Our African Odyssey: “Home”

Nyumbani, Swahili for “home”, was founded in 1992 by the late Father Angelo D’Agostino, S.J., M.D., a physician, psychiatrist and Jesuit priest, and is the realization of his dream to address the challenges caused by the unprecedented decimation of an entire generation of Kenyans from AIDS. The complex occupies roughly 4 acres of land in the upscale neighborhood (by Kenyan standards) of Karen, named after the author Karen Blixen (Out of Africa). At the time of our visit, Nyumbani housed 93 children who were fiercely protected by a group of Maasai warriors 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.

There were 12 cottages, each named for a Saint, where the children lived as a unit – just as they would have lived at home. The children were different ages, each with their own chores and responsibilities. They did their homework together, ate their meals together and played together. Each cottage has a house-mother or father who provides daily care to the children of that cottage. The complex also included two homes for teenage kids, a convent, classrooms, a volunteer housing unit and an administration building with a common kitchen, laundry facilities, staff offices, a small infirmary, and a state-of-the-art HIV research center and laboratory. The graveyard occupied the back corner of the complex.

We walked row by row through simple grave markers – more akin to a beautiful garden, peaceful and serene. It was explained that there were many more children who had died, but they had a family connection (aunt, cousin, etc.) who buried them in traditional cemeteries. This group of children had no one except Nyumbani. The greatest number of markers were from 1995, but we noticed the markers began to decline until we could see only one child had died in 2003, the year we stood there. Nyumbani’s care and research had made a huge difference in the life of these children with a mission that had evolved from caring for dying children to managing this terrible disease and sustaining life for as many children as possible until a cure could be found.

After a tour of the facility, we were shown to our room in the volunteer housing building. There were two twin beds (in separate rooms), a small bathroom, a propane tank, hot plate, and a cold shower. We set our luggage on the bed in the front room and slept on the other. There wasn’t much sleep the first night, but eventually we learned to turn in unison and subsequently mastered the art of confined space sleeping.

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Next, we met the children.

St. Carol was our assigned cottage where we were introduced as the children’s adopted grandparents, but they knew us as “Maci” (their British-style pronunciation of my name eliminated the “r”) and Mike. Although most of them were between 7 and 10 years old, there was an 8-month old baby and an almost-teenager, Anne, who was 12.

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Anne and some of the other children at St. Carol cottage.

We stopped by every day when they got home from school and read books or drew pictures with crayons. The boys, especially Michael and Kevin, who were the youngest, sat on my husband’s lap for hours. Anne and Faith were the most curious and were full of questions about our life back in the U.S. Brigit was always in trouble, but she was just as cute as she could be and was usually the one playing hairdresser with my hair…. her styling gel of choice: vaseline.

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Ninety-three children…. HIV a part of their everyday life. Every three weeks their blood is drawn to review medication requirements, and every week they were weighed and measured. They were such happy children with some of the best care available in the world. Even still they got sick. Every few days someone seemed to have a bad day. I felt helpless when the 8-month old boy would cry for hours. Anne or Faith would comfort him as best they could, understanding what he must be feeling. As quickly as their torture seemed to arrive it would also pass and we would be relieved to return and find everyone healthy again.

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While the kids were at school, we worked in the kitchen washing dishes and counting rice.

Counting rice is a specialized skill not necessarily suited to everyone. One takes a 50-kilo bag of rice and scoops out a large metal plate full. The rice is donated from local farmers raw and still contains small rocks, debris or even chunks of dirt. Our job was to sort through the rice, picking out the rocks, debris or bad pieces. A poor job of counting rice could be detrimental to the tooth, so we took our job quite serious. And, since rice is served at almost every meal, there was always rice to count.

We were busy with our chores when Sister Theresa asked if we would like to work with her in the ghetto the following day.

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Kibera, the Nairobi slum

The Nairobi slum, Kibera, is occupied by 1 million people living in a 12 square mile area – no water, very few have electricity (about 20%), no toilets. It was nearing the end of the rainy season which had left the ghetto full of ankle-deep mud and stagnate puddles of water. It is the largest urban slum in Africa with shanties stacked side-by-side, row by row with no more than 42 inches between.

Sister Theresa was wearing mid-knee combat boots and full habit when we met her the next morning for our adventure. Her mission in life is to search out adults who are obviously in full-blown AIDS status and urge them to let her help their children. We crawl under laundry hanging on lines crisscrossing the shanties and hold our breath as we make our way house to house.

Kibera-Slum-Nr_-1The average shack is 12’x12′, built with mud walls, discarded timber, corrugated tin roof and a dirt floor, housing up to 8 people or more. Sometimes our visit with these families would last only a minute while other visits required us to sit down inside for a long chat. It was impossible to identify those people Sister Theresa knew and those she had never met. They were always kind to us and Sister was respectful to them. She had warned us to never accept their offers of food, which they always offered, even though we were sure they barely had enough to feed themselves.

A small pot of surprisingly delicious smelling soup sat on the fire between us and an older couple, quiet spoken but delighted by Sister Theresa’s visit. I sat closest to the inside wall, my husband by the door and Sister in between. While Sister talked with the couple in Swahili, I carefully stole a glance at the wall beside me. It was covered in newspaper and I dared to notice the date: 1983. When we left, Sister Theresa explained to us that this elderly couple was telling her how they are hopeful they will soon be able to leave the ghetto – to move to a real home. They had been there since they had married.

The Nairobi police and fire brigade do not respond to situations inside Kibera, which leave the people of the ghetto to self-correct. It is a brutal, but necessary way of life. We felt eyes watching us endlessly, but Sister was undeterred in her search for the children, spending two days a week in the ghetto and three days at the clinic she has established there, handing out the life-saving medicine that will give these children the opportunity their parents did not receive. The poverty, the plight of these innocent souls is a tale beyond the breadth and depth of language itself.

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At the end of the day, we hiked to the Don Bossco Boy’s home, a facility run by the Celation Fathers as a boy’s-only orphanage for children rescued from the ghetto. Father Babu gives us a tour of the facility, introduces us to the charming young men that reside there, and then we sat in his office for tea and cookies. I realized we had met some of the bravest, most honorable, humble people in this world. We sat for some time with Father Babu while he and Sister Theresa talked about their projects… and those cookies tasted wonderful.

A few days later we were talking with the administrator about the best way to help the Nyumbani children when we return home. One would think a donation of clothing would be an effective way to send help. She opened the doorway to a large loft area revealing thousands and thousands of clothes, explaining they had years and years of clothing. Easy is not always the best answer.

Just as we had returned to the kitchen for an afternoon of counting rice, the administrator rushed over to tell us we had a visitor. She was nervous, her voice skeptical. We would soon understand why…..

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