Children play in a street in Nairobi's Kariobangi slum. People live amid open sewers, piles of garbage, intermittent electricity service.


Children play in a street in Nairobi's Kariobangi slum. People live amid open sewers, piles of garbage, intermittent electricity service.

November 28, 2011

NAIROBI, KENYA -– Normally, Sunday Mass at Holy Trinity Parish in the Kariobangi slum is an energetic celebration that runs for several hours.

But when the pastor, Comboni Father Paulino Mondo, noticed parishioners were starting to faint before Mass ended, he realized it wasn't exuberance that was making them weak. It was hunger.

Now, Sunday Masses last no longer than an hour and 15 minutes, Mondo told American reporters visiting the slum in October. And the usual socializing after Mass in the shaded churchyard has all but evaporated, as people quickly head home to conserve their energy.

"Within Kariobangi, dozens of people are dying every day" of hunger, Mondo said.

The priest said the situation is not only little known outside Kenya, but is a hidden problem right in Nairobi, where food is available, but tens of thousands of people lack money to pay for it.

"People have lost their state jobs because they talked about it," he said.

One recent Sunday, somebody abandoned two toddlers at the church, presumably because they were unable to feed them, said Mondo. They were being cared for by a parish health worker while inquiries were made about the parents.

Spiralling food prices, low wages and high unemployment have put basic commodities out of reach of many, many people. Since March, the price of sugar has jumped from about $6 a kilo to $12, Mondo said.


Though prices are lower in supermarkets in Nairobi, there are only small mom-and-pop shops in Kariobangi. Cooking oil that sells for $7 a can in a supermarket costs $12 in the slum.

Mondo said he believes part of the problem is that the revolution in Libya to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi meant Kenya's main supplier of subsidized gasoline was cut off. Alternate sources were available, but at much higher prices. A litre of gasoline that cost 86 cents in March now costs $1.20, he said, driving up the cost of goods.

Earlier this year, worldwide attention focused on the famine and drought affecting much of the Horn of Africa, including most of Kenya's rural areas. International aid groups are helping to feed and support Africans displaced by that food emergency, including the 460,000 people at the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya.

But, in the capital, Mondo and his staff struggle without much outside help to feed people.

"The drought brought attention to Dadaab and Somalia, but not to the slums, where millions of people live," he said.

"The governments of Africa take from the people, they don't give," he said. "So here, the government is ourselves."

He uses income from his daily 4 a.m. program on the Catholic radio station and from writing articles for religious publications to supplement whatever bits of revenue the parish can pull together.


The Catholic population in Kariobangi is about 69,000, and about 20,000 attend Mass each week. But assistance from Holy Trinity is provided to anyone who needs it in the densely packed slum, where hunger is pervasive.

Fr. Paulino Mondo

Fr. Paulino Mondo

Mosques and many evangelical Christian churches scattered around the slum of 500,000 people do not have the capacity to offer food and the social services available at Holy Trinity, Mondo explained.

"The other churches only meet on Sunday, and some of them have no fixed address," he said.

Mondo and the three other Comboni priests assigned to Holy Trinity staff several satellite churches in Kariobangi. They handle all the typical parish activities - including a class of 2,000 catechumens - and provide food for more than 20,000 students at the Church-sponsored schools.

Their clinic sees 700 people a day and provides food to 100 hungry families a day.

"It's very humiliating for people to come to us," he explained, so people must feel terribly desperate to ask for help.

Many people pick through the block-long pile of garbage along the main road, looking for anything that might be edible. And lately, Mondo has been getting reports of children who leave school and head into the city's wealthier areas to poke for food or beg around hotels.

"If they get caught, they disappear," he said.

Hunger and poverty in Kariobangi also lead to intertribal tensions and increased crime, the priest said: "When there is famine, people become rude, they may take food by force."

Michael Nzuli, 33, is one of the beneficiaries of some of Holy Trinity's services. The father of two said he has trouble getting more than a single day's work ­- usually as a truck driver - each week, because the companies that hire drivers are controlled by people of a different tribe than his.


Since a wave of violence broke out in Kenya following a controversial 2007 presidential election, tribal-based violence has been more pervasive, he said.

"I'm qualified. I'm experienced, but like many people we are affected because of our names," Nzuli said. "It's always been that way, but before it was more hidden."