ESSAY |  I am the Child

Reading a favorite author, Henri Nouwen, today,  I was struck by his thoughts  on compassion and our inner poverty: "Once we have been poor we can be a good host. It is indeed the paradox of hospitality that poverty makes a good host- poverty is the inner disposition that allows us to take away our inner defenses and convert our enemies into friends. This (poverty of spirit) allows us to enter so fully and unconditionally into the sufferings of others that it becomes possible for us to heal the sick and call the dead to life."

There is something supernatural in suffering.

Ask most people where they would choose to face a life threatening illness, and I imagine most would choose the finest medical center in the world surrounded by the conveniences of a bustling metropolis. 

Working with the AIDS affected community of Kibera, Kenya, with its estimated 25 percent AIDS rate, I learned a lot about what the truly impoverished value when their life is threatened. In the poverty of this slum, with its trash filled alleys and stiflingly hot, dark huts, I found many suffering with the symptoms of AIDS. Though Kibera is in Nairobi, one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities of Africa, when asked if they wanted to leave the slum for medical care in one of the surrounding hospitals or medical clinics, the very ill often chose to stay in the slum.

Hunger, pain and discomfort had been part of their daily lives as slum dwellers, for those problems these patients had coping skils. But loneliness in the face of illness was too much for them to imagine. Faced with the end of their life, these AIDS sufferers chose to face the painful last days in the most uncomfortable conditions imaginable. 

Forced to choose between the comforts of medical care and the comforts of community care, they chose their community and its humanity. 

Their choice to have a comforting hand, and an empathetic caretaker (many of the caretakers are themselves HIV positive) over medication and nutrition, reveals what we all most need in our most vulnerable states.  A familiar hand reaching out in true empathy is more welcomed than a gloved hand offering certain medical relief.

Kiberan people know much about suffering....and comforting. Their poverty of spirit means a community is prepared to surround and support the dying as only the poor of spirit can do. 

Dr. Richard Schwartz says once we realize our interconnectedness we have a much deeper capacity for compassion and empathy.  The suffering of others affects you because at some level the other IS you. When one out of four of a community dies from AIDS, each community member sees themselves in the haunted eyes of the ill, and wonders when it will be their turn. The interconnectedness of this slum and this virus is inescapable for Kiberans.  Their hospitality and generosity prove Nouwen's thoughts to be true. Only in our absolute poverty do our defenses die; our resistance towards suffering has to cease when it is not the other who suffers, but it is us, it is me.

There's something supernatural and holy in suffering that transforms our human instincts to preserve and protect ourselves from the pain of others. There's something holy in Kibera.


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Written by: Millicent Smith