Trip Report August 2017
My visit from August 5 to 18, 2017, overlapped the Kenya election. Due to the possibility of civil unrest, I did not want to risk having any volunteers run into trouble, so I traveled by myself. I also needed to concentrate on Humanity Home.
The trip gave me an opportunity to get to know and work directly with our new director, Judy Wariero, who we hired in March, and to get to know each of the lovely children who comprise our Humanity Home family. The kids were on school break.
Some of the visit was what I expected, but much of it so far surpassed anything I could ever have imagined would happen in my life that I am still overwhelmed.
We had fifteen children, ages 4 to 14. (We have since added 12-year-old Maryanne.) One thing is that there are a lot of ways to be an “orphan,” which is a word I avoid using as much as possible.
The backgrounds of nearly all of these children are very difficult. I visited the places of origin of eight of them. It is considered unethical to display these circumstances, but we are talking about filth, malnutrition, sporadic school attendance, lack of adequate attention (often the main caretaker was another child), no decent place to sleep, and rags for clothing. Even worse, there is often a severe lack of nurturing and sometimes unspeakable abuse.
When we admit these children, provide them with three decent meals a day, give them a comfortable place to sleep, sanitation facilities, and decent clothes, we get to watch a transformation that is almost instantaneous. In the case of one child who had been with us for about a month, we showed his severely disabled mother a current picture. The boy had improved so much he was unrecognizable.
This is very sad to say, but it pretty quickly hit me that our kids just look different from the kids we see in the neighborhood and the community. Our kids look more robust, healthy, clean. They have a glow about them.
As much as they respond to nutrition, rest and other physical comforts, it is even more amazing how they respond to nurturing, love and kindness. It is also amazing how visitors (speaking from the experience of this visitor) respond to them. These children loved everything that was put in front of them: toy cars, jump ropes, balls of any kind, music, coloring books and crayons, horsing around, kickball, and story time. It didn't matter. They respond to every dad trick one can think of. The love that they give and evoke is awesome and overwhelming. To try to express these feelings, numerous times a day we would spontaneously huddle and sing: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are gray. You'll never know dear, how much I love you. Please don't take my sunshine away.” And we meant it every single time.
This kind of interaction permeated the house. Evenings concluded with bedtime stories, then singing that little song, then hugs with each of the children. If it gets any better than that, I would like to see it. Mornings began with greetings and hugs, our song again, and telling each other how nice it was to see them another day.
Taking care of sixteen kids is a lot of work. Judy lives at Humanity Home. We have four other staff, including a full-time social worker. Three staff members do the cooking, cleaning, housekeeping and laundry. Two of these live at Humanity Home. All interact with the kids.
Overall, the building we rent, as a physical facility for a children's home, is absolutely outstanding. It is extremely solidly built yet comfortable and accommodating for the kids. It has a few warts, such as drainage problems. As with any big house, there is always something that costs money to fix or maintain. One of the things I identified during my visit was that the outside doors were locked with padlocks at night. We have changed the locks so that the doors can be easily opened from the inside, added a second stairway outside the building, and installed fire extinguishers. We have a nice fenced yard, two 10,000-liter water tanks that we installed, and we continue to make improvements.
Although we had previously provided all the kids with nice beds, bedding, clothes, and shoes, the furnishings in the common rooms consisted only of a few tables and plastic chairs. Couches are now on the way.
I need to tell you about Humanity Home's Director, Judy Wariero, because she is amazing and the story of how we found her is how things in Africa work. In early March of this year, it became heartbreakingly obvious that our first director, whom I had cultivated for five years, needed to be replaced. A few years before, I had met a young teacher who came out to watch some of her students play baseball. I struck up a conversation and learned that both of her parents were teachers. She has a degree in chemical engineering. There being no job opportunities in that field for women, she was teaching secondary school chemistry to earn a living. The next year, I saw Judy again when she came to watch her students. We exchanged email addresses.
I have become quite close to several of Judy's former students, and they all spoke very highly of her. When the crisis arose requiring us to find a new director, I contacted Judy hoping that she could recommend someone for the job. To my surprise, she expressed interest in taking the job herself. I knew that Judy had the organizational skills to get Humanity Home running, but it has been a pleasure watching her grow into the position. I am sure there were many times when she wondered what in the world she had gotten herself into. But she is tough and dauntless.
Not only is Judy running the house efficiently, she has rapidly blossomed into a loving, devoted and protective mother for the children of Humanity Home. She has done this with intelligence, courage and warmth. There are many stories about things that have happened at Humanity Home. Let me share a few of my favorites.
Our youngest girl, adorable Imelda, came to us after she had just lost her mother. She was terrified of being abandoned. I received an anxious WhatsApp message from Judy, who was taking Imelda to her first day at pre-school. Imelda was crying and freaking out. Judy asked “what should I do?” I replied, “stay with her.” Judy was shocked, saying something to the effect of “I can't enroll in pre-school!” I assured her that her tenure there would only be a matter of about half an hour (probably!) and then I spent that half hour teasing her about her skills with the A-B-C's and whether we were going to have to pay tuition for her. After half an hour, Imelda was fine.
Our oldest girl, Tabitha, is incredibly smart and has upcoming national eighth grade exams. Since she is an outstanding student, her anticipated scores on the exam will inure to the benefit of the head teacher and the primary school she attends. Tabitha got quite sick with malaria and typhoid, had to be admitted to the hospital, and missed some school. When she returned, the head teacher criticized her for missing school. The head teacher then criticized Judy for feeding our children good food, saying that “These are African children” and we are pampering them and they cannot do well in school if they get sausages (i.e., protein) for breakfast. Judy was not having it. Devaluing “African children,” let alone her children, was completely unacceptable. Judy is going to stand up for and defend our kids no matter what.
Today, Judy proudly boasts to me of our kids' achievements in school. She sends me pictures of the girls' new hairstyles.
Judy took me to meet her family at their family home. She is the youngest of seven children, and has a lot of nieces and nephews. Her family is wonderful and she speaks reverently of her late father. She takes great pride in Humanity Home and the direct connection between her parents and what she is doing for the children here.
Being at Humanity Home was family time on steroids. One of my first nights there I found Judy in the kitchen tackling a mountain of dishes. I settled in next to her and helped wash the dishes until they were all done, and a working relationship was born. A couple of times, I got to demonstrate a few of my cooking skills under the watchful supervision of at least three of the staff women. I volunteered to go along to the market with Judy and two of our helpers. It was a large, bustling, open air market of local vegetables, live chickens, and other wares. I couldn't help laughing out loud thinking of the gentrified “farmers' market” we have in Boulder. Among our purchases were five crates of 30 eggs apiece.
Some of the visits to homes of origin were within walking distance. One morning, as we were headed out to the home of two of our kids, I could tell Judy and the staff were up to something. We walked over to the main road and four motorcycle taxis were summoned. Off the four of us went, one on the back of each motorcycle. We traveled probably six miles on highways, then turned off onto dirt roads, trails, paths, over a rickety wooden bridge, way out in the middle of nowhere. They kept looking at me to see if I would survive.
One of the homes we visited, Tity's, was much better than the others. Truth be told, Tity probably does not meet our admissions criteria that developed after she adopted us. But Tity is the heart and soul of Humanity Home. As a sign of her appreciation, Tity's mother gave me a live chicken.
Three of the older girls took me for a walk down to the river, probably a mile from the house. I couldn't walk anywhere without two and sometimes three people holding my hands. The older girls sometimes came with us to play baseball. At one of the schools, Tity told me that her grandparents lived nearby. I walked over there with her to meet the grandparents. The old man was so happy to see her that he became teary-eyed.
Humanity Home has a fenced yard, with enough room that we could play catch with rubber balls, play kickball, and run around. Whenever some sort of game was going on in our yard, neighbor kids would be hanging in the fences watching. Often they were invited in and included.
There was always something to do. Coloring books and crayons entertained the kids for hours. Dancing to American or African music was great fun. Playing kickball or catch in the yard, jumping rope, running around, there was always activity. The place is full of life.
From consoling a four-year-old boy who freaked out when a police vehicle came by, to the uncontrollable giggling of an eight-year-old girl when I discovered that her ears are insanely ticklish, the two weeks were full of emotions. These things take so little of us, but they mean everything to the children.
Because of the interaction between the kids and the excitement of having a mzungu visitor, I could also make friends with neighbor kids. One girl was especially sweet. She would come to the house as much as possible and she would always come running to say hello when we were out walking. Noticing that she had worn the same clothes a few days in a row, Judy went to check on her home situation to see whether we should consider seeing if she needed to come in. Fortunately, the home was okay. But this is the kind of thing we are able to do.
As a special activity for the kids, we took them to a little game park along the edge of Lake Victoria in Kisumu. On the way over, we had about 21 people in a fifteen passenger van, and several more in another car. Some of these kids had literally never been anywhere. We had our crew plus four neighbor kids that just got in the van when we were loading up. By the time we completed the 20-mile drive, two or three kids were car sick. At the game park, they were wide-eyed. Judy and I went over to a supermarket in Kisumu and bought thirty orders of “chips” (French fries) and tiny Dixie cups of ice cream, and we brought sausages from home. The kids devoured these at a picnic shelter in the park. After the game park, we all went for a boat ride on Lake Victoria. This kind of enrichment for kids with their backgrounds is unheard of.
The day before I was to leave, I found our three oldest girls, Tabitha, Tity and Rosie, sitting on the floor in the upstairs hallway, sobbing because I was leaving the next day. They sobbed again that night at story time. Tity was inconsolable.
To try and make us all feel better, on the last day of my visit we again walked down to the river. This was a way of sharing what we have the least of but value the most: time together.
My number one take-away from the entire trip was how incredible the reality of Humanity Home is. I could never have dreamt of anything like this ever in my life.