“Here,” said the beach boys,
“wear our shoes.” The tide was out, and the Indian Ocean had receded a
mile or so eastward toward the horizon from the Mombasa shore. We had
hired two young men to guide us toward the coral reefs—now mostly dead
or still dying, an ecological tragedy.
Walking on the beach was not a simple pleasure. With the unemployment
rate at 70% in Kenya, the gaggle of young men who gathered every day
just beyond the perimeters of the time-share resort where David and I
were staying made venturing out not dangerous but exhausting. When
America’s economy collapses, the world suffers in ways we can’t
possibly imagine. These young men were hungry, eager for work, and
tourists were the best possible way to make some quick shillings. As
much as a toe placed on the beach made you fair game for the
importunities of five to ten smiling but insistent beach boys.
My husband is a soft-touch, to say the least, so he hired two young
men, Moses and Victor, to take us on a morning walk. The mud flats were
sucking stretches that trapped unsuspecting strollers; we thought it
the better part of wisdom to hire guides. “Here,” said Victor, the
eldest of this twosome, when we approached the sharp-edged coral reef.
“Take our shoes—our feet are hardened with calluses—if you walk
barefoot out there, you’ll slice your feet. And watch out for sea
“Yes,” said Moses. “If you step on one, we’ll just say the walk turned
into an adventure.” A little grim humor here; we learned that “paw-paw”
or papaya mash was the local cure. But we didn’t step on disaster—our
guides’ sharp eyes helped us to wend our way around the hundreds of sea
urchins we saw that morning. They carried David’s leather sandals and
my stretch-strap open-toed flats—both of which would have been ruined
by the salt water—so we could concentrate on carefully marking our
We slipped into their plastic Crocs®, literally walking in these
African men’s shoes. We wound our way, following closely behind them,
out onto the reefs. Even in a degraded environment, we found sea
cucumbers and the dreaded spiny urchins and various starfish and
scurrying crabs. Little puddles with small neon-colored fish amazed us
and a few large crevasses, where the receding tide had left deep ponds
stocked with gorgeous salt-water fish, invited diving—which Moses did,
taking a quick morning plunge to emerge smiling. Our guides pointed out
the sea birds, and we talked about the economy and why they had not
been able to complete their educations. Moses was a practicing
Christian, taking care of his widowed mother and the younger brothers
still at home in the village behind our resort. He hoped one day to
study to be a carpenter. They had opinions about the failure of the
Kenyan government, and the absence of American tourists since the
post-election violence in 2008, and Somali pirates—the raid on the
Maersk Alabama and the hostage-taking of its captain were happening
offshore Mombasa even as we walked on the beach.
Certain kindnesses slipped into their conversation. We discussed the
other beach boys. One, an alcoholic, had given the rest a bad name.
Then Moses said, “Well, you do what you have to do.” No criticism, just
a gentle understanding.
It felt as though, for a short while, that these young African men had
become our sons. David hired them to take us to see the dolphins (at a
price better than what our hotel offered), he ordered ebony keychains
carved with grandchildren’s names and African game animals for gifts.
One afternoon, Moses brought us a typical dish—a pot of sweet potatoes
cooked in coconut sauce. “A gift,” he said, indicating that we were not
to pay. They procured a driver and went with us to the Crocodile Farm,
where 10,000 crocodiles were being bred for meat and commercial skins.
If we sampled crocodile meat, they were going to sample crocodile meat
with us. “How can you be good guides if you don’t do what your clients
For a short while, walking in their Crocs®, laughing about the
“plastic” (their term) Massai warriors who danced one evening at
dinner—the “warriors” were obviously Mombasa workers, several were
particularly short while the Massai are typically tall. David suggested
they had lied about their height, an impossibility of course—my
husband’s joke. We talked about the differences in our lives, and of
course, the conversation led inevitably to President Obama (who doesn’t
even need to do a good job since his election has already elevated the
feeling of potential in black man and women around the world). When we
left, David emptied his suitcase so they could sell his clothes or give
them away; not quite the clothes off his back, but pretty close.
This is what happens when you walk in another man’s Crocs®—you begin to
live in a kind of commonality, to strike a kind of kinship.
This, of course, also happened when we walked in the slums of
Nairobi—Kibera, the second largest slum in African—where over one
million people live in a one-mile square area. Here, Hungry Souls is
setting up sewing projects with HIV/AIDS widows. Here we visited the
women, walked on slippery paths beside open sewage trenches, back into
the 7-foot-wide mud-and wattle-sided, corrugated tin roofed home of
Consueleta, who sews in this dark place and where seven children sleep
with her at night, her children and the orphans of relatives. David and
I demurred about making the second visit, to the home of Lynette,
another seamstress; we sent along the younger and more agile members of
our team instead. We’d been spared broken bones on the first jaunt into
the back alleys of Kibera. Why risk the rest of the trip for one
misstep in the heat and on the sloppy paths?
There are few white-haired men and women in Nairobi; death comes early
to the aging. Our ages brought frequent comments as well as the phrase,
which we heard again and again, “And you’re so healthy still!”
When you see the Kibera slum from a distance (Kibera is the
native word for “jungle”), it looks rather quaint, thousands and
thousands of small rusted tin shacks. Think of the scenes from the film
Gardner starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weiss, who won
an Academy Award for leading actress. However, most of the shots of
Kibera were taken on the outskirts of the slum. David Mains writes of
his impressions, “But when you actually walk the zigzag, uneven, narrow
paths of this place, go back into the three-foot wide lanes, jump over
trenches and cross land bridges, you’re quickly made aware that these
living conditions are deplorable.”
“Picture your town or city with decades of no functional garbage
pickup. Everything is just tossed, and it piles up. Well, the ground of
Kibera is literally composed of refuse and rubbish. The makeshift
dwellings are built on this unstable base, so when flooding is
experienced in the rainy season, structures often collapse.
Complicating everything is the fact that the population density is so
cramped, in most areas there is no access for cars or trucks, so
materials for rebuilding have to be hauled in by hand.
“‘Flying toilets’ was a phrase I had not heard before. What it means is
that the people use the ubiquitous plastic bags to relieve themselves.
When finished, they tie up the feces and toss it—but what else can they
We walked in Pipeline, a “middle-class” neighborhood we were told in
the Embakasi neighborhood in Eastlands in Nairobi. We visited Korogosho
slum and sat in a little tin corrugated church while a coalition of
pastors made plans to train Community Health Evangelists. David and our
video producer, Doug Timberlake, interviewed, filmed and recorded the
stories of the African men and women who are becoming involved in the
initial phases of the Global
As much as were able to, in this short amount of time, but with the
intense focus of the lens of a camera, which always concentrates the
attention, we walked in these people’s shoes. They were beautiful to
us, courageous to us, hopeful for meaningful work that could provide a
sustainable income—and all eager to help others in their communities.
Arriving home, all of a sudden, I realized that my husband, David Mains
(whom I have been nagging—yes, nagging—to remember to carry cloth
reusable grocery bags) has taken over myGlobal Bag Project! He’s planning to go
back next September to film three more stories. (“Every Bag Has a
Story”—each bag will have a DVD in the pocket telling about the amazing
women who are becoming bag-makers!) He already has the
dates on the calendar. He
has set a goal of selling one million bags! He is sitting on
top of the production schedules. He’s
talking about us needing additional staff to ramp up the marketing of
cloth shopping bags.
You know what?—I’m thrilled! This is what happens when you walk in
another man’s Crocs®. Some incarnational reality swoops you up, bonds
you with kin you have never met before, gives you a feeling of
“Probably,” my husband said to me, “if we hadn’t gone through such bad
times ourselves, we would never know how important—how meaningful—it is
for someone to come beside you and say, ‘We care. Let us give you just
a little boost.’” With just a modicum of help, bright, enterprising,
hard-working folk can help themselves.
David will be filming in Kenya in September, but he and I are planning
to go back in March of 2010. We would love to have some of you come
with us. Are you aware that only 20% of Americans have passports? How
can we have a love for God’s world if we never walk in another man (or
Let us know (
) if you, your husband, your friends, your offspring, or
your neighbors would like to come with us. We will need to know by
November 2009 in order to make reservations.
Last-Minute Room on the Stratford Festival Tour
Our annual Stratford
Tour to the Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada was all filled for this summer so we have
any advertising. However, we have had some late cancellations and now
for six more folk.
If you are interested, contact
David Mains at
can also phone him at the office at
630-293-4500. The dates are the second week of July 2009, from Monday,
July 6 –
Saturday, July 11.
This experience is so wonderful that David and I have returned every summer for the last 35 years.
The Soulish Food e-mails are
posted biweekly on the Hungry Souls Web
site. Newcomers can look that over and decide if they want to
register on the Web site to receive the bi-weekly newsletter. You might
want to recommend this to friends also. They can go to www.HungrySouls.org.
"This is what happens when you walk
in another man’s Crocs®—you begin to live in a kind of commonality, to
strike a kind of kinship."
is hunger for ordinary bread, and there is hunger for love, for
kindness, for thoughtfulness; and this is the great poverty that makes
people suffer so much." -- Mother Teresa
"Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice." -- Nelson Mandela
"My major problem with the world is a problem of scarcity in the midst
of plenty ... of people starving while there are unused resources ...
people having skills which are not being used." -- Milton Friedman
morning our newspapers could read, 'More than 20,000 people perished
yesterday of extreme poverty.' How? The poor die in hospital wards that
lack drugs, in villages that lack antimalarial bed nets, in houses that
lack safe drinking water. They die namelessly, without public comment.
Sadly, sad stories rarely get written." -- Jeffrey Sachs