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I met 14-year-old Stephen after he walked three hours to Karura Community Chapel. He was sitting quietly in the church office when I arrived, and his eyes stayed glued to the floor as I shook his hand and introduced myself. He was so soft-spoken that I had to lean in to hear him reply in perfect English:
“My name is Stephen Odhiambo Oumo. It is nice to meet you too.”
I pulled up a chair next to his and invited him to tell me a little about himself and why he’d come.
“I am alone,” he said so matter-of-factly that I wasn’t quite sure what he meant.
“What do you mean alone?” I asked.
His answer stunned me.
Stephen was orphaned at three. He has no parents, no siblings and lives alone in Mathare Slum. Four weeks ago the aunt he relied on for occasional meals left Nairobi to attend a funeral and never came back. He hasn’t heard from her since.
I realized then that when Stephen said he was alone, he really meant it. He has nobody in his life to support him, no one to wonder where he is or to tell him he is loved.
It was hard not to pity him, but he didn’t come to the church looking for pity. He didn’t even come looking for food or money or a place to live. He came because he wants to go to school.
Sitting Beside Me
Stephen has been unable to attend classes ever since school started nearly five months ago. Like so many others his age, he can’t afford to pay the fees associated with Kenya’s public high school system, and without an education he knows his chances of ever leaving the slums are next to none.
I’d heard stories like this before, told by teachers wishing I’d work harder in school – stories about children living in poverty for whom going to school is a privilege and not an obligation, children who walk miles to get there rain or shine. But those kids didn’t have faces. Now one of them was sitting beside me.
I asked Stephen if he’d mind showing me where he lives. He agreed, and so along with Pastor Peter, one of the outreach pastors at Karura, we headed to Mathare Slum.
The Lonely side of Mathare
Stephen’s home is a lot like other homes in Mathare. Outside his doorstep is the ubiquitous stream of wastewater; inside is a single room divided in half by a sheet. There is just enough space to accommodate a small bed, a table, a bench, and a knee-high charcoal-burning stove. Nothing unusual.
The longer I was there though, the more I noticed something very unusual: total silence.
The slums are famously noisy. Always awake, sound pours in through the walls at all hours. At first I thought Stephen really lucked out finding such a quiet oasis in the middle of the clamor. But sitting in my own room late that night as the rest of the house slept, it occurred to me how isolated that silence must make him feel. And how much more alone.
Above and Beyond
Not long after the outreach team heard his story, Stephen was enrolled in Karura Community Chapel’s Scholarship Program, which provides assistance to individuals who otherwise can’t afford to pay for school. Right now there are over twenty students enrolled in the program, many of them orphans like Stephen. The church’s goal is to eventually pair each of them with a sponsoring family or small group. In the meantime the church is doing what they can with the funds they have.
So far, the program is working for Stephen. Recently, a church member went above and beyond the call and volunteered to pay not only his school fees, including a meal, but his daily bus fare as well. The KaruraCC Benevolence Team allocated funds to pay for his uniform, shoes, books, and a bookbag. There is even a plan unfolding that will allow Stephen to move out of Mathare and into a dorm with other students his age.
Stephen is now in his second week at New Dawn Educational Center, a high school operated by a staff of administrators and teachers with hearts for social justice and seeing lives transformed.
And his life is being transformed, and not just because he can attend school.
Stephen has family now. He has a community of supporters who love him, pray for him, affirm him, and care about his future.
On a recent visit to his school, I saw him talking with classmates from across the lawn. I couldn’t believe this was the shy boy I met just a few weeks before. Stephen looked alive. He looked confident. He looked happy.
He looked anything but alone.
- Visit www.newdawnkenya.com to learn more about Stephen’s new school, the New Dawn Educational Center.
- Find out how you can sponsor a child like Stephen by visiting www.WorldVision.org or www.compassion.com.
- Pray for Stephen’s education. Pray that he would continue to work hard, build rich friendships and continue onto higher education!
About the Author: Bridgette was a summer intern with World Next Door in 2011. She graduated from Indiana University in 2004 with degrees in Journalism and Italian. She loves live music, good books, daylight savings time, and eating local wherever she is.