendix can mean quick and painful death. That was until recently, when Maryknoll Father William Fryda, a missionary priest and medical doctor, constructed a modern hospital on the edge of Kibera and designed it to deal directly with the health issues of the poor. Under the administration of the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi, St. Mary’s Mission Hospital is spacious and efficient, with a trained staff of local doctors and nurses who turn no poor person away. Its row of one-story buildings, separated by grassy areas, holds 300 patient beds. The outpatient clinic handles 6,000 cases per month.
The maternity ward can deliver 40 newborns per day, often to penniless mothers. St. Mary’s includes comfortable waiting areas, a small cafeteria and a chapel for prayer. “While we treat our patients’ physical needs, we also want to respect their dignity as well as their emotional and spiritual needs,” says Fryda, from Armour, S.D.
St. Mary’s plans to enter into a cooperative project with the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control to fight the AIDS epidemic. Two million Kenyans, or one of every seven adults, are infected. Seven hundred thousand have died. “By offering free HIV drug treatment,” Fryda explains, “the project extends a lifeline to young Kenyan couples and aims to check the number of AIDS orphans.”
Vicky Simon and Kevin Mestrich, Maryknoll lay Missionaries
Across town, a mother leaves her two-day-old baby in a cardboard box outside St. Martin School. With the help of the school nurse, Maryknoll Lay Missioners Vicki Simon and Kevin Mestrich try to save her. However, the baby dies in a month. Mushili is more fortunate. He was also left at the gate, but the boy, now 4, has become the school’s poster child.
Leaving babies in cardboard boxes is not a unique phenomenon at St. Martin and other care-giving organizations in Kenya. It happens regularly and indicates the desperate situation of young mothers unable to nurture their babies.
Strategically located on the edge of Kibagare, another Nairobi slum, St. Martin School is part of the Kibagare Good News Centre founded by Assumption Sister Martin Wanjiru to help orphaned and destitute youth. The center includes a children’s home, healthcare facility, Catholic church and feeding program in addition to St. Martin’s primary school for girls and boys and secondary school for girls. About 1,000 students are currently enrolled in the primary school and 180 in the secondary school. Simon, from St. Louis, Mo., is director of fundraising and development for the center, and Maryknoll Lay Missioner Russell Brine, from Seattle, Wash., is financial controller. Minnesotan Kevin Mestrich is principal of the secondary school.
“Besides academic schooling, the center offers vocational training: dressmaking, tailoring and child care for the girls, and carpentry, mechanics and welding for the boys,” Mestrich says. “Such education can provide a practical living for the majority who will not be able to go to college.”
A walk through the muddy paths in Kibagare or Kibera is a transformative experience. It is a walk on the edge of tears as one realizes that the huddled men, struggling women and ragged, malnourished children are not only our global neighbors but also, genetically and spiritually, our kin. They are our brothers and sisters from whom we parted ways in prehistoric times and who are now caught in a struggle for survival.
Maryknoll missioners are among those joining our kin in their struggle through advocacy, health care and education as well as pastoral and sacramental care. “When I am in the States,” Bodewes says, “people ask me, ’What can I do to help?’ I tell them, ‘Even more than your donations, we need your prayers. By linking your prayers with the prayers of Kenyans, we are ever more conscious of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our work.’ Change in Kenya will be gradual, but the victory is not in the results. It’s in the struggle.”
Hans Hallundbaek, a Maryknoll Affiliate, is a doctoral candidate at New York Theological Seminary. He has made several trips to Africa.