Behind the Smile: Hildah’s Story
“What is your name?”
“How old are you?”
“I am 15-years-old”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be a Neurosurgeon”
“If you can go anywhere in the world, where would you go?”
When I walked into Beth and Hildah’s home in Mathare Slum for one of my first home visits, I sat in the first vacant spot I found (the very end of what- for most Westerners- would be considered a small, torn, and worn couch on the opposite side of the room). We were there to catch up with Beth and assess her condition.
Within two minutes of us being there, Hildah came in from outside, shy and reserved, as most teenage girls would be in a small room of guests. Having other spots to sit down, Hildah walked straight towards me and managed to squeeze in to what I thought, was not a sitting spot at all. As she sat down I noticed how shy and timid she was amongst us and felt her sweet, and innocent energy as the others discussed Beth’s condition including her medication and recent checkups. I must admit, I was in and out of paying attention to what I was really suppose to be doing there.
Being more attracted to the being beside me, I fished my journal from the bottom of my backpack and wrote the first question. We began writing to each other back and forth as the others were discussing amongst themselves. Of course, I tried to make it seem like I was listening and attentive to what was going on. As I wrote down the last question and passed the journal back to Hildah, it was my turn to ask Beth a question. As a worker for the organization, we are to report and know the women’s full story but I felt uncomfortable asking Beth personal life questions as I thought she would feel awkward, violated, or offended; after all, isn’t this a typical reaction in our culture to a stranger (especially a mzungo) asking personal questions? I then realized that it was all about my intentions, and my intentions were to help her and her family. And so I began to ask the questions that the others were thinking, but were unsure of any limits.
“What happened to your husband Beth?”
She replied in Kiswahili, “He passed away in 1997 when Hildah was less than two months old from meningitis. He was very sick one night and went to lie down, and he never woke up. I was alone with a new baby and had to deal with the passing of my husband. After he passed, my in-laws began to harass me and my home, as they wanted nothing to do with me because I was sick. They would cut my clothing line, make sure I had nothing to eat and would haunt me. They wanted our land and forced us out. I had no choice but to move to Mathare Slum. Hildah has grown up in this place, but I had no choice.”
“How do you try to earn money?”
“I try to do jobs for other people but they can’t pay like washing clothes or casual labor. I am also too weak to work and do things. It is hard, I feel stuck. I can’t even clean the house after it rains, when it rains, we have severe flooding here and we often get really sick”.
“What do you want our organization to do for you?”
“My only worry is my daughter, I want her to go to high school and get an education. Living in the slum is not good for a teenage girl like her.”
I turned toward the social worker of our organization, Grace, and asked her, what I thought was a silly question but wanted to know more details, “What happens to a teenage girl here?”
She turned to me and said, “a girl like Hildah, if she doesn’t go to school, she will be corrupted in these parts. They will force her into the prostitution and she will have no choice because her mother is sick and in order to keep her family alive, she will have to do it. Even now, she has to stay in her home and not go outside because of this worry. If she goes to school, gets an education and a job, she will get out of the slums and will take her mom with her. Hildah has done well in her elementary school and has the potential to go all the way to university and become what she wants to do, but she can’t unless she gets the money to go to high school.”
“How do we find the money for this?”
“Through our sponsors. It is hard to find sponsors. If we find one for Hildah, she can go to school”.
Through all of this, I felt Hildah beside me and couldn’t believe how scared and brave of a girl she must be. I then thought of the children and teenagers in my family… I thought about our lives and our opportunities, our supportive system that is all around us and how blessed we all are.
I turned to Hildah and out loud, asked her my last question, “What is your dream Hildah?”
“To go to school and help my mom and family and be a good person”.
I was, to say the least, blown away. A 15-year-old girl with the one dream of an education in order to help her family and be nothing more than a good person; something that most adults struggle with.
I knew right then and there what I needed to do. In my head, I knew that no matter what my situation was, there would be a way for me to sponsor her and couldn’t leave that home knowing and leaving them behind. I had no doubt in the power of intention and belief.
As we left the home, I pulled Grace to the side, “Can I sponsor Hildah?”
Grace pulled back and gave me a look of disbelief. She became teary eyed, “You want to sponsor her? Are you sure?”
“Absolutely, I know I can do it. I know my family back home would even help me if I need it, but yes, I want to do it.”
She then called Hildah outside “Hildah, Amy wants to be your sponsor”
Hildah looked at me in disbelief and through her hands in her face and began to cry. Through her sobs, she grabbed me by the neck and thanked me a thousand times.
“You are now sisters”, said Grace through her own emotions and wrapped her arms around the both of us.
I took hold of Hildah’s arms and said, “As your new sister, I need to tell you that you now have to work as hard as you can to be what you can be. I will always be here, but you have to promise me that you will work hard.” She agreed.
Hildah then lead us toward her front door, the two of us still in her embrace, and yelled for her mom to come outside. Her mom came out looking confused as to why the three of us were sobbing and Hildah shared the news with her in Kiswahili. Beth then fell towards the door and started crying and I felt her relief through her tears. She then grabbed me as well and right then and there I realized that we are all connected- as humans, we have no boundaries. The boundaries and institutions in connecting with someone are often man-made…language barriers, religious segregation, culture, boarders across countries, time and space, are only set by us if we want them there. Once these barriers are forgotten, we are able to truly connect with another person – we can be free.
This story was written by Amy Faria. Amy spent 6 weeks volunteering in Kenya with AIESEC CUEA and it truly changed her life. Thank you Amy for this beautiful story. It’s truly inspirational.