Posted by: hilarycole | November 17, 2007

How to be a Human Being

One of my missions on this trip was to find a woman my dear friends Avchen and Lindsey stayed and worked with seven years ago. Her name was Mama Mercy, so named for dedicating her life to serving the poor children in her community of Rongai. Mama Mercy was the one who brought my friends to Rescue Dada in Nairobi seven years ago to show them the kind of place she dreamed of opening in Rongai. Hence the Vancouver connection to Rescue Dada.

All I had to go on was a photograph of Avchen with Mama Mercy and a group of young schoolchildren, and the name of her town about 1/2 an hour outside Nairobi. Not knowing if she was even still alive, I planned on just getting off a matatu and wandering and asking. Linsdey assured me someone would know. Thankfully, my friend Bart liked the sound of my plan and asked to join.

We arrived late in the afternoon, and got off at the most promising sign – one that indicated there was a Christian Women’s Centre nearby. We walked down the market road, flanked by vegetable and clothing stalls, on ground that was about a 70/30 mix of mud and garbage. We followed the same sign again on a left turn down another lane. Children ran everywhere, all shouting their favourite phrase: “How are you?!”

We started showing the photograph and asking for Mama Mercy, but to no avail. Bart suggested we look for older people to ask, and stopped a woman in a bright yellow fleece. She likely wasn’t much older than me, but she summoned over a very old woman. For a moment we both thought this could even be her, which made us laugh. But after much conversation (Kiswahili way over our heads), we gathered that this quiet woman, with her frail frame and crooked smile, knew who we were looking for. Apparently Mama Mercy was known to her as Mama Mwangi (the mother of Mwangi).

We were now an entourage of about six adults and two children, following Mama Werimu and walking through the slum of Kware, back into what was officially Rongai. We walked for what seemed close to an hour until we reached a quiet lane with a door in the wall. We walked through, and it felt right. There were no lights on in the main dwelling, but Mama Werimu knocked on the door. A young woman came out of an adjacent dwelling and told us that yes, we were in the right place, but Mama Mwangi had left that morning for Narok (not a day trip). My heart sank, but I still wasn’t convinced we were tracking the right woman. We were given a cell phone number, which Bart called to no answer, and we left a note.

We walked back with our group, all the while being told of the massive problems facing this slum – no work, no food, and so many orphans – by two passionnate community leaders, Charles and Beatrice. Charles runs an orphans’ school in Kware and wanted us to see it. First we stopped at a grocery store and bought bags of maize flour, rice, sugar and chai for our group and the orphans. They expected a lot from us and it was hard to draw the line, even though I was both grateful and empathetic.

We spent the next hour or so walking and talking, sitting in each woman’s house, and visiting the orphans’ school – a tiny two-room hut with a small outdoor space. A funeral was happening close by. While there, Bart’s phone rang – it was Mama Mwangi. She was ecstatic when I told her who I was, or more accurately who my friends were, and insisted we stay in her house that night – she would leave Narok early in the morning to be back before noon (she hadn’t even yet arrived at her destination).

We decided to stay, and were asked by our escorts to speak to a group of their community members the next morning about living with HIV/AIDS. I was hesitant, insisting I wasn’t a doctor or expert, but this was what I’d come to Kenya to do. Charles said he would arrange a meeting for 9 a.m.

We were met at Mama Mercy’s sparse but lovely home by her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. The next morning they came back to give us breakfast and lock up as we left for our meeting. At the schoolyard, there were about 25 children, and initially a dozen adults, growing to about 20 as we talked. The meeting opened with a poem recitation by a few of the children. It was about how AIDS had taken their mothers, stolen their fathers and struck down their aunts and uncles, like a tree being cut down. This is what these children recite at school. We mainly answered the group’s questions on a very basic level, and spoke of caring for someone who is sick, with nutrition, medication, love and support.

From the moment we arrived, Charles and Beatrice saw our unexpected visit as an opportunity, and I can’t blame them. After the meeting, they’d arranged for us to sit with a group of six or seven community leaders to talk about how we could help them. The other requests up to this point had been  uncomfortable; it’s difficult to say no when the need is beyond obvious, and short-term handouts don’t feel much like productive support. But this was a meeting about how we could help get people working, to give them something to do and a way to feed themselves. We left with a plan to return with new information from all sides, me after my month in western provice, and Bart in about a week’s time. Stay tuned on this one….

Finally, I was on my way to meet Mama Mercy. She greeted me at her front door like a long-lost daughter. It was heartbreaking to tell her of Avchen’s passing – the visit from Avchen and Lindsey seven years ago had been something she’d prayed for, and was clearly moved by. So we prayed together and talked about her work to help the poor which she had taken throughout the entire country. She told us her “testimonies” from the slums of Kenya, and gave us an insight into how she lives: she gives everything she has, would even give up her own shoes, and has faith that God will continue to provide what she needs. So far, I think she’s onto something.

She pulled out a map of Kenya to show us all the areas where she’s travelled to dig toilets and wells in the most awful of slums. She has not yet established her Rescue Centre in Rongai, but has a budget and a prayer for it. I have no doubt; this woman is truly the most inspiring person I’ve ever been in the company of. And easily the happiest, even laughing at her own toothlessness. Her own life is a testimony on how to be a human being.

We left Rongai, 24 hours after we’d arrived, with plans to go back. I’m in Bungoma now, and helping to teach the HIV/AIDS Education program with an unexpected and wonderful mentor, but I’ll have time for Kware and Mama Mercy before I leave.



  1. Hilary,
    You are a total inspiration to me. You certainly practice what you preach and your loving energy shines through your writing. I used to deliver meals to people with AIDS in Vancouver, for about a year. You are inspiring me to get back into doing something for others again, other than my day job. Much love to you. Keep up the wonderful work my friend. Finally — huge hugs and kisses from Rob and me.

  2. Hilary, I am so moved by your writing. I will never get there due to w/c access, of course, but I am so inspired by you on this pilgrimage. You are making the physical journey, but I feel I’m on an emotional journey with you. Love, Sherry

  3. […] The gist of what has happened since can be read at – the site for the organization a group of us started in Vancouver, mostly to support the work of Mama Mercy (see my 2007 post How to be a Human Being). […]

  4. […] with Mama Mercy on the Children’s Centre in Kiserian has taken off, with lots of community members and […]

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