I’ve Moved!

Just a quick note to all of my wonderful followers to let you know I’ve recently begun a new WordPress blog, which can be accessed at www.comealivewithme.wordpress.com. The blog still follows my adventures in Kenya, though it has a lot more information about Flying Kites and the outreach program I work with, Oasis. You’ll find a lot of new pictures and several posts I spent the better part of this morning uploading!

There is a place where you can subscribe to that blog the same way you did this one and continue to get email updates when I upload a new post (which I promise to do more frequently).  It would mean a lot to me if you subscribed on my new site!!

See you over at www.comealivewithme.wordpress.com! Nakupenda sana

Hannah

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

16 Homes – 1,200 Children – $8,000

Last weekend, as I strolled through the stalls of the Union Square Holiday Market in Manhattan, admiring intricate handmade jewelry, blown glass ornaments and furry parkas for lap dogs, I flashed back to this season last year. I had been in Kenya for about a month and was officially smitten with the kids. I remember traveling to Nairobi to purchase presents for them – toy cars, playing cards, dolls and books – and being approached by several street children with their hands out as we exited the store. At the time, I felt that since I was already helping orphans, I could feel morally okay about passing these children by. After all, how much can one person do? But it didn’t keep me from wondering where those children would be sleeping that evening.

A month later, I was given the opportunity to begin Oasis, a program that would address the problems faced by those orphaned street children and the tens of thousands like them who reside in Nairobi’s slums. The rest, as they say, is history.

I fear I have not been clear enough in what it is specifically that I do for Flying Kites. While every employee, by default, advocates for and provides general fundraising support to the 21 children who reside at our center, my program has nothing to do with Flying Kites Leadership Academy. Yes, those are the children I fell in love with over a year ago, but they are not the children my program assists. Yes, it’s an accomplishment to be proud of that we have a brand new primary school, a clinic under construction and a library scheduled to break ground early next year; however those are not the accomplishments of Oasis. Yes, we provide exemplary care to our 21 orphans, but that is not the care Oasis is concerned with. We are proud to educate 68 children from the local village and employ over 20 Kenyan staff, but Oasis does not pay their salaries.

Oasis seeks to build the capacity of well led orphanages in Nairobi’s slums by sharing a proven model of operation, establishing a forum for communication and facilitating greater access to resources. The Flying Kites model emphasizes extraordinary care and expects extraordinary results, but we understand that our model is not replicable for the 50,000 orphaned children in need of care in Kenya; children who currently reside on the streets or in overcrowded orphanages. The remaining 1.5 million orphans are cared for by immediate or extended family and friends. Our team has climbed many mountains to get to where we are today and there are certain to be more obstacles in the future, but we have learned some valuable lessons along the way. Oasis is our way to share these lessons; it is our answer to those children begging outside the Nakumatt in Nairobi. If I were to pass by them today, I could be assured that I was, in fact, working to brighten their future as well.

And we have. Brightened their future, that is. For the approximately 1,200 children served by the pilot phase of our Oasis program over the past 7 months, we have absolutely made a difference. Frannie Noble, my counterpart in Kenya has racked up some significant achievements in her first six months on the ground. She organized the inaugural Oasis conference for the 16 homes in our pilot group, bringing home directors together and creating a sense of community, reflected by the testimonials of our members in follow up conversations.

In partnership with the Divinity Foundation, she arranged for over 350 children in the Oasis program to attend a free clinic; here, children received checkups, immunizations and antibiotics. She has formed a partnership with the Mwelu Foundation, a photography program begun by Julius Mwelu, a former street child, that puts digital cameras in the hands of children in the slums, allowing them to both document their daily life and learn a valuable trade. Julius’ work has been featured all over the world and he organizes gallery exhibits for his foundation’s work around Nairobi. [Incidentally, we are currently collecting used, out of date, digital cameras so that we may empower the children in our Oasis homes. Please email me for information on how to donate.] The non-profit branch of a LA film company, GoodMakers Films will be sending a documentary film crew to visit our Oasis homes in the summer of 2011, filming the children as they prepare for a dance competition hosted by Kenyan popstar, Jimmie Gait.

Since Frannie has been home for her holiday break, we have both met and spoken with a number of organizations that are looking forward to connecting with her once she returns to Kenya. The two of us have been heavily involved with our creative director in the development of the main Oasis website, which will host sites for each of our member homes, allowing us to direct donations and volunteers. We expect this site to be live in the next few weeks and are preparing homes to receive their first round of international volunteers in June 2011.

As the US Program Manager of Oasis, I continue to seek these strategic partnerships both here and abroad so that we may increase our capabilities and capacity to create an all-inclusive support system for our member homes in Kenya. We have settled into a micro/macro routine that has served us well. Frannie is able to concentrate on managing the day-to-day concerns and problems faced by our member homes – problems which often require her intervention or support –and I can concentrate on “big picture” outreach and networking tasks.

An additional task of mine is to help raise monthly operating costs so that Frannie and Oasis can continue to function in Nairobi. This was a part time position for me until November; we had managed to live month to month for the past half year, but realized recently that we can’t in good faith send Frannie back to Kenya before we have at least 6 months operating costs in the bank. Neither of us is particularly happy with the idea of putting our program on hold while we concentrate on fundraising, but we understand it is a necessary delay, one that will allow us to hit the ground running. Flying Kites Leadership Academy has been, and will continue to be the priority for general Flying Kites funding; we will not compromise on our commitment to excellence, and that includes directing our operating costs to other programs. Oasis needs to be a self-sufficient program.

I got started on organizing three separate fundraisers in Massachusetts as soon as my previous commitment concluded, which will take place in late January and early February and Frannie has organized a small event in her hometown next month. I have a number of potential partnerships in the works here in NYC which promise to be consistent, long term sources of income, but in order to ensure that Oasis can continue to help the orphaned children in Kenya, we need immediate funds. We are both reaching out to our existing networks for one more holiday appeal.

Last year, I spent Christmas Eve visiting the poorest families in our village of Njabini, handing out paper sacks full of flour, maize, cooking fat and lentils – enough to feed a family for a week or so. If you missed the post, you can read it here. Forgive my holier-than-thou tone, but it would be behoove all of us to remember that there are hundreds of millions of people in the world who don’t have the luxury to take a holiday break the way we are privileged to be able to. I begrudge no one their indulgences this time of year; you all work very hard year round to provide for yourselves, your family and perhaps those less fortunate in your community as well. But, I am going to specifically and directly ask that you remember Oasis this year when you budget for your giving.

Oasis indirectly assists over 1200 orphans in the largest, toughest slums of Nairobi. I will tell you right now, these kids aren’t having trouble going to bed Christmas Eve because they’re listening for the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof or wondering if Santa will eat the cookies they left out. They may, however, have trouble going to bed because their stomachs are growling with hunger, or they are missing their parents they don’t even remember as they lay there, scared and lonely. There will be no presents sitting under a tree for them to open on Christmas morning; some of them may be lucky to have breakfast. Oasis is connecting children’s homes with services to help improve the conditions these children exist in, so that they may begin to thrive instead of just survive.

Several homes within the Oasis program are rescue centers with 6 or 12 month rehabilitation programs for street children. Many of the boys are addicted to glue; the fumes in a concentrated dose stave off hunger pangs but have deadly consequences for their young bodies (I have seen the devastating effects of this drug firsthand and would not wish it on my worst enemy). The majority of the girls rescued from the streets are involved in the sex trade, selling their bodies to feed their siblings and perhaps an ailing grandmother. 66% of girls in Kibera – Africa’s largest slum, located in Kenya – routinely trade sex for food by the age of 16. Many begin as early as 6. Workshops and resources offered by Oasis assist the rescue centers to provide the proper education, counseling and care to these fragile children.

As it stands right now, Frannie can not continue to do her important work through Oasis with these homes because she will be stuck in the states as we strive to pad our bank account. We will not be able to connect some of these homes with the life-saving resources we have access to. We risk falling behind on our schedule to have these homes ready to receive volunteers by June 2011. Volunteers not only provide a source of income for homes, but serve as ambassadors for the orphanage upon return to their home communities.

So these next few weeks, as you sit around the fire with your families, listening to your favorite holiday tunes and watching the snow fall outside your window, please remember that for so many citizens of the world, December is just another month. December is another 31 days of worrying about where the next meal will come from or where the next night will be spent. The word Oasis represents a haven, a sanctuary, a refuge. Help us continue to carry out the tenants of this program.

We need $8,000 in the bank before Oasis can continue to do good.

Give a little. Give a lot. GIVE. The wellbeing of 1,200 children rests in the balance.

 www.firstgiving.com/fkoasis

Flying Kites

61 Greenpoint Ave, Suite 501

Brooklyn, NY 11222

Designate Oasis in the memo line of all checks

*For more information on past events or the day to day life of Frannie in Nairobi, please visit www.movewiththeshakers.wordpress.com*

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Come Alive With Me

I have been meaning to write this post for some time now. I kept putting it off. To be fair, I’ve had other things going on, but who doesn’t? Frankly, I had been meaning to post an update since I got home from Kenya, six months ago. Really dropped the ball there. This past weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a fellows’ summit for StartingBloc, the institute for social innovation that helped change my life nearly two years ago, opening my mind to the possibility of making some changes and perhaps doing something different. Which I’d like to think I did. But, this post isn’t about the conference, though it was the catalyst for opening a fresh word document this morning and hunkering down to write as I gaze at the Empire State Building through the hail and sleet that is this Monday, November 8th – World Orphans Day.  November 8th holds a special place in my heart for a different reason; it marks 365 days since I arrived in Kenya, and I came alive.

I’ll begin with a quick update: Flying Kites has gone through some amazing transformations in the past few months. We have officially relocated to Brooklyn, NY from Newport, RI. While we are keeping a presence in Newport, the bulk of our business will be conducted out of the Brooklyn office. We have an incredible open space in an old pencil factory, with the team apartment 4 blocks away, which will make for a quick commute in the blustery winter months. Personally, I am in the process of transitioning here full time. I plan to be moved in by the end of the month!! This is incredible for a number of reasons; I’m not embarrassed to say that one of them is that I will finally be out of my parent’s house, where I’ve set up camp for the past 6 months, working part time for Flying Kites, and full time on my father’s congressional campaign. It’s been a convenient solution, but I think we all agree that a 26 year old social butterfly needs to be out and about in the city, not stranded in the suburbs with her parents… I will admit though, just typing this makes me miss the gas fireplaces, 800 HD channels, DVR and free food…

This transition feels like fate for Flying Kites. The connections, meetings and networking we have been a part of over the past 6 weeks are remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that it is my HONOR to announce to those who have not yet heard, that we recently received an anonymous $100,000 donation. The significance of this donation has not been lost on us. We are now able to purchase the RV needed to launch our country-wide MyTurn tour in January, which promotes Flying Kites to Greek chapters at colleges and universities nationally. We can also let our breath out a little bit when it comes to covering operating expenses both here and in Kenya, funding additional construction on Flying Kites Leadership Academy’s campus, and of course, we can pad the ever-present, “emergency” fund. There’s nothing like an unforeseen vehicle repair or doctors visit to tighten our belt for another month.

Not to discount the enormity of this donation, but realistically, running a home for 19 children (yep, we have 19 now), trying to fund a $1.8 million dollar capital campaign and running our programs (including my Oasis program) both here and abroad, $100,000 is a drop in the bucket. And remember, we’re not paying ourselves with this money. We. Are. Full. Time. Volunteers. Right now the priority is our children; at some point, we hope to be able to compensate ourselves as well. Our hope is that this donation will inspire others to give big.

At capacity, the FKLA campus will be home to 150 orphaned and vulnerable children. Children who are, as you read this, living on the streets, or in unbearable home situations, some spending their days caring for sick parents, grandparents, or siblings, others unsure of where they will sleep tonight; children who have been forced to grow up too quickly, and with no fanfare. Right now, our temporary home is nearly at capacity. The sooner we have the funding to build these dorms, the sooner we can give these children the childhood they deserve. The childhood that it is their right to have.

Overwhelming, I know. Where does one begin to give? Where will your money have the most immediate impact? Can’t afford to build a dorm? A school is too expensive?

Sponsor a child.

Flying Kites staff and volunteers have given ourselves the challenge to have all 19 of our children fully sponsored by January 1, 2011. Full sponsorship of every one of our children covers ~85% of operating costs. That means that additional donations will go towards the larger projects that need funding.  

It’s not my place to tell you the story of each of these children, but really, I shouldn’t have to. You know by the fact that they are at our home that they have had a rough time of things for the first few years of their lives. No child should have the experiences these children have had. No, what they have been through are things that shouldn’t be part of anyone’s childhood memories. These are my memories. Help us make them theirs as well: Birthday parties. Watching the same movie so often it wears out. Water parks. Pizza. Games of hide-and-go-seek. Freeze tag. Bonfires. Dance parties. New clothes. Hugs and kisses. Gleefully running away from hugs and kisses. Ice cream. The smell of new textbooks. Goodnight kisses. Bedtime prayers. Homework help. Pancakes. Forts. Playing house. Imaginationing. Bicycles. Singing. Dancing. Laughing. Loving. Feeling safe.

Do you have children? Do you plan to have them? What do you want for the children in your life? Help us give our children the life you envision for yours.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. To fully sponsor one of our children, it costs $2000/year. This includes staff salaries, food, clothing, school supplies, teacher salaries, school bus maintenance, doctors’ visits, etc… To share sponsorship of one of our children, it costs $1000/year. To sponsor one of the 60 community children that attend our school, it costs $300. This includes school supplies, food, teacher salaries, uniform and school fees. Contact Leila De Bruyne at ldebruyne[at]flyingkitesglobal[dot]org for information on the children who need sponsoring, or send me an email at hannah[at]flyingkitesglobal[dot]org if you have questions.

Want to give an alternate amount? I am responsible for raising monthly operating costs ($600-$800/month) for Oasis, the program I began in Kenya and manage in the states. Through this program, we reach ~1200 orphaned children each month. I have a counterpart in Kenya, Frannie. While getting our children sponsored is a priority, Oasis can’t run and Frannie can’t work if there is no funding. You can read more about Oasis’ mission and give at www.firstgiving.com/fkoasis.

Yes, this is a lot to ask for. But it’s nearly the holiday season, and aren’t the holidays about giving? Forego presents for one year and make this a family donation; get together with a group of friends and change a child’s life; challenge your friends, family and coworkers to do the same. Awake your soul and then encourage others to do the same. It’s a phenomenal feeling, I promise. Where you invest your love, you invest your life.

I’ll leave you with a quote we heard this weekend. It has really resonated with me, and I came to work today with a renewed sense of commitment to this cause.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs, is people who have come alive.”  Howard Thurman

What I do is not necessarily what is right for you. What you do is not necessarily right for me. But if you are alive in what you do, then carry on, my friends.

**Alternately, if you have not yet come alive – send me an email; I’ll set you up to climb Kilimanjaro, kayak in Baja, zip line in Costa Rica, or come volunteer at our home for a few months, all while supporting our mission!! 🙂 Visit www.fkadventurechallenges.org or send me an email for details.

Nakupenda. xx.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Flying Kites New Country Director: Brian Jones

I’ve been working on a post of my own since coming home, but it keeps getting put on the back burner. I hope to be able to update this blog on a semi-regular basis from the states (and hopefully from my many trips back to Kenya), but find I have a lot less free time back in the states than I did in Kenya (although, maybe my free time is the same, but I spend it watching TV, on the computer or out with friends).

Stay tuned in the next couple of weeks for something I’ve been working on, but in the meantime, I encourage everyone reading this to check out the most recent blog post from one of our staff members in Kenya. Brian Jones arrived in March to take on our Magnet Effect program, a community outreach program that helps connect Njabini-area projects with international partners and donors. The Rabbit Project I helped fund was our inaugural Magnet Effect project. Our current Country Director, my dear friend and mentor, Sarah Medway, has been offered an amazing job at Georgetown Law in DC, so she will be heading home this week to start her next adventure. Brian Jones has been promoted to the position of Country Director, and I can think of no one more qualified to take on this post.

Brian recently posted a blog about Flying Kites and our mission. He has captured the debate of the age-old dilemma of providing adequate care to many versus exemplary care to a few in a way that many can not. I hope his explanation and visuals of our mission helps to explain why Flying Kites is unique – and why we will succeed. Please give this a read – take it to heart – and consider Flying Kites for your next donation. I promise to get something of my own up shortly.

http://twosailingships.wordpress.com/2010/07/27/ice-cubes-electricity-and-all-the-people-i-love/

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Kibera

I have found that more often than not, I am grateful for my obnoxiously large sunglasses when out and about in Kenya; while browsing the crafts markets, I can pretend to examine a piece of jewelry or a plate that I could care less about while really deciding how much I’m willing to spend on a piece that lies nearby. If the vendors see me looking too interested in a certain piece, they know they can charge an arm and a leg and I’ll still pay it. If lost in city centre, I can dart my eyes around frantically, trying to recall a landmark or street name, all the while maintaining a cool exterior, in the event that I am being staked out by a potential mugger. During my visits to some of the less reputable areas of Nairobi, I find I can direct my gaze straight ahead, while simultaneously taking in the scene that lies before me without fear of reproach.

I was especially grateful for my glasses the other day in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, as there was a lot to look at. Until recently, it was second largest to Soweto, in South Africa, however Soweto has apparently recently been upgraded and is no longer considered a slum. This makes Kibera the largest slum in all of Africa, with anywhere from 500,000 to 1,500,000 people living in just 650 acres of land (just smaller than Central Park). There is no official population data on Kibera as the Kenyan government, though the owner of the land, does not acknowledge Kibera as an authorized settlement. To put this population in perspective, Peter, a volunteer from CT, estimates that in Greenwich, CT, there would be about 800 people residing in that same 650 acre area (allotting 2 acres of land for families of 4).

I was woefully undereducated about Kenya when I arrived here six months ago; in fact it’s safe to say I knew very little about 3rd world countries as a whole until this adventure. In order to be as accurate in my description as possible, I googled Kibera to get some statistics regarding its size and population (I didn’t need google to tell me about the conditions of the slum – the images from that visit are forever burned in my memory), and discovered some unbelievable statistics about this place. Kibera accounts for less than 1% of Nairobi’s total area, yet it holds a quarter of its people. Since the Kenyan government refuses to officially acknowledge Kibera as a settlement, there are no basic government provided services; this includes schools, clinics, running water and lavatories. Any services that are provided are privately owned; take a wild guess as to how many people living in this slum can afford to pay to use a toilet or to send their children to school…. There are 2.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya; it is estimated that 1/5 of them live in Kibera.

All 42 tribes that exist in Kenya are present in Kibera; since the majority of violent conflict present in Kenya (at least over the past decade) has been tribally motivated, take a wild guess as to how that tribal unrest manifests itself in the .9 square miles that comprises Kibera. As I walked around and saw the congestion of homes, I wondered aloud to Lusweti and our guide, who grew up in Kibera, what the post-election atmosphere (which was infamously brutal in even less populated areas) was like in such close quarters. It seemed to me that there is no where to run or hide; if there is any sort of widespread violent conflict, I can imagine that you become a part of it by default. Our guide confirmed my suspicions; the scale and extent of the 2008 violence was overwhelming in the slums.

Given its location, I have passed the slum from afar several times when coming to and from the airport; from a distance, it looks just like you would imagine a 3rd world country slum would look: thousands of corrugated tin roofs crowded into a crater-like landscape. From half a mile’s distance, that’s about all I have ever seen of the slum until last week. With less than 2 weeks to finish up my orphanage visits for Oasis, I had yet to cross Kibera off the list of Nairobi areas to visit. I wasn’t putting this trip off for any particular reason, but as we have to arrange to get somebody familiar with the area to take us around, it took a little more coordinating than the other places, so for one reason or another, we always ended up somewhere else.

No sooner had we entered the slum on foot when we rounded a corner and I found myself staring straight at the body of a dead man. Now, I’ve seen my share of dead bodies in Kenya, but in all circumstances, I was separated from the body by a good 20 feet and car door. Had Lusweti (my Kenyan Oasis counterpart) not turned around to warn me, I very easily could have walked straight into the makeshift stretcher which was carried by four civilian men, I was so distracted by everything else around me. So, with that as my first impression, I continued walking with not a small amount of trepidation.

It’s virtually impossible to put this experience into words; I thought that my time in Mathare (the second biggest slum in Kenya) would have served as a good segue to the Kibera experience, but when I mentioned that to Lusweti (shortly after the corpse was carried by 12 inches away from me) he shook his head and said (rather sadly, I’ll add), nothing can prepare you for this. Everywhere I looked, there was devastation; children sat playing in piles of trash and human/animal waste; cats trotted by with their lunch in their mouths (perhaps the only mammal in the .9 square mile area who can be sure of a regular meal) and fly-infested, emaciated dogs that make our emaciated dogs at the centre look like sumo wrestlers languished everywhere I turned, too weak to move out of the way as people, wheelbarrows and other animals walked over, and on top of them.

I was grateful for my tennis shoes as I looked at the ground I was trodding on; this was no ordinary dirt road. My sneakers seemed to sink into the ground with each step and more often than not, I was walking on trash. Again, I was enlightened when reading up on Kibera; apparently, one of the (many) barriers to constructing solid structures is the lack of a solid, sturdy ground to build on, as nearly the entire slum has been built up on refuse and human waste. When talking a couple of months ago with Lusweti, he told me about the common practice of waste disposal in many slums. As I mentioned earlier, there are no government provided services in Kibera, which includes public toilets; running water does not, and I would venture to guess, can not, exist in these shacks, let alone a toilet. Lusweti told me that for lack of a better system, families utilize a plastic bag to collect their daily waste and at nightfall will swing the excrement-filled bags helicopter style over their heads and send it into the night. When reading up on the slum I learned that this practice has a name: “Flying Toilets.” Apparently the night is filled with the sound of these “packages” falling on the corrugated roofs of the unlucky residents within. Lusweti said that you went outside at night at your own risk as (aside from the other dangers), you were in jeopardy of being hit with a flying bag of shit. While grossed out by this story, I didn’t doubt it to be true. However, it was one thing to talk about these things in an objective conversation, and quite another story altogether as I found myself fighting my gag-reflex and side stepping plastic bags which overflowed with the daily yield of a family’s bowels in varying stages of decay. A handful of toilets could be seen, built port-a-potty style here and there, with 8-15 latrines lined up in a row, but nearly all of them had locks on the door, leading me to believe they were privately owned, rented toilets, and not for public use. At one point, I came knee-to-ass with a little boy’s butt as he dropped trou and proceeded to pee on the side of a shack; I was the only one to even give him a second glance.

The slum has been built up in a crater of sorts, with very high walls and a low valley, which of course is the source of massive flooding problems during the rainy season. We were at the top part of one of the sides of the slope heading down to one of the homes in the valley. As I gingerly made my way down the nearly vertical muddy path that wove its way between two rows of homes, Lusweti called back over his shoulder: “don’t step on somebody’s roof.” Because of the slope of the hill and the way the houses have been constructed, my feet were parallel to the tin roofs of one row of houses on the left, while the houses on my right only began at my feet. I was hesitant to use either structure for support as visions of the entire slum collapsing domino-style from the pressure of my hand played through my mind. My sneakers slid nearly uncontrollably in the sewage and when my feet found level ground I breathed an audible sigh of relief.

My parents sent me a couple Christmas presents this year, one of which was the book “Say You’re One of Them,” which is comprised of short stories from various African countries. I have only made it about ¼ of the way through this book as I find that I’m gravitating towards fictional, non-Africa related books while here. It’s a bit redundant to read a book that reflects many of my daily experiences here; I need a little variety in my literature. However, the first fictional short story in this book was about a family living in an unnamed urban slum in Kenya. While I recognized some of the vernacular and locations the author named, I was slightly unconvinced that there were actually families that lived in such atrocious conditions in the country. I knew that poverty was rampant, and that there were some nasty slums where people committed unspeakable acts to survive, but some of the anecdotes seemed a little too “out there” to actually be common occurrences. For example, in the short story, the boy and his brothers and sisters sniff precious fumes from a container of glue in order to stave off hunger pangs when there is no food to eat. While I never doubted that there were people who existed this way, to me, it was still a fictional story.

Driving into the slum, I noticed a man sprawled among the refuse that is the roadside with a plastic fifth bottle up against his nose. I dismissed him as another drunk until I saw a little boy walking along the street doing the same thing; after a few more sightings of this practice, I asked my driver Kenneth what they were doing. He very matter of factly told me they were sniffing glue, as it drove away the hunger. I was instantly sick to my stomach as I realized that this practice was not reserved for a desperately poor fictional family in a book; I was watching an 8 year old child sniff glue in order to make it through the day without passing out from the hunger pangs.

The other day I conducted visits of rescue centres for both girls and boys, directed by one of Lusweti’s colleagues who was familiar with and had done some work with one or two of them. While driving between the centres she told us about her time working with the street boys; she said that for the first month of “classes” that she taught, she had severe respiratory and chest problems from the fumes of the glue the boys were addicted to. While one of the program goals was to wean the boys off of this deadly practice, it was a gradual process and it took over a month for the fumes to stop giving her respiratory problems. I guess I can blame my own naïveté for not understanding sooner that this is a real problem among the impoverished in Kenya.

When hearing our matrons and other Kenyans talk about Kibera, I can’t help but make comparisons to the “welfare state” that exists in parts of America. Due to its high profile status as a major African slum, Kibera is a hotbed of NGO and aid organizations; when I expressed concerns about being a muzungu woman in such an impoverished area, I was told to rest assured, I’d see more muzungus in Kibera than I have during all my other days of visits combined. For do-gooders looking to make a difference in Kenya, Kibera is a very appealing destination. The problem, as pointed out by my driver Kenneth and Lusweti, is that a number of the residents of Kibera have no motivation to find a steady job, move out of the slum or improve their lives, as they know they can count on NGO and charity handouts on a regular basis. In a way, the criticisms of residents of Kibera and welfare recipients are alike, in that the poor people in question have come to rely on welfare and handouts as a source of income, rather than a supplement to gainful employment. I am by no means an expert on either subject, but couldn’t help but see the parallels as they spoke on the situation.

I am at a loss as to how to address the Kibera problem; it seems too big to wrap my head around and I can’t even imagine which problem needs to be addressed first, or if there’s even a light at the end of the tunnel for Kibera. The government has begun building a huge apartment complex alongside the slum, the hope being that they will be able to relocate the citizens of Kibera in a timely manner, demolishing the “houses” as families move out. I believe the ultimate goal is to raze the slum once all inhabitants have been relocated, however one (of many) key flaws in this plan is that the government is constructing only a fraction of the units required to relocate all 1.5 million (the highest estimate) citizens of Kibera. Additionally, at the rate they’ve been relocating families, it has been estimated that it will take 1,718 years to complete the move. The rent in these new apartments is set at 10$/month, which seems like a steal, but according to people I’ve spoken with in the slums, current rents for a one family shack, run about 3$/month. Tell me how tripling the rent of a family is going to improve their situation. A small number of people have been moved to the new apartment complex, and the results are not encouraging. There are cases of multiple families sharing apartments so that they can make rent, and some cases of families renting the unit out to middle class families and moving back to the slums themselves. I hate to criticize this operation without being able to offer an alternative, but it seems to me that there’s gotta be a better way.

I apologize for the lack of continuity in this post, but I found it difficult to keep my thoughts and observations in any semblance of order. I also wish I had some of my own photos to share, but bringing my camera in with me would have been akin to walking around with a neon sign above my head flashing “rob me;” anyway, I don’t think that one-dimensional pictures can offer an adequate alternative to seeing this place with your own eyes; Kibera is a three-dimensional experience.

This was an experience that I can’t imagine forgetting anytime in the foreseeable future, and one which I am grateful I was able to have, as it really helped to round out my “Kenya experience;” as for the immediate future, I have the flea bites all over my ankles and feet to bring it all screaming back.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

April Vacation

April has been a jam-packed month here at FKLA. Our Country Director Sarah Medway is off on holiday in America, as are our kids for the entire month (I’m not convinced that it was a coincidence that Sarah decided to take her holiday at the same time the kids are on a month-long vacation…). But we’ve been managing to soldier on in her absence and actually have had a very fulfilling month, both for children and volunteers.

The Team

We’re lucky here at the centre in that we have a static group of volunteers for the entire month, which has made our daily routine a lot more reliable. We had a new staff member arrive just about a month ago, Brian Jones; he’s here to get our Magnet Effect Program off the ground, starting with organizing our celebration for Day of the African Child in June. It took him a week or two to adjust, but he very quickly completely fell in love with Njabini, our children and his work. Additionally, we have been fortunate enough to host Peter and Tamia, retired friends from the states whose boundless energy keeps us all going day after day! We are also lucky to have our first resident Kenyan volunteer with us this month. Vivian is a 19 year old Kenyan from Kisumu who recently learned she’s been accepted to Carthage College in Wisconsin; her American mentor is bringing her over to spend a month in NYC preparing for college later this summer and we’re all so excited for her.

The Schedule

In addition to some free time, the kids are receiving some individual tutoring from Vivian (it’s amazing what an asset it is to have a volunteer who has gone through the Kenyan school system not too long ago). Tamia is helping the kids with their compositions (things like punctuation, spelling and sentence structure) and half of our teaching staff is here everyday giving lessons to the kids so they don’t fall behind in their studies. We’ve instituted a new rule recently, upon learning that we had a few children arriving to class with incomplete assignments. Before kids can sit down to the movie at night, they have to come get their homework checked by Auntie Hannah, Tamia, Vivian, Uncle Brian or Peter; it’s a very heartwarming sight night after night to see our children cuddled up with each of our volunteers as they check their work.

Speaking of movie time, I have been fortunate enough to have stumbled across a movie store in Nairobi where I can purchase DVDs for 150sh/each. Needless to say, I have a standing order there and am waiting on the rolling delivery of about 20 movies for both kids and adults. It’s been great for the kids because every time I get back from Nairobi (where I spend 1-2 days/week) the kids know I have new movies for them, and great for me because I get to choose movies that I want to watch as well. I get to watch movies I love night after night like Toy Story, Aladdin, Night at the Museum and Free Willy; very clearly a win-win situation. It was so exciting to watch Home Alone with the kids for the first time and to witness their reaction to one of my favorite childhood movies (who am I kidding, it’s one of my favorite adult movies as well!!). They will be quick to tell you, however, that Home Alone 2 is their favorite of the two. They’ve already watched it 4 times in the past week, so I guess they’ve made their preference clear. It’s so adorable to hear them quoting the movie during the day; “Buzz, your girlfriend, woof.”

Easter

Easter was a very memorable event for all involved. On Saturday, we dyed Easter eggs, which was an interesting project, as we can only purchase brown eggs in town, which don’t take to the color as well, and the only dye I could find was in powder form, but we managed to make it work. The kids got a kick out of drawing on the egg in crayon before dying it, although I will admit that not all of them quite understood the concept of coloring on the egg BEFORE placing it in the dye.

All the volunteers attended the Full Gospel church service on Easter morning; after a handful of services there, I feel as if I’ve paid my dues, so I was eager for an excuse to cut out before the 2 hour sermon began. We were able to sneak out after the fun singing part and prior to the 2 hour sermon with the very convenient excuse that we had to go hide the Easter eggs before the children arrived home. Having witnessed firsthand the result of an unfound egg inside the house left to rot for 2 weeks, we decided that hiding the eggs outside was our best bet. Brian and I were trying to think of a way to make the Easter egg hunt especially exciting and soon enough, the “golden egg” was born. Brian very adeptly bedazzled an egg and showed it off to all of the children the night before. James insisted on seeing the egg before we hid it, so that “I will know what it looks like when I win.” Funnily enough, James did win, although 4-5 of the kids must have been staring 6 inches to the right and left of it and totally missed it.

James is 13, and smack dab at the beginning of his adolescent, “I’m too cool for anything, especially posing for a picture” phase, so it was very out of character when he won and was more than willing to pose for pictures, holding the golden egg up in the air like a world series trophy. Better than the Obama t-shirt and chocolate bar he was awarded for his efforts, was his claim on anything up for grabs over the next few days. Whenever a disagreement over the remote control or a seat on the couch or a ride on the bicycle arose, we inevitably heard “the winner of the golden egg gets (the privilege in question);” nobody ever had an argument for that.

Community Service Day

As I’ve noted in the past, it’s hard to tell children who have come from such unfortunate circumstances that they are lucky and that they owe it to others to give back, but we all agree that it’s important for them to realize that despite the troubles many of them have been through, they are very fortunate to be where they are today, and there are always going to be people who don’t have as much as they do. While the concept of giving something up for Lent may not yet be appropriate, we have begun doing little things to help the kids understand their place in the world. Little things like giving them the option to place their 10bob weekly allowance in one of two jars labeled “charity” and “fun” has impressed me greatly, as every week, more often than not, the bulk of allowance goes towards charity (incidentally, they are currently saving up to “adopt an elephant” at the elephant orphanage in Nairobi. I think they really related to the idea of sponsoring an orphan, as they are all sponsored children).

Last Saturday the kids had their first hands on experience with community service. I took James, Hannah, Ann, Joseph, Moses and Miriam to another nearby orphanage where they could appreciate how much they have and how lucky they are to be at FKLA. We arrived with some Frisbees and a soccer ball and I was reminded of family holidays when I was younger where you see cousins you haven’t seen in a year and have an awkward hour or two of interaction before you’re long lost friends again. Our kids took a little while to come out of their shells, but after whipping out my supply of nail polish I’m grateful I had the presence of mind to grab, we quickly made friends. While the home we visited was very adequate, I think the kids appreciated the differences between FKLA and the nearby home. Even little things like the quality of our kids’ clothes and shoes vs. the other children made an impact on them.

Meanwhile, the eight younger children, Peter, Tamia and our matrons were part of a very special afternoon. Our initial plan had been for the children to collect firewood on our new site to bring to an elderly woman who could not collect her own, but that plan was nixed when we realized the place we were to go collect was firewood-free. A quick fix plan actually turned into a humbling experience for all as the volunteers all chipped in 1000sh each to purchase foodstuffs for needy families in the area. On 4000sh (~52USD) the children and adults were able to purchase flour, salt, sugar, cooking fat and tea for 12 families. Tears threatened to spill over later that evening as I looked at pictures of our kids handing 2-3 days worth of food over to families that would otherwise not have eaten that night. Speaking with the children about the experience over dinner, I could tell that each and every one of them had been affected in a way, however small. They also felt a sense of pride and accomplishment that they were able to perform such an important deed that day.

I’m so proud of our kids for understanding the importance of giving back and know that this is something we will certainly continue to develop as they grow older. This weekend the older kids are going to assist our caretaker in the shamba for the afternoon; a little hard work never hurt anybody!!

Comedian

In addition to their lessons and chores, the kids have had their share of fun experiences this April. Yesterday was no exception as we welcomed a comedian to FKLA. I wasn’t sure what to expect of a Kenyan comedian, but my questions were answered soon enough. The comedian’s routine required audience participation, which Daniel was fully prepared for, having already stuffed his stomach and butt with spare clothing. This little getup is something which the boys often do during our dance parties; I had no idea where they got it from and at first thought they were imitating the women’s bodies, but was told that they dressed this way because “that’s how the comedians do it.” Sure enough, our comedian came with a pre-stuffed shirt and fake beard. He did about an hour of improv with the kids (we had class 2 in for the day so they got a nice little treat in lieu of a full day of classes) and while the majority of the skits were in kiswahilli, we were all rolling on the floor laughing. It was one of those instances where a picture is worth 1000 worrds. I had fully expected that Daniel was going to ham it up during this session, but was floored when Joseph (our newest child who arrived just about 2 months ago and has been quiet as a church mouse until recently) got right up there with Daniel and joined in on the skits. There was a smattering of participation from the rest of the kids, but Joseph and Daniel stole the show with their antics. I’m such a sap but I had tears running down my face while I watched Joseph make the 25 other children and adults collapse into fits of laughter. I think of where he was 2 months ago and compare to where he’s evolved to over the past couple of weeks, and it simply astounds me. Not only is he a bright child, but he’s funny and has finally come out of his shell around everyone. I feel lucky that we were able to facilitate in the evolution of his amazing personality.

Winnie and Josie Jeff

Some sad news for all you dog-lovers out there (myself not included). Winnie and Josie Jeff’s sibling rivalry came to a head a couple of weeks ago when they were engaged in a savage fight to the death that took 2 grown men to break up. Both were the recipients of some nasty gashes and lost teeth. Needless to say, they could no longer be left alone in the same place, so Winnie has gone to live with one of our watchmen, Charles, indefinitely. While the kids were sad (especially Daniel, his special caretaker), they now look forward to field trips to go and visit Winnie, and I don’t think any of them have complained once about the reduced volume of dog poop to scoop up…. Plus, Josie now has her large, custom made doghouse all to herself.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

I Am Wongo, Hear Me Roar!!

Disclaimer: I understand that the women’s rights movement has made leaps and bounds in America and in the world over the past few decades, but there are some areas where “old fashioned” rules still apply. This blog is in no way a critique of women’s rights in Kenya, as I have nothing but my individual experiences to formulate an opinion with, but it is a simple fact (at least by my observations) that the men remain the dominant sex in Njabini. I have certainly encountered a number of strong women who I have immense respect for in this village and who I will miss dearly upon my return to the states next month. I would be proud to think that I have left even a fraction of the mark on them that they all have on me.

Volunteers and Flying Kites staff members who come for any significant length of time often end up the recipients of a Kikuyu (the tribe of the people in Njabini) name by our Kenyan staff. The names assigned to each person serve as a representation of their personality, character traits and mannerisms. For example, our executive directors have names that translate to “hard working woman,” “strong woman” and “strong man,” or something along those lines. Sarah’s name, gkenya (pronounced k-kenya) means “always happy, always smiling.” I waited in anticipation for the first month of my stay here to be assigned my Kikuyu name, wondering what traits of mine stood out most to our teachers and matrons. Halfway through December, I got my answer.

Before I go into detail about my Kenyan name and what it represents, I think it’s necessary to first give a little background on the circumstances that led to my naming (think of it as a preemptive defense). During the month of December, we were doing some renovations on our new centre in Njabini; basic things like painting, sanding, scraping and varnishing. We had a crew of about 15 men every day for a few weeks in helping us with the work; I made it about 4 days outside in the blazing heat before I abandoned any effort at modesty and donned my gym shorts (and it’s not exactly like my old Diadora soccer shorts are immodest); I don’t think the looks I received from the men were necessarily ones of admiration and appreciation, rather, they were looks of scandal and disbelief. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that as a guest of a country you should adapt to it’s unofficial dress code and standards of behavior while in public, but I was on Flying Kites land under the blazing sun – what would you have done?

In addition to my eyebrow raising style of dress, I stood out for a myriad of other reasons; while there were a number of women present every day, they were responsible for the cooking and childcare; I was the only one who was up on the ladders painting, sanding down the furniture and scraping the windows along with the men. I didn’t think twice about getting my food and sitting down in the dining hall with everybody else at lunchtime, in fact it didn’t even register to me that I was the only woman in the dining hall meal after meal. Our matrons and teachers were busy cooking and serving, and I just assumed that they ate outside on the lawn because they preferred it to the crowded dining hall. So one day I asked them why they always sat outside and why don’t they sit inside with me so that I have someone to talk to. They looked at me as if I had just suggested we all go sneak behind the house and smoke a joint. Upon asking after the reason for the look on their faces they said, “inside, with…the men? No, we couldn’t do that.” I asked if it was because they didn’t want to or because they couldn’t to which they replied, “It’s just not done here.” Well that’s just silly. So I told them that the next day I wanted them to sit with me at lunch if they wanted to; they protested a bit, but I could tell that they were excited, if slightly nervous, about the prospect of breaking the “rules.”

Another issue that had bothered me over the course of that first week was the fact that every single man, except for the Flying Kites employees (Teacher Paul, Teacher Francis and Wombugu) ate like 2 year olds, leaving the 6 inch circumference around their plate a veritable minefield of leftover rice and beans. Not only that, but as soon as they were finished eating, they (again, Flying Kites employees excepted) would get up from their chair and saunter out of the dining hall, leaving their clean plate and messy table for the matrons to go in and take care of. This behavior, while just irritating at first bordered on rude after the first few meals, as I watched (and assisted) the matrons in cleaning up the tables littered with plates and food scraps post-meal. Around the same time the matrons and I decided that we would start eating together in the dining hall, I decided that the men needed to learn some manners.

The following day, as we sat down to lunch, matrons and all (the reception wasn’t nearly as bad as they had been anticipating, in fact, the men barely registered their presence as they shoveled spoonfuls of food into their mouths) I got up from the table and passed through to the kitchen. A moment later I arrived with a large, empty serving pot (these babies are school cafeteria sized), placed it on the table at the front of the room and proceeded to announce to all present that they could put their dirty dishes in the pot when they were finished. The half of the men who understood English looked at me, mouths gaping in disbelief, thinking that they had misheard me; Flying Kites employees started nervously laughing (kind of one of those “oh no she DIDn’t” laughs), astounded at what I had just said, and the non-English speaking men all proceeded to get up and line up before the serving pot, thinking I had told them to come and get seconds.

Needless to say, about half of the men ended up getting my meaning and depositing their empty plates in the pot, but it didn’t take long before word got around. Later that afternoon, amidst peals of laughter, I was given my Kikuyu name: Wongo.

Apparently, Wongo was one of the first women leaders of the Kikuyu people; legend has it that she would make men lie down so that she could sit on, and walk across their backs. From the stories the matrons and teachers told me about her, I have gathered the impression that she was a bit of a castrating bitch. I know that the name Wongo refers to that very same part of my personality, however, I don’t take offense to the name; rather, I like to think it is a testament to my strength and capabilities as a woman. I am fully aware that a part of the reason I was given this name is that I have no filter, no sense of tact and I refuse (not because I’m trying to be difficult but because I just don’t think of the fact that some of the things I’m so used to doing on my own may not be “done” here in Kenya) to conform to traditional gender roles in this country. It’s not that I mean any disrespect to the Kenyan people, but it’s a tribute to the way I was raised that I don’t defer to men on big decisions or tasks, regardless of the male-dominated environment I may find myself in.

We all, and you may, laugh about what it means, but a big part of me is proud of the woman I’ve become. After all, Wongo was a leader, and you don’t become a leader of an entire tribe by being meek and hesitant. You’ve gotta take the good with the bad, I suppose.

So anyway, I’ve been Wongo for a few months now, the matrons laugh when I try to get them to join me in dance parties to cheesy 90’s R&B songs (the only ones played on Kenyan radio stations) in the kitchen which I sing along to at the top of my lungs or when my sailor mouth gets the best of me temporarily. I say what’s on my mind, and I think for the most part the matrons and teachers appreciate that part of my personality (or at least I’d like to think so!). A recent encounter with the Nairobi police that nearly led to my arrest (totally not my fault, I was bailing out my driver Kenneth – totally not his fault either – and got a little testy with the officers) has reinforced the name in Teacher Francis’ eyes, and he now addresses me as “Great Woman” when I call. Needless to say, I have not disappointed those who named me… Yesterday I was found myself in a situation where I was proud to be Wongo – she-bitch and all.

Flying Kites recently acquired two “new” Land Rovers; by “new” I mean new to us, as they are circa 1981 and stripped of any modern accoutrements (except seatbelts, which we insisted on adding), however I feel safer in these vehicles than I have in any other deathtrap I’ve ridden in thus far in Kenya. I think it’s a testament to Land Rover that nearly 30 years later these babies are still going strong. They are built and sound like tanks, and I’d sure as hell rather be in the Land Rover than any car that might dare mess with it on the road. Anyway, there hadn’t really been a reason for me to learn to drive either of them, as when they arrived in February we had a volunteer who took over the school bus route when Wombugu was otherwise committed and served as our second driver when we took trips as a group. However, over the past month, with two cars and one driver, we have often found ourselves short, so Wombugu has been literally forcing me to drive the cars.  When he’s taking me down to town, more often than not, he will stop the car halfway, get out, and say “drive.” If there’s one thing you learn right away here at FKLA, it’s that you don’t say no to Wombugu. As he pointed out, if you can drive in 8 inches of mud, you can drive in anything. So I’ve had a bit of experience in the cars over the past month or so, but always with Wombugu and other adults in the car. However, more recently, I’ve become a bit more adventurous with my driving excursions, and have successfully completed one or two small scale trips. While there’s no way in hell I would take the car beyond the Njabini town line, I’ve become pretty confident in my driving ability.

However, driving alone on smooth roads and driving alone on just monsooned on roads are two totally different rodeos. I didn’t really have much of a choice yesterday afternoon, however, when Wombugu called and said he needed me to come to town and pick up the small vehicle, as he was already in town with the big one and couldn’t very well drive both. On my way out to meet him I saw little Hannah and impulsively asked her if she’d like to come along. While I was looking forward to the quiet walk with my iPod, I thought it was about time I spent some one-on-one time with my namesake. Plus, she’s the oldest girl and often gets no recognition for it, so I thought it would be a fun treat for her. Little did she know what she was signing up for when she readily said yes and grabbed her sweater.

We had a nice little walk down, during which she confided to me that all of the other children were now going to say that I only loved her; honestly though, with 14 kids, you gotta expect that you can’t make everyone happy all the time. Anyway, we made it down to the far side of town with only a few hiccups – getting gawked at by every man woman and child as we casually strolled hand in hand – and met up with Wombugu. We both laughed upon seeing the looks on the faces of the passerbys as the gates to the garage opened and I pulled out in our mini-tank with little Hannah riding shotgun. I’m not sure I can properly articulate the feeling I had as I drove through the mass of people that is Sunday in Njabini. I knew it was totally ruining my “cool” image, but it was so hard to keep the grin off of my face as I maneuvered through the streets, so proud of myself for not stalling out or hitting a donkey and/or small child along the way.

We made it the mile or two to the back road that leads to our centre (on particularly rainy stretches, the back way, while longer, is often drier, or at least flatter) with only one or two stall-outs and were almost home when we encountered a rather massive roadblock. Just up ahead we noticed that nearly the entire road was blocked by a cabbage-filled lorry stuck at a 45 degree angle in a particularly muddy spot. The men gathered around the truck turned my way as we approached and I nearly laughed out loud when I saw the looks on their faces. I would venture to guess they were thinking something along the lines of “oh man, we’re going to have to ask a muzungu WOMAN to help us out. I’d rather spend the night here!!” Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but I can guarantee that their first thought wasn’t: “oh, awesome a muzungu woman is here to save the day!!!”

The men came up to the car and asked if I could lend a hand un-stucking the lorry. Having been the recipient of some Good Samaritan car pushers when I’ve been stuck in the mud, I felt it was only fair to reciprocate. They linked the two vehicles with a steel bar and I proceeded to throw the car in reverse, rocking the lorry back and forth with the momentum. The crowd that gathered as this little show progressed was cheering on the little engine that could as the cabbage-filled lorry tilted precariously to the right. Much longer story short, the truck ended up being beyond helping, so I was able, with some assistance from the men (they probably felt like they were redeeming what was left of their masculinity by helping to push me through the narrow, muddy ravine afforded between the lorry and the fence) was able to pass by and continue home.

Haulin' the lorry

I was glad that little Hannah was with me for this adventure; she was so impressed with me and it gave me such a sense of pride that I was able to serve as a role model for this promising young woman. She commented as soon as she got back in the car (I may have confidence in my driving abilities, but not enough that I would subject an innocent young girl to any consequences that might arise from me hauling a 3 ton vehicle): “Auntie Hannah, you’re such a good driver!!!” Regardless of the fact that the lorry remained stuck in the mud behind us, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. In one short hour I was able to inadvertently teach Hannah a valuable lesson: don’t ever think you can’t do something simply because you are a woman. And don’t let people tell you that you’re not able to because you’re a woman. And certainly don’t let anybody tell you that it’s not proper or that it’s frowned upon to do something, only because you’re a woman.

Our girls are lucky, as they have a steady stream of female role models who they can look up to as they mature, not least of all Justine and Leila who were able to provide our children with their new lives and the unlimited opportunities that come with it, 3 years ago. There are a million and one things that I hope our children remember and learn from me (and maybe a few choice 4 letter things I hope they don’t…) but I hope that above all, my time here can impress on these 7 girls that they are just as important and capable as their 7 male counterparts, and that they should never feel limited by their gender in anything that they do in life (except maybe peeing standing up – let’s leave that one to the men).

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

What Can You Live Without

I would venture to guess that a good number of people who read this blog have some familiarity with the holiday of Lent. For those of you not familiar, I’m not sure I can help you much. I suppose I should be embarrassed that after 16 years of weekly church attendance I can’t give you the biblical origin of the holiday, but none of us at the centre could come up with that the other day when we were talking, so I don’t feel that bad… The conversation came up when Marie, one of our volunteers, decided she wanted to make the kids pancakes for breakfast last Saturday. It was in honor of pancake Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday, which I believe marks the beginning of Mardi Gras and the 40 days leading up to Easter, and since it’s easier to make the big breakfasts on the weekends, we did it on Saturday morning.

Marie wanted to give the kids a little summary of why she was serving them pancakes, which is when it became blatantly clear to all of us that our combined religious education was woefully lacking. We were talking about Fat Tuesday and how it marked the beginning of Lent; people often celebrate by stuffing their faces with fatty foods in anticipation of giving them up for the next 40 days. As I’m trying to work this out, it feels like the ceremony of giving something important up for the 40 days preceding Easter is not entirely Christian-derived. I imagine Jesus’ trip to the garden (?) inspired the Mardi Gras celebration, and I’m not sure who came up with the act of giving up something of importance to you (I imagine it has something to do with the idea that Jesus was without everything for that period of time), but it all seems to tie together somehow. While Lent is at its core a religious holiday, it is not exclusive to the religious community; the practice of giving something up has become a more secular than religious experience for many, myself included. I remember having Jewish friends in high school who would give something up just for the challenge of it, to see if they could go without for so long.

We were discussing how we would explain this all to the kids, being very uneducated about the religious significance of Lent ourselves and realized that it would be very difficult to explain to a group of orphaned and vulnerable children who came to us with nothing, that people make it a game to give up the luxuries of life. How would they be able to grasp the concept of having so much that they had enough to give up? It seemed cruel to tell them that one year I gave up my iPod, or that my sister gave up cheese, or that Marie gave up trashy television, or that Sarah gave up her daily Starbucks fix.

It got me thinking; we (you all who are reading this, and myself) are so fortunate that we have so much that we can give some of it up for a period of time and not suffer to the point of physical harm. While I know that ultimately, Lent is about more than just giving up something you “can’t live without,” that’s largely what it’s become for many people.

So here’s my challenge to you – my readers. What are you planning to give up for these next 40 days? Your expensive take-out habit? Sushi lunches? Your weekly mani/pedi appointment? Your Saturday nights out in the city? Most of what we choose to give up has some financial value; I’m asking you to redirect that value to our orphans. When you stay in on Saturday night, put the 60$ you would spend on cover charges, cab rides and Jagerbombs in an envelope, and after 40 days send the contents of that envelope to Flying Kites.

For those of you who hadn’t planned to observe this holiday at all, either because you don’t observe this particular religion or it’s never been a big deal for you, I challenge you to challenge yourself. I know and you know that there are things you can live without for 40 days; conversely, there isn’t much that our children can give up and not suffer without for 40 days; there is nothing that the children and families in Njabini Village can give up without suffering. These families are in a perpetual state of Lent – they don’t have the luxury to stop their voluntary deprivation after a period of 40 days. There is nothing religious about attaching significance to helping orphans and the poor; think of this as a 40 day challenge, not a religious based tradition, if it eases your mind about the idea I am presenting.

I apologize if I’ve managed to insult anybody or trivialize your problems in any way; I understand that most of you (especially my peers) have a lot going on in your lives and are lucky if you make rent every month, but the beauty of this challenge is that it doesn’t ask you to spare anything more than you already have. If you’ve already been spending $2.50 a day on a coffee anyway, you’re not going to miss the money; you’ll only miss the caffeine high for 40 days. But think about how many days our orphans will be able to eat for $2.50 x 40. The reality is, this is money you’ve been spending for something you are going to deem non-essential. How about for 40 days you spend that money on something that is essential?

I must wrap up now because I’ve been writing this while waiting for Francis’ wife Jane (one of the co-founders of the SWORD group) so that we can go visit a family and bring them some wonderful news. One of the women who reads my blog, Leslie, over in France, was so moved by the plight of a particular family I described in my Christmas post that she has made a donation to the SWORD group and I to help them. We are on our way to visit this family of 10 who sleeps on the floor without mattresses, blankets or pillows in a house which I can see inside of very clearly because it is so dilapidated. With Leslie’s generous donation we will be able to do a great deal for this family; whether it will be reinforcing the structure of their house, buying mattresses and blankets or purchasing food and clothing, we are visiting this morning to determine the best way to spend the money.

Leslie did not give a massive donation, but it was what she could spare and it was extremely generous and selfless; in Njabini it will go ridiculously far. We should all take a page out of Leslie’s book and spare what we can for these people. There may have been a particular blog post of mine that has moved you, or the pictures of our children have made you think of something you’d love to see them enjoying; if you have a particular desire for the way your money should be spent, then by all means specify that. If you’d prefer we help the SWORD group continue in their work, or help to provide funding for a community project that has been proposed (such as the Rabbit Rearing project, which we were able to finance fully last week), let me know! I want to serve as a means for you to feel as if you’ve made a difference in this community, either to our orphans or to the town as a collective.

I urge you to give this challenge the consideration it deserves, but personally I can’t see the downside. You will be able to feel good about helping an impoverished area of the world and know that your money will be spent directly helping these people; you can I’m sure write this off on your tax return if that’s important to you and you will be helping me help an organization that has become near and dear to my heart.

If you have questions or concerns, please e-mail me: hannahrebeccawesley@gmail.com .  I hope that I can look forward to assisting you in helping these families 40 days from now.

Postscript: I just returned from the family’s home with Jane. I was mistaken in only two respects. The family is of 11, not 10 – 10 children and a mother. Apparently the father comes and goes but can’t be counted on for anything substantial. There are 5 boys and 5 girls, and they do not sleep on the floor, rather, they sleep on makeshift bedframes with their clothes piled up to serve as mattresses. I’m not sure if it was more depressing to see than to imagine. We hadn’t been inside the house on our Christmas visit, and when I was inside today I asked if I could take some pictures, both so Leslie could see where her money is going, and so I can illustrate to all of you the desperate need of this family and families like this one.

We have decided that the best way to spend Leslie’s donation is to literally rebuild the house. We will be using timber instead of mud, which is better for so many reasons, and we will be reusing the bits of the roof that are intact, and supplementing with new tin roofing. We will also be expanding the house just enough so that the boys and girls get separate bedrooms. Children get to a certian age where it is no longer appropriate to share a room with their brothers or sisters, and I think that a number of them have certainly passed that age.

We did realize, however, that while we are going to be able to provide this family with a house that doesn’t leak or need to be repaired every morning (you will see in the photos that there is fresh mud in places where they fill in holes that have formed – I shudder to think how many times they have to do this), we are not going to be able to furnish the house. I don’t think it’s necessary to give this family satellite television and a gas stove, but I do think that sleeping on clothing and sitting on peices of wood nailed together is no way to live. 

Therefore, for those of you looking for a specific project to invest in, supplementing this family’s furnishings would be a wonderful place to start. Because of the size of the house, we can’t provide 11 beds but even if they had mattresses and pillows and blakents they could spread on the floor at night it would be a significant improvement. We got our beds for the orphanage and Francis and Jane have gotten their sitting room furniture through a contractor who charges a nominal fee to build, so all we have to do is buy materials. A full sofa set could be built for 4000KSH ($60 – about one night out) and I imagine we could purchase mattresses, blankets and pillows for about 10,000KSH ($130). Just something to think about when you’re contemplating the money you spent at the bar or on dinner or a new pair of shoes this weekend….

5 girls sleep on one bed and 5 boys on the other. Notice the clothing that is serving as mattresses, and the holes in the wall

 

Pretty self explanatory. The house is falling apart.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Reality Check

Betina and I were in Nairobi for a few nights last week; I went down by myself on Tuesday, amazed yet again at my confident ability to navigate the city with relative ease. Hopping on the mutatu from Njabini, I put on my headphones and settled in for the journey; the area in Nairobi where the mutatus arrive is slightly dodgy, but as long as one uses common sense and street smarts while walking around, you should be just fine during the daytime. I made it to our hotel with enough time to run out and grab a weeks worth of REAL food and a bottle of wine to scarf down while I watched the bootleg movie I had purchased; after nearly three months of real world depravation, it was the perfect evening.

The following day, I did some work at an internet café and met Betina around lunchtime. We had a couple meetings in the afternoon and then decided to go out for a big dinner at a restaurant about a 5 minute walk from our hotel. After some delicious food and drink we ended up catching the attention of the man at the table next to us, a fellow American here on business working for an NGO. He couldn’t help but overhearing our conversation (I’m sure we were loud enough, and Westerners always pay special attention when we see one another), and we ended up talking to him for another hour about non-profit work, benefits and downfalls of working in Kenya, etc… At about 11:30, we finished up, said our goodbyes and Betina and I headed to our hotel. We debated the merits of taking a cab versus walking; personally I felt more uncomfortable getting in a cab. In Kenya, taxis are unmarked and are just normal cars, no meters or dividers between the front and back seats, so I was concerned we may be more unsafe getting into one of these cars than we would be if we walked. It was a 7 minute walk in a relatively safe and well lit area and we were anxious to get back, so we began walking.

We were on one of the main, well lit avenues a few blocks away from our hotel when a group of men walked by us and the next thing I knew, one of them had grabbed my purse and was wrenching it off my shoulder. It’s habit for me to walk with my bag on my shoulder, and I always zip it shut and hold the straps close to my body, so when he pulled I already had a grip on the bag, and of course, my instinct was to tug back. I immediately began screaming as loud as possible and engaged in a tug of war for my bag with the man (in my head, this lasted 5 or 10 seconds, but in reality it was probably only a second or two). Eventually, I realized that this man might be armed and could hurt me a lot more if I put up a fight, so I released my bag and watched him run away. In shock, I ducked into a doorway to catch my breath for a few seconds before I realized that I didn’t know where Betina was. In hindsight, maybe I should be a little more ashamed about the fact that my instinct was to run for my life rather than stay and help Betina, but I never really figured myself for a person who puts the lives of others before my own; a main reason why I think that maybe having children just isn’t in the cards for me… I went back into the sidewalk and saw her on the ground collecting her things. She had been wearing a lightweight backpack, while I had had a shoulder bag, so the man who attacked her had to rip at the bag; as a result, the bag was in two and he just grabbed what he could and ran. I ran over to her and helped to pick up random cards and papers that had scattered. A few seconds later, we heard what I SWEAR was two gunshots, but what Betina is convinced was just a car backfiring (it’s like Ross in friends except my instinct was to duck for cover like Chandler and not throw my body on Betina), but either way, I wanted to get the hell out of there.

Betina was upset because the men had gotten her passport. Understandably, this is a big deal, but at the same time, we could go to the Embassy the next day and begin the process of obtaining a new one. My priority was to get out of the street before the men came back, or another group of people spotted us as easy prey. We had just continued to walk (this time looking for a cab – fortunately, I had about 20,000KSH (~$200USD) in my bra, as I had just been to the ATM that day and didn’t want to leave my money in the hotel room, nor did I want it in my wallet, in case something happened – which it did), when a car screeched up into the intersection we had just reached, and a man shouted from the car “miss, we have your bag, we caught the robbers, come here!” Of course, I didn’t want to get anywhere near the car, as I assumed that it was the same men or their friends, trying to lure us close enough to snatch us. Betina and I turned around and began walking quickly in the opposite direction. The man proceeded to get out of the car, and I saw that he was holding my bag, completely ripped in half, but it didn’t look empty. I don’t fully remember what happened, but I took my bag back; I looked over his shoulder into his car and saw that there were in fact, 2 men in the back seat, thrown in on top of a couple women and men. It may have been a taxi driver or a group of friends out for a drive, but either way, they had seen or heard what happened and had chased down the men with their car. We began to walk away, and heard shouts and fighting; I turned around and it looked as if the two men had gotten out of the car and were trying to come after us, or run away, or something, and they were getting knocked around by the others. We took the opportunity of both parties being distracted to run around the corner and find ourselves a cab. We approached a “cab stand” and told the man where we were going (just a few blocks away at this point); he noticed that we were upset, and we explained that we had just been robbed. As we pulled out of the parking spot, we noticed a paddy wagon of policemen had arrived, and pulled up to them to tell them what had happened.

I think it should be important to note that not once did I think of going to the police, and in fact, upon seeing 20 of them on the side of the road, I actually recoiled. There is such a pervasive mistrust of the police among both foreigners and Kenyans alike, that one does not immediately think to turn to them when in trouble. On the contrary, I would have preferred to keep driving and forget the incident had ever happened. I was lucky enough to have my bag back, and that’s all that mattered to me at that point. However, Betina had lost her passport, about 20,000KSH and two debit cards. Additionally, she and I had polar opposite reactions to the mugging; she felt that the danger had passed, and we didn’t need to be in a rush to get anywhere, and I felt that the sooner I got to a safe place, the better. She wanted to scour the escape route taken by the muggers, hoping she would recover some of her property, and I wanted to get the hell off of the street ASAP. Betina being the one who still had stuff to recover, she won and our cabbie pulled up to the cops and began talking to them. They said they had just gotten a report of an incident around the corner, and they would go get the men. They told us to wait there, and to follow them to the police station to identify the men and make a report. Mere moments after we agreed, a group of police showed up with two men struggling in their grips, and proceeded to load them into the back of the paddy wagon. They slapped their heads a bit as they loaded them in, but didn’t really rough them up too much (which was surprising, because I was under the impression that stealing was a major crime in Kenya, and offenders have been known to have been beaten to death on the spot – perhaps an extreme reaction, but certainly a deterrent). A few moments later, I watched as the two men walked out of the car and down the street. We could only assume that they had slipped some of the money they had stolen from us to the cops who had let them go.

At that point, there was no way we were going to follow the police, knowing they had let these men go, so we had our cab driver take us to our hotel. All I wanted was to lock myself in my room, take stock of what had been stolen, and call my parents. Betina, on the other hand was pissed; she wanted her passport back, and didn’t intend to call it a night until she had done all she could to get it back. She began dialing the emergency number here, which is also 911 (fortunately, her phone had been in her pocket and was not taken), only to get no answer. She called for 1.5 hours that night and not ONCE did she get an answer at the EMERGENCY number. God help you if you’re bleeding in a ditch somewhere and you need an ambulance; better stay alive until business hours, because you’re sure as hell not going to get any help in the middle of the night.

I think that’s one of the things that scared me the most; the knowledge that if something even worse were to have happened, there are literally no resources available to you unless you physically take yourself to the authorities, and even then, I know now from firsthand experience that their morals are for sale to the highest bidder.

We both finally settled into our room, and realized just how lucky we really were. I consider it a complete miracle that my bag was returned; it contained my phone, camera and wallet (which did not have much cash, but did contain my license, debit card, credit card and travel insurance information) and 200USD, which my dad handed me the day I left and told me not to change it, that I might someday find myself in a situation where American money is a more valuable bargaining tool than Kenyan shillings. Ironically, it’s entirely possible that in this situation it would have been more valuable, but it would certainly not have helped me at all. It’s not like there was time for me to negotiate with the man as he ripped my bag from my shoulder: 200USD for my bag and my life. Amazingly, Betina found her passport in her big backpack, she had not transferred it before dinner, which was a huge relief, and also made us feel better about our decision to not continue on to the police station. Neither of us was hurt; the muggers could have very easily been armed and harmed us, or tried to abduct and assault us. We were fortunate that the citizens who had seen the attack aided us and got my things back, the cab driver we found was very helpful and spoke to the police on our behalf. Our hotel is similar to a hostel, in that we have to leave our room key with reception when we exit the hotel. The key is on a very large keychain with the name and address of the hotel, along with our room number. Had our room key been on us, we could have reasonably assumed that our belongings would have been cleared out upon our return; we were also fortunate that the attack happened far enough away from our hotel that they couldn’t reasonably assume that we were staying there, which at least gave me peace of mind about going to sleep comfortably that night.

I have mixed emotions about the way the situation was handled. I remember that about 5 or 10 feet before we were attacked, we had passed the doorway of a bank or some store that had two security guards on the steps. In those brief seconds that I struggled with the man while I was screaming (now I understand when people say their lives flash before their eyes when they have a near death experience. While my experience was no where near-death, I do feel like I had a lot of thoughts in a very short amount of time), I remember thinking that this couldn’t have happened in a better spot, because the security guards would surely rush out and help us. No such luck- I was so angry with them for just allowing it to happen, and while they probably had the same fears about the men being armed, THEY WERE ARMED AS WELL. Isn’t that what they train for as night security guards in a dangerous capital city in a third world country? It felt as if they felt we deserved to be robbed, or we didn’t deserve their assistance; either way they did not one thing to help when everything went down. However, on the other hand, that carload of friends or whatever they were went out of their way to chase down the men and return my things. They could have very easily split everything up between themselves and called it a night; I do wish that I had had the presence of mind to thank them properly, but once I had my bag back in my hands all I wanted to do was get out of that situation. And then regarding the police, I would not have put much faith in their ability to help me in the first place, but they are, after all, the POLICE. They should have at least a modicum of civic responsibility, but apparently that responsibility can be waived for a reasonable fee.

Betina and I are of course not happy that this happened, but we do realize that it was a much needed wake-up call. We have gotten very comfortable here, especially in Nairobi, and we were no longer respectful of the dangers that abound in this country. For the most part, as long as you apply common sense to most situations, you will be fine. The dangers in Nairobi are not dissimilar to those in NYC; in certain areas and situations, one needs to apply extra caution: don’t walk alone at night, don’t leave your bag open or put it down, don’t display enviable possessions, don’t consume buckets of alcohol and then expect to stumble your way home without a hitch. A crucial difference between Nairobi and New York, however, is that foreigners are much easier to spot in Kenya. American cities are a smorgasbord of ethnicities and races; when you see someone who is a different color than you, your instinct is not that they are immigrants or tourists, and often, you don’t even give them a second glance. In Kenya, and even in a major city like Nairobi I distinctly remember commenting to Betina earlier that day that I saw no more than a handful of white people while walking around for the few hours I was out and about. The minority population is SO small in Nairobi that any Westerner is instantly recognized, and it can be assumed that they are not residents. While the blocks immediately surrounding the ritzy Hilton and Sarova Stanley hotels are more concentrated with foreigners, once you have left that radius, you find yourself woefully alone. While I had noticed this lack of like-colored people (an interesting role reversal for any white person), it did not make me feel uncomfortable; I think I have felt that because I essentially live in Kenya, I that I was “one of them.” However it became painfully obvious to us that night that we were not, in fact, one of them, and this way of thinking is what got us in the situation in the first place.

While we were fortunate in that we learned this lesson at a very small personal cost, I am angry with these men for stripping me in 20 seconds of the confidence I have worked for 3 months to gain here. When I first arrived in Kenya, I was a scared white girl afraid of my own shadow. My friends, (more so than my parents, who were the biggest advocates for me coming here), had fed me horror stories of major African cities, regaling me with the horrors of the sex trade and rampant transmittable diseases. I have spent the last 3 months separating myth from fact, deciding what is reasonable for me to fear and what I need to suck up and face head on. It had gotten to the point that I was confident enough to go to the city and check into a hotel by myself; I had errands to run, I ran them. I was hungry, I went to a restaurant. Approached by a man hustling safari tours, I firmly told them where they could shove it, with no sense of anxiety. In a matter of seconds, these men took that from me. While I still had a couple days of work to do in town, and I wasn’t scared enough to run back to the comfort of Njabini, I was certainly shaken up enough that I was scared to walk around in broad daylight the next day. They took my confidence from me, and that’s worth almost more than my digital camera and debit card. I’m angry with myself for getting so comfortable that we made a stupid decision, but I’m more angry with them for taking in one fell swoop what it took me 3 months to earn. Hopefully with time I will be able to gain back my confidence, but this time with a respect for the city I did not have previous to this trip. Betina and I count ourselves lucky that we escaped with nary a scratch, and we certainly learned a valuable lesson. My parents were quick to make certain that I didn’t let this one incident taint my entire experience in Kenya; I’m glad that they had that reaction, and not the “you have to come home immediately” one. It gives me confidence that I can, in fact, get past this and learn from it. The reality is, the odds of that happening in the first place aren’t super high, and we increased those odds ourselves by the decisions we made that night. The odds of it happening again are super low, as long as we are careful to take the appropriate precautions during future visits. To let this episode change my mind about Kenya would be a cop out. I just have to go back to basics and not let them see me scared – that would be like hanging a neon sign over my head flashing “rob me-rob me.” I must say though, that stepping off of the mutatu onto Njabini soil was such a relief. There are obnoxious people here too, but they’re my obnoxious people, and they know that I am not a tourist, so they leave me alone. So I got that going for me, which is nice….

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

My Accidental Hiking Trip

There is no such thing as a typical morning around here; while we have gotten into routines and patterns, it only takes one seemingly insignificant incident to throw a wrench into everything. Take, for example, Friday morning.

We rent a large 15 passenger van to bus our school children to and from the centre, as the majority of them live on the other side of town. Wombogo serves as our bus driver, and, on a perfect day, arrives with the first of two busloads of kids between 6:45 and 7am. The first 25 kids pile out and have “recess” until he arrives with the second load of kids approximately 45 minutes to an hour later, at around 8am. Morning assembly begins at 8:20am, class begins at 8:40am, and so on. The older children who go to private school need to be there by 8am; to make things easier, when Wombogo arrives at 6:45, they simply hop on the bus and he drops them at the end of the road to their school on his way to pick up the second load of kids. When all goes well, this routine is very predictable, and easy for us all to adapt to. It’s also nice because whoever chooses to accompany the children to school gets some nice early morning exercise in, taking the bus down and walking back to the centre.

However, “all going well” is a lot to ask. While seasonally, January is the driest and warmest month in Kenya, it has been uncharacteristically cold and rainy here the past few weeks. The Kenyans blame it on el Nino, which apparently they have been waiting to arrive for weeks. Whatever the reason for this unseasonal weather, it rains like clockwork at about 1 or 2pm everyday. I’m not talking a drizzle or a shower. I’m talking monsoon heavy rainy that forces you inside, wherever you may be and pounds so loud on the tin roofs of the classrooms that it makes continuing a lesson virtually impossible. The rain lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to the rest of the afternoon, but even a short rainfall is heavy enough to leave its mark.

The road going up to the centre is about a mile and a half of dirt and there are two or three major hills. When it rains, the road becomes virtually impassable and traveling by car or motorbike is a joke.  It becomes a bit of a vicious cycle, as the road can’t dry until it is warm and sunny for a day; it’s freezing cold in the early morning, which turns to pleasantly warm by 9 or 10 am, which tends to begin the drying process, but once the skies open up in the afternoon, it negates any progress the sun made, and makes the roads doubly worse than the day before. When the road hasn’t had enough time to dry, we can guess with decent accuracy that Wombogo will get stuck in the mud somewhere along the route, pushing the whole schedule back indefinitely. When he gets stuck on one of the hills it’s tough because he is one of two adults usually in the car on that first run, so he doesn’t have anyone to help him get un-stuck. While the 25 children are really cute as they chant “Uncle WomboGO, Uncle WomboGO!!” I’m not sure that good thoughts and cheering actually make the van’s wheels gain traction (if I were him, and was stuck for the 3rd time in 30 feet, I would probably chuck the kids out of the car and make them walk – the last thing I would want is 28 children screaming behind my head that “I can do it”).

I only know about Wombogo’s fan club as I passed him every day last week, wheels spinning uselessly in a trench, van at a 45 degree angle, as the children shook the vehicle cheering and jumping. Last week I took over escorting our older children to school; it’s a long walk, and it’s nice for them to have company, plus, I enjoy the more adult conversations I get to have with them, as they are often overshadowed by the younger children’s personalities. The walk from the centre to their school is 50 minutes to an hour; after a bit of trial and error, we have worked it out that if Wombogo hasn’t arrived with the first load of school children by 7am, we must begin walking so that we get to school on time. All but one morning last week, I got the glorious opportunity to take a 2 hour round trip walk up and down ankle deep muddy roads.

Friday was a particularly eventful morning. We had terrible rains on Thursday afternoon that lasted hours, and we knew Wombogo wouldn’t make it up the hill so at 7am I began the trek with the kids. Normally, we run into Wombogo somewhere along the route, the busload of children cheering and screaming, one or two adults pushing the van from behind while our fearless driver tries in vain to maneuver himself out of the ditch. As I have on more than one occasion been in the car with Wombogo when he gets stuck and suffered from the sore muscles that result from hours of pushing, I am all too happy that I have an excuse not to join in and help him each morning. “Hey Wombogo, oh you’re stuck again, bummer. Welp, good luck with that, gotta get these kids to school by 8!”

However, this morning, we didn’t see Wombogo anywhere along the road from our home to town, which meant that by 7:45 he hadn’t even made it to our side of town, which meant that he was probably stuck on the dirt roads that he picks the children up on. Sure enough, Wombogo gives me a call as I get to the tarmac road that signifies “town;” not only is he stuck en route from picking up the first load, but the van has broken down. Awesome. I walk the children the rest of the way to school, and prepare to head back, certain there’s nothing I can do to assist in the breakdown, as the car is still at least two miles away. Wrong again. Teacher Paul meets me as I exit the school, having walked all the way from where the van broke down, bumming money for diesel (as at this point they thought the van was merely out of gas – another false assumption). After dishing out the rest of my cash, I look up to see 25 children approaching with our matron, Phoebe, who had also been in the first load, as she lives on that side of town as well. She dropped the kids with me, explaining she was going to go back and get the second load of children (we had contacted parents and asked them to have their kids start walking), who were unattended by an adult. Stranded, I looked down as 25 children expectantly met my gaze; I was in the middle of Njabini, with lorries, motorbikes, donkeys, sheep and cows running haphazardly up and down the main road at warp speeds, and I had to shepherd 25 children through the maze. Again, awesome.

I began the trek with the kids, alternating between leading the pack and bringing up the rear, mentally doing a headcount every few minutes, although it was hard to differentiate between the 25 identical bonnets.  Everytime we were faced with crossing the street, I had to instruct them in my best Kikuyu (I speak very broken Kikuyu, mostly I string together individual words that I’m sure don’t actually make a sentence), Watoto! Hapana! (Children! Stop! – actually, hapana means no, but I think they got the gist). Then I mimed holding hands (over half of the pack was nursery kids who speak a combined sentence of English) and signaled to run for your life.

We had to take a route that kept us off the main road as much as possible even though the rough terrain increased the overall walk by at least 20 minutes. One by one the children hiked up the hill, a brother gave his sister a lift on his back, a string of children held hands helping each other up the hill and I quickly glanced around for Capitan Von Trapp; it’s as if we had stepped straight into a scene from Sound of Music. Minus the Nazis and hot husband, I could have been Maria, leading my children over the rolling Austrian hills to freedom. Then I tripped and fell; the searing pain that shot through my hand where it had landed in a patch of stinging nettles snapped me out of my reverie. SO close. In reality, we were hiking up a vertical hill slick with mud, forcing me to walk hunched over at a 90 degree angle, increasing the odds that I would break my nose on the next fall. Trash piles smoldered on either side of me as sheep picked through them for any remaining sustenance, a “stream” of human waste made its way down the hill and I couldn’t distinguish my charges from the street children that had joined us along the way. While the Flying Kites centre itself is amazing, the views are spectacular and the compound is immaculate, the same can’t be said for the town of Njabini. Hiking up the hill towards one of the slum neighborhoods is not a stop I would include on my guided tour.

Waiting for the slowest of the 25 kids to catch up on the side of the road leading to the centre

We finally made it off the main road to the 2 mile dirt road that leads to the centre. I felt better about letting the children run amuck (ha-ha, pun intended?) when I knew that any motor we heard would be that of a car or bike trying in vain to get out of the 10 inches of wet mud. I held the hand of one of my favorite girls, AnnLiz, who has some sort of birth defect that caused her to be born with only two fingers and toes on each hand and foot. It’s sad, but I’m glad she was born that way and the deformity isn’t the result of some abuse or accident; she’s quite adept at writing, eating, grasping things, etc… as she’s been doing it her whole life. I was torn between my desire to burst out laughing and crying when I felt her straining against my hand and looked down to realize that both of her shoes had gotten sucked into the mud and she was in her stocking feet; I think her foot slipped out easier with less toes… I though it was a pretty good way to sum up the morning up until that point.

We made it back to the centre without too much more trouble, although I vowed that I was taking a break from walking the kids to school this week. My calves and butt were sore all weekend from the workout. On the bright side of things, I don’t feel bad about splurging on pizza tonight in Nairobi!!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment