Nairobi’s Urban Jungle
While ministering to Africa’s largest urban slum, Pastor Peter Karanja reaches out, one life at a time.
Peter Karanja’s job is not for the faint of heart. As the program director for International Needs (IN) Kenya, he oversees a multifaceted ministry to Kibera, a sprawling ghetto that is not only the largest in Nairobi but also the largest urban slum on the continent of Africa.
Of Nairobi’s population of nearly four million people, 2.5 million—about 60 percent—are slum-dwellers. They occupy a mere six percent of the city’s land. About 250,000 live in Kibera, a congested jungle of tin-roofed, mud-walled shacks. Each shack provides 12 square feet of living space to tenant families of eight or more, resulting in quarters so tight that many residents must sleep in shifts.
Kibera has no plumbing or toilets—only an average of one rudimentary latrine for every 500 residents. Thousands of children, many orphaned as a result of AIDS, sleep on the bare ground and root through the ubiquitous piles of garbage for food. Crime and disease are prevalent, and schools and clean water are scarce.
Stationed on the periphery of such staggering need, many would be daunted. But Pastor Peter, with his kind smile and steady countenance, exudes a singular hope and optimism.
From his office in a converted shipping container, Peter and his two assistants manage the sponsorship of 150 needy children from Kibera and a waiting list of 250 more. For the sponsored children, they oversee education plans; compile report cards; budget for school fees, food, and clothing; create quarterly reports; and facilitate children’s letters to their sponsors.
For the children on the waiting list, they offer compassion and manage crushing disappointment. Some children struggle with guilt and rivalry when they are chosen for sponsorship over their siblings. Sadly, others—some have been waiting for sponsors for seven or eight years—simply give up.
Every Saturday, IN Kenya hosts a Bible program for all 400 children, both the sponsored and the waiting. Many are orphans or have been rejected by their families. They arrive as early as 6:30 a.m., eager for a breakfast of hot porridge, Bible stories, and the love and attention of adult mentors.
With a bachelor’s degree in community development and business administration and a postgraduate diploma in education from Nairobi’s Daystar University, Peter is a skilled and gifted leader.
However, it is his pastoral duties that are nearest and dearest to Peter’s heart. As he walks Kibera’s uneven paths, he stops often to listen and pray with the many people who seek his counsel. He also leads a weekly praise and worship service and a Christian radio broadcast.
Peter’s broadcast played an interesting role in his introduction to Juliet, the young woman who became his wife three years ago. Today, the couple are the proud parents of 14-month-old Esther Njeri, who already likes to worship and dance.
Peter’s first exposure to the needs of Kibera came when, as a young boy, he witnessed his mother’s participation in a community health project that helped rehabilitate some of Kibera’s female residents from the commercial sex industry.
A nurse by profession, Peter’s mother matched the compassion of her vocation with a generosity in all aspects of life, giving food and comfort to the poor and teaching Peter as a youngster to always be generous, even when it meant merely giving up his seat on the bus to someone less able.
Once, Peter recalls, his mother reached out to a neglected elderly woman. She gave the woman something to change into and then took her clothes to the river. She returned them washed and dried.
“The old woman was so touched, she deeply blessed my mother for what she had done,” Peter recalls.
Peter turns to the story often as a reminder of how even the simplest of gestures can have a dramatic impact.
“The need in Kibera is so enormous, it can break your heart,” he says. “But with God’s help, the small efforts of even just a few people can make a profound difference.”
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