How one Night in the Slums has Inspired me to Rise
“I was living in a home that had enough food and comforts to sustain her whole community.”
Those words from Mother Teresa resonated with me when I first met Alicia, a young woman who didn’t look the way I expected a girl from a slum would look. She was beautiful, stylish and cheerful, with a shy demeanor and a big smile.
This past summer I was in Kenya with my mother. She goes there often to come alongside grandmothers and single mothers who struggle and this year I felt the call to go with her. Between us we carried five suitcases filled with panties and sanitary pads to deliver to the schools and slums.
Huruma Village is a slum where I spent several weeks reading to the children, talking to the teens and connecting with mothers as they washed their clothes in the river, while carrying their babies on their backs.
There was such authenticity there. I didn’t see toys or creature comforts, but I encountered some of the happiest, most humble people with some of the biggest smiles I’ve seen anywhere.
I first felt the guilt of a dividing line between Alicia and I when she asked to spend the night at the place where I was staying.
It was my uncle’s place: a beautiful mansion surrounded by a high fence and an imposing yellow gate. It was my home for a month, complete with every comfort I could possibly ask for: a maid to serve me meals and wash my laundry, a luxurious bed to sleep in … everything I needed.
Alicia’s question made my heart race. I wanted to bring her to the house, but in doing so, she would discover my secret—that I was living in a home that had enough food and comforts to sustain her whole community.
I wanted to have conversations with her through the night. But where could our worlds meet for this to happen?
I was speechless for one long, awkward moment.
My answer veiled the truth: “It’s not my house … I’m a guest … I don’t feel comfortable asking if you can spend the night.”
She politely told me she understood and I felt myself breathe again. A few minutes later she looked at me and said, “Why don’t you spend the night at my house?” My heart pounded again as I frantically searched for an excuse to say no. But guilt made me accept her invitation.
As I walked home to fetch my pajamas, my mind swam with images of the slum: no basic amenities, no running water, one outhouse for the whole community.
How could I get myself out of this situation?
Before I knew it, I was standing at the entrance to the slum, blanket and pajamas in hand.
I walked with Alicia through narrow alleys that were filthy, wet with sewage and only three or four meters wide. Children were running around, laughing and posing for my camera.
Alicia’s home was a sheet of corrugated metal, a small room divided into two spaces by a curtain. Her brother Simon slept on one side and Alicia and her Mom slept on the other.
Alicia showed me a spot on the floor where I would sleep beside her. There was a bamboo rug and flattened cardboard box. There was no cardboard on her space; clearly, as her guest, I was getting the comforts.
When darkness set in, we talked by candlelight. The family shared their dreams and their pain from losing Alicia’s brother to what was probably HIV/Aids—a disease that is prevalent in their slum community.
In the shadows of the shack I was startled by the scurries of two rats. Anxiety welled inside of me as I considered whether I could last through the night.
After an hour of chatting, Alicia blew out the candle to preserve it. The shack was completely dark and quiet except for the rhythmic sound of raindrops hitting the buckets that were placed on the ground. I lay on the hard floor with my blanket and used my arm as a pillow, thinking of the two rats crawling over my body.
Part way through the night I had the urge to go to the bathroom. Alicia walked me to the community outhouse with the candle. The smell was so revolting I couldn’t go in, but I felt it would be disrespectful to pee on the ground so I walked back to the shack and hoped that I could hold on until morning.
I made it through the night, but I can’t count the number of times I nearly fled from that shack, knowing I could just hop the fence and return to a place of ease and comfort where I could urinate in a sanitized bathroom. But knowing this family would never have that same choice, held me there.
This is the night I came to understand what poverty really is.This is the night I was fortunate to share stories with people who opened their hearts to me.This is a night I was humbled and blessed.
Returning home to Canada has been an adjustment to a new reality—a kind of reverse culture shock. I am a different person. I find myself searching for words to express how I felt in Kenya. There are none.
For a while I struggled with the simple things—opening my closet to a large selection of clothing, or simply going to the mall. I didn’t want to feel the guilt.
Now my conversations with my children have changed from telling them how blessed they are to have this privileged life, to how we as a family can use our good fortune to make a difference.
We have started a penny drive in our home, which now has extended out to our friends, school and our workplace to help Free the Children with building a school in Kenya. We have also been selling our old toys and clothes to raise money for theWanjoki Connection— the foundation my mother and I started for single mothers and grandmothers in East Africa. I am also involved in creating business opportunities for the women of Kenya where they can make their own pads and panties.
Spending the night in the slums was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do, but I thank God for the experience. God orchestrated that night beautifully—I felt his presence in every fear-filled moment. And now I know that fighting poverty is what I was called to do.
I can’t forget my experience with Alicia and her wonderful family. I don’t want to.
They are now a part of my story.
My name is Catherine Kuhn Riddington and I come from parents who have been fighting the war on poverty for as long as I can remember. I was born in Kenya, raised in Canada and hold two countries in my heart. I dream of a world where everyone has access to clean water, good schools and health care. My favorite verse from Corinthians is “there should be no poor amongst you.”
I am a wife and mother of two cutie pies. Most people lose themselves in a book; I lose myself in a run. I enjoy a hot chocolate on a hot summer’s day and have a have great appreciation for a bowl of vanilla and strawberry ice cream.