Posted by: hilarycole | December 20, 2009

Last Post

It’s funny that after three months in one place, you suddenly have 100 things to cram into the final three days. If it weren’t Christmas, I might have extended a bit, to see a few projects completed, but even with family gathering aside, it feels like time to go.

Being a visitor in this country has at times felt like a great privilege, at others like a mammoth exercise in patience – the latter when in transit or trying to achieve more than one thing on the to-do list in a day. The former feeling comes when in a Kenyan’s home. The more rural the location, the more rock-star the treatment.

It’s not that mzungus are all that rare – Kenya was a British colony for a long time –  but maybe that mzungus who hang with them, eat with them and work with them is still a novelty. So there’s a sort of reverence they hold, and a constant expression of gratitude I’m quite sure I don’t deserve. It’s like a strange kind of reverse prejudice. That goes both ways though – the seat next to mine on the bus was often the last to be filled.

Before coming here for the first time two years ago, I would have thought there would be some bitterness or resentment towards white westerners with their cameras, iPods and multiple college degrees, especially given colonial history, but that simply isn’t the case. I like to think the innocence of isolation allows their true natures to dominate. That said, I’m looking forward to not being an anomaly.

Finally, water.

On the news front, we have water! After three months of trying to push the borehole well project at Christ Cares Children’s Centre toward the finish line, I finally saw it gushing out with my own eyes, 22 hours before my departure. The power company is the latest cause for delay, telling us the type of controls we need to have electricity connected the last 10 meters is out of stock. So, using a generator, the drilling company ran a pump test yesterday. I have no idea how word gets around in a place where there are acres between homes, but by the time Mama Mercy and I arrived, there were six or eight people

getting water close to home

hanging around, waiting to fill up their jerry cans. I’m not holding my breath, but my guess is three more weeks before the tower is completed with a 10,000-liter storage tank and water pumping every day.

My last major, serious task was daunting, and a heavy weight of responsibility on my shoulders. With enough money to purchase a dairy cow in the bank, and almost enough for the shelter and feed, I found myself facing a room full of children to…. choose the cow’s name. The votes from the (phenomenally fantastic) PayPal donors were fun and varied: from Daisy to Nukkha, Iman (the supermodel) to Mudita (Sanskrit for “infinite joy in serving others”). We decided to use secret ballot to choose.

It was a tense half hour, the margins were slim, and Mama Mercy and I were out-voted; the choice of the children was….

Miss Emmalina

There were about 20 children in Mama Mercy’s house to say goodbye to me yesterday, even though it was Saturday and they wouldn’t be getting lunch there that day. They sang before they left: “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Hap-py New Ye-a.”

My farewell party

Posted by: hilarycole | December 11, 2009

Lighting up Rongau

After three long months, it’s no longer a solo journey. My other half has jumped into the bustle of Nairobi with all its crazy traffic, public transport, and staring, pointing children, and has rolled with it all brilliantly.

After letting Fred adjust for a day or two, we got out of the city and went to the Children’s Centre with Mama Mercy to get our hands a little dirty planting trees and bouganveilia. The Centre’s buildings have had a beautiful paint job and the interior walls are in, so it was time to start making the place look like a home. But even the Kenyans who know me fairly well laughed in dismay when I drove my foot onto the top of a shovel for leverage. Their colonial history still seems pretty fresh sometimes.

Later in the week, after too long a hiatus, we went to Rescue Dada to visit the more than 60 boistrous, clinging street girls who have called that place home for almost a year of rehabilitation. We also got to meet Teresia, the lovely new girl Hands Up for Africa will start sponsoring this year. Our visit was timed perfectly with a trip down the road to the soccer pitch for a scrappy game in the midday sun. Fred held his own but I have great video of him getting the ball completely stripped away by a deft 14-year-old girl. Easy for me to say; I didn’t bother much with trying to keep up with Kenyans in a game that involves running.

With our time here ticking away, we decided it was worth the long journey to spend two days on Rusinga Island to see the Kiyogo family again and check in on the workshop. I literally could not believe the progress there. When the workshop was built less than two months ago, I admit I was skeptical about the potential for business in an area where people are struggling to survive. But in our first few hours back in Erick’s house, he left us three times to go work or talk with a customer. I’ve never been so pleased to be ditched.

Since October, Erick and his partner Enoch have made windows and painted the trim with beautiful lettering: “Kajakony Carpentry Shop”. Kajakony means “Helping Place” in their local language – the goal is to eventually use the shop to train disadvantaged youth in the trade and open it up as a co-operative where many can work. Right now the shop is full of commissioned projects – sideboards, a bed and a bunch of table legs, all beautifully crafted. Blown away I was.

After two days of massive meals on the Kiyogo compound, Fred and I rolled ourselves onto a night train back to Nairobi in time for the big event at the Children’s Centre: the Vancouver-based president of Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics was coming to view the project her company has helped fund. Mama Mercy pulled out all the stops. It was an incredibly day, starting with our arrival: she greeted us leading 40+ dancing, singing children toward the car as we pulled up to the most sincerely joyous welcome I’d ever seen. I can’t speak for Karen Wolverton (neither could she at the time), but it was incredibly touching.

After a thorough tour of the entire site – the borehole-well tower, fields of crops, the dormitories, kitchen and 30-foot pit-latrine-to-be, we sat for a long ceremony to introduce all the guests Mama Mercy had brought along with the bus-load of children from her lunch program. All the while, hammers and saws rang out as construction carried on, appropriately.

presenting Mama Mercy with the photo of her with Avchen

I was surprisingly treated just as much of an esteemed visitor as Karen; we were all presented with beautiful gifts, even Fred and Karen’s  travel companion. And after long last, the framed photo of Avchen and Mama Mercy with dozens of schoolchildren (which I’d given to Rescue Dada two years ago) – the same photo Avchen had hung on her own wall and the one I’d used two years ago to seek out Mama Mercy – was given its rightful home in a part of the Children’s Centre that will bear their names: the Avchen and Abigail Mercy House.

To top off a perfect day, we placed the photo on the wall with the certificates of appreciation to both Lush and HUFA, and then Karen had the honour of turning on the light. It was incredible – in the middle of a vast savannah where kerosene lamps have provided the only glow, electricity fired up two long flourescent bulbs in what will be the children’s dining hall. Everybody cheered.

Posted by: hilarycole | November 21, 2009

Lame Apprehension

I’m writing alongside the Indian Ocean, with a very warm, humid breeze in the air. A friend-of-a-friend from Vancouver is doing research here, so I’ve sidled into her house on the beach for a few days. The night train from Nairobi to Mombasa was recommended by many as an epic journey; the experience was, I imagine,  like a developing-world version of the Orient Express.

Before leaving Nairobi, Mama Mercy and I went back to the orphanage site to check on the work there. We met with the well-drilling company and made some decisions on the tower and pump which will both be done within a week or two. Fundis are finishing the inside of the dorms and dining room; a painter has made the roof a nice blue and will be finished the brick-coloured exterior by the time I get back. The new kitchen was just getting walls and the 30-foot toilet was at about 25 feet. There will be lots to see in a week. 

While all of this was in progress last weekend, Mama Mercy and I took a little roadtrip; we went to visit her sister near the Tanzania border in a town called Loitokitok. Mama Mercy said it’s like a vacation for her; I would soon find out that vacation for her is just taking care of people in another town, sleeping in someone else’s house.

Loitokitok is a small town at the very foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. I had to take their word for it though, as the peak was shrouded in heavy cloud when we arrived. Everyone wanted me to see “the mountain”, as did I, but they were also hopeful for rain – most people here had planted and lost crops four times over in the last two years. No rain, but I got my wish the next morning.

This is where the trip blog brings you the harsh reality of life of sub-Saharan Africa.  Not what people want to read over their morning coffee, but it would be ridiculous not to talk about.

Mama Mercy’s sister had arranged for a van to take us deep into Maasai land to see a family she knows – she has been a regional veterinarian there for more than 20 years and has earned unprecedented respect from a tribe that is entirely dependent on livestock. What is most exceptional is that Maasai men are not famous for relating to women on an equal plane. I’m told they will introduce each of their wives as “children”. Often, the age gap almost makes that appropriate.

This is a culture older than I can comprehend. Unlike many here, they have resisted change with a strong sense of pride. But these are the people hardest hit by two years of drought in Kenya. Maasai families have lost their lifeblood – cattle. Some herds have gone from 800 to 20. People here say they’ve not seen it this bad in their lifetimes. Exclusively cattle herders for countless generations, some of the Maasai have recently asked Mama Mercy’s sister how to start cultivating crops like everyone else. If all goes well, it will apparently take up to 20 years for them to recover. In the meantime, they each have dozens of children.

In our rented van, after church of course, we drove past the gates of Amboseli National Park, watching zebras, giraffes and elephants scrounging for dry leaves and grass on the way, and up to a traditional Maasai boma (home compound). Each boma has maybe six or eight round, mud-and-thatch huts – one for each wife and her children. There were so many children.

Mama Mercy had come equipped with a big box of biscuits and a sack of clothing to give away. Unfortunately most of it was for bigger people, and many of the children were in tatters from the waist up, and nothing from the waist down. But the women were so happy. I can’t imagine looking at your own children wishing you could take away their hunger but having no way to feed them.

I kept pretty quiet through most of this, watching Mama Mercy do what she does best: give stuff. She even gave the women a few hundred shillings she had scrounged up from people before leaving for the trip. As for me, I went through the usual awkward apprehension in my head of whether to open up the wallet and look like the fat, wealthy westerner coming to hand out cash to the poor people of Africa. I gave Mama Mercy a little bit to hand out, once I realized what she was doing, but I was careful not to overdo it and set a bad precedent.

The whole way back I realized the absurdity of that thinking. I am the rich westerner; I had a few thousand shillings in my purse that could have made a good dent in helping these ‘poor people of Africa’ for a little while. That should be the precedent. It’s true, you can’t help everyone, but when they’re right in front of you and you have the means in your pocket, that’s the time when you absolutely can.

But I was concerned with appearances. And maybe a little with my own finances. I fixed the error later, back in the house, but my hesitation and questioning was such a pitiful contrast to Mama Mercy’s attitude. She operates on a give-what-you’ve-got rule of thumb, every time, without questioning. In 20 years without a job in a poor country she has never gone without. Funny how that happens.

Posted by: hilarycole | November 3, 2009

Piles of Potential

It’s been raining in most of Kenya, a massive blessing after nearly two years ofdrought effects drought (a blessing and a curse for a few areas that have suffered El Nino’s flooding). But people are definitely rejoicing and I’m especially happy for the food growers and livestock owners – life has been most tragic for them.  These dead cattle were likely left by a Masai herder who had taken them hundreds of miles in search of pasture. This grass turned green too late.

Work with Mama Mercy on the Children’s Centre in Kiserian has taken off, with lots of community members and extended family on board using their trades and skills wherever we need them. Mama Mercy wants to engage as many “idle” (jobless) youth as she can in this project.

We’ve enlisted a new company to complete the bore-hole well and Mama Mercy went all over town last week negotiating prices and hiring lorries to deliver the stones, sand, ballast and cement to buid the tower that will hold the water tanks. (After the experience of Erick’s workshop, I’m throwing terms around like a pro.) We visited a few other boreholes in the area to observe tower designs and garner advice, but Mama Mercy is no neophyte. As she likes to remind me, “My house in Rongai? I know it from the foundation!”

Mama at the Borehole siteRight now at the site we have a few holes in the ground and huge piles of rock and sand – pure potential. Our plan for the next six weeks is big: construct the borehole tower, build a cook house, dig a second toilet, build walls around both new toilets, finish ceilings and walls in the two dorms, have metal doors and gates built, get electricity installed, paint the exterior (I get to pick colours!), and do some landscaping to make things look like a beautiful, vibrant home.

It sounds like a lot of hard work and sweat, but make no mistake, I’m not the one toiling. Together, Mama Mercy and I plan, then she mobilizes the troops. Aside from hopefully putting some plants in the ground, I’m just hanging around, taking more snaps. (At the moment, I’m sitting in a posh coffee shop surrounded by British ex-pats. I just had a chocolate croissant. Please, hold the e-mails about my great sacrifices.)

While the wet weather is being celebrated here, I have to say, it’s messy. If it rains much more at the work site, trucks won’t be able to drive in over therain in Rongai muddy rural roads. Yesterday, we had to walk in from the main road; on the way back I had to help push our taxi about 100 meters. Rural areas aside, getting around anywhere in Kenya now is downright sloppy. For those of you in the Pacific Northwest about to begin your annual five months of complaining about the rain, I have one word for you – sidewalks.

Posted by: hilarycole | October 21, 2009

Three fundis, two mzungus and a workshop

Erick's workshopWith enough funds from kind Canadians to build a carpentry shop on Rusinga Island, we started the project last Monday. Well, Erick and his father started it – steps one and two were negotiating prices and buying materials, so the white person stayed well out of sight. But on day three, it was time to go to work.

I brought a friend – a young Californian I’d met who was doing someErick's workshop volunteer farming on the island. His name is Daniel, which he quickly learned sounded confusingly similar to the local-language (Luo) word for “I’m hungry.” We each arrived at Erick’s home compound around 9:30, after Erick, his father and his friend Enoch had already put in a couple of hours’ work. We mostly helped hold things in place that needed to be sawed or nailed, as the two young fundis (pronounced ‘foondies’) – the Luo word for carptenters -moved with experienced efficiency.

Erick’s father taught him this trade, as did Enoch’s, starting when he was a teenager. Now 27 years old, building a shop or a house with mud and iron sheets is second-nature, a series of well-practiced steps.

We were ordered to break three times during the day by Erick’s wife and mother for thermoses of sweet tea and chapatis, and a huge lunch of Erick's workshopsteaming-hot vegetables, fried eggs and maize meal on a more than 30-degree day. Secretly, Mr. ‘I’m Hungry’ and I were happy to sit in the shade and chat while the three men did the technical work of building trusses, using the string-and-eyeballing technique of course.

By the end of day one, they had a completed frame. It was a long, hard day, but they claimed they were “still strong.”

Day two was iron-sheet day, and providing Erick's workshoptwo extra hands actually made me somewhat useful. I had no illusions though; my real job on this project was “taking snaps.”

More hot food and hot drinks, more hot sun. I left a little early that day as I was feeling, well, hot.

Day three: collecting rocks. I can do that! We saved money by collecting our own ballastErick's workshop (small stones) for the cement floor, and hauling large ones to provide the base layer. (Who knew there were so many stages to cementing a floor?!) I skillfully engaged the services of every neighbourhood child who was fascinated by my glowing white face. While most everyone in the family chipped in, my little helpers and I defnitely won the bucket-filling race.

I decided to extend my stay to see the whole thing finished – an easyErick's workshop decision, as not only was the project moving quickly, and Rusinga’s peaceful lake views a welcome change, but I was really starting to enjoy this family’s company. And after nine days on the island, Erick’s little daughter Zuela finally stopped hiding in terror at the sight of my ghostly appearance. (Bringing candy helped.)

Erick's workshopThe masons and their donkeys arrived on day four to haul water and do their cement thing. By  Monday evening, a week after setting out with a plan and a budget, Erick Odhiambo’s Erick's workshopcarpentry shop was a finished product. Well, except for watering the floor for a week and cutting windows and building the workbench and hanging up tools, etc. I explained to his wife that when men have a place to tinker around with tools and machinery, they’ll always find something to do in there. She’s probably too busy to mind. As hard as those men worked in the hot sun, I still say African women work harder.

I spent my last night in Erick’s mother’s house, leaving electricity and running water behind; the family set me up with a comfy cot and a nice, big mosquito net. When the sun set, everything became pitch black except for the faint orange glow of cooking fires from the little mud kitchen hut.

Waiting for dinner and the family send-off that 15 people would later give their visiting mzungu, Erick and I sat on the ledge surrounding his mother’s house, his sleeping daughter in his arms. A little earlier, Zuela had eaten somethig that made her suddenly violently ill. Hearing her scream, her 24-year old mother ran out of the cook house and deftly used her own hand to force the child to vomit whatever was harming her. It was traumatic to watch but an amazing display of motherly instinct. With much food still to prepare, the child was handed to me, and then from me to Erick.

As I watched him in the faintest of light staring into his daughter’s quiet, beautiful face, it was all a bit much. Here was this boy, who used to draw me pictures of flowers and soccer balls, who posed for his annual sponsorship photo in the Canada t-shirt I’d sent, now a full-grown man, capable of building a shop with his bare hands, and rocking his sick child to sleep. I turned away to look up at the billions of stars and let the crickets fill the silence.

Posted by: hilarycole | October 10, 2009

Planting Seeds

boat on Lake VictoriaI’ve spent the past four days on beautiful Rusinga Island on Lake Victoria in the southwest of Kenya. My connection to this place was formed long before travelling here  (see 2007 post – Erick Odhiambo Odongo.)

As good fortune would have it, a young woman I met here two years ago was again on Rusinga, as director of Kageno Worldwide. Kageno means “a place of hope.” It’s an American organization which seeks to turn impoverished villages into just that. Their first project, now thriving after a six-year presence, has created a cluster of innovative ecological, health, employment and empowerment programs in Kolunga Beach at the far end of Rusinga Island. I offered to teach an HIV/AIDS course for the community if they’d have uJohn teaching at Kagenos, which they gladly did.  By us, I mean me and my friend John, also just-so-happening to be in Kenya now.  We met two years ago while teaching these courses for ICODEI  in western Kenya. He was free for a week and willing to come explore a new place, so we have just finished a two-day training with 20 community members at the Kageno site. John is a fantastic, experienced educator on the subject; I pretty much rode his coattails.

But before any of this, I connected with Erick Odhiambo again. We were invited to a celebration lunch at his homestead – a neatly maintained hillside property with small, stepped farming plots and five houses, one for each of his father’s three wives and two grown sons.

We first sat in Erick’s house, where I finally met his lovely wife, who has an infectious smile (I wouldn’t have guessed this from the photos ErickErick's family has e-mailed to me – Kenyans don’t smile in photos unless some crazy foreigner goads them.) We drank sodas and chatted, sometimes smoothly, sometimes awkwardly. John is great at keeping the conversation going; he’s spent a lot of time getting to know the people of this country and what makes them laugh.

After a while, we moved “upside” to the father’s main house where the women unveiled what had kept them out of sight for the past few hours: an amazing array of Kenyan dishes – greens, fish, cabbage, eggs, lentils, ugali, chapatis – that would leave us rolling out the door an hour later.

Then the serious, ceremonial part of the visit began. We were introduced to each member of the Sienga Youth Woodwork Co-operative Porject, the organization Erick and his friends and family started as a result of some miniscule amount of help I was able to send last year. They elected his father Chairman. Their idea starts with Erick starting a carpentry business, and follows with proceeds that will provide basic health care for orphans and vulnerable children, agricultural seeds for grandmothers, and youth training programs, to name just a few of their idealistic objectives.

planting treeThen we were ushered back to Erick’s house where they presented me with some wood-carving gifts, and John and I were each given a mango-tree seedling to plant in remembrance of our visit. It was a beautiful, touching gesture (and magoes are my favourite!). It seemed symbolic of starting something that will, with care, bear some fruit.

This is where I must pass on a message of great thanks to some generous friends in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Several people there graciously listened to my story of finding Erick 15 years after I’d sponsored him, and his ambitious plans to carve out a livlihood that would spin off to improve his community; many of them contributed what will provide a substantial start to his project. Erick says, “Thank you so much.”

We met today to talk business over tea at the idyllic lakeside place where John and I are staying (I move to cheaper accommodations tomorrow). On Monday, Erick will negotiate prices for building materials (without the white person present), on Tuesday we buy, and Wednesday, we start to build his first real carpentry shop, right on his homestead. Soon, his wife Millicent will get her living room back.

Posted by: hilarycole | September 30, 2009

Field Trip

After almost a week with Mama Mercy in Rongai, I came back to stay in Nairobi where it would be easier for me to visit Rescue Dada.  Hands Up for Africa sponsors two girls from there to go to boarding school, while some friends have sponsored two more.

The gracious staff welcomed me back but it was a whole new groupNewton's pics & Rescue Dada 053 of vulnerable girls who were nearing the end of their year-long rehabilitation at the centre; they nonetheless treated me like a rock star. They love visitors, no matter how much of a stranger you are, and they cling to you for love and attention; makes me wonder what life is like for them outside those walls.

Newton's pics & Rescue Dada 055A few days later I went on a field trip – two of the Rescue Dada staff took me to the schools where the sponsored girls have been placed. At the first school, a convent, I saw Juliana and Mercy again. They didn’t know I was coming, and were so shy at first. But they eventually relaxed and showed me their dorm rooms, guiding me through the throngs of little ones swarming the rare mzungu (white person). One of them told me she preferred to be there – she had no family to be re-intergrated with from Rescue Dada.

Not exactly as posh as a western boarding school though, their dorms are concrete buildings with four or five semi-divided  rooms with tightly packed rows of bunk beds, keeping 10-12 girls to a room. Each bed was neatly made with a traditional masai-cloth blanket on top (despite not being in masai land). It seemed that each girl had a small metal trunk for her few posessions and change of clothes.

The convent and school strives to be as self-sustainable as possible, so there is a garden, a bore-hole well, two dairy cows, pigs, chickens, goats and cute little rabbits. I didn’t ask for details.

We left when the bell rang for class, having previously Newton's pics & Rescue Dada 057waited 30 minutes for class to finish; not even a visitor from Canada gets in the way of lessons. Education is treated with great respect here – the girls were all grateful to be there, and I believed them. They’re going to schools with smaller class sizes and lots of encouragement to work hard and have goals. I think it gives them hope.

Posted by: hilarycole | September 21, 2009

Tireless

This is just my fourth day in Kenya, but it feels like much longer.  After a day of attempted jet-lag recovery, I came to the town of Ongata-Rongia, about 20 minutes outside Nairobi (or two hours, depending on the time of day). Mama Mercy wanted me to stay with her, for which I am grateful.  I expect I’ll be with her for much of this three-month trip, if I can keep up.

It’s hard to believe what she accomplishes each day. It’s hard for me to believe because I’ve yet to come close to that level of singular focus. She wakes up each day with one purpose, to serve the poor, and of that, she says, she has no doubt. Imagine, not doubting your life’s purpose, ever….

On Saturday I woke up (in her bed as she insisted on sleeping on the couch) to the sound of children playing on her little compound; they were the first of 73 who would show up that day to have a hot meal, cooked by two hard-working Mamas in the adjacent cookhouse.  These are children who either have no parents, or whose parents cannot provide them enough food. But more than a daily lunch program, the children come here to play, sing, learn and rejoice. Download in Rongai 006You see, Mama Mercy is a full-on preacher, determined to give these children something to hold them up in life besides sniffing glue.

We left the compound before the children ate, as we had a driver to take us 45 minutes away to Kiserian, the site of Mama Mercy’s land and the makings of a new orphan’s centre. She has three actual plots of land, with large portions of each ready for the third planting since Hands Up for Africa (HUFA) started supporting her work last year.

sunburned maize; irrigated field and well on a neighbouring propperty in the background

Everything is bone dry though due to drought – the difference between a farm with irrigation and one without is astounding (note the contrast between foreground and background in this photo – that land has a well).

She then showed me around the “shamba” – her one-time home which she has been slowly converting into a permanent orphanage, most recently thanks to funding from HUFA and Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics‘ Charity Pot program.

An amazingly versatile woman, Mama Mercy was once an accounts manager for a printing company, but now runs several lunch programs for 100 children each day, oversees every step of digging toilets, cementing floors, planting crops, and drilling wells, fundraises to bring food and water to internally displaced people, and preaches every moment in between. Currently, there are two long tubes of power-line wire in the corner of her living room, waiting to bring electricity to the new well at the orphanage site. This is not a woman who sleeps in.

Posted by: hilarycole | September 16, 2009

Round Two

It’s been nearly two years since I left Kenya, and I’m about to embark on Round Two.

The gist of what has happened since can be read at handsupforafrica.org – the site for the organization a group of us started in Vancouver, mostly to support the work of Mama Mercy (see my 2007 post How to be a Human Being).

It has been a remarkable couple of years working with this small group of dedicated volunteers who have really started to make this project cook. Our immediate goal, aside from sponsoring two girls from Rescue Dada, is to help Mama Mercy create a children’s centre in a rural area where dozens of orphans from her Kenyan community can be housed and cared for.

My role is less clear this time, which is a little unsettling; on my first trip I had a structured HIV-education program laid out for me to step into with a well-oiled organization. This time, I will have to do some surveying and communicating in terms of accountability to our funding partners, but my personal goal is to learn from a true master how to serve. Mama Mercy has dedicated every day of her life to serving the poor, so it will be a privilege to work alongside her.

Posted by: hilarycole | December 29, 2007

Remembering the alternative

Being at home with family, just in time for Christmas, is a gift in itself. But my time in Kenya was simply too short. I am, however, reminding myself that the alternative was no trip at all.

The two worlds are so vastly different that it’s proving difficult to keep my focus on the people and projects that occupied my last seven weeks and will continue to be part of my life. Before the New Year, my daily routine will return to what it was before I left, but I’ve vowed to dedicate some time to furthering those projects from where I now sit. That means establishing a web presence for new projects looking for volunteers, and connecting people in the western world who need some direction on where and how to help, to people and programs that are worthy of (and endlessly grateful for) their time and resources. If you’re one of those people, or just beginning to contemplate the idea, let me know; I can hook you up.

It’s difficult this time of year, to reconcile our lifestyles within the grand scheme of the planet; there’s no greater contrast than that of street children in Africa and Christmas in North America. There is joy in sharing gifts and feasts with family and friends, but it takes a concerted effort to accept and enjoy annual traditions when you have a direct link to what could otherwise be provided if we skipped over just 20 per cent of it all.

I spent my last day in Kenya visiting the lunch program started by Bart Sullivan, with thanks to his Vancouver yoga community for donating funds, and Mama Mercy. After I left for my month in the western province, the two decided the funds would be best spent on feeding the children of Kware and Rongai during their five-week break from school (and their only guaranteed meal they get each day). What evolved in the vast, dusty church ground was a place for more than 120 children to run, jump, skip rope, play football, pray, sing and laugh for hours before being served a hot meal. And the women who cooked are being paid for their work. As a bonus project, Bart decided the children should all get baskets of food for their guardians or families to take home after their Christmas pagent. He put the pledge out to his online community for donations, and they answered in spades. Here’s how well it worked: http://blip.tv/file/560050. I was sadly en route to Newfoundland by the time the pagent happened, so I’m grateful for technology giving me a taste.

Having seen first hand, the act of giving in this part of the world can elevate joy to a whole other level. I highly recommend it.

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