Blue Cotton Shorts

Some sweet young ones  from the community (not the child described in this post.)
Some sweet young ones from the community (not the child described in this post.)

Kenyan pupils can be incredible listeners. (I learned a few years ago, that in Kenya a “pupil” is called so when they are between nursery class to grade 8, and a “student” is one who is in Secondary School – Form one to form four.)

Many a foreign visitor has remarked on how well behaved the children are. After helping with Sunday School for the last year, I can say that is a sign of the work of some good Kenyan teachers.

It’s incredible, really, how they make it work.

I walk into a room of 50 children, ages 1-13. I greet them and hold their attention for a solid three minutes. And then it happens. The buzz. I don’t know exactly what happened, but apparently either someone brought something into class with them that their neighbor took, or someone was kicked under the desk, or a thousand other scenarios could have taken place in the last two seconds between peace and chaos.

And it continues until she walks in. The Kenyan teacher. The one who holds the class together. I don’t know how she does it, with those firm words in Ki-Swahili, the kids sit and calm is restored. A class of this size and with this diverse age-group has it’s challenges – but I have seen this scene again and again.

Yes, the Kenyan teachers we work with are VERY good at what they do.

*Please note that the Sunday School environment is different from a classroom environment, which I’ve come to believe has a very big effect on both class management and learning capability. 

At first, my experience in the Sunday School classroom was overwhelming to say the least. I was yet to learn the secret. The teacher is the key! Empower the teacher – she’ll do it better than you every could!

Still, I have been asked to teach the lesson several times, and chaos can quickly ensue from the crowd. I’ve learned that a calm voice and a less reactionary demeanor is best to stay sane.

Today, as I walked in and the teacher led the kids in singing, I saw a small one I’d not seen before. There are always at least ten under the age of 3 in the class. The smallest ones grab my attention. She could not have been more than a year and half old. Able to walk on her own, her brothers took care of her in the back of the class – seated together on the wooden desks, smushed against the stack of plastic chairs. Passing her back and forth between them, they kept her occupied as long as possible. Eventually they put her down, and I heard it begin. I’ve learned this sound. I walked over and reached my arms out to hold her, before the tears could escalate.

This is one of my favorite joys. It does nothing, in the long run. It’s not relief and it’s not development, but I love it. I didn’t come here to hold babies, but I love any chance I get to do so – even to stop tears for a few moments longer. (Though every so often, there is the very young one who cries at the sight of a mzungu – which always causes a laugh, when our attempts to help could actually be the source of the tears)

This one was wearing a T-shirt three sizes too big, and cotton blue shorts. I had see her earlier as the brother had put her down for a moment and the shorts fell to the floor, revealing nothing thanks to the above mentioned shirt. Quickly, he looked around and rolled the shorts several times so that they would stay on her tiny frame.

Light-orangish colored hair (a sign of malnutrition), and clothes that wouldn’t fit for several years, I held her in my arms. Nose running fiercely, she sucked on her hands in stead of her thumb.

A few minutes later we were onto another song, and I felt her weight increase. All the noise and rocking and still, she fell asleep. We came to a part of the song that needed to be taught, and I handed her off to be held by another.

I know better now, than to think that she is uncared for. Clearly, the brother looks after her with concern, and the mother is around somewhere. I don’t know the situation – or what the mom does for a living. Perhaps she is busy even now, looking for income for the day to take care of her family. I’ve learned too much to make judgements about this one.

But there she is, covered in street smell, and all I want to do is buy her clothes that fit her, and clean her up. But she is not mine to clothe – she is not mine to clean. And if I were to do so in this moment, it would enter that category of “relief.” Relief given to one who looks needy, but who may not actually be the “neediest” in the community – and I would further the idea of dependency from outsiders, while another goes hungrier than ever. If I see these kids next week, I’ll ask about their family to see if they are connected with the school. To see that a social worker at least knows the home. But, it’s not a situation that needs fixing. It’s a family struggling to get by, in an environment that they’ve lived in for years. It’s the day to day grind that looks different for them than for me.

But I do have this chance – these few hours with these kids, to sing with and tell stories to, and hug and give all of the energy that I have for today.

And for today, it’s all I can do. Until next week, when we will do it again. The church members and teachers that have allowed me to join them in this work – this small task that takes more energy than I could have imagined. We will do it – week after week – and they will continue after I am gone.

This walking together with families – This learning and growing, until the kids are grown and ready to teach other small ones who struggle to pay attention in class. And slowly by slowly, this community will see change. It will see cleaner streets, and healthier children – as the love of Christ dignifies and takes root in the heart of the people.

4 thoughts on “Blue Cotton Shorts

  1. Justine, as an American coming to Kenya (4 times now for me) is it helpful or harmful for us to bring children’s clothes, baby clothes, teacher gifts of clothing, or is it best for them to buy what they can there?
    Thanks for all you are doing for Jesus there in the slums for these kids. May God bless and redeem, along with strengthen you and give you energy and His wisdom to handle it all.
    Trusting Jesus,

    1. Hi Marcia!

      Thanks for asking some good questions! When coming to visit Missions of Hope , donated clothes go to the community outreach department to be given to families as determined by the local staff who are able to identify the neediest in the community. While there are other ministry needs (such as school supplies, training materials, etc.) that I would say take high precedence over clothing, I also think that clothing can be given in a way that works together with CHE principles and holistic community development.

      Thanks for your questions, and continued desire to serve the communities in Kenya!


      1. Just seems like we have brought school supplies, especially crayons before. We have a group coming in September and another in February, 2014 – I hope to be in the February group, but can send things. I am sure you are communicating with the other groups, but I wanted to know whether to continue trying to save certain items of clothing or not. The social worker I have walked with through the Bondeni slum told me yes – clothing was very much needed and your story just reminded me today. So what school or training supplies would you say are needed more?
        Thanks for answering me so fast!

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