Amen: Nairobi, Kenya

In the Nairobi apartment I shared with Dr. Abdi and her family lived two women who helped with the cooking, the cleaning, and the caring for Dr. Abdi’s grandson, Ahmed.

Anabey, 18, is the veteran—she grew up in Dr. Abdi’s camp and had been living with the family, in Nairobi, for more than a year. In 1994 Dr. Abdi delivered Anab in a procedure so complicated that her grateful mother promised that her daughter would come to Dr. Abdi’s aid if the need ever arose. When Dr. Abdi and her family was forced into exile following a 2010 attack on the camp, Anab left the camp for a new life in Kenya. In exchange for her help, Dr. Abdi and her daughters have promised to put Anab through school—beginning in the first grade, with homeschooling—until she achieves her goal of becoming a qualified nurse. She is now in the fourth grade; her English has improved astoundingly since I first met her one year ago. (Here she is, last year, with her teacher.) As the situation in the camp worsens, and the threat of airstrikes loom, her face and her gait grow heavy.

“Oh, Sarah, I don’t know,” she said with a wan smile, as she poured batter for anjara, or pancakes, onto the stove. “One minute you’re talking with your mother, and the next minute, BOOOM, she’s dead.”

Dorcas and Anab, Nairobi, March 5, 2012

Dorcas, a Kenyan woman in her late 30s, with a kind, patient demeanor and a beautiful smile, was hired during my stay. One Sunday Dorcas came in with the manager of Dr. Abdi’s daughter’s women’s health clinic; the next day, she was in the kitchen cooking and spending the night on a foam mattress on the living room floor. Dorcas is a gospel singer—her cell phone ringtone is one of her own compositions. She turned to Jesus, and to music, she told me, after her husband was shot, and her young daughter died of an illness a short while later.

On my last day in Nairobi, Dorcas came to us, where I was sitting and interviewing Dr. Abdi, and Anab ran in after her excitedly. “We are going to pray!” says Anab. Dorcas seemed suddenly bashful, explaining that she had already prayed, but that she had something to say.

I had been so tense, all day, waiting for word from Deqo about whether it would be safe to approve a proposal for Angelina Jolie to share Dr. Abdi’s story at a star-studded Women in the World event that Thursday evening. Waiting, too, for Dr. Abdi to give me enough time to finish the work on our book that we had started, which had been interrupted last year by my father-in-law’s unexpected death and now, each day, by new reports of terror in the camp. Would the evaporating hours compromise our work?

Dorcas beckoned to Anab and the two of them came over to Dr. Abdi and me. We sat in a circle—one evangelist Christian, two Sufi Muslims, one Jew. We respectfully held hands and closed our eyes as Dorcas beseeched the Holy Father, in the name of Jesus, to protect Mama Hawa and her people and to deliver pain and discomfort onto the militants persecuting them. Her speech was almost incantatory, sometimes brutal, and repetitive, as she asked again and again that night for a sign, a positive sign. Her voice dropped off at the end, after a statement of certainty and faith.

Our eyes remained closed, as we sat awkwardly, and after awhile my neck became stiff. I felt the burn of anxiety drop lower in my chest, replaced by twin throbs: a calm, steady disbelief and its correlate—a strong, disembodied belief that the words would be heard, that something would happen. It cannot go on like this, I thought. It is not right. Yes, I wanted to say to Dorcas, it will be the way that you said—this God, that brings Dr. Abdi so much faith, he has to listen. But I simply opened my eyes, and along with Dr. Abdi, I thanked Dorcas for what did feel like a gift.

When Dorcas and Anab disappeared again behind the swinging kitchen door, I sat quietly. We had stopped my digital recorder while going over the logistics of how Medecins Sans Fronteirs had built up Dr. Abdi’s area in 2007, and I’d started making a list, but I did not want to go back to my notebook. Still hunched over from the hand-holding exercise, I finally looked up to meet Dr. Abdi’s eyes.

“She knows how to pray,” said Dr. Abdi, with pride and delight. “She knows.”

One thought on “Amen: Nairobi, Kenya

  1. We strongly believe that Dr. Hawa Abdi deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, for her decades of non-political work for the relief of human suffering, her tireless aid to women and infants in Somalia, and nonviolently combating and overcoming deep inter-communal divisions. We are asking people to give their support to the cause of Dr. Abdi for the Nobel by writing the Nobel Committee. Please send an e-mail on the following pattern to:

    Den Norske Nobelkomité
    Det Norske Nobelinstitutt
    Henrik Ibsens Gate 51
    0255 Oslo, Norway

    Dear Nobel Committee,

    We support the cause of Dr. Hawa Abdi for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. Thank you for your consideration.”

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