“Ni wewe, ni wewe bwana.”
The chorus of voices began to swell as 170 children and parents joined the refrain in unison.
“Ni wewe, ni wewe bwana,” they continued singing in Swahili. The melody filled the tent in which the community gathered that morning, spilling onto the red dirt roads outside, pouring over the entire neighborhood it seemed.
“Ni wewe, ni wewe bwana. He is the Lord, He is the Lord” was the reverberating anthem.
Four years ago, there was no tent or swelling song in this Kenyan village called Shimo La Tewa. Just the same red dirt roads filled with roaming children and little hope of a future beyond a sinking community. But on that Friday morning in November, the roads of Shimo La Tewa were empty as parents and teachers gathered to celebrate the graduation of 25 bright-eyed children from primary school. They still call Shimo a slum, but you wouldn’t have known it on that day.
The story of Shimo La Tewa is one of transformation and the team that helped start it all four years ago knows best. “We have really seen so many good changes over the past several years,” says Julia, the current leader of the International Teams ministry in Kitale, called Heart of Help. She was part of the original team that ventured into Kitale in 2008 and recognized the poignant needs in that nearby slum. In fact, Shimo La Tewa literally means “a hole in the ground” in Swahili, and in so many ways, the slum lived up to its inauspicious name. Brian Otieno Owino is another member of the Heart of Help team that has seen the needs and challenges in that slum firsthand. “Shimo has always been associated with bad things,” says Brian, who grew up in Nairobi but moved to Kitale two years ago to pastor a community church in Shimo. “Thieves, prostitution, drinking, it was really bad before.”
But transformation began in 2008, and it started with a simple observation. “When we first came, we saw so many children outside in the streets with nowhere to go,” Julia remembers. “So we decided to just start telling Bible stories in the streets. On the first day, over 60 kids came.” From those simple beginnings, the team launched a primary school and feeding program in Shimo and watched with excitement as it grew rapidly.
Today, 135 children from around Shimo come for class and lunch five days a week. They rush through the gate each morning with wide-eyes and endless energy, simply knowing someone wants to seem them that day, knowing someone is waiting for them. They fill wooden benches inside small classrooms where volunteers from the community help the team with teaching and translation. And before long, the sounds of small voices fill the air, singing songs, repeating English words, reciting Bible verses, and learning simple math. And outside, the red dirt roads remain quiet.
But for children in Shimo, primary school is just one step in a long struggle. The simple reality is that few in Shimo could ever make it beyond the dusty streets of that slum without the support of their families and a full education. But public elementary schools in Kenya require a basic entry exam and fees that virtually no family in that slum could afford. “These kids, they look at themselves and say ‘my father is here, my grandfather was here, where will I go?’” Brian explained with a shake of his head. “It is the mentality that we need to change.”
Thus, the Heart of Help team decided from the beginning that their primary school would help on two fronts: first they accept all children without charge for three years and subsequently pay for their entry fees into public schools. And second, they provide parents with business classes throughout that same time. “So while the children are receiving a free education, the parents are learning as well,” Brian explains. “That way, they can be better equipped to provide and care for their families.”
Over the years, the team’s work in Shimo La Tewa has expanded well beyond just the school, and for a very simple reason: real change requires real investment on many levels. That reality has caused the team to ask not only how they can educate children but also empower young mothers, care for orphans, and build a strong spiritual community in Shimo as well. From opening an orphanage to starting church home groups, or holding business classes for parents and vocational training programs for young women, the team has pushed to provide families in Shimo with the tools they need to stand on their own and grow. Most recently, the team opened a salon in the heart of the village where local women can earn money styling hair and selling hand-made goods. The hope is that it will offer women dignity and promise where before there was only the shame of hunger or prostitution.
Julia and Brian both say that parents in Shimo have started doing so much more for their children in the past two years, starting with simple necessities like feeding them better and bathing them regularly. “I’ve seen lots of parents changing,” Brian says with his characteristic gentle voice and bright smile. “God has started changing lives in Shimo.”
This is the power of real investment and you need not look far to find its impact in real lives. And also, to remember what a life without it looks like. The homeless children on the nearby streets of Kitale serve as a constant reminder of the latter. Visit those busy streets any day and it won’t be long before you meet a boy like David. Thirteen years of life have left him parentless and with little more than a trash heap at the edge of town on which to live. Kids like David spend most of their days scouring the streets for food, raising trouble for those smaller and weaker than themselves, and sniffing glue to forget their problems.
But visit the school in Shimo any given morning and you will glimpse the power of love. It’s written all over the dimpled cheeks and bright, round eyes of a girl named Mary. The little nine-year-old is the best in her class but she will just giggle and hide her face if you say so. Little Roy may not be the top of his class, but you won’t find a child more eager to hold your hand or give you endless high-fives. If you wait long enough, a mentally handicapped boy named Brian will likely wander out from class to say good morning. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he will answer without fail each time you ask how he is doing. Brian may not be able to learn much but the team welcomes him to school like every other child, with open arms and open hearts.
If you had been there that Friday morning in November, you would have seen it too. “Ni wewe, ni wewe bwana” they keep on singing, parents, children and teachers all gathered together. The words are a flood and they seem to cover the soiled reputation and dark history of this place. Because Shimo La Tewa is no slum today. It is a community, one that is growing and slowly being redefined by grace, love, and hope. Perhaps pastor Brian said it best as he stepped to the front at the end of the ceremony and placed his hands on the flock of little graduates. “We thank you, oh God, for the glorious work you have been doing in these lives and this community. And we know, Father, that this is just the beginning.”
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Please pray for the community of Shimo La Tewa and the Heart of Help team working there. Pray that the Lord would continue to transform lives and families in Shimo as people grow closer to Him and better equipped to stand in the hope of a better future. Also, the team in Kitale needs partners to make the ministry possible and there are many ways you can get involved, from sponsoring a child, to donating goods, to actually helping on the ground with short term teams. Please don’t hesitate to email Andrew and me HERE if you have any questions or would like to get in touch with the team.
See the kids, the school, and more for yourself here