Adventure seeker promoting hope & unlocking potential in Western Kenya, building a rescue center for kids who have been made vulnerable HIV/AIDS, and learning each day to try harder, grow taller, be kinder and give more.
The power at the OLPS office went out again today. Supposedly Kenya Power was fixing some felled poles, but no one knew for sure. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does the general productivity level tends to drop off. By lunchtime, those of us who haven’t fled for internet cafes or to the field escape the hot, stagnant air in our offices and congregate in plastic chairs under the tent in the center of the compound. We talk politics, debate about religion and culture, discuss local news, brag about the successes of friends and family members or commiserate about the illness or loss of a loved one.
Enjoying moments like these has never come naturally to me. As anyone who knows me well can attest, I’m chronically over-scheduled, short on time and always late for something. I’ve never been one to casually drop by a friends house to chat, with no intention, purpose or end-game in mind. Life in Kenya is teaching me me to appreciate the connection you can make with someone when waiting for a meeting to begin, a bus to arrive, a meal to be ready, or the power to come back on. I’m learning to relish these opportunities, though at first all of the waiting made it seem like time was flowing like molasses.
And while many of the days in Kenya have felt like my longest, somehow it seems like only yesterday that I touched down in Kisumu.
I have five more days until my flight back to the states, and I’m constantly wavering between unbridled excitement to return to my life in San Francisco and deep reluctance to leave this place and the people that have taught me so much, especially since I have no idea when I’ll be able to return.
I know I will spend the next week running around like a chicken with my head cut off - visiting the Rescue Center and the gardens, meeting with contractors, planning for the future of my projects, packing, figuring out travel logistics, planning fundraising events, grant-writing and attempting to find a job back home. In the midst of all of this, I need to remember to take a breath, sit back and enjoy the last few days I have here, with the people who have brought me so much joy.
I’m glad the power went out today.
To call the past week and a half insane would be a gigantic understatement. It all started out the Thursday before last, when I woke up in the middle of the nights with a cold sweat, horrible stomach pain and achey bones. You guessed it: malaria! It turns out that prophylaxis aren’t 100% effective. Luckily, I work at a clinic. I was diagnosed by our lovely lab tech Dixon, pictured here, showing me my own blood parasites.
I got on medication, and was back in working order around 3 days later. Which was good, because we were expecting a very important visitor: Martina! Martina is my fellow advocate, working at St. Timothy’s school in Moshi, Tanzania.
We took her to Homa Bay, around 2 hours outside of Kisumu, to visit the Lake Region Community Development Initiative (LARCOD), an NGO that our coworker Staula helped start. We met an amazing young women’s business group. They share a farm, weave baskets and blankets, run several small businesses that they are able to expand through small-scale table banking. We talked with them about their challenges, the biggest of which is access to potable water. There is no running water in their village, and the walk to Lake Victoria takes over two hours. The closest water source is a sort of man-made pond which only fills after rain - when it becomes full of muddy, stagnant water thats also used by cows and other domestic animals. They showed us some of this water, and how they purify it best they can - stirring it with chloride tablets, then boiling it when they have enough money for firewood. The result is far from ideal.
We also got to visit Staula’s rural home, meet her extended family, and eat the most delicious meal I’ve had in my 3 months in Kenya. Tilapia, nile perch, chicken, kale, chapatti and two different kinds of ugali. It was amazing.
On the way back we hiked to the Homa Hills hot springs, boiled some eggs in the bubbling sulfur water, and got to see some incredible views of Lake Victoria and the surrounding countryside.
On the way back, however, we ran into trouble. A bit of election-related rioting broke out in Kisumu just as we were returning to town. These were nowhere near the severity of the 2007 riots- it was more to the tune of people taking advantage of the chaos to stop cars, demand bribes, and loot like crazy. Our car was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and things got a little scary, but we got out of it unscathed - minus the shillings extorted from us and tomatoes stolen from the trunk of the car. We holed up in a roadside hotel for an hour or so while the chaos passed, then hid in the backseat of a car under many of our (beautiful, multicolored and very handy) kitenges, and were smuggled safely home. I don’t have any photos of this particular adventure.
The next morning was Easter Sunday and the violence had died down enough to accompany Anastasia and the kids to mass at St. Josephs. Afterwards we had lunch at her house. Martina proved to be whiz in the Kenyan kitchen, fixing up some delicious spaghetti. Here she is helping the kids wash their hands before lunch.
On Tuesday, we did something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.
HIPPOS! We took a lovely boat ride out on Lake Victoria, where we spotted many hippos and two different varieties of kingfisher. We also got to see the fisherman selling their early-morning catch to the mamas to be sold in the market in town.
Before the end of Martina’s visit we also got to show off our project sites, introduce her to all of our co-workers at OLPS, eat delicious Nyoma Choma (grilled goat), and host a girl’s night at our apartment with Bernice, Nancy and Mercy - our favorite Kenyan ladies.
The past 10 days has been punctuated by the highest highs and a few pretty low lows, but I wouldn’t trade these experiences in for anything. Sydney and I have just over two weeks left in Kisumu, and we don’t plan to waste a moment. Work on the Rescue Center, Rita Rose and the drip irrigation farms at Nyamonge and Ayoro primary schools is progressing remarkably - photos to come.
Trauma requires rehabilitation. While this is an obvious statement, I don’t think the reality of it hit me until I learned more about Judith. Now she is 12 years old, and since I met her I have only known Judith as a sweet girl who loves to ride bikes, shoot hoops and run around with other neighborhood kids. She’s a little shy, but willing to give you a big smile or an unexpected laugh once you’ve earned her trust. But it turns out she’s come a long, long way.
Anastasia, the founder and director of OLPS, took Judith in six years ago. Judith’s mother had died, and she had been living with her abusive father. From the first night, Anastasia and Judith have had to work together through a number of developmental and behavioral issues. At first, she couldn’t sleep through the night and she interacted badly with other children. She would play with the gas burners in the kitchen, almost causing house fires when she ran away scared as the flames rose too high. She wasn’t growing, mentally or physically, as fast as she should have.
While talking to Anastasia in her office one afternoon, she told me that she had to “learn to love, to care, to train, to be a real mother” to help Judith overcome her past, and grow into the happy, funny girl she is now. She is doing well in her new school, and last time I visited her she showed me her “model walk,” pretending she was showing off the latest fashions.
Many of the orphans and vulnerable children that OLPS works with have been through a lot in their small number of years, and recovery takes a great deal of attention, time and dedication. Caring for these kids can be very difficult, especially if they are placed with families who don’t understand how to help them.
When the Rescue Center is finished, it will be a place where children like Judith can get the rehabilitation and treatment they need to learn to interact positively with the world around them. Trained counselors and full-time staff will be available to provide care, compassion, and healthcare expertise.
DONATE NOW, and we can give these these kids the time and space they need to heal and to grow.
I meet Charity in the hallway of her primary school. Classes have just let out for the afternoon, and girls in blue and white checkered uniforms sit in groups on the grass. Charity shyly shakes my hand, hikes up the plastic bag book bag on her shoulder, and runs to find her elder sister Helen.
After Charity and her two sisters lost their mother and father, they came to live with their closest relative in Kisumu – a stepmother who is already supporting her own daughter and three young grandchildren. At only 12 years old, Charity is already in the Kenyan equivalent of 8th grade. Although she is soft-spoken, her English is perfect and her responses to my questions are well-articulated and thoughtful.
There was a time at the end of last year when the three girls were left alone for two months with little money and no food. Their stepmother had to return home with her other children, who are her primary concern. One of the counselors I work with heard about this and found Charity and her sisters at the house, unable to pay school fees or mend torn uniforms, hungry and predictably frightened. She persuaded the stepmother to return to look after the girls, but the care they receive remains inconsistent at best.
One of the biggest problems in Kenya is the high cost of education. Regardless of her high marks and enviable potential, Charity may not be able to continue on to secondary school because of her circumstances. She dreams of becoming a teacher one day and wants to visit the Netherlands, which she learned about in her social studies class. Her favorite subject is English.
If she were in a stable environment that nurtured her intelligence and ambition, she could easily qualify for a scholarship.
When the Rescue Center is complete, Charity and other girls like her will have a safe space to come home to. Kids staying at the Center won’t need to worry about how to get schoolbooks or where the next meal will come from. They will be able to focus on their studies and develop their potential to the fullest.
DONATE NOW to give Charity the chance to live her dreams!
As we navigate the old Subaru through the meandering streets of the slum, I wince as the car veers a little too close to a rickety vegetable stand. After a few wrong turns we finally find the right place, and before I even open the door I see the face of a little girl outside the passenger window – all big eyes and bright smile. She takes my hand, and I know she is who I came here to meet: Laura.
It’s hard to reconcile the beautiful seven year old leading me through the narrow alleyways with what I know of her past. Laura and her mother discovered their positive HIV status years back, after her father died from the disease. Her mother began to struggle with her physical and emotional health, and took her own life when Laura was five years old.
I follow her into a small courtyard, just big enough for a kitchen garden enclosed by a fence of old mosquito nets. A woman pulls aside the curtain covering the door of her two-room house to greet me with a warm handshake, an inquiry about my day in rapid Luo (the tribal dialect), and a kiss on each cheek. I’m never given this woman’s real name, but everyone knows her as Nyangere.
Since Laura’s mother has no family in the province, coming here was her best option. Nyangere is also HIV positive, so she understands how difficult it is to find people to care for orphans with the disease; even though children like Laura need stable care the most.
Laura has found an amazing caregiver, but she is the youngest of five kids living in the house, plus another nine who rely on Nyangere for financial support. She is a woman with incredible strength and an enormous heart, but because of her age and ailing heath supporting 15 children will one day become impossible. Until then, she does laundry for neighbors at under 3 USD per household, makes cooking charcoal to sell, tends her garden, and makes sure Laura takes her daily medicines on time.
When the Rescue Center is complete, caseworkers will not have to plead with already overburdened households to take in children like Laura. In some communities in Africa, HIV positive children are exiled, but with proper medication Laura can live a long, happy and productive life. The center will be a safe place where children like Laura will have the chance to recover and thrive until they can find a permanent home.
DONATE NOW, and we can finish that sanctuary together!