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I’ve had a chance to read a lot this summer. Plenty of books are downloaded on my phone so during breaks at school I’ve gone through several free classics. I’m no superhero or glamorous protagonist by any means, but I like to believe that I’d have to courage to act as some of the characters in these books and fight evil and help people should the opportunity arise.
But these heroic visions have fallen short during my time in Kibera. More times than I’d like to admit, I have watched helpless, unable to stop the injustice happening around me.
Hope Academy, my host ministry for the summer, alongside almost every other elementary school in Kenya, delivers punishments corporally. Teachers physically punish students, a practice banned in most US states before I was even born.
A teacher in a school in one of the villages Clay visited in Western Kenya said that it was the only way the students really learned. This was echoed by some of the teachers I’ve been working beside at Hope, though they admit it only really happened in poorer schools.
Most of the time students get a quick whack from a plastic cane and sent away. However, one particular instance really got to me. Half a dozen students were brought into the teachers’ lounge, where I was working. They presented their books to a teacher who went over them and then gave the students a good whack on the back. One girl was so terrified she physically shook and begged not to get hit, with tears and snot running down her face. They let her go.
I never learned why the kids earned those two hard whacks. None of the other teachers could tell me and the punisher had a hard time explaining. Part of me wanted to jump between them and stop the beating. The other part said not to interfere. Without fully understanding the situation, it felt like I’d listened to the wrong part and simply watched as students were spanked.
This feeling of helplessness has become a normal thing for me here.
I’ve come to dub a group of people “shakers.” They can be identified by an eagerness to shake a mzungu’s (white person’s) hand and then go on a rant about how there is one God and we are all family under Him. Then they reveal there’s some sort of problem they need help with, thus their family (that would be me) should give them money to help.
One time a “shaker” needed money to bury his daughter who’d passed away. Another time it was treatment for a disease he had. I couldn’t verify any of their stories and had been instructed by my hosts not to give money to strangers, so I didn’t.
But it wasn’t easy.
The hardest to walk away from was a young man who tapped me on the shoulder and told me he wasn’t going to steal from me. After the usual routine that followed (handshake, God, family, request) he went on to explain that begging is better than stealing. He begged me to give so his little brother could go to school. He only needed 3000 shillings to go and I had 500 on me at the time. Instead of giving I apologized and offered to pray for him.
We parted ways before I had the chance.
The worst part about this is that saying ‘no’ was actually the right thing to do. According to my hosts at Hope Academy, it’s actually wrong to interfere with or go against a system I’m only temporarily involved in. This is how things operate here and I have to play by the rules and respect how things are until they can be changed.
I don’t think I could have accepted this if it wasn’t for the fact that Pastor Fred and members of Tumaini Church & Hope Academy have lived it.
Once upon a time, during the early years of Hope, a young female student was assaulted by a male member of her family. Pastor Fred, being a respectable human being, contacted the police to report this and get the girl some help. He went through the standard procedures and things looked promising for justice.
Less than a week later, however, the perpetrator himself brought the girl to school. Certain members of the Kibera community connected to the family told Fred, who was a Kibera resident for several years at this point, that seeking justice through the courts wasn’t “how things are done here.”
Pastor Fred began to realize that if he were to continue pursuing the legal route, he’d jeopardize any authority he had in the community. As much as it broke his heart, he had to give up the pursuit of individual justice for a greater mission.
In another instance, Doughert, one of the teachers at Hope, tried to invite some old friends to church one Christmas Eve. He walked in on them doing drugs and tried to tell them there was a better way to live their lives. They proceeded to beat him and chase him off, letting him know that this was how they did things.
For reasons he doesn’t fully understand (nor do I!), Doughert went back to his friends a few days later and made things right with them. Tumaini started to provide counseling the girl and others like her. In both instances, they realized opposing the system would get them nowhere. They had to find another way.
No one would have blamed Fred or Doughert if they had left these impossible situations – these lost causes – alone and moved on to more practical work. But they didn’t. They stayed and continued trying, adapting to work within a broken system, but never giving up hope.
Complex systems of injustice aren’t going to fall apart just because a single assailant is put away or corporal punished is stopped at school. There are no quick fixes in a place as broken as Kibera. As hard as it is to understand, I’m learning that all we can do is walk beside the victims of injustice and continue representing Christ to the assailants.
The leadership at Tumaini has done this, and however many abusive relatives go about unpunished, they know that the students at Hope have a place to be counseled and that, every now and then, the unwritten rules can be overcome and a few more cracks can form in the system.
About the Author: Joe is a 2014 WND intern. Born in Arizona, Joe has lived in Indiana for as long as he can remember and is a true Hoosier, doubly since finishing his second year at Indiana University. He currently has no plans for life after finishing his non-profit management degree, but will be well prepared should a robot OR zombie apocalypse strike. A wanna be renaissance-man, he dabbles in ultimate frisbee, cross country, writing, and guitar.