One of the greatest challenges in mission has been our need to regularly navigate vast levels of disparity in wealth and lifestyle. There are a number of Kenyans with vast amounts of wealth and we, though living simply by US standards, have exponentially more wealth than those whom we accompany and serve in our ministries. Traversing, on a daily basis, between destitution, comfort and opulence is often exhausting.
A recent week illustrated this for me in stark terms. One day I was visiting the poorest of the poor in single-room mud and iron sheet structures assessing, with a Kenyan social worker, their needs and fit for our project serving the educational needs of those infected or affected by HIV. These families are often trying to meet all their needs on the equivalent of $40-50 per month. With this they are to cover food, rent and various school expenses, more often than not for multiple children. These families generally live in a 10×10 room without electricity and have to carry their water from somewhere outside. The communities they live in are strewn with bags of rotting garbage. Plastic bags drift in the wind like autumn leaves. During rainy seasons it is necessary to dodge large puddles and rivers of waste and mud.
The next day we left our children with a classmate for a play date. The family lived in a spacious modern apartment complete with security system, fifth floor beautiful view of the ocean and swimming pool on the compound. The rent no doubt runs $1000-1500 per month. From this high-end living we went to visit a friend who helps coordinate some of my non-violence work. Peter and his wife are lower-middle class Kenyans living a lifestyle that many teachers, social workers and nurses might live. They live in a two room (200 sq foot) dwelling with Electricity, TV, and Radio but get their water from outside the home. Their two rooms are in a traditional Swahili structure sharing pit-latrine, shower and common corridor with 5 other families in similar circumstances. Their outside community resembles the mud and garbage strewn byways described above. This is the life for the vast majority of Urban Kenyans.
For our own housing we settled on an old mildly dilapidated ‘flat’ with about 900Sq feet. Our Electricity and water is intermittent but largely reliable. We have a small refrigerator and outside space for the children to play safely (the last item was our only criteria in looking for a place to live). We have a modest but beautiful place to live and are grateful.
I’ve written about choosing a school before but the government schools with regular corporal punishment and 60 or 80 or even 100 student per classroom with no resources was not an option. Our children immediately found themselves in a more up-scale school. Yet through our church and respective ministries they have cultivated relationships with the more impoverished majority of Kenyans. However, as they grow older they are understandably less interested in visiting their friends in the tight, hot, dusty, garbage strewn byways of urban Africa and more inclined to get excited about invitation to visit their friends that have a place to play safely. All of their friends, poor and rich, treat them with genuine kindness, but on visits to the more congested impoverished areas of Mombasa they are often greeted with an excited and curious chorus of ‘Mzungu’ (white person) from the neighbors. Being treated as a novelty grows old.We want mission to be a positive, exciting thought-provoking experience for our children so we try to both cultivate the ongoing relationships with the most impoverished of the society while also not pressing the point to a level of resentment or disdain.
There are of course un-ending lessons for us all to draw upon for years, but navigating the disparity and making sense of it can be emotionally exhausting. Yet our daily lives provide ample opportunity for discussion on fairness, justice and responsibility. We are fortunate that as our children explore these ideas that have genuine relationships as reference points to help them make sense of our world.
There are no clear answers to how to bridge the disparity. One notion that I return to always is that if I genuinely desire some upward mobility for the poorest of the poor, if they are to have the most basic necessities in life than something has to give. Those of us who have relative wealth must look for ways to be more ‘downwardly mobile’. Pope Francis pointed this direction recently when he suggested that in order to address the growing disparity many of us must become poorer. (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/12/12/1262209/-Pope-Francis-We-Must-Change-An-Economy-In-Which-Poor-Only-Get-Crumbs)