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Whenever I leave home—even for a trip to the grocery store—loved ones send me off with a well-intentioned, “stay safe!” When I leave the country they add a hug and check that I have pepper spray. But when I tell them I’m heading to the slums of Nairobi for two months to meet people fighting egregious social injustice…well, they struggle:
“Where is Nairobi?”
Me: “Kenya—eastern Africa.”
“What’s in Nairobi?”
Me: “Zana Africa. They work with teenage girls in the slums—getting them sanitary pads and helping empower them!”
“And you’ll be doing what?”
Me: “I’m a photojournalist!”
“Oh…Laura…didn’t you study Animal Sciences?”
Me: “…yes, yes I did.”
“Good. Just checking. Well, Laura…PLEASE: stay safe.”
Cue prolonged hug, shoulder squeeze, another hug until I’m convinced I’m never coming home from Nairobi.
Maybe they’re right to worry. Kenya? Nairobi? Preparing to go to Nairobi takes plane tickets, shots, malaria pills and a passport. My packing list included a flashlight, anti-diarrhea medication, and hand sanitizer. Flying here takes an entire day. By the time I arrived, I wasn’t sure if I traveled to a different country or a different planet full of vicious cat-sized bacteria and inedible food.
Staying safe here is a hard promise to keep. Daily advice is riddled with warnings: don’t go outside after dark, wear your backpack on the front, wash your hands, wash your hands again, don’t take a taxi…and it just keeps coming! When a stranger bumps me I prepare to defend my bag, and I’m convinced that the new lump on my shoulder is some kind of funky Africa parasite. And all of this before I experienced the work of my ministry.
Friday, the World Next Door team here in Kenya ventured to Kibera slum to meet with Zana Africa, my fierce and gracious host ministry for the summer. We weaved through traffic in a cramped “matatu” (aka a Nissan van that’s seen some miles) to the edge of the slum and continued on foot to the ZanaA office.
When we arrived, the four members of the ZanaA field team sat us down for a briefing. Here in Kibera—in shacks made of sheet metal separated by streams of waste, amidst hunger and crime and disease—live beautiful, intelligent adolescent girls who don’t yet know their own potential. They live in a vulnerable state of poverty, worsened by the fact that they are girls.
Every month a girl living in Kibera faces a surprising nemesis: her own period. Not only is the phenomenon taboo, but she is often unable to afford sanitary pads, leaving her with dismal options. Should she miss school? Should she try to make something work out of trash? Or worst of all, should she prostitute herself for money to buy pads?
Yes, this really happens. These girls are anything but ‘safe’.
But ZanaA is fighting for them. Every day field agents are going to schools in Kibera with pads and knowledge. They engage girls in weekly “Empower Net” classes that address important topics like self-esteem and sex education. After a brief explanation of what ZanaA is up against the field team invited us to their afternoon lesson.
I walked quickly behind our guides as they weaved through alleys, under clotheslines, and over dogs. Looking at the faces we passed on the way to the school made me wonder about the girls I would meet. They experience life so much differently than I do. As we moved I noticed our guides clutching their backpacks full of laptops, and watching them assured me I wasn’t a paranoid foreigner—we really weren’t safe.
After one final rickety bridge we made it to St. Michael’s secondary school. Within a dim room constructed of painted sheet metal we met the girls of Kibera. What a joy! They greeted us warmly and set about applying themselves to the lesson at hand. I sat with a group of six girls who want to be nurses, lawyers and journalists as they navigated their way through the day’s computer lesson while joking with passing members of the ZanaA team.
At the end of the hour, Kajani—ZanaA field officer extraordinaire—called me to the front. He told the girls that I would be here for two months, and they were allowed to ask me any questions they wanted (gulp). On cue, Winnie stood up from her desk in the back of the room, smoothed her school uniform and with clarity and confidence asked, “Do girls in America have the same problems that we have here?”
Same problems? We’re safe. Kibera is the antithesis of safe. Plus, I’ve never worried about affording pads. How could I tell her that?
And then I remembered the common threads between the international story of womanhood—we may have pads, but what girl hasn’t felt like she needs to hide that fact that she’s on her period from others? And we’ve also struggled with body image, with self-esteem, with courage and with asserting ourselves in relationships. Our sisters and mothers and daughters can relate to Winnie.
I told her, “Yes—we face some of the same problems.” We’re not immune, and we’re not safe.
Yes, I face far fewer parasites and incidences of theft in Gilbert, Arizona than in Nairobi, and the employees of ZanaA take risks and face challenges every day at work in Kibera, but that’s only natural when following where Jesus walked. He went straight to those who suffer—directly to the most dark and broken places to help dearly loved people.
But ZanaA isn’t working to earn brownie points with the Big Guy; the employees are working because they’ve already done the most dangerous and beautiful thing of all by opening up their hearts to the girls of Kibera, and now they can’t turn away.
Love in a broken world is inherently dangerous, and it’s the only way to live. Don’t worry—I’ll still apply sunscreen and take my malaria pills while I’m here, but I pray that I stop finding security in clean and familiar paths and start feeling safe while walking with God .
About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.