On faith and humanity in a Kenyan slum

I first heard Sheldon Fernandez talk about volunteering in Kenya in 2008, when we were both attending a Creative Writing course at the University of Oxford. I especially never forgot his story about his young student in Kangemi. Now, I’m glad that F&O is able to publish his essay about the experience, My Last Day in Kenya.

The piece concerns his time spent working in Kangemi, a large slum on the outskirts of Nairobi. He was there under the auspices of the African Jesuits Aids Network (AJAN), assisting with infrastructure projects and HIV/AIDS education, but he also had the opportunity to work with school children. On the very last day of his trip, Fernandez discovered some hard truths. An excerpt:

© Sheldon Fernandez 2008

Faith is out in front, leading the way in her plain grey T-shirt.

“An unusual, but appropriate name for a social worker,” I’d told her when we’d first met. Her reply had been flat that day.

“My parents were religious,” she shrugged indifferently, but in time we’d nurtured a respectful relationship.

Accompanying us is nine-year-old Melvin, a boy I’ve taught for the past six weeks in the slums of Nairobi. Like most things he does, Melvin paces dutifully in silence, a heavy and distracted air about him. It’s my last evening in Kenya and we’ve been hiking for forty minutes, a trip Faith assured me would take only fifteen. By now I’ve acclimatized to the contradictions of slum life: the ecstatic smiles of malnourished children and idyllic terrains that cradle rusted tin homes. Africa may be the Continent of Darkness, say the local priests, but only then do you appreciate the light.

The essay is published, public and free of charge at Fernandez’s request, in the Loose Leaf salon in F&O’s THINK section.