Kenyan Journal: Preaching and Hanging out of a Helicopter

Monday, January 23rd: Preaching and Hanging out of a Helicopter

Yesterday I gave the homily during the Sunday liturgy in a Jesuit parish in a very poor area. The celebrant was my friend Fr. Bob White, an 81-year-old priest who invited me to teach at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Romeback in the late 1990’s. After he proclaimed the Gospel, he introduced me by telling the people he wanted me to share with them my conversion story and my current work on behalf of the poor. Inexplicably, I was not nervous, and spoke very extemporaneously for about 20 minutes while standing in the aisle without any notes and armed only with a microphone. Once I finished I resumed filming the amazing choir and the exuberant celebration of the Eucharist. After Mass we visited a parish-run program that places children who lost their parents due to AIDS into stable homes; the program pays for the food, medicine and education. In the darkness, a gentle ray of light.

Early this morning I took an hour-long helicopter flight overNairobi, focusing mainly on the massive Kibera slum. The pilot took the door off my side of the helicopter so I could film without any obstacles in the way. It was a bit nerve-wracking, but once I concentrated on the images in the viewfinder it was cool. We also flew to the magnificently beautiful Rift Valley where I filmed (while hanging out of the helicopter!)  a herd of giraffes that were running across the plains. It was a truly majestic sight. We flew very low and got some very dramatic footage. I also filmed zebras and other animals I didn’t even recognize. Once back on terra firma, I filmed in the homes (shacks) of three refugees…each with tragically sad stories, involving torture, rape and incredibly long, hard journeys, often with no food and little water. In the course of a single day, I filmed wild life and life wildly out of control.

Tomorrow I fly to the north ofKenya to the harsh desert area where there is a large refugee camp in Kakuma which houses over 85,000 people. Each year, only about 2,000 refugees from the Kakuma camp are fortunate enough to be resettled to other nations, including theUnited States; but sadly each year another 5,000 new refugees enter the camp…and so the population is constantly growing, and might soon get dramatically worse. Reports indicate that the Kenyan government is about to transfer 200,000 people from the vastly overpopulated and increasingly dangerous Dadaab camp (in the eastern part of the country) to Kakuma, leaving the remaining 200,000 Dadaab refugees behind.

The Dadaab camp is mostly populated by refugees fleeing the famine and violence inSomalia. The farmers ofSomaliahave experienced three years without rain; the severe drought, the worst in 60 years, has destroyed the soil and killed the livestock. Last summer, it was estimated that some 1,300 people a day are arriving the camp in hopes of finding food and medicine. By early August, the Dadaab camp already had a population of over 400,000 people, making it the largest refugee camp on earth. People walked anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to arrive at the camp; many died along the way. Some 29,000 children (most under five years old) have already died of starvation during the last three months, and it is estimated some 3.7 million people are on the verge of starvation. The political chaos that has existed withinSomaliafor the past 20 years has only intensified the effects of the drought.Somalia’s weak central government cannot cope with the crisis. The country is virtually ruled terrorists thugs. Al-Shabab, a ruthless extremist group linked to Al Qaeda, is the dominate force withinSomaliaand they have, until early August, blocked aid groups from delivering food to the starving. In early September, I heard a shocking report that officials predicted that 750,000 people would die of hunger over the next four months. I have no idea what percentage of that prediction was accurate, but it was and still is abundantly clear that the situation is extremely dire.

I will spend three nights in the Kakuma camp and return toNairobion Friday. After ten days of filming extremely difficult things, the refugee camp will be harder still. I am a bit apprehensive, but I know this will be the heart of the film I hope to make. It was the stark and painful images from the Dadaab Refugee Camp that I saw on the news in August of 2011 that prompted me to contact Fr. Bob White inKenyato inquire if the Jesuits would be interested in my trying to make a film on behalf of their heroic work with refugees. One report on the CBS Evening News, one e-mail to Fr. White, many phone conversations with JRS inRomeandNairobi, and now I am on the verge of entering the tormented world of a refugee camp. I am excited…and scared. I am about to walk onto one of the great stages of the suffering world…and I’m not sure I’m ready or will be able to contribute anything that will make any difference in a place replete with deprivations.

Peace and blessings,

Gerry

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