Photo: Laura Carlin
That hot Kenyan Saturday afternoon, I was thirsty and exhausted as I returned from my routine walk into the endless Kibera slums. Into the valleys and over the hills covered by shanties, I plodded through the maze of busy dirt roads. I was angry with myself for venturing too far and was running late for lunch at Hekima College, the Jesuit seminary where I was studying for the priesthood. My T-shirt was drenched in sweat, and my flip-flops were covered by brown dust. I usually dressed down to fit into the slum crowd. Also I seldom spoke to anybody, so my Nigerian accent wouldn't betray me. There were lots of artisans hammering away on scrap metals, and the roads were hemmed in by petty traders' mats, selling tomatoes and used clothes and sukuma-wiki. But my mind was on the lunch of Nile perch, rice, and ugali.
Suddenly someone was running behind me. I braced myself, instinctively sticking my hands into my pockets to guard my wallet. A boy ran past, stopped and turned to face me. He was a street kid, a chokora, about 7 years old and hungry-looking. He wore brown shorts and an oversize yellow shirt that had lost its buttons; when he ran the shirt spread out behind him like malformed wings. He had big eyes and his face was dusty as if he had been sand-bathing all day. He was holding something in a white dirty soggy paper cup. He held the cup high. Occasionally, he took a sip or pretended to take a sip, then wiped his mouth with a long tongue, which created a clean circle in his dusty face, a mustache of sorts.
"Sasa!" he greeted me, standing in my way.
"Yeah, sasa!" I responded with the little Kiswahili I knew and walked past him.
He caught up with me and felt my soaked shirt, sympathizing with my fatigue.
"Yogurt...yogurt!" he said, trying to offer me the paper cup.
"No...asante," I thanked him.
"No, I'm not thirsty," I lied and shrugged.
Looking intently at me, he said, "Me...me...broder, cheers!"
I remembered him and stopped. He was one of the two chokoras whom I had mistakenly invited into Our Lady of Guadalupe Church one rainy evening a few months back. I remembered how they, seeing the faithful receiving the Eucharist, had slipped into the Communion line, to take advantage of free wafers. I remembered the warm feeling I left Mass with because of the risk they'd taken to march in that line of "saints."