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A child’s scream in a Kenya shack

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sue Sprenkle, the International Mission Board’s overseas correspondent for Africa, has reported from that continent for the last 10 years. She remains haunted by the atrocities she witnessed during Kenya’s post-election violence earlier this year – and continues to wonder about the fate of one little boy. Warning: contains graphic content.

NAIROBI, Kenya (BP)–An ocean of sticks, clubs and machetes wave to the low, rhythmic chants of Kenyan youths. Nearly 100 gather to protest the fate of their country in a small slum in Nairobi.

A few hundred yards away, government forces dressed in protective gear form a line to keep them from advancing — riot shields raised, guns and tear gas bombs poised. A water cannon truck moves into position.

Chants of “No justice, no peace!” grow in volume. The mantra steadily gains power. Stones start to fly.

Youths in the front line try to advance through milky gray clouds of tear gas while the rest break ranks and run down three-foot-wide paths between shacks, eyes bloodshot, filled with anger, looking to wreak havoc on anyone who is not a member of their tribe. Police chase after them, but it’s useless. There’s no way to keep up with the spreading frenzy.

Screams echo from every direction as people are pulled from their homes and savagely beaten. People run screaming, desperately searching for safety.

In chaos like this, it is difficult to differentiate one scream from another -– but today is different. I hear a piercing wail octaves above the others. I put away my notebook and camera and follow the sound.

I step over makeshift barricades, walk through the black tar smoke of burning tires and jump over open sewage. Rioting youths run past, raising their pangas (machetes) and rungus (clubs) to the sky in triumph. They want their picture taken and strike a pose reminiscent of conquering heroes. I ignore them. I am focused on finding the source of the heart-wrenching sound.

I am closer, but run into another group of youths looting and pulling apart meager slum dwellings. It’s not difficult. Walls of thin, corrugated metal are knocked over with a couple blows. They tire of this and set the homes on fire. There’s dancing and singing and celebration.

The scream gets louder and more intense. I cover my ears. I don’t want to go on. Something inside me warns against finding the source of this sound, but it pierces my soul. I continue on.

Feet sprawl from the door of a smoking, tattered shack. An older youth ahead on the path looks at me. He smirks, then kisses a bloody panga before raising it in the air. I know what just happened.

Another blood-curdling scream brings my attention back to the shack. I take a deep breath and step inside. Someone must still be alive.

On the floor is a young woman. Blood oozes from a gash in her head and pools on the dirt floor around her.

A toddler stands next to his dead mother. Tears drop from his round cheeks and splash in his mother’s blood.

He runs to the only chair not overturned in the ransacked house. He crawls up on it and turns his back to me -— as if hiding -— and continues to scream.

I look up and down the smoke-filled path to find help, but everyone has fled. I step over the mother’s body and into the blood. The closer I get to the toddler, the louder he screams. I know I scare him, but I have to get him to safety.

I pick him up. He kicks and hits me. He screams in my ear.

It’s the scream that drew me here.

Months later, the toddler’s cry and other sounds of terror still haunt my sleep. I wake up wondering what happened to him. I wonder if he still sees the attacker as I do when my eyes are closed. I wonder if he survived the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp I took him to.

My mind constantly plays the “what if” game. What if I had followed the sound just a few minutes earlier? What if I had not stopped to take a picture en route? Would the mother still be alive? What if I had brought the toddler home with me? What if he ends up on the street or in an orphanage because no one claims him?

I can never answer these questions. It is Christ’s love that draws us to these things.

I close my eyes and hear his haunting scream once again. On some level, I never want to forget that sound.