Monday, May 7, 2007

Kenya, Poverty and Love

I have a friend, Amy, from grad school who recently took a trip to Kenya. She sent me the following reflection and gave permission for me to share with everyone. Inspirational, challenging moving and sad are words that came to mind.

Africa is very dark at night and also very loud. When my friend Cathy and I arrived at night I was struck by how few lights there are on the road. Nairobi is just not very electrified. No streetlights to lead you; we just drove into darkness. On my first night at the orphanage, I awoke at 4 am to a man yelling into a loudspeaker. I suddenly had a flashback to the movie Hotel Rwanda, where the rebels called others to arms on the loudspeakers. Yikes! It turned out that it was simply a Christian preacher who was preaching. The preacher continued for many nights, other nights there was a cacophony of dogs, drums and music.

Bu this is really a story about the orphanage. The orphanage run by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart (nuns, founded in Malta). It is located in Kibera Satellite area of Nairobi. See this website for some pictures and if you saw the movie the Constant Gardener – it was filmed here. It is one of Africa’s largest slums. Driving into that area was mind boggling. If you can imagine the sensory overload as you see goats, dogs, pedestrians, bikers, men pulling carts, donkeys all darting into the heavily potholed orange dirt road. Not easy on the driver. It seemed to me chaos, mayhem, and extremely impoverished. And yet one short turn off the road and down about ¼ mile you come to the orphanage with gray concrete walls and razor wire atop. I felt a real sense of peace stepping into confines of the orphanage. There everything is orderly, peaceful just the sounds of children playing. I came to realize over time how important it was for orphanage to have the order it had. The orphan’s lives were so troubled that what they needed was order, consistency, dependability, and faith, hope and love. The sisters provided this.

There were 51 girls. (About 5 were off at secondary boarding school – girls about 15-18 years old. It is the custom to send the children to boarding school at this age, and a good reason is that sending 16 year old girls to walk a few miles to school in the slums is an easy way for them to get taken advantage of or possibly drawn into prostitution.) The sisters ran a kindergarten – ages 3-6 on premises to earn a little money for the orphanage. They also took in a few poor children. I say poor, and here it means super-poor: living in a tin roof one room shack with no water and dirt floors. For this you have to pay a slumlord $10 a month rent. One of the sisters had typhoid because the sewage problem is so bad it taints the water.

When we first arrived we met the kindergarten boys and girls. It seemed to me they were all sick. One boy I recall had yellow eyes among other apparent maladies. Well, rather than grasp him into my arms and give him an embrace – I drew away and washed my hands with Purel. I found out that I was not the Mother Teresa I thought I was. I was disappointed in my reaction. We met the girls when they came home from school. Wow they were excited to see us! They were fascinated with our skin and hair. They would constantly stroke our hair and examine our arms. My freckles, veins (which show through my pale skin) and fascinated them as did hairy arms.

This was a trip of many humiliations. I didn’t know what they would want us to do there. But what they asked of us I was terribly inept at: mending, cooking, peeling (no peelers), washing clothes by hand, and teaching kindergarten songs, making Play-do figures etc. Didn’t ANYONE want to know about Excel spreadsheets? Anyone for a hot stock pick? (It would make for a funny movie scene: the big city girls stride in with no practical knowledge of running a household and basic domestic tasks and are asked nonchalantly to do them and their attempts are quite comical – humiliating!) The worst day was when my friend Cathy was not there and the girls were at school, I remember getting disturbed by the physical labor, social problems, poverty and but really a feeling of alienation.

The girls were so sweet and with them I always felt at home. It is hard to believe they come from such horrible circumstances and yet they are really kind. About 95% of them had their parent’s die from AIDS. Some of them had lived on the streets, been molested by relatives, or mistreated by other institutions. Many of the girls were sibling groups. There were two 4 month old babies that had been abandoned. They appeared fairly healthy although one was just skin and bones when found, having been thrown away.

Their lives were very ordered. They returned from school around 3pm and washed clothes. At 4 they ate porridge and relaxed a few minutes then it was time for preparing food, mostly peeling chopping large quantities of vegetables. Then at 5 they had a shower and continue with chopping. At 6:30 they have prayer and singing Christian songs. At 7 they do schoolwork and then eat and go to bed. Saturday mornings everything is cleaned at washed – all by hand with minimal cleansers. Sunday is mass and some leisure time – we took walks in the neighborhood. I think they can watch 1 video a week. I wondered why the kids were so good? I suppose they had the luxury of not being spoiled or overly influenced by toxic media and bratty friends. They were very respectful, disciplined, not cynical, seemed to have a lively, educated faith, and were very grateful. I thought if only our American teenagers could learn from them! Oh and they loved music and were great dancers. They liked to sing The Sound of Music songs which was very endearing. The most rewarding part was when I helped the girls with their studies or peeling or when they constantly held your hand at mass.

The sisters were completely inspiring models of Christian charity. Staying with them was also very eye opening. They were mostly fairly young Kenyans. There were about seven staying at the house on the grounds of the orphanage. They had different jobs such as catechists, social workers, and teachers. Only one was totally focused on the orphanage. They lived an upper class life for that neighborhood: electricity, running water and even a clothes dryer they rarely used due to electricity cost. They maintained a nice, simple and orderly house and prayed about 2 hours or so a day. One day I think I had just heard one too many sad Kenyan stories (this one about how one sister worked with street children – the many who literally live on the streets) and I realized how peaceful the sisters were about their work. They just kept pressing on and not getting down about the circumstances. They were quite cheerful. They looked after themselves as caregivers spiritually and physically. My MBA side might have said why don’t you lessen your prayer and spend more time tutoring the kids – but I knew that type of thinking is a common American error. The sisters were fun and when we cleaned up after meals I recalled my own childhood with five sisters – not too different. There are a lot of vocations in Africa and I saw it as a result of their humility. They had a willingness to be generous with their lives which we are more afraid of in the US. The sisters showed how rewarding it is to be a sister even on earth, in contrast to the many unhappy women I know.

There was a Catholic Church next door to the orphanage, St. Jude. They had wonderful respectful services if a bit long, with great singing with awesome Kenyan music. I felt like the Christianity was the best thing going for the future of Kenya. Beyond the truth of the Jesus Christ that I believe in, it also taught needed virtues that will help Kenyans fight AIDS and some other tribal practices that are self defeating. It was very reassuring to me the girls were getting a strong Christian upbringing with frequent prayer, bible reading and church services.

We did some other things like visit the sick in the neighborhood. We also came across a Rwandan refugee school near the orphanage where we spoke with one of the teachers. These were Hutus who had been in Kenya for years now. I asked them if they could go back since it appeared quiet in Rwanda now. The teacher looked at me solemnly and said: “There is peace but no justice”. Apparently there are still citizen arrests being made and not a lot of evidence required. (I refer you to an excellent book: Left To Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza.)

A few words about AIDS. Yes, it’s horrific! Kenya’s life expectancy is only 48! Down from 58 or so before AIDS. None of the orphan girls were HIV positive at this orphanage (they are at another one the sisters run). About 10% of the Kenyan population has AIDS but I read this is finally declining. This only occurs when people refrain from sex. As had been shown, the condom only agenda did nothing to reduce AIDS rates (condom effectiveness against transmission is said to be 85-90%).

One of my last days there the boy with the yellow eyes saw me from far away. He ran like a linebacker pushing aside several people to jump into my arms. Yes he had become my little buddy during my kindergarten working hours. I threw away the Purel after I got sick anyway (a minor cold). The alienation and humiliation became a lesson on Christ suffering during the Passion. (Yes we know it was terrible physically, but what about the emotional alienation Christ suffered, when your so called friends turn you in and deny you.) I cried when I left the orphanage and said goodbye to all the people who touched my heart there.

I will be raising money for the orphans. Let me know if you have any ideas about how to do this: sponsoring orphans, a party, a bike ride, going on the radio, making presentations, a website. I know people don’t like to send money to Africa – because so much of it is wasted or becomes counterproductive and why bother when the problems seem insurmountable. Believe me I try to be careful when I give money: I don’t believe in a lot of welfare as it does perpetuate problems and surely many millions of aid money only went to line government official’s pockets. But in this case, there is no loss to overhead, the money goes to the most dedicated and loving helpers that are giving the most vulnerable and needy girls a chance at life. Yes, there are big problems in Africa that are daunting. Like the sisters demonstrated it’s probably not best to judge your actions by absolute numbers and spreadsheets – it’s not business. Its just one person at a time.

The Daughters of the Sacred Heart have one small house in the US in Dallas with 4 sisters. Donations can be sent to Daughters of the Sacred Heart, c/o OLPH, 7625 Cortland Ave, Dallas, TX 75235