Sept. 12th, 2011 began just like any Monday morning in the Sinai slums of Nairobi. People started their day with conversations and chai, and children played in the narrow, filthy passageways between tiny metal shacks. Within hours the day turned tragic, altering thousands of lives forever.
A gas pipeline running underneath this slum had become dangerously exposed in places. In 2008, a Kenyan TV story eerily prophesied impending doom because of Sinai’s pipeline. No official reports were ever released detailing what happened, but a leak somehow developed in the line. Slum residents took advantage of this “free” offering and began collecting gas for cooking, spilling it on the way back to their shacks. Some later blamed a cigarette, others a random spark for turning the ghetto into an instant inferno that morning. A huge section of the slum was suddenly blown flat by a massive explosion that consumed all of the densely packed homes where fuel had been taken.
125 people died a horrific death in the blast – many children. Over 100 people sustained terrible burns and remained hospitalized for months suffering from their injuries.
We had already planned to attend a church in the adjacent slums with a visiting team on Sept. 18th. That first Sunday after the explosion, as we reached the huge blast site, we were overcome with sorrow at what we saw. After singing and praying on the burned patch, we left burdened for the few survivors who had escaped the reach of the blaze. We prayed for God to use us, and asked Him to bring beauty from these ashes.
Just days later we got a call about 5 children orphaned by the explosion. Their mothers were cousins, named Margret and Esther, remarkably born on the same day in 1985. They had grown up as best friends, attending the same schools and graduating together. The 2 moved to the Sinai slum and lived next door to each other, raising their children together.
On that fateful morning, the older children (Esther, Joel, and Brian) left early for school. Soni (3) played outside, and 4-month-old Joseph (JoJo) slept inside. The mothers were having chai when they heard a huge explosion and screams. They ran out, leaving the baby in the house, and encountered another flash explosion that left them severely burned. The fire raged toward where Joseph slept before leaving the house standing and the baby unscathed. These two mothers had apparently not participated in taking fuel that did not belong to them, which spared their children. Ironically, it was their concern for others that was to cost them the most.
Margret and Esther were rushed to the same hospital where they survived for 4 days. On Friday, Sept. 16th Esther died at 9am and Margret at 8pm, both succumbing to the effects of massive burns.
The extended family loved these 5 children and came from a rural town to their rescue. They wanted to keep them together, yet no one had the means to take in all five kids permanently. At the mass funeral in Nairobi, our local chief, who happened to attend, heard about the orphans. He connected this family with our home as an option for them to consider. With heavy hearts, they came to visit. When the grandfather first saw the empty crib that could be JoJo’s, he walked over, gently touched it, and began to weep. The grandmother remarked simply that NV looked like heaven. They left smiling, blessing our staff, their countenance now much lighter.
Within days, the five refugees arrived at NV, still grieving the losses of their mothers. They exited the back of our Land Cruiser into a rejoicing family, ready to welcome them to a place that was just beginning to understand loss, and learning to make room for the wounded.
As the years have passed by gloriously, like the magical fairy dust from a Disney wand brushes happiness into a scene, over 40 other little ones have joined them somehow. We cannot say exactly how it happened, or why God allowed the worst things to turn out so great. He formed a new family from scratch on a once-dead piece of land, a big and beautiful testimony to second chances. A recent photo of Esther in a colorful dress, taken 4 years after her coming, tells it all.
But such is the nature of God, who renders beauty from the ashes of slum fires, and who writes happy endings for stories we’d rather not hear at first. If you don’t know His handiwork when you see it, you will not know Him by name. But if you do, you will call on that name when all is bleak, and sing it to the heavens when He shows up and does the impossible in your own life. There will be days when all of us face the tragically sudden, and like Esther we may just find that in rising from the ashes, we now bear a better image. And that extra garment which we now wear will have a greater purpose. It will speak volumes, reminding the world about a beautiful God, who made us more than we could have been before those days we thought we’d never survive.
Co-written by Bob and Julie Mendonsa