I sat down on the bench in the back yard and drank in my first few minutes of quiet. There was so much noise in my head I couldn’t even begin to pour it all out in my journal.

I put my feet up and watched as lizards scurried up the stone fence in front of me. Some exotic bird was chirping in the distance. My eyes followed the vines as they crept up to the top of the fence where I was struck by a poignant juxtaposition. Bright orange flowers cascading down the wall met a menacing coil of barbed wire on top.

I didn’t have the words to describe my first few days in Nairobi but I decided that this was the image.

Nairobi... Bright flowers and barbed wire.

Nairobi... Bright flowers and barbed wire.

There is a barbed-wire side of Nairobi that threatens, intimidates and confines. In just the few days I’ve spent here, I’ve been overwhelmed with darker side of this city.

Crossing the street seemed scary enough for me with these insane matatu drivers. Honestly, I am 22 years old and I have refused to cross the street on my own for four days now! But this danger is laughable when you begin to see the real darkness in this place. With every day I get to know the city, much sharper edges emerge.

Virginia, one of the beautiful children I met in Huruma slum.

Virginia, one of the beautiful children I met in Huruma slum.

With our first visit to the slums, I was cut deep down by the extreme poverty, the injustice and the dehumanizing conditions so many hard working Kenyans are forced to endure. It tore me up inside to see the loss of dignity, respect, and worth in these significant lives. The barbed wire fence of poverty has the potential to keep many of them from ever going anywhere else.

And then there is the piercing reality of crime. It is rampant here. Nervously, I sling my backpack around to the front of me and clutch it tightly with both hands when I walk down Moi Avenue. I have to look completely ridiculous but my Kenyan hosts assure me it’s necessary. Going anywhere at night is simply not an option because the risk is just way too high. Today a friend was telling me about the multiple times she’s been mugged. “You can’t trust anyone,” she kept repeating, with a tone that revealed she’d learned the hard way.

This kind of depravity might not surprise you from people who’ve grown up in slums, but how about members of parliament? The barbed-wire facets of Nairobi are not restricted to dark alleys. The government is corrupt with power hungry Politicians who take advantage of the people they are meant to serve. Currently there is a big debate about the Members of Parliament (the highest paid people in the country) paying taxes on their allowances. While their constituents are starving to death, they are refusing to give up even this tiny percentage of their extravagant income.

And I’ve been here for less than a week. I haven’t even skimmed the surface.

Yet in this same city there are buds of hope.

Isaac.  A bright spot in a dark place.

Isaac. A bright spot in a dark place.

Right next to the matatu station with pushy men trying to rip you off and run you over, there is a fresh fruit stand with women lingering, laughing, dressed in brightly patterned fabrics holding beautiful babies on their backs.

In the same slum that made my heart so heavy, there were vibrant spots of life. The one that sticks out most in my mind is ten year old Isaac who showed such promise of hope. He was respectful and kind. He had a quiet confidence that elicited respect from all the other kids. His beautiful English could only have come as a result of diligent study and hard work. With the schooling provided by Karura Chapel, Isaac has the very real opportunity to not only change his standard of living, but to be an agent of change that affects his whole society.

I found similar stories of bright hope and fierce courage in the midst of brutal crime. My friend Faith lives in the Kibera slum. In the post-election violence, her shop was burned down and everything was stolen from her home. Yet the brutally victimized Faith put back the shattered pieces of her life and is now working with youth empowerment to stop kids before they get caught up in the rampant crime that plagues this city.

Pastor Simon Mbevi

Pastor Simon Mbevi

Even in the political system, which seems to so many beyond hope, I’ve encountered stories of courageous work for change. This past Sunday, Pastor Simon of Mavuno Church shared the story of his running for office. Despite the fact that he received the most number of votes, Pastor Simon does not stand in office today because the certificate was literally stolen from him. After facing bribes, physical threats, and even attacks on his home, he had invested everything he had for what seemed to be nothing.

Yet he has not given up on Kenya’s government. Now he is starting a program to train future leaders and come alongside them in their campaigns, using his knowledge and experience to help them beat the system. “We want to take over parliament!” he told me, and something in this brave man makes me believe it could actually happen.

huruma boyjpgOver and over again as I’m seeing the sharp and tangled parts of this country, I am struck with the very real presence of flourishing life and hope.

The thing about barbed wire: it rusts.

Sharp edges eventually go dull.

The thing about blossoming vines: they GROW.

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About the Author: Christine Sullivan was a summer intern with World Next Door in 2009. She graduated in 2009 from Taylor University with a bachelor's degree in Studio Arts. She loves finding beauty in the unseen and overlooked and is passionate about bringing stories of injustice to light.

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Comments

  1. Linda Quigley said... 

    Reply

    June 18th, 2009 at 9:10 am  

    Okay, I admit that I wake up and run to the computer every morning to read these articles!! Is that the ‘mom’ in me? Maybe the first few days…but now I’m just plain captivated! I look forward to your unique sense of journalism. The reporting of the facts…but the step further that draws us in. I don’t get away with reading the article and walking away with a simple, ‘hmm.’ This morning I walked away to my garden to weed and pondered rust, and dullness, and vines and weeds…and all God’s word has to say about those things in His Kingdom on earth!! Thanks, Christine…so much! And, Barry, Jess and Scott…you are also amazing!!! Much love and prayer!!!

  2. Jo Nading said... 

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    June 18th, 2009 at 11:32 am  

    Wow. I absolutely love this article. I am amazed at the depth of your thoughts and ability to articulate through the image God provided. I admire your willingness to be wordless for a few days and “wait upon the Lord” – for His word to you in this seemingly ordinary occurrence of “beautiful barbed wire.” Your analogies show such hope for us all – the rusting, the dulling of that which causes pain and imprisonment – and the growing of the beauty that has already been planted in us from birth. Thanks, Christine, for your work. Lots and lots to think about today. You guys are all great.

    Prayers and hugs – and keep holdin hands as you cross the street, because looking both ways doesn’t always cut it in that city! :-)

  3. kimberly Carr said... 

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    June 18th, 2009 at 1:39 pm  

    Great, thought provoking post!!! Also, the pictures of the children…my goodness, despite the horrors of living in the slum, you can see God’s love radiating from them. Praying for a day when that barbed wire is gone and Kenya is the field of beautiful flowers that it was meant to be. Thanks! :)

  4. Amy Osgood said... 

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    June 18th, 2009 at 2:07 pm  

    I have to admit I wonder what flowers I show to others hiding the barbed wire of my own heart. Thank you too for the political perspective. There are more than slums there as Scott’s pictures showed. Whether in apathy or aggression or greed, we’re all responsible for the condition of others. It was good to hear about part of the “system”.

  5. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    June 18th, 2009 at 5:31 pm  

    Christine, thank you for showing us the bright flowers because I too often am overwhelmed by the barbed wire of injustice. In the flowers of the courageous people of Kenya there is hope.

    Great article! Thank you again!

  6. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    June 18th, 2009 at 5:34 pm  

    …and by the way Linda, not only do I open WND first thing in the morning like you but I check the web site all day long too. Yep a proud dad but more than that a man who is moved and changed by the Kingdom stories found on WND.

  7. Penny said... 

    Reply

    June 18th, 2009 at 5:55 pm  

    Christine, I had a running bet with myself that your first post would express the concept of “beauty” and I was right! You certainly captured it in ways that made us think deeply. Thank you for using your gifts in this way and being open to what God desires to show you through this amazing summer.

  8. Blake Anderson said... 

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    June 19th, 2009 at 6:50 am  

    Wow. I am speechless by that contrast. It portrays world issues so profoundly. I love the hope you leave with at the end.

  9. Amy Sorrells said... 

    Reply

    June 19th, 2009 at 2:53 pm  

    Christine–your “love for finding beauty in the unseen and overlooked and passion about bringing stories of injustice to light” is so evident in your photos and the way your weave your words. Photography is more than a good camera . . . photos caputure what captures your heart and that’s what I see here. Blessings and can’t wait until your next post! (P.S. Glad to see Penny looking more like Penny, above.)

  10. Leah Golland said... 

    Reply

    June 19th, 2009 at 7:34 pm  

    wow. I have been more and more excited every time I open up this page (and yes, i open it up every morning hoping for something new as well– and i have no kids on this trip, so don’t worry Linda!) Thank you all for opening your hearts to share with us at home, letting us be part of what God is teaching you. This is just the beginning– and already, I’m touched. Thank you.

    Keep it coming.

  11. Ron Blevins said... 

    Reply

    June 19th, 2009 at 7:49 pm  

    “…bright flowers and barbed wire”…thank you for reminding us of the complexities of God’s redemptive work in the midst of man’s fabricated injustice. The Zulu word, “ubuntu, I am because we are”. I now believe we have flowers at the expense of their barbed wire. Or in essence, they are not because I am…the converse of ubuntu. Help us find the courage to pay the price for justice in our time.

  12. Annie said... 

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    June 19th, 2009 at 10:11 pm  

    Wow, that last paragraph was beautiful and powerful.

  13. Sharon said... 

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    June 20th, 2009 at 10:03 am  

    Thanks, Christine, for this profound post and photograph. I’m going to be mulling this over for quite awhile. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts and seeing more of Nairobi through your lens over the summer.

  14. Brad Ruggles said... 

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    June 24th, 2009 at 9:18 am  

    What a beautiful picture that illustrates the contrast of beauty and pain. We forget that wealth and poverty, health and sickness are often next door neighbors. There’s a whole “world next door” that experiences pain and suffering but also beauty and peace.

    Love what you said at the end. The sharp razors can dull but the flowers will continue to grow. God really does make beauty from ashes.

    Beautiful post.

  15. David Bell said... 

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    June 24th, 2009 at 2:24 pm  

    Yeah that picture is just a ridiculously powerful image. I’d expect nothing less from a Taylor grad!
    From one Taylor grad to another…

  16. Purity said... 

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    March 2nd, 2010 at 2:11 am  

    I love the articles Christine. Since I stared reading these articles I see the word in a very different perspective. We have a family living in a Mabati (iron sheet) structure next to our flat in Kileleshwa Nairobi and I am amazed at the way the kids are always wearing a smile.Genuine smiles and happiness. God is awesome.

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