Posted by: hilarycole | December 16, 2007

Erick Odhiambo Odongo

That name has been in my consciousness for 15 years – that’s how long ago I started sponsoring a young boy from Rusinga Island, Kenya through Christian Children’s Fund (CCF). After three years of letters, pictures and updates, CCF terminated the sponsorship for some administrative reason – something about the Canadian office falling out of the Kenyan catchment area. My 22-year-old self was devastated. But Erick’s name and that of Rusinga stuck in some little recess of my brain, thinking I might one day meet him.

I left the farm in Kabula three days ago with tears in my eyes; the Lubanga family had been so lovely to me, and I met dozens of wonderful people who were working and volunteering for them. But looking ahead, I was on my way to Rusinga Island, on yet another Indiana-Jones mission to find someone with only the smallest of leads. I drove most of the way in ICODEI’s SUV with a couple of volunteers who were going to visit a friend’s project. We spoke to a group of teenagers there – an area with a 30-40 per cent HIV prevalence – many of them either orphaned or themselves infected. I stayed the night with my friends in Homa Bay, and then hopped on a very, very crowded bus over an unbelievably bad road to Mbita, the town connected to Rusinga by a little causeway.

My accommodation options were limited to a 5-star, $500-a-night exclusive resort, a dive behind the bus stand, or a little lakeside oasis called Lake Victoria’s Safari Village. (Guess which I picked.) My three nights at Safari Village cost as much as 10 at the hostel in Nairobi, but it was a slice of heaven. As life’s little non-coincidences would have it, a friend-of-a-friend was staying on Rusinga to work on a latrine-building project, and was given a near-gratis hut at the afore-mentioned 5-star. So after my own cup of tea by the water, I took a taxi over to visit her. A swim in a pool felt like pure luxury.

On the way back to my own digs, I asked my cabbie (read: guy with a car who will take you somewhere for a random price) if he knew of the Rusinga Island Family Development Project. “Yeah, CCF – right there,” he said as we passed by a little sign. So that was where I headed the next morning. I arrived after a long walk from Mbita at about noon. They showed me into the director’s office and I threw down my crap-shoot of a request. The older man and the two younger ones who had showed me in looked at me like I had 10 heads when I told them I wanted to find a boy I sponsored 12 years ago. I hadn’t been here long, but I’d already learned that Odhiambo is the Smith of this region of Kenya, and Odongo is a nickname. And did I mention there are many Erick’s?

They told me it would not be possible without his ID number (there are 1000 children currently registered in the program), and even still, they didn’t keep records back that far. The two young men just shrugged their shoulders after a brief check in their files. But the older man wouldn’t let it go. “Odhiambo Odongo…. Odongo Odhiambo….” he kept saying, looking up into the air. “How can we help this lady?” Then he said he thought he remembered someone by that name who served as their treasurer many years ago. So as I’ve learned these searches go, we went for a walk down the road. A man in the Rusinga Greening Initiative office said he knew of an Odongo, and gave us a cell number. Alphonce, one of the young men, borrowed my phone and went outside to make the call. He returned three minutes later and said he’d just spoken to this Odongo . He’d confirmed his son Erick had been sponsored through CCF. The son was there and they were expecting us. An hour after being told it would not be possible, the whole family was waiting.

What followed was not a Hollywood reunion, but a very enjoyable lunch with Erick and his parents. At first I thought Erick didn’t remember, although the parents seemed thrilled to meet me. He was quiet and very shy; I learned he left school after grade seven. So much for him being on the priority list for a new sponsor. He wasn’t speaking much, and his father told me his communication was not good, due to his schooling and something to do with an illness and back problem. I was confused by that and, being the brain-injury therapist, wondered if he was aphasic. Then Erick left the little room without saying anything. I was starting to feel awkward. But he returned a minute later, just as silently, and handed me a 13-year-old photo of myself playing field hockey. It was tattered and wrinkled, but my writing on the back was still legible: “I’m the one in the blue shirt – number 14.” I laughed. Then his Mama from the corner blurted out “Mount Saint Vincent University!” Apparently I’d sent him a t-shirt from my school. Just a note: don’t think that the tiny little things you do for people far away don’t matter.

After an hour visit and taking a bunch of photos, we left in a cab, Erick accompanying us, to drop me where I would meet up with my friend. I talked with him a little on the way there – he told me his wife’s name is Millicent, but unfortunately she wasn’t there today. I gave him some simple exercises for a back problem I wasn’t sure about, and said goodbye. It felt way too quick and insignificant, but I felt like that was the end; I was disappointed and still confused. I spent the rest of the day with my friend and another volunteer I’d met touring their projects in a little fishing village on a beach, then took a taxi back to Mbita before sunset.

As I was driven at warp speed down the dirt road, I spotted Erick at the last second, just as he spotted me. We both stuck our arms out and waved. “Stop!” I yelled to the cabbie/guy-with-a-car. Erick ran up to the car and I told him I would be hiking up a big hill to see all of Rusinga the next morning with one of the CCF people, and asked him to come. “Yes, I’d like to come,” he said, and gave me his cell number. So the next day, Erick Odhiambo Odongo and I climbed a mountain together. We chatted the whole day by the way – no communication problems that I could tell. It was a remarkable place, and a remarkable day. Erick had never been there (Alphonce was our guide) and he loved the view from the top – a stunning 360 of the entire area and surrounding islands. We walked back to Mbita together, and I bought some fruit for him to take home to his mother and wife. He’s since sent me three text messages.

Me and Erick Odhiambo

I’m killing time now on my way back to Nairobi. I need to see all the people I met there the first time around, and then it’s off to St. Andrew’s en route to Canada for Christmas; again, looking forward to the next adventure.



  1. My dear…sure that place sounds like Newfoundland! Everybody knows everybody.

    Seriously Hil, only you could go persist and find Eric, it’s a beautiful story. Can’t wait to see the pictures from the mountain.

    I can’t tell you how strange it is to be reading this while we’re here buried in snow (with a snowstorm en route). Hopefully Scotland will help you acclimatize before you hit NL

  2. Hi Hillary!

    I grew up in Rusinga, Thats my home though, i’m currently in Australia. What a contrast with the worlds. Right before i got to the end of the article I was going to tell you, In Rusinga we know everyone, I was ready to help you find erick, Good you found him.

    Then, Thank you for the great sacrifice, it’s amazing to see the light you brought to lives in Rusinga. Thank you and Welcome back!

  3. Nice to hear from you David – asante sana. Or should I say, ero kamano! Your home is a beautiful place, but unfortunately has few opportunities for its young people, which is probably why you’re in Australia. Check my site again in a few days – I’m uploading many more pictures and will have a group of photos of Rusinga. Thanks for the offer to help me find Erick; I’m really happy it worked out.

    I hope your family and friends are all safe and well given the unrest that’s occurred. Take good care.

  4. Wow it’s a great blog I found here. I am sure it will be updated regularly. It’s a great site after looking around on your page. Very nice in a great journey. It’s lovely source. Life is so beautiful. Keep going on……
    Hope on the same line and have great share someday. Since I found this is one of best on net… the picture is so natural and wonderful ;>
    Have a great day!!!!

  5. Hilary! I found my way back here! Whenever I feel homesick, i get back home through the eyes of people like you who share their experiences on web. I’ll be going back soon for holidays and I just can’t wait. Let me get to the photos thanks

  6. Hilary in Africa! I am Hilary Out of Africa!

    Your blog is wonderful and I especially love this entry. I can’t believe you found Erick after all.

    I’d be honored if you would follow/check out my blog as well


  7. I’m so happy for you that you found Erick after all this time. It just shoes that a little faith can go a long way 🙂

  8. […] Planting Seeds I’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.) […]

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