Peter’s eyes, milky with cataracts, searched my face for recognition. His toothless grin, widened when he saw Sr Rosemary emerge from the car.
Having had a “safari massage” in the 4×4 car, jiggling from side to side, down the rutted sloping Rift Valley in Kenya, I was more than ready to alight and find Peter’s home.
The sun-soaked views were beautiful. The lush grass waving in the breeze, weaver birds building upside down nests in the trees; surely this is paradise. Then, emerging from the track into a clearing, I saw it!
Peter’s home; a collapsed structure that once housed him and his large family. All alone now, elderly Peter was left with the decaying wreck, falling to pieces, one wooden stick and one clod of beaten earth at a time.
The rains can be heavy in Kenya, and with climate change, there is more out of season rain. It erodes the traditional mud and stick built houses. It is a luxury to have a corrugated tin roof. The beaten earth floor of these homes can hide bugs – “jiggers” which enter the feet of children and adults. I recall seeing a four year old in the Thigio kindergarten class with these live black insects wriggling around in his toes. Sr Rosemary is skilled at extracting them with a sharp needle!
Sister also runs the “class for the elderly” which Peter attends on the Daughter of Charity’s Thigio compound. Years before I had seen Sr Eilis teach her how to massage the hands and feet of the elderly. After years working in the fields, and under the harsh glare of the sun, their skin was cracked. Their arthritic limbs, lovingly massaged, was such a pleasure and relief for them. No wonder Peter appreciated Sr Rosemary!
Giving us permission to enter the “house”, we ushered away chickens who were roosting just inside. Peter had a geiko, a small arrangement of stone surrounding the open fire, supporting a pan of boiling water. He offered us a cup of tea. Sr Rosemary, an adept social worker, enquired about the size of his shamba (garden) and potential site where a new house might be built. Part of the FAMVIN Homeless Alliance, 13 Houses campaign, we were deciding which elderly should receive the first phase of the houses.
A young man appeared, and Peter introduced him as his grandson who was living with him, as he couldn’t live with his parents. Sr Rosemary explained that after puberty, young men had to leave the family home. Often the family would build a separate shelter to house a bed, but if they couldn’t afford this, the young man had to leave. Some young men lived on the streets or in the countryside.
I learned that day that it was not simply a matter of fundraising for homes. Land was needed, cultural sensitivity observed, climate factors and social needs had to be taken into consideration.
The quiet, patient, dignity which Peter maintained throughout our visit was highlighted by his acceptance of this meagre shelter. Some day, and with Sr Rosemary by his side, he would get a better home – God willing.
“Diaries of a Vincentian” takes a closer look at some of the more personal experiences of Vincentians working with homeless people, slum dwellers and refugees. They shine a light on the moments that inspired us, the situations that left us speechless and shocked, and the people that crossed our paths and showed us that more must be done.
What connects them is that Vincentian commitment to the poorest of the poor; and the hope that as a Family, we can do more.