When I initially booked my ticket to come here, I was slightly regretful that I would not be spending my holiday season at home; however, now thatI I am here, I am so grateful I have had the opportunity to celebrate Christmas in such a different and eye opening environment.
In my family, Christmas has always been a wonderful time of year. Presents fill the bottom of the tree and spill out to fill nearly our entire living room. The days leading up to the 25th are filled with Christmas music, the smell of cooking, snowy days, warm fires and the furtive wrapping of presents behind closed doors. I would never say that our family is greedy for presents for ourselves, rather, we enjoy giving so much that even though we would be happy receiving less presents, we all love watching the reaction of a loved one as they open that “perfect gift;” I fear we will never be able to cut back completely on Christmas gifts.
Our family has always been very good about recognizing the comfort of our lives and giving back to those less fortunate; we buy gifts for families and children sponsored through our church, we are always thankful for what we are so blessed to have in such abundance and there are always moments of reflection for those who are not as lucky. My parents are especially generous throughout the entire year to those less fortunate, I have been trying to follow the example they have set.
However, the image in my mind of what constitutes the “less fortunate” was forever altered this Christmas Eve. We teamed up with our head teacher, “Teacher Francis” and his wife, Jane, who have started a support group called the SWORD group (Single women, Widows, Orphans and Disabled).
[Francis and Jane arrived in Njabini from Nairobi two years ago where they had run a successful bakery in town, but during the post-election riots in 2007, they literally had to abandon all their earthly possessions and flee for their lives when their bakery was set fire by rioters. Clothes, books, diplomas, wedding pictures, everything had to be left behind. They never even got to return to the site to see what remained of their livelihood. While I don’t completely understand everything that happened, I think essentially there was a tribal war – all tribes ganged up against one particularly successful tribe, and destroyed any infrastructure that was built by this tribe; among that infrastructure was Francis and Jane’s bakery. When they were telling me the story I was literally in shock; obviously you hear and read about this kind of stuff, people fleeing for their lives, losing everything they own, having to sleep during the day, travel by night, forge papers and documents and bribe people to help them get past checkpoints, but never have I heard a firsthand account.]
The point of this story is not that Francis and Jane are less fortunate (well, they are, by American standards, but by Kenyan, and especially Njabini standards they are average middle class), but that they saw the need in this village upon their arrival, and did something to address it. They, along with friends from church and the community bounded together to form the SWORD group, which extends the hand of fellowship to
particularly impoverished families who meet the criteria of the group (single women, widows, orphans and disabled). There are 30 member families in the group, who have all bought in with a very very small membership fee, but enough to give them a sense of belonging to the group. Jane and Francis invited us to join them on Christmas Eve to distribute packages of food to these families for the holidays. Sarah and I have been in talks with them regarding seeking American financing for a rabbit breeding project they are hoping would be a good income producer for these families as a part of Flying Kites’ “Magnet Effect” program. This is a new Flying Kites venture which seeks to strengthen bonds with the community by providing funding for projects and bringing more attention from abroad to Njabini. As these would be the families that would benefit from our first magnet effect venture, and we were missing our families during the holiday season, we were eager to come along and help in any way we could. Sarah generously purchased the food for the families as her Christmas present to the community.
We met 6 or 7 of the other SWORD group founders in the morning and set off to the first needy area of the day. I’m not sure if there was a way I could have been adequately prepared for what I was going to see that day. This first group of families lived in a “neighborhood” of probably 300 or 400 shacks which mainly consist of a living house and a cooking house. Often, the clothesline is strung between the two, chickens and children wander about the area aimlessly and the smoke from the cookhouse makes your eyes tear reflexively.
I find it very hard to put this experience into words. This is the kind of poverty you see in commercials for “sponsor a child” charities and read about in Time Magazine articles. It’s never the kind of poverty I ever thought I’d be holding in my arms and presenting food to. These are the true “dollar a day” families – and many of them are supporting so
many on so little you wonder how they have even survived as long as they have. One woman who was supporting 5 orphans lived on 120 shillings a day at best, which is the equivalent to about $1.75. At one house, Sarah and I asked Jane what was wrong with the child in the yard, he looked strange – his features were distorted and his head seemed proportionally too large for his body. Jane responded that nothing was wrong with him, he was just hungry. Oh. Is that all…
To the mothers that we visited, Christmas is just another day to worry about how they are going to feed their children. The destitute don’t have the luxury to take a day off, however even among our better off matrons and teachers, I did not get the impression that there was any form of present exchange that occurred. Christmas is certainly regarded as a time to be with family, and to eat lots of good food, but I did not get the impression that children stay awake through the night straining to hear the tap-tap-tap of Santa’s reindeer on the tin roof. In fact, only when I was in Nairobi last week did I see any type of holiday decoration; Christmas trees are obviously not indigenous to this area, and I think Christmas is much more of a religious celebration than it is a commercial one. Really, a celebration of the true meaning of Christmas occurs here – not the meaning that the Hallmark card and toy industries have assigned to the holiday.
With each stop we made, we stepped back onto the path only to find that our entourage had increased by 10 more children. These children were in varying degrees of filth, most had no shoes, while some had bits of tires lashed around their feet with string; nearly all of them were unwashed and reeked of bodily fluids – flies alighted unnoticed on their faces and bodies. We noticed that a few of the youngest children were not wearing any pants or underwear at all. Judging by the age of these children, they were probably not yet potty trained, and I assume their nakedness was for lack of clean diapers, or to cut back on the added laundry burden that an unpotty-trained child would undoubtedly add to an already overburdened household.
One of the children, who over the course of the day we became enamored with, very clearly has Down Syndrome. This is the first African child I have seen with the distinctive features of such an unfortunate disease, however she is a very clever and friendly child, with a constant smile on her face. It’s devastating to imagine that she will probably not live to see many more birthdays; the health problems associated with Down Syndrome in conjunction with the state of poverty she lives in are a recipe for disaster for little Beth. Her situation is very reminiscent to me of our boys (and the millions of other African children) who are born HIV+. It’s like their lives are snatched from them before they have even had the chance to live them. These children could be the next leaders of the world for all their wit and intelligence, but they’ll be lucky if they live to see their 20th birthdays.
After visiting one particular home, in which I handed the bag of food off to a widow who gripped my hand, and with tears in her eyes said “God bless you so much,” I had to step aside for a few minutes and pull it together. I was consumed by this feeling of utter helplessness, and I felt completely overwhelmed. I recalled an essay written by one of the founders of Flying Kites, Leila. In it, she described a particularly devastating moment pre-Flying Kites, volunteering in an orphanage in Nairobi when she retreated to a closet to cry. She felt so overwhelmed by the needs of the children she was with and felt paralyzed to help. After a few moments, she noticed a child in front of her wanting to play cats cradle or some other game. She made a choice in that moment, to live in that moment, to play a game with that child, and to take it one day at a time.
I felt like I was with her crouching in that closet that afternoon – I was so consumed by utter helplessness and ineffectiveness that I literally could not keep walking. A child approached me at about that moment and I decided to live for that Christmas Eve; I scooped her into my arms kept walking. She became my new friend for the next two hours (although my arms may argue just how long she was sitting in them, judging by how sore they were the next morning). I know Leila has had this feeling, and I know I certainly have had it – Sarah has expressed the same moments of paralysis as well. I understand how this can often be a barrier to aid; people get so overwhelmed by the problem, that they don’t even attempt to try to solve it. It’s very easy to imagine that what you are doing makes no difference in the scheme of things, but it is that very method of thinking that prevents any measurable progress. You have to realize that saving the life of even one child is worth all the feelings of despair and ineffectiveness in the world. I am helping to save the lives of 16 children here, and that has to be enough to keep me going.
To the children following us from hut to hut, this was their entertainment for the day. None of them go to school (we asked Jane), and many of them are orphans, or might as well be, for all the attention they get at home. Many of the women we were bringing food to were taking care of their children’s children – their daughters and sons having passed away from AIDS. They were very obviously affectionate towards their grandchildren, and the fact that they took them in in the first place shows a big heart, but unfortunately, many of these women are simply too old to be looking out for the welfare of 8 children.
The family that affected me the most, however, was on the far side of town. A widow with 10 children lived in a hut made of bamboo spaced about 4 inches apart. The open space had been filled in with packed mud, however the house was in such a state of disrepair that the mud had crumbled away in many places, and I could see right into their “home.” I knelt down to shake one of the younger children’s hands, and attempted to flake off some of the mud that had dried on his earlobe, only to realize what a futile effort this was, as his entire body was caked in mud, and nothing but a hot bath and 2 bars of soap would remove the dirt of his daily life from his little body.
Jane told me that she had the most trouble keeping it together when she visited this family. The family does not own any beds, mattresses, blankets or pillows; all 11 of them sleep side by side on the mud floor of the hut. Later that night, it began to downpour, and in fact it has rained pretty steadily for the past few days. I thought of that family when it began to rain, and wondered how they were going to stay dry that night. I wanted to run out and buy the family mattresses and blankets – but then I wonder if there is something else they need more. Sarah and I were having that conversation later in the van, about what we can do to make a real difference in these families lives. The food was a start – it would at least get them through for a number of meals, but we struggled with what kind of charity would be most effective. I was struck by the pervasive barefootness of the children, but realized that if they were all given a new pair of shoes, they would be barefoot again in a month for the amount of wear they would get. It is impossible to help every single person in Njabini; Flying Kites has chosen to focus on educating children. Through education, children can begin to realize what lies outside of the realm of Njabini, and the doors that education opens. Rather than undertaking an effort to clothe, feed, house and shoe the entire village, we have dedicated ourselves to providing children with an exemplary education. Maybe someday we can help to educate every child in the village – but for now we have to be content with the little bit we can do.
I’ve been wrestling with my conscience these past few days; I am torn between my desire to help the people I have seen over the course of this past week, and to continue to enjoy the holidays that I have grown accustomed to in the states. Sarah says there is a book that wrestles with this very dilemma of finding the balance between enjoying the privileges of the life I was born into, while at the same time realizing and helping to ease the plight of others. While I don’t want to give up every Christmas at home, I think that coming to an area like this on a regular basis and establishing an effective means of giving back is essential to becoming a better citizen of the world.