Kidogo kidogo hujaza kibaba. That Swahili proverb, translated, "Slowly by slowly fills the pot," was a common refrain on my visit to Nairobi, Kenya, where Dr. Tom Olewe's VIPs Ministry is seeking to bring change to the lives of the youth in the Mathare slum. Slowly by slowly, things are changing. The biggest transformation can be seen in a group of young men who play on the VIPs soccer team, serve as community health workers and are developing their own micro-businesses to become self-reliant. It's difficult to imagine these polite, creative and intelligent youth in their glue-sniffing, crime-ridden pasts, but Tom is reminded all too often of the temptations and struggles that remain.
On my first day in Kenya, before we even reached Mathare, we came upon Jim, one of the soccer players, in handcuffs. When Tom asked what the charge was, the police officer replied, "He was arrested on suspicion of not being of good character." This time it seemed to be simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tom persuaded the police to release Jim and another boy he knew. When Tom first began coming to Mathare, police routinely shot suspected criminals on sight, and Jim's closely shaved head reveals his past -- a geometry of scars from being beaten nearly to death several times by police.
But while Jim was being held unfairly, John, the goalie for the VIPs soccer team, had been arrested the previous day for purse-snatching. Only police intervention saved the boy from the vigilante justice common in Kenya, where thieves are sometimes killed on the spot. But Tom didn't try to have him released by the police; he knew the boy had been falling back into drugs, and the rest of the soccer team had been unsuccessful earlier in the week when they tried to straighten him out. This is the most difficult part of Tom's job: watching his boys turn their lives around and then seeing them succumb to old temptations
Inside the slum itself, there is no law and temptation is always near. The church compound where classes are held and medical attention is given to residents is perched on a hill just above the actual slum. As we walked through the outskirts of Mathare along muddy streets strewn with corn cobs, orange peels and other filth, I couldn't imagine how much worse the actual slum would be.
But after looking down upon the fenced-in shanty of Mathare, and walking back to our car, I noticed the marked difference between the two neighborhoods. The neighborhood outside the slum suddenly felt sturdy and well-kept. Yes, there was garbage, but there was also commerce, cement walls, food and electricity. This is where the street boys aspire to live.
In Mathare, commerce means a few women selling vegetables and a man selling camel meat. The mud huts are crammed together at odd angles and built with a random assortment of materials.
The oldest slum in the city, Mathare was built in 1954 for laborers who worked in rock quarries for Asian employers. Though nearly all employment opportunities are long gone, many people had no where else to go. New residents from all 42 of Kenya's ethnic tribes, as well as refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia and the Congo have filled out the crowded ghetto which stretches like a long, thin scar on the face of Nairobi.
There's no clean water and no latrines, and every day Pastor Harun of the Mlango Kubwa Assemblies of God church just above the slum watches two funeral processions go past, mostly AIDS victims, but also those dying from cholera, malaria, dysentery and violence. When Harun came to Mathare in 1992, the denomination wanted to sell the church property because of the high crime rate, but the church slowly grew, and now three-quarters of the 250 members and nearly all of the 300 children come from the slum.
The church and the VIPs work closely together, and much of Tom's ministry takes place within the church compound. Soon, he will open the doors to a new clinic in the compound, a much-anticipated addition to his ministry in the neighborhood. He regularly holds makeshift medical outreaches there, seeing patients on church benches and transporting the neediest cases to his clinic in a safer part of town. But the clinic will offer a constant and permanent medical presence in the community. A church in Canada has also offered several computers that will allow the kids to connect to the Internet.
Tom wanted to work with children long before he wanted to be a doctor. Even in medical school, he was often frustrated by the detached, clinical approach of his teachers and fellow students. A breaking point came when a patient in the teaching hospital was diagnosed with a rarely seen disease, Cushing Syndrome. The teacher was very excited and one by one, enthusiastic students uncovered the suffering, terrified and naked woman to view the "interesting case."
"People were just cases," Tom said. "I thought there had to be a better way to minister to people than just looking for diseases."
In 1994 he received a scholarship to work in a street kids program in Canada. It was there that the vision formed for his VIP ministry that would stress vision, integrity and passion.
"As I was walking the streets of Toronto," he said, "I think I had a vision ... I'm hesitant to call it a vision, but I had this imagination of working with kids and making them feel important."
In 1997, with few resources and virtually no income, he began working among the kids in Mathare. To pay for the ministry, he eventually established a medical clinic in a nicer area of Nairobi. A gynecologist from Tom's church, Dr. Lehka Dissanayake, had donated medical equipment from her own clinic which had closed. At the beginning of 2000, she joined Tom in his ministry, running the clinic while Tom spends most of his time working in Mathare and other slums.
Tom will often bring the street boys in for circumcision or bring in girls who have had illegal abortions to repair the damage.
"When I worked in Kenyatta [Hospital], a gynecologist colleague did 30-40 manual vacuum aspirations every day [to repair damage from back alley abortions]," Tom said, "So you can imagine how many girls die each day. Those were just the ones that managed to find their way to the hospital."
Tom takes special pleasure in making sure that the streetkids are treated with the same respect as wealthy customers. They are used to looks of scorn from most Kenyans, and Tom wants them to understand that in God's eyes they are VIPs.
And from the way the 30 or so boys at the heart of the program carry themselves, it's working. Despite the occasional disappointment, these boys are new men.
Their transformation has made life better for everyone in their part of the slum, because the older boys were the biggest source of crime -- raping girls and younger boys, paying for prostitutes, stealing from older residents.
"The leader of these boys will tell you he was one of the worst," said Tom. "He committed so many rapes. When I started, I was scared of some of the boys."
When he first came to the neighborhood, a soccer match would inevitably end up in fighting after the first slide tackle. But now, as a disciplined team, they have easily defeated most of their opponents this season, and next year they're moving up to a tougher division. After a friendly match, the boys stayed behind to share with the opposing team what God has been doing in their lives. They also use these opportunities to teach about the dangers of AIDS.
The young boys watching the team play have something they've never had -- role models in their own community. The school drop-out rate has plummeted as the VIPs have pressured younger kids to make every effort to stay in as long as they can.
The program that has these boys most excited, though, is the brand-new micro-business initiative. Tom brought in a consultant in to teach the boys how to run a small business and how to save. In a city where they have virtually no hope for employment, 20 boys, ages 15-20, have each chosen a means of self-employment: selling vegetables, collecting and reselling scrap metal, making jewelry, carpentry, collecting garbage, and cleaning. One young entrepreneur has sold his services as a soccer player to other teams in this country that takes its sport very seriously.
Each week, the boys deposit a minimum of 20 shillings (about 30 cents) into their account. They can borrow twice the amount of their savings for capital purchases like tools and material. The group is responsible for each other's loans, and peer pressure ensures that the loans will all be paid back. The goal is to save enough money to buy a home for themselves outside of the slums or to pay for training or classes.
Upon first meeting this energetic group, one of the new staff members of Tom's ministry commented , "They look forward to life. That sense of hope is the most important thing for them and what every Christian should be preaching."
For people who grew up with very little hope for a better life, the boys' newfound confidence is hard to contain.
Tom chose to call his ministry VIPs Street Child Ministry because he believes that someone needs to show these kids that God loves them and that the body of Christ wants a better future for them here on earth. These children are outcasts in their own society and often have very little self-worth.
"When I was given a chance to talk to the kids, I told them they were very important people," he said. "We really feel honored to be called by God into a ministry that would be a part of the Great Commission."
Tom's main concern is "Christ-centered, street-child friendly medical care." He regularly treats the skin infections, wounds to the feet and legs, eye and respiratory infections and intestinal parasites that plague the children of the slum. Their conditions expose them to violence, substance abuse, malnutrition, and unsanitary water. At night, they must huddle together for warmth and comfort, further spreading disease. Tom attends to their needs at a base just inside the slum's boundaries. It would be impossible, though, to only treat the injuries and infections without concern for their overall condition.
"Half of the kids have scabies," he gives as an example. "You treat it, screen them the next week, and they're gone. Screen them the third week, and they have them again. There's a lot of work to be done in this area. Improving the drainage, just finding a way of keeping the children away from this water, getting them into schools because they have nothing."
VIPs is a holistic ministry, going beyond just the health concerns of the children and looking to their pressing needs of food, education, clothing, shelter and even counseling. Tom works closely with a network of other Christian ministries and churches in the city. He has helped get sponsorship for many of the children with Christian child sponsorship organizations. He regularly works with these different agencies providing annual screening and ongoing treatment for the children they are serving.