Stay Safe!

Posted Jun 16, 2011 by 15 Comments

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.”

Kibera is home to over one million people who live in homes such as these. Electricity, sanitation and privacy are hard to come by here in east Africa's largest slum.

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.

Meet spunky yet gentle Agnis--one of ZanaA's promising students.

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.

St. Michael's academy is similar to many of the private schools of Kibera.

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?

The girls of Kibera struggle with some of the same issues as girls everywhere. ZanaA is helping them face these issues with strength and confidence.

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 .

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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.

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Comments

  1. Nickson Kirongo said... 

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    June 16th, 2011 at 5:10 am  

    different planet full of vicious cat-sized bacteria and inedible food? Its really not that bad :) but if you can leave your comfort zone back at home to come to our beloved country and be a blessing to our beloved sisters and daughters of Kibera, Mungu na akubariki sana.

  2. Dave Rod said... 

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    June 16th, 2011 at 7:43 am  

    Laura, yes “love in a broken world is inherently dangerous” … thank you and ZanaA for walking with courage.

    …and thanks for making us chuckle and choke up all at the same time!

  3. Amy Sorrells said... 

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    June 16th, 2011 at 8:34 am  

    Fabulous article, Laura. And thanks for wrecking me on a Thursday morning. Love this: “He went straight to those who suffer—directly to the most dark and broken places to help dearly loved people.” Thanks for the reminder we must go!

  4. Curtis Honeycutt said... 

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    June 16th, 2011 at 9:30 am  

    “I pray that I stop finding security in clean and familiar paths and start feeling safe while walking with God.”

    …Amen. Whoa, really good, challenging stuff to start my Friday. Thanks Laura!

  5. Barry Rodriguez said... 

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    June 16th, 2011 at 11:00 am  

    Great article, Laura! It’s a privilege to be here, serving beside you as you seek to live brave, not safe! :)

  6. Bob Luginbill said... 

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    June 16th, 2011 at 12:46 pm  

    Agree, great article. Also agree, very challenging to all of us to give up the familiar and “start feeling safe while walking with God”. Other than to pray (which is no small thing), how might we help?

  7. Brad Leger said... 

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    June 16th, 2011 at 2:41 pm  

    Outstanding article, Laura. Not only does it provide us with a better insight into the daily challenges faced by Kenyans, but it also has provided us with an opportunity to glimpse into the grace-filled heart that you have. You are indeed a blessing to many.

  8. Amanda Sutter said... 

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    June 16th, 2011 at 6:18 pm  

    What a wonderful experience you are having. My heart opens to those young ladies and to you for the journey you are on. You are a very special person Laura! I had no idea you were just a great writer! I can’t wait until next week! We miss at home but know you are truly making a difference! Keep it up and God Bless!

  9. Kevin said... 

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    June 16th, 2011 at 11:36 pm  

    Wow!! Barry,
    God is amazing, how He always sends just the right people to just the right places to love on His children. Laura and ZanaA will be His joy in the slums this summer. World Next Door journalists grab my heart strings like no others.
    God is truly working in your lives. Keep up the great work as you are in my prayers. May God bless your ministries as you live out His kingdom on earth. Thank you all, and still be safe.

  10. Chuck Easton said... 

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    June 17th, 2011 at 7:15 am  

    “Love in a broken world is inherently dangerous, and it’s the only way to live.” WOW, what a great way to live. May your tribe increase!

  11. Jo Nading said... 

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    June 17th, 2011 at 10:54 am  

    WOW. i’ve not yet had the honor of meeting you since I missed the comissioning party. I love reading your thoughts. Wow. Bless you for “living in danger” and blessing those sweet, frightened girls. And – you bless me at the same time by allowing me to read, look at your pictures, and close my eyes and pray myself ‘there’ with you. i look forward to more of your articles. I’m often speechless when I read these articles – needing to soak in every bit of what you are experiencing.

    I wish I could just perform some air-drop of sanitary pads in a huge “bag” the size of a hot-air balloon…right to the heart of Kibera and other slums of Nairobi.

    Love them well Laura.

    Praying for you,
    Jo

  12. Steve said... 

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    June 17th, 2011 at 12:02 pm  

    Great introduction Laura. Another shock, to know that girls have to miss school over something so many here take for granted. Thank you for your willingness to go, for all of us unable or unwilling to give up our comforts here.

  13. Anna in AZ said... 

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    June 20th, 2011 at 4:36 pm  

    Laura! I am so impressed with your writing and your message! Keep up the good work, I will keep you in my prayers!

  14. Laura Stump said... 

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    June 21st, 2011 at 2:48 am  

    Thank you all for your thoughts. It’s really a privilege to be here and learn about ZanaA and the youth of Kibera. I’m glad that you are as moved to hear about them as I am.

    Bob, thanks for asking how to help :) My article this week includes some specific things, but if you want a head start you can learn about Zana Africa at Zanaa.org. You can also visit the students’ blogs at http://www.zanaa.org/empowernet-clubs/ to hear from them firsthand.

    …and of course, prayer is welcome.

  15. NANCY NYAGAYA said... 

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    January 11th, 2016 at 2:05 am  

    Dear Zana,
    I’m happy to learn about the great job that you are doing,just to meet girls and mothers from needy backgrounds.I have been in search of a person/Organization that i can partner with to help girls from my poor community realize their dream.

    I have been mentoring girls whom at the early ages of high perform very well and compete boys in their classes.As time goes by,the girls fizzle out of the top list,some drop out and get married while others are victims of unwanted pregnancies.One of the reasons of this is inability to buy pads due to economic challenges.

    I’m requesting if i can access help towards these girls from your Organization.I will quite appreciate.

    Thank you in advance,
    yours faithfully
    Nancy.

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