As we began our descent over the immense Lake Victoria we could see grasslands stretch to the horizon stopped suddenly by a towering mountain range. While the city of Kisumu was boasted to be one of the larger cities of Kenya, its meager single room airport with the words Kisumu International scrawled on the side seemed to tell a different tale. Although the airport is dwarfed by the ones we’ve flown through such as Chicago’s O’Hare and London’s Heathrow, we can see several school groups flock around the airport and marvel at the sight of lumbering metal planes gliding gracefully to the ground. As we gather our luggage and step forth onto Kenyan soil for the first time we are greeted enthusiastically by the orphanage staff who help us pack our luggage into a large safari van. After we are loaded we travel down a dirt road from the airport into the heart of downtown Kisumu.
The city itself is a burgeoning metropolis of poorly constructed buildings that host many businesses from banks to construction agencies; although it is apparent that modern technology such as motor vehicles and electricity is starting to seep into the area, the growing pains are glaringly apparent. The area lacks any form of traffic signs or signals even though the streets are packed full of traffic, ranging from lumbering trucks, smaller vans, even smaller trikes called Tuk-Tuks, motorcycles, bikes, and even pedestrian pulling carts. The only way to keep the faster vehicles from traveling at dangerous speeds is the installation of speed bumps periodically down the central “highway” along with the many pot holes that dot the side roads. The highway if it could be called that is a poorly laid slab of asphalt that cuts through an endless shanty town constructed primarily of tin. After a short while of traveling on this highway we exit onto one of the side roads that runs through a small more modern neighborhood; at least modern compared to what we have seen previously. Although the area is more modern, the roads still remain dirt and the concrete fences are topped with electrified wire and broken glass to deter any would be thieves.
Finally we arrive at St. Anna’s Guest House, a quaint little compound where we are staying. The reason I use the word compound is because although buildings themselves were quite inviting, like a little villa you would find in the French countryside; it was surrounded by garish barbed wire and an iron gate which kept you in constant reminder the poverty that lay just outside these walls. We stepped inside to unload our luggage, although the rooms were very minimalistic, it was still rather comfortable. After working a full day at the orphanage the beds felt more welcoming than any hotel back in the US, and the showers like a brief trip to heaven even though the water was heated by a makeshift appliance strapped to the end of the shower head. Once finished packing we marched into the dining hall where we were served a delicious lunch. Originally we anticipated that our palate cultivated by lavish western living would keep us from enjoying our meals so we packed many snacks, the very opposite was true. The tilapia caught freshly from Lake Victoria was a great treat, along with the rice complimented by a delicious rich sauce that the kitchen prepared. Although the food was consistently fresher and more wholesome than what we were used to back home, it didn’t prevent us from pouring seasoned salt on just about everything.
After a delicious lunch we loaded up inside the van once again to finally visit the orphanage, the reason we found ourselves halfway across the world. Going back the same way we came we once again traveled along the highway and exited on the opposite side after a short while. The dirt road we got onto cut between a couple of makeshift shops set up on the side of the highway and back into the wilderness. Although the dirt road was clear, it was often obstructed by various holes, dirt mounds, and large ponds of water; luckily the van we were in was large enough to overcome any obstacle we found on the road. While traveling to the orphanage Maisha we came across many small houses and huts constructed of mud and brick surrounded by fields of maize; the main food of the people here. When passing these dwellings the children would run towards the van screaming and laughing; often asking how we were in English or chattering in their native Luo language. We came across a rather large river where many of the people would walk many miles to wash and gather water to drink and cook with. Finally we could see the orphanage down the road but the path was obstructed by a large crowd singing with glee. We exited the van and were hugged and greeted excitedly by all the children and widows. Although weary from all the traveling and lack of sleep you couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear as the children held onto each of your hands as you walked to the orphanage. After attempting to join in the many joyous songs we finally reached the orphanage where they set up a small tent with many chairs set up under it. Our family took our seats at the front while the widows and children sat behind and all around us. The staff then introduced themselves to us and subsequently us to the children. We then enjoyed ourselves as the children performed several songs, dances, and even a few plays and dramas they created themselves. You couldn’t help but be in awe of the harmonious sounds of their voices or their synchronized movements to their song, nor the creativity and brilliance in their story telling and poetry. One small girl recited a poem about both of her parents succumbing to AID’s and yet was still joyful of her life and her chance at a future; a surreal experience that would drive any person to tears and to question their perception of life.
After the fun and festivities we set off to begin our work. The compound was divided into two main sections, one where the widows tend to the chores of running the orphanage and where the orphans sleep and the other main section where the food is served and the younger children are taught. In the smaller section lies Momma Grace’s house, the mother of Beatrice and the woman who maintains Maisha. In front of the house lies a single metal pump where everyone draws water for washing clothes, cooking, or drinking. The process is tedious, having to pump a handle up and down for a couple of minutes before a water of gallon is drawn, but the only other manner of gathering water is walking several miles to the river and walking back . To the side of the house lies several chicken coups and a kitchen directly behind it. The kitchen itself is a mud shack with a tin roof with some mesh wiring at the top to allow the smoke to ventilate, albeit not very well. Inside the kitchen are three open stoves molded from hardened clay and a single counter to prepare the food. The widows prepare the food while having to weather both the elements as well as the immense heat that emanates from the open fires and the smoke that tends to clog the air inside. Even though the women have to work in unbearably uncomfortable conditions, they always carry themselves in a jovial way, either singing while hunched over their cooking or humming cheerfully while preparing the meals. Whenever I would come to the kitchen to help in whatever way I could to prepare the ingredients they would always greet me with a cheer and long hugs along with trying to teach me the ways they cook; which took an obstinate amount of patience on their part. Even with the few amount of ingredients and amount of mouths they had to feed, they would always prepare a mouth watering meal that never had any left overs.
The main area holds the school where the children of the community are served lunch and where the younger orphans are taught basic things like mathematics and English. The reason English is so focused on is due to the tests that allow children to attend high school are partly written in English, if any child in Kenya does not have a basic grasp of English they will not be able to achieve a higher education than that of 8th grade. Even then all of the schools in Kenya require a large amount of money for tuition, if a child does not have a sponsor, more often than not the family cannot afford to send their child to school. The school at Maisha has one smaller room and one large room on the bottom floor. The smaller room serves as a classroom for the younger orphans who cannot attend any of the schools yet, while the larger room serves as a cafeteria. While it holds about 6 tables that can hold about sixty kids in total, the room often holds a little over a hundred while they eat lunch. The floor above that holds four rooms total, two more that serve as classrooms, the third serves as a sewing room where a few widows work old fashioned Singer sower machines where uniforms are made for the orphans that are schooled here, the fourth serves as a computer lab where laptops are used to teach the children computer literacy; many have never seen one or even heard of what one is. Next to the main building lies a couple of small huts made of reeds that serve as extra space for teaching. The central area in front of the building is often used as a play area for the children where they can be seen running about and playing with soccer balls or hula hoops or whatever toys are donated.
As for what our group did to help out at Maisha, several women in our group were career teachers and sought to find ways to improve the experience in the classroom for the kids as well as the teachers. For the most part the teachers at Maisha lacked the supplies and knowledge on the most efficient way to teach the younger children mathematics nor English. With their help they established effective teaching methods to teach the kids the English alphabet along with essential spelling and grammar rules. Rodney Huffty, the father of the other family, was a Young Life leader and used his expertise in working with teenagers to help mentor teens here with insights about life as well as instruct the men of the staff on how to handle them as well. The kids from both families that were working at Maisha helped by reading books to the children individually to help foster English skills. They also helped with the food preparation for when lunch time rolled around literally hundreds of children would line up outside of Maisha’s gate to be served some meager helping of beans and rice. A couple that is currently volunteering for a year here named Ian and Amy would draw water from a water pump have the children form a line in front of the tub of water. From there they would take a cup full of water and pour it over each kid’s hands as they scrubbed with soap passed to each one. After they have washed their hands they would then form a line in front of one giant room that served as a mess hall. Each would then take plate of rice and beans that was tediously served by the missionary families. The food would first be put into smaller buckets and than carried from the kitchen another 100 yards to the cafeteria; overall the process takes about twenty or so trips. Once the food is set up in the cafeteria it is then served to each of the three hundred or so kids. Even though the children that came here for meals had no chair or table to sit at nor any silverware they were happy as could be for having a filling meal. Even as we would walk by the younger children they would offer handfuls of their meal to us even though most of them if not all were starving; such is the generous cheerful nature of the children of the orphanage. After serving out about 200 lbs. of both rice and beans, everyone assists the widows in cleaning the plates and pots. The way this is accomplished is by drawing water out of the pump into plastic buckets and carried about 50 yards behind the house. Soap is then added to a couple of the buckets and the dishes are sanitized by briefly washing them in the soapy water and then rinsing them and letting them dry in the air. Normally the few widows that take on this chore daily spend around two to three hours hand washing hundreds of dishes, with the assistance of about five people from our families, the entire process still takes around an hour. Once this is all accomplished, the day is just about over and the sun is just about to set; we load up in the van and head back to St. Anna’s for dinner and a good nights sleep.
The following day instead of going to Maisha Orphanage first, we went to the slums instead to visit a health clinic that is being operated by the orphanage. There people in the slums visit the clinic to test and get treatment for the HIV virus that runs rampant and untreated in the area. Currently about two million people reside in the slums as squatters that live in mud shacks and tin shanties in even more disrepair than those found in the countryside. Garbage litters the streets as the only way to dispose of it is to toss it in several heaps scattered around the area. The clinic itself is nothing more but a small single room hut that holds a bed and some supplies that is run by widows who are also infected with the virus and other women who are just doing it out of the grace of their heart. After grabbing several bags of supplies for the afflicted families we set out on foot to deliver the supplies as well as offer any other assistance whether through prayer or other means. While most of the adults are weathered from years of disease and poverty, there are still children that run through the streets giggling and laughing. Seeing their joy gives a bit of happiness, but that happiness is quickly squelched when we meet the first man afflicted with the virus. He sat outside of his house in a wooden chair, looking more dead than alive. Even though he lacked the energy to move, much less speak, he and his family were very gracious for the supplies we brought. Because he was sick, the only other male in his family, his thirteen year old son, was forced to work and provide for the rest of his family which included several sisters and his mother; a feat which was very well impossible. After several minutes of talking with their family the man accepted Christ and the group prayed for his healing around him; the whole experience was surreal and difficult to explain in words, other worldly is perhaps the best way to describe it. After walking through the rest of the slums and visiting the other two families it was much of the same. Extreme poverty forced on a people with no escape, families devastated by a virus often garnered just through birth, a place although dominated by surrender and despair often showed sparks of hope.
For the next few days although the chores remained the same, there was always a new experience with the children that could only make you smile. From them finding an otherworldly excitement and glee from a puppet show, to two older boys who turned in a roll of money that was lost that could of provided for them for years. I find difficulty in trying to describe these children, whenever I try to think of a way to describe them I find myself at a loss of words. The only thing that comes close is that in my eyes, these people were what God intended us to be, selfless loving pure spirits. Entering this country I was overwhelmed with a sense of despair and hopelessness from the widespread poverty, disease, and corruption that strikes down these people; but now as I leave, I only feel a sense of hope both in these amazing people, and the human race as a whole.