Friday, December 21, 2007

In Retrospect

My three months in a remote experimental village in East Africa were packed with life changing events. From constructing a coffin for a four year old child to the exuberance of a goat barbecue, a tragic drowning, helping with a business plan, extended travels and visits to heavily impoverished areas are emotions that rarely rest in the middle. I find myself wondering which peak (or valley) I will reach next.

Sister Mary, the Executive Director, is an inspiration to all who come into her presence. She visited the village frequently and is instrumental in keeping alive the vision of Father Angelo D'Agostino, who in 1992 founded the first hospice for HIV positive orphans in Kenya. He directed the rapid growth throughout the last fifteen years of his life.

Before reading my report I hope you will take a few minutes to read the Christmas letter from our executive director, Sr. Mary Owens. It tells the Nyumbani story and captures the spirit and vision that can come only from her heart.

It is especially fitting that at this Christmas Season I add to her words my Christmas Greeting. Nyumbani has helped me strengthen my Christian commitment. As I observe ordinary people doing the work of Christ I'm more convinced than ever that His earthly mission lives on. My Christmas hope is that you, too, in your small way, will be able to witness and spread the unconditional love that is the foundation of this, and so many other religions.

Upon Arrival

My first opportunity to visit children at the orphange, upon arrival on September 8, 2007, was having my picture taken with a little guy shining his shoes. Happy children that accept responsibility, and enjoy life.The second impression of Sr Julie caring for a child . . . a child that died a few weeks later, was a somber reminder that HIV+ continues to be a very serious problem Many of the abandoned children are simply left to die of neglect in spite of the fact that often newborns with HIV-infected mothers give a 'false-positive' and never actually develop the virus themselves. Nyumbani seeks desparately to identify these children and give them a second chance, whether it be through adoption, a suitable community placement or permanent residency.

First Impressions

I read someplace that Kenya has the most ideal climate in the world. I believe that . . . at least where I'm living in this remote corner of Kenya. The temperature is comfortable, humidity is low, evenings cool and unbelievably clear. The milky way seems to extend from one horizon to the other. I imagine it following the path of the equator. I wait for the moon to rise so that I can take my evening walk, but I can't locate the big dipper! At noon with the sun directly overhead, shadows shrink and it is hot, but not unbearably hot. The nights and days start rapidly and are consistently twelve hours long. Without electricity the night seems much longer. Taking a cold shower from a basin will only be enjoyable when it is over. I quickly took up an offer to pay someone to do my laundry. I enjoy clean sheets. Using the pit toilet requires a pre-warm up, at least for an old guy who hasn't done squat thrusts since high school football. The meals are nutritious but lack flavor and variety. I lost 16 pounds, but that's O.K.Tea is half milk, the only "dairy product." I drink instant coffee. All children and adults are friendly. The volunteer staff, out of necessity, bond quickly. We are all very different, but share common goals. I don't feel like a tourist, but a legitimate native of Nyumbani village . . . a rare privilege and making an old white guy with white hair somewhat of a celebrity.

The Village Farm . . .

. . . is everywhere. Sustainability is a frequently used word as staff struggles with what will be needed to keep the Nyumbani dream alive. Farming is a big part of the answer and the weather a major factor. Crops are carefully selected and nurtured with an elaborate solar powered irrigation system. Day workers are brought in to cultivate. Volunteers continue to make a major contribution. Each family unit has their own garden and often their own chickens. All the children helped plant and care for their garden. Planning and hard work are needed to assure adequate food to feed a rapidly growing community. Without the traditional source of electricity and consistent supply of water, food processing and preparation will continue to be a major challenge.

Sunday Hikes

This is a view from our dining table at the guest house. I knew I would climb this mountain some day. Sunday morning is the time for serious hiking. The first one I did alone and from then on Jen became my hiking partner. They were interesting because we always ended up visiting local farms and talking with people and children along the way. Sometimes we traveled on trails but just as frequently we headed in the direction that looked most interesting. Our latest and most strenuous adventure was a major hike to the mountain.


Kenyans are great runners. I know that from my own serious running days, when they won all the races. Perhaps it's the altitude, cool temperatures or diet . . . and lack of public transportation, but they all are beautiful runners. So soccer (or football as some call it) is a natural sport. Sunday afternoon was the time for the weekly dust bowl and most of the community showed up for the event. Sometimes there would be a delay until a soccer ball was located . . . or repaired and the unmarked field seemed to cover several acres. No goalposts, no referee, no arguments, just hard fun . . . the way a sport should be. . At one point I was given the assignment of constructing swings and other playground equipment. I got bogged down when I was unable to locate the necessary hardware and portable equipment to get into the field and do the job!

The Village School

The school is essentially pre-school through grade eight, although they use different terminology. At the eighth level all students are given a standardized test which will determin if they advance to high school. A great deal of emphasis and pressure is placed on the students to pass this test. If they don't pass they stay in the elementary program until they do. The students who have advanced to high school attend a nearby boarding school and one student has gone on to the university. The curriculum is largely academic. Hopefully as the poly tec center expands it will provide exposure for those students not qualified to move through the academic program. A crucial question facing the village is to educate children for a changing world or to eke out a living as for centuries their ancestors have done. (More and photos Here)

Lea Toto (In Swahili: 'To Bring Up the Child')

Lea Toto is a community outreach program associated with The Nyumbani orphanage. It supports families affected by HIV in the surrounding Nairobi communities. The program includes free medical care, family counseling, HIV transmission and prevention education, door-to-door counseling and promotes awareness and behavioral changes. These photos exemplify the despair shown by so many and my moment of joy as I held a lfie that had been rescued. My visit, arranged by SR Little started in the clinic where parents (primarily mothers) were coming with their children for treatment. Many for the first time. The staff were cheerful and hopeful, perhaps because they knew with proper medication these children would have a chance to survive.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Almost Home!

I have left Nyumbani Village and preparing from the relative luxuary the base home near Nairobi, Kenya. It has been and continues to be an experience beyond description . . . however, over the next few days and weeks I will try to put it all in perspective . . . perhaps more for my benefit than for yours! Stay tuned!