Giving birth to Jesus in Mombasa
Reading Time: 5 minutes

A Maryknoll lay missioner and community health volunteers serve people with HIV in Kenya slum.

|| Story and photos by Sean Sprague

Coralis Salvador quotes part of a homily a Kenyan priest gave many years ago: “We are the body of Mary and we give birth to Jesus … not by words but by how we relate to one another.“ That message, she says, has kept her on the path she has traveled for almost 18 years as a Maryknoll lay missioner in Mombasa, Kenya. Today we are walking through Gwanahola, a slum on the western outskirts of Mombasa, as Coralis, wearing a giant sun visor, takes us on that path.

As we pass little shacks of mud, cardboard or recycled wooden crates, with tin roofs and mud floors, residents give us a friendly wave.

We come to the home of Nazmin, a tiny woman with a bashful smile, who is HIV-positive. (Her name and the names of other clients are pseudonyms to protect their identity.) Nazmin introduces her 9-year-old son, Ali. He is not only HIV-positive but also deaf. He attends a special school, with costs and uniforms covered by the HOPE Project, which Coralis administers. HOPE, she says, is an acronym for Helping Orphans Pursue Education, a name chosen by the children in the project.

Coralis explains that the HOPE Project is an offshoot of a community-based health care and AIDS relief project, Mombasa Catholic CBHC, started by the late Brother John Mullen in 1997 and modeled after a similar project in Nairobi. HOPE began in 1999 to assist children of CBHC clients. It has served more than 2,600 children.

On our walk, we are joined by Floriana Mwandoe, a social worker and counselor, who will take over Coralis’ job when she retires at the end of 2019. Mary Mwandingo is also with us. She is one of 400 community health volunteers, or CHVs, who visit the sick in their neighborhoods, identifying children in need and helping them get back to school. Mary gives Nazmin some welcome gifts of milk, flour and beans. She explains how essential proper nutrition is for staying healthy while living with AIDS.

Mary Mwandingo and Floriana Mwandoe, community health volunteers, accompany Nazmin, in red and white shawl, and Coralis Salvador, right, in a walk through the Gwanahola slum in Mombasa, Kenya.

Mary Mwandingo, a community health volunteer, left, and social worker Floriana Mwandoe accompany Nazmin, in red and white shawl, and Coralis Salvador, right, in a walk through the Gwanahola slum in Mombasa, Kenya.

Fifteen years ago in Mombasa, those with HIV were virtually under a death sentence. Since 2005, thanks to the widespread use of antiretroviral medicines—free in Kenya—people with HIV can go on living normal, healthy lives if they continue taking their prescriptions. Part of the work of the volunteers is to ensure clients take their medication every day.

Under the auspices of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mombasa, the health volunteers receive training at workshops run in each of 11 parishes by visiting nurses and clinical officers. The CHVs discuss their work in the communities and share the feelings that inevitably come in performing such a heartrending ministry. “As they go from house to house, they must be totally fresh and not carry accumulated emotions around with them,” Coralis explains.

The 71-year-old missioner, who has five grown children and four grandchildren, has a special fondness for the community health volunteers. “The women I work with are prayerful and an inspiration to me,” she says. “They work hard and have their own suffering. … They see God’s presence in their lives because of their strong faith.”

Moving on we come to the home of Mariamu who has had AIDS for many years. She is skin and bones but has an enormous smile. She and her healthy daughter, 12-year-old Halima, live in a single room off a courtyard shared by several families. It is stiflingly hot and dark inside their home. Coralis gives mother and child a hug while Mary gives them flour, beans and milk. Halima is a HOPE client. Receiving a uniform and supplies, she attends a local primary school that otherwise would have been unaffordable, despite school being officially “free” in Kenya. It is the required extras that cost and so exclude many children from education.

Coralis Salvador, left, with community health volunteers Mary Mwandingo and Floriana Mwandoe visit a school where the Hope Project donates uniforms to needy pupils in Mombasa, Kenya.

Coralis Salvador, left, with Mary Mwandingo, a community health volunteer, and social worker Floriana Mwandoe visit a school where the Hope Project donates uniforms to needy pupils in Mombasa, Kenya.

HOPE, Coralis explains, also runs a learning center that provides additional schooling for children on Saturdays. During school holidays the kids come three or four times a week for tutoring and a light meal. The center keeps them off the streets while providing a safe place offering workshops, sports and library books.

Coralis, who was born in the Philippines, says she became sensitized to the needs of people with HIV and AIDS when she lived in San Francisco, Calif., in the 1980s and knew many people who died of the virus before medication was available.

After her children had flown the nest and Coralis was pondering what next, her parish priest suggested she apply to the Maryknoll Lay Missioners. “I contacted them, got approved and here I am, in Kenya since 2001!” she says.

A short-term volunteer, L. Susan Slavin, once came to help in Mombasa and was so moved by Coralis’ work that the two women co-authored an Orbis book titled, What’s so Blessed About Being Poor?

Coralis explains that serving and living in the moment in Africa may sound easy, but it takes a long while to get there. “We have so many attachments and fears and you need to totally surrender,” she says.

Coralis has truly surrendered herself in Africa, while renewing her contract with the Maryknoll Lay Missioners several times. Walking with Coralis along with Floriana, Mary and the other CHVs and seeing their love for the people they serve is seeing Jesus born today.

Featured Image: Maryknoll Lay Missioner Coralis Salvador, right, and social worker Floriana Mwandoe work with Ali, a boy in the HOPE Project.


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About the author

Sean Sprague

Sean Sprague, a freelance photographer and writer living in Wales, U.K., is a frequent contributor to Maryknoll Magazine. Sean travels the world for a wide spectrum of development organizations, the UN and religious societies.