In April 2012, my mentor at the Jesuit Mission Office in Germany called me and asked if I would agree to spend my year of voluntary service at AJAN. At the time, I was a “volunteer in training” at the Jesuit Mission. After a short discernment, I accepted. Although I was full of excitement about the prospect of working with AJAN, there was no way I could have imagined the depth and width of my experience, which started in September.
It’s intense. It’s surprising and still very exciting. Initially, I was amazed how immensely welcoming and easygoing the people around me were. What touched me most was how keen they were to make me feel well and at home here. I had hardly ever experienced such kindness before.
The second impression was a shocking one. As I started to work with women who live with HIV in extreme poverty, I heard so many stories about how they were chased away from their villages after they learned they had HIV, or were simply abandoned by their husbands and families, left without any income but with many children.
The very thorough preparation for my voluntary service, which I received from Jesuit Mission, gave me an idea about the challenges I may face when working with AIDS-affected women and children. I had thought their suffering would be the most challenging part of my time in Kenya. But it’s not. Quite the contrary: I learn so much hope, joy and gratitude from them. Many would probably read total despair in the lives of the women I meet, marked as they are by an absolute lack of opportunity. But the women are well able to preserve their creativity, aesthetic sense, ability to laugh, and their care for others – many of them are raising the children of their deceased sisters or brothers. The sword of Damocles – the HIV virus – hanging over their heads makes them grateful for every new day, and every time they can give their children something to eat. They have no illusions but I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of them complain or blame anyone else. They work hard, ask for help when they need it and know how to be canny businesswomen.
When I was preparing for this mission, I was advised to avoid comparisons. Still, I can’t help thinking it’s not quite the same in our mzungu world. Walking on the dusty streets of our slum, Kangemi, seeing so much laughter and so many children amid immense poverty, I think to myself, this is where the “first world” could learn something about happiness.