I am walking through the slum on narrow, slippery paths that weave between the close, close dwellings. Underneath my feet is the dense mixture of mud, garbage, plastic bags, and sewage that makes up the foundation of Kibera, Africa’s second largest slum and home to as many as 1 million people. I keep thinking to myself that open sewage and a badly cut toe are a terrible combination.
Because of my wounded foot, I find myself very aware of the footwear on the people around me. Most of the people I see are picking their way across the garbage in cheap, plastic flip-flops. A few have battered, ill-fitting shoes. Many small children are barefoot in this toxic sludge, though the smell of human feces sits densely in the air. I saw one child in a pair of Toms shoes, and it made me grateful and amazed that their promised shoes actually seem to reach kids in a place like this.
We’re being hosted by a pastor who has given his life to working in a corner of this slum, a corner that houses the poorest of the poor. In the midst of this sludge, he has built a church, a school, a feeding program for children, and a shelter for girls who need to escape from the slum altogether. While tiny by American standards, his church is a spacious, solid, dry haven in the midst of the dense housing. He greets every child we pass with joy and affection.
I have carefully bandaged my foot in a waterproof dressing and layers of gauze and tape and have on sturdy, closed-toe leather shoes. During the church service, small children have nuzzled in next to me on all sides, with two little ones leaning in and resting their head against my side. The little boy on my left is wearing a pair of mismatched flip-flops. One is brown and at least three inches longer than his foot. The other one is blue and is broken in half. His toes hang off the edge of the half-sandal. One of the children tried to clean the splatters of mud off of my legs as we sat and listened to the sermon. Another kept stroking my arm and counting my freckles.
I’m tired after today’s walk through the slum. Not so much from the distance or physical strain of the walk, but more from the weight of it. I am humbled by people like Pastor Imbumi who walk into this every day, who walk in to be with those whose feet are planted in this crowded, desperate place every day. And I am reminded that all of these feet are just like mine – needing protection and a safe, clean place to walk.