My second day in Nairobi is one I will never forget. I’m writing this now the day after landing back home after a visit to Kenya with Comic Relief.
On Wednesday we headed to Kibera, a huge slum, home to around 200,000 people. I spent the day with a 10-yea-old boy called Godfrey. His dad died a few years ago and his mum died in September, both from HIV-related illness. The drugs to fight HIV are available from the government but to take them you need food in your stomach.
Godfrey's mum was working hard, earning enough to feed him and his 16-year-old brother Maxwell as well as herself. She was managing her HIV well until work slowed down. What followed was a catastrophic domino effect that would change Godfrey’s life forever. Less work for Godfrey’s mum meant less money for food. When food was available, she would, like any mum, make sure her sons were fed first; so she went without, which meant taking her HIV tablets on an empty stomach left her sick.
By her reasoning, if she was ill she’d be too weak to find more work so she stopped taking her medicine. This meant that her immune system became too weak and once Aids-related illnesses got her in their grip, it was too late. Maxwell left school to try to earn some money doing casual labour so he could feed his brother and mum. He did, and is still doing, his absolute best but it wasn't and still isn't enough. Their mum died leaving the boys alone and Maxwell continues to try each day to scrape together enough to look after his little brother.
He’s so bright and desperately wants to go to school but they can’t afford the small fees. Most days he just sits in his shack alone
Just a month after their mum’s death, like the most shitty icing on the world’s crappiest cake, an exploded cooking gas canister started a fire that tore through 14 shacks in the slums and burnt Maxwell and Godfrey’s home to the ground completely destroying the few possessions they had, including all the photos of them and their mum. If this was a film plot this last event would be edited out for being too much. But this is real life. Godfrey is just 10. Can you imagine?
I hear about Godfrey before I meet him. I’m nervous – he’s probably still in shock at losing his mum and he’s definitely still grieving. How do you process all this as a young child? How do I, a complete stranger, swoop in to ask him all about it?
Luckily I’m not alone. Joining me is Lorna, an incredible woman from the slums, who is a community healthcare volunteer from AMREF, a project funded by Comic Relief. Lorna is a mum of five herself and is completely skint; her expenses are covered but the work she does is voluntary. Thanks to money from Red Nose Day, Lorna and other women like her work in the slums offering support and advice, and visiting families to make sure people take their medicine. So as well as trying to feed and look after her own kids (she’s trying to start a small business selling second-hand clothes) she’s responsible for an astonishing 20 families.
Lorna is Godfrey’s community healthcare volunteer but she’s much more than that; when I see them together its clear she's his nurse, aunt, counsellor and confidante rolled into one. She's the boys’ lifeline. After their house burnt down, she took them in for a few days, then persuaded a slum landlord to rent them a tiny shack.
It’s here that I meet Godfrey. He’s withdrawn and very quiet. We sit in the dust in the narrow alleyway outside his mud shack and with the help of Lorna, I ask him about his life. Nearby, haggard ducks dig their bills into open sewage, eating what they can. Their are a lot of flies and in the distance a baby cries.
All the times I’ve watched Red Nose Day on the telly and now I find myself sitting here in the dust with a little boy who has nothing and my heart breaks for him.
We pause the filming and I chat to Godfrey and somehow make him laugh by half-telling and half-miming a silly story about brushing my son’s teeth, flipping my head back and making gargling noises. He laughs and it’s there, just – a fleeting brightness in his eyes, and his giggles make my soul soar. We hang out all day and I fall for him. He’s so bright and desperately wants to go to school but they can’t afford the small fees. He proudly shows me his school books, neat sums written in pencil but fading now as he can only afford to go very occasionally. Most days he just sits in his shack waiting for Maxwell to return.
It feels completely hopeless but there is hope. Donations to Red Nose Day fund this project, allowing Lorna to visit Godfrey and stop him falling through the cracks. He’ll often go to her home and play with her sons. She goes above and beyond her responsibilities, saving an extra portion of dinner for him, trying to bargain with the boys’ landlord about rent and trying to persuade the school to let him attend. Without the money from Comic Relief supporting AMREF she wouldn't be there at all and I dread to think what would happen to the boys and the other families she looks after.
I’ve brought with me a bag of pads, books, pens, dominoes and plasticine. Once the main filming has stopped I have time to read Godfrey a story. I teach him how to draw a horse – a talent I perfected at school when I probably should’ve been concentrating in class. As the minutes slip by, I feel more and more sick at the thought of saying goodbye to Godfrey. I feel like now our paths have crossed, our lives are some how meshed together. I vow to myself I will return.
I know this isn't a Hollywood movie. I can’t pluck Godfrey from this horror and take him home though I admit I’ve fantasised about it a lot. There is hope though, Comic Relief is there. If you help them they’ll help all the angelic Lornas in the world and the thousands of Godfreys that desperately need your support.
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Red Nose Day is on March 24, comicrelief.com