I was washing my car the other evening, and I smelled Kibera in the air.
The pungent scent of burning wood - in the U.S., that's a scent usually reserved for the chilliness of fall. It's a comforting, cozy aroma conjuring up memories of football games and holidays. But here, the smell of burning wood is usually not present in the midst of blazing summer stickiness. As Steven tossed old branches from the recent rain storms into our backyard firepit, I, in the front yard, was not thinking much about autumn or Dallas, TX...
As the low-lying sun cast a goldenness all around me, I stood there with washrag in one hand, recalling the day I first stepped foot on the chaotic streets of India and the dirt roads of Kibera, the biggest slum in East Africa. That burning smell. The beads of sweat all over my body. Gazing down at my feet, I realized I was wearing the same brown sandals that had touched both of those third-world soils. Whatever they are burning there in the slums - trash, wood, food - it's a scent you don't soon forget.
But it's not just that. It's the activity of life - a very different kind of life - swirling around you...this beautiful mess of smiles, poverty, laughter, need, and desire.
I remember experiencing this as I strolled down Kibera road with Moses on my left and Peter on my right, two of the teenage orphan boys who live at our Calvary Youth Hostel there. Moses and Peter were great conversationalists, inquiring about my life in America. "We heard that everyone goes to college there. Is that true?" I thought about how much I took my college studies for granted and felt ashamed, as they were desperate for a chance to get any kind of higher schooling. But as much as our lives were different, I felt like we were friends.
During our stroll, we passed shanty shacks selling meats and vegetables that seemed hardly edible. We meandered through trash and human waste flowing quietly along the red caked dirt road. We passed children in half-shirts and naked bottoms who waved joyously. And of course, we smelled the stench of burning wood and felt the perspiration trailing down on our faces.
What is it about this place that draws you back? It was filthy, frightening, and despicable. Yet, it was joyous, hopeful, and shimmering. Perhaps what is compelling about these poverty-stricken places is that they are drastically different than where I am standing here in Dallas, TX. Yet the people I visited there were yearning for hope and life just as much as I.