one of our favorite sights

Sunday, April 26, 2015


The doors are soon to open on the new Chandaria Cancer and Chronic Care Center in Eldoret.  27 months after we actually broke ground on the 100,000 sf facility it will open to begin serving those in need.    The new facility will open in phases with the research floor being occupied first, then the oncology and chronic disease care areas on the ground floor, then the administrative areas on the 3rd floor and radiation oncology wing.  Hopefully in the not too distant future the radiation oncology wing will also be equipped so that it too can be put to use.   The first floor (2nd in U.S) is set to accommodate future expansion of services and treatment. Discussions are already underway as to what types of clinics will be there.
27 months to construct a facility of this nature is no mean accomplishment regardless of the measuring stick used.  The site has regularly employed in excess of 100 men and women directly and countless others in the supply chain.  We have focused very hard on sourcing from Kenya and East Africa to the greatest extent possible.  Our power tools consisted of concrete mixers, a concrete pump, a couple of power drills and power saws and welding equipment.  All other tools were powered by hands, legs and strong backs! For the most part we have very good tradesmen, supervisors and design team. With very few exceptions they have been a pleasure to work with.  That is not to say that there weren’t frustrations….there were….but those are eclipsed by the success of the efforts.   The story of constructing the building is interesting in its own way but by far the more interesting and powerful aspect of this project is the strong sense of collaboration, commitment and determination on the parts of Kenyans and their American and Canadian counterparts.  Their dream is to provide better care delivery and medical care for those of lesser means.  The building and the programs it will house are a culmination of one part of the dream.
Beginning in late April researchers will have a common facility to work in where they can undertake critical clinical research as well as general research.  At present these researchers from Kenya and around the world are spread throughout Eldoret in a variety of locations.  The new building provides them with clinical treatment rooms, a clinical pharmacy, meeting rooms, team work rooms, a library, and data manager facilities.  Perhaps some of the research here will help solve some of the medical problems challenging people in Kenya and throughout the world.  Beginning early May the ground floor will be opened and patients will have the opportunity to see doctors for many chronic diseases…..all in one facility!    There is a beautiful new open space for infusion of chemo drugs used in oncology in lieu of the tent in which the drugs are currently administered.    There are waiting areas, staff rooms, a pharmacy, cash offices, nurses stations all designed with the intent of providing top quality medical care in a dignified manner for the patients.
Later in the year the radiation oncology wing will be opened post receipt of the radiation oncology equipment.  Our work as builders and tradesmen will be finished by the end of May and a facility will then be in place that can house the latest in bracheatherapy equipment, CT Simulators and radiation oncology equipment.  This is big news in a country and region where there are very limited options for those of lesser means who are also stricken with cancer.  Final sourcing of this exceptionally expensive equipment remains pending however the Government of Kenya is working diligently to identify sources.  Simultaneously there is the possibility of donors assisting.  Pricing for the equipment can be as much as $3.5million depending upon what is purchased……big numbers but the funds must be found.   Cancer has recently overtaken malaria as the number 1 killer in Kenya……that is really hard to imagine.  The most recently reported numbers indicated approximately 27,000 deaths due to cancer.
By August the 3rd floor (U.S 4th) will be ready to house the administrative wings of Moi University Medical School, the Director and his staff from Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital as well as offices for the Ampath Consortium partners.  This proximity will give the leaders of each group the opportunity to interact more readily and continue to build on the successes they have enjoyed together.
Working “Together”…..or …..“PAMOJA” is what has made this project possible.  From the dreamers to the donors to the doctors to the designers to the tradesmen, and the myriad of supporting people in between a dream is being realized.  Regrettably resting at this juncture is not an option!
Cancer and other chronic diseases are brutal.  They inflict great pain and suffering on those being treated as well as their families.  These diseases are not easy to treat and the treatment is often very expensive….and beyond the means of many to afford.  There is much, much work to be done to find the cures for these diseases.  In the meantime there is significant expense to be incurred to train the doctors and technicians, fund the construction and maintenance of the facilities as well as purchase the medicines and equipment.  ”Pamoja” we will need to continue to work hard, each in his /her capacity to make a contribution to meeting this challenge.
As we near the end of this chapter in the dream for us, I can say without reservation that the past 33 months have been very special for my family and me.  We have met many truly wonderful and inspiring people from both Kenya and other parts of the world.  We have enjoyed some of the most spectacular sights one can have the opportunity to behold on Mother Earth and we have grown and learned to appreciate more readily.  We have had to confront some of our own weaknesses and to reflect on our priorities.  I can hardly imagine a richer experience.

Tomorrow will find me working on worklists and details with men I have grown to enjoy and respect.  I will fumble along in my pseudo Swahili and they will humor the mzee as he mixes up pronouns……but somehow….”pamoja” we got a building built. Work remains and we plan to be part of it!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Heartbreak in Paradise

 All of East Africa including Kenya is geographically unusual and stunningly beautiful in many ways. With white sand beaches and turquoise water at its coastline, volcanic mountains dotted with plants and animals unseen in other parts of the world, iconic plains with their large mammals and trees, and the Great Rift Valley surrounded by dramatic escarpments, inhabited by interestingly garbed people and birds, it is  a sensually stimulating and endless palate of options for people who like adventure. It is paradisiacal in many ways. 
Due to its incredible natural beauty and well-advertised and appointed tourist industry, if one comes here as a tourist, it’s quite easy to avoid the disturbing reality underneath. One can ride around with a driver in a nice vehicle and go to the many national parks on safari and be taken care of by ingratiating and lovely people, lounge by pools at lodges drinking delightful cocktails served by charming Kenyans. You can shop in the malls in Nairobi which could be in Boca Raton, and pretty well avoid the poverty, and distress of a country in which many of the children are undernourished and unable to go to school because their families cannot afford it. A country where most everyone has been touched by the tragedy of the AIDS crisis; families have been torn apart and are healing still today after over 20 years of working towards normalcy and better health.
Since we were not tourists and we were actually here for a relatively long time, we did get involved with many people and organizations and we learned an incredible amount about the real lives of Kenyans. We also became quite attached and involved in the lives of 3 boys: Julius, his brother, Ngang’a, and Dennis.
We were never uncertain what our relationship with Dennis was going to be, but as it turns out, when in Kenya, you can’t draw boundaries easily and everything is more complicated than it seems or should be. Dennis  is now 14.   We are sponsoring him so that he can go to school and hopefully go on to HS, and he is doing well, so our concerns about him have reduced because he is older, getting enough food, in good health, and a motivated student. Like a good Kenyan boy, he has become quite self-sufficient, although he has no other support besides us. When we met, he was alone, sad and hungry, and struggling to be in school. His life has turned around. He now has our care, he knows we attend to him and plan to continue that support, but also he is much more self-confident and has a good head on his shoulders and his English has grown quite good. As we had hoped, the adults at the school are looking out for him and paying attention to him. These are all huge steps in the right direction, although his life is far from perfect and far from what I would hope for any 14 yr. old.  We are committed to continuing to back Dennis through school and hope one day to see him succeed academically enough that he will be able to get a higher education and a good job. We will be checking in on him and hopefully at this point he feels our support enough that he won’t falter.
Not an ideal situation, but one that we all feel varying degrees of comfort with. One thing I’ve learned is that my standards of what is ok for children are completely different than most Kenyans, and the fact that he has a roof over his head and is in school seems “all good” to them. Emotional, psychological and developmental support are not priorities and seem to be the realm of the privileged. When I complained to a neighbor who is a high level U.S educated  neonatal doctor  about the fact that the children at the children’s home did not get, what I consider to be enough stimulation, she said, “oh yes, Liz, we are not yet good at this. We feel that if the baby is full, the baby is fine.” In other words, the fact that their children are not dying at the rate they were before,  is progress.  Medical advances have also made a huge impact here for children’s lives. This was revelatory to me, and made me realize that from my perspective as a privileged American, my sense of what makes a child “happy” or well-rounded is far from many Kenyans’ idea of the same. A brilliant and important epiphany which has also helped me to process the circumstances of our relationship with the other two boys.
Our relationship with Julius and N’ganga’ is, in a lot of ways, more complicated, because they are younger and they do not have family members  who have shown any interest in their well-being for the last 3 years. In fact, that might seem like it should make things less complicated, but because of the peculiarities of the Kenyan system and our being “guests” here, it actually is more difficult. Our relationship with Julius and N’gang’a , because of their ages, and who we are, is also more “parental” emotionally. As a family, we consider them “ours” because we are devoted to them, despite the fact that our devotion is not eliciting what we had hoped in terms of results.
The notion of becoming so attached to and really falling in love with a baby while here had not occurred to me, surely partly because of my age. I didn’t quite “get” that one can be totally overwhelmed with and focused on the craziness of orphans and vulnerable children here, even though of course it’s something we have all read about. Reading about and knowing about situations is quite different than actually being in them and dealing with the associated emotions.  I guess I’m what one would call a “kid person” in that I am actually attracted to small children. I knew this about myself as well, but again, pretty much all of the children I’ve ever been around have been the children of friends, happy, healthy and in good family situations. I had worked in some poverty situations, as a volunteer, and had tried to help a family with which I was working, overcome some of its issues, but that was not long lived and they were not babies. The children that I started meeting here in Kenya who were in the center that takes care of abandoned babies at the hospital and then at the orphanages, were in fact the neediest people I had ever met. For one, they were babies or toddlers, who had been left behind by their families, and most had been neglected, malnourished and also abused. Just knowing this is enough to break one’s heart; and they were actually the lucky ones, because they had been found, by neighbors or the police and brought in.  There are others who are not. The idea of abandoning children is a concept that is terribly hard to get one’s head around, but after being here awhile I recognize the desperation that pushes people to that terrible act. Then the orphans, are simply that. They’ve lost everyone in their family, either to the horrors of extreme poverty or to disease, or both. 

The impact on families of both disease and extreme poverty is not one that we in the States can even imagine. People continue to have babies though, people who don’t know any better, don’t have access to healthcare or family planning, or don’t understand it, or are certain that having babies is maybe going to somehow help them keep a man or family intact. Like in many poor places, there are lots of young mothers and there are certainly many who shouldn’t be having babies as they have no way to take care of them. My interest in these children was not even altruistic at first. I was sort of thrust among them because I was looking for something to do, when I arrived in Kenya in September 2012. Being someone who loves kids and likes to be around them, I was able to find a niche with them. I enjoyed holding them, making them comfortable, reading, playing and singing to them. Oddly, to me, I found it easy to love them.
Our relationship with Julius blossomed because he was sick, at the age of 6 months, when he was sent to the children’s home from the center for abandoned children at the hospital. Although the home he had been sent to was superior and the caregiving strong, there were also 9 other infants there at the time. Since he had a mysterious illness, that was hard to diagnose, he was a lot of work.  Because we had already bonded and he was niggling his way into my heart, I spent many hours with him at the hospital and finally, after 6 months of mystery, he was diagnosed with TB. We brought him home to help lighten the home’s load, and he grew and became strong….while we fell in love.  He went back to the home in August of 2013, to live, and that is when I started really feeling like that was all wrong.
 After about 1 ½ years  of knowing them, caring for Julius at our home, and having both boys stay with us, we began feeling  that adopting them was a reasonable option for us, despite our age and the potential complications involved. Although we had not spent nearly as much time with N’gang’a, we knew that the only way for an adoption to move forward was to keep them together. We were willing to go into this likely quagmire of bureaucracy here in order to take the boys home and give them what they need: a loving home in a family. Although at the time I could not think of any, there are reasons, I guess, not to adopt children from Kenya, reasons that some Africans think are clear. In fact, I’ve had conversations with several Kenyans, when I would mention that we were thinking about adopting the boys, who were very negative, saying things like, “well maybe it’s not necessary for a Kenyan child to grow up in the U.S.” or, “don’t you think it would be bad for an African child to be raised in a white household? He/she will lose his/her culture.” I set these comments aside, thinking it was an interesting, but  a sort of ignorant take on balance to what a child actually needs. I spoke rather frankly with an African friend who had lost both his parents as a young adolescent about this whole idea of orphans being adopted and losing their culture. His opinion was succinct, “you don’t have a culture if your family has gone and you are being raised in an orphanage.” Indeed.
 There are laws on the books in Kenya about adoption, but many of them are circumvented, we are told, or people don’t do their jobs or, because the system is so overburdened by children, things just don’t happen the way “they are supposed to.” We were hopeful at the beginning of our journey because we were getting a lot of support from family and people here. Of course there were Kenyans who looked at us askance when we said we’d like to adopt them, but honestly, very few Kenyans pay much attention to the situation of the orphans and abandoned children. It seems, from  our perspective that only people who work in the system or are social workers or directly involved with children, even realize they have a problem with number of kids being brought up in children’s homes. Most people think that they are being well cared for, these vulnerable children, and when life on the street is the alternative, I guess they are.
I was excited that Michael had come around and that we had a definitive plan, so I tried multiple times to sit down with Phyllis, the director of the home, whom by then I considered a friend . A stellar leader in her community, and maybe the busiest Kenyan I know, I was able to actually jump into her car as she was driving off and get a 5 minute conversation in about adopting the boys.  She  was rather encouraging….she didn’t say no way, or “I won’t help you” or anything negative at all, but she did say she would have to figure out their status because theirs was not a normal case. I only told her to please try to focus on it because I knew she was extremely busy and that getting another chance to discuss with her was rather difficult and that “none of us were getting any younger.” Well, October, November, December, January, February and March all went by with no movement in any direction. I began to realize that we had no control or power in the situation and perhaps neither did Phyllis.
I had told Michael back in December, because of the lack of progress and because I felt so destroyed about it all the time,  that I thought the only way I could deal and process the whole thing was to write about it. For me, writing is a good way to process my innermost feelings and insights, so I decided then and there to actually pursue this as a task.  I also had people tell me that it might be a good thing to expose. The lack of movement, kids languishing in children’s homes, people in child welfare not doing their jobs, etc. It seemed sort of arrogant and judgmental of me to take the tact that things were going wrong. They were certainly not going our way, but I was bound and determined to figure out what was happening and why things were not moving forward or changing or why there was never any change. It kind of was driving me crazy and it made me feel very insecure about my role in the boys’ lives and how we were to proceed with these relationships. Our visitations to the home continued during all those months, to play with the boys and all of the other children. We also began to hear stories from other Americans about their own experiences trying to adopt, none of which were easy and positive, but it became clear that with a lot of fortitude, it might happen.
One thing that stands in the way of international adoptions in Kenya are the Hague Conventions. These were laws that were written back in the 90’s that are designed to prevent or stem the tide of child trafficking. The whole idea of child trafficking boggles the mind seriously but apparently East Africa is a hotbed for it. I also had someone tell me that the whole issue of child trafficking became more of an international hot topic because “Madonna stole a child from here” One of the many absurd and vague pieces of information floating around. The morass of absurdity is deep and broad and it would be almost funny if it didn’t involve the lives of children!
The one law that would affect us was that you are not allowed “prior knowledge of the child.” Although of course we had prior knowledge of the boys and in fact, it’s clear we are bonded, we were also told that our situation was different because we had fostered Julius while he was ill and we had lived here a long time. So there are little ways to get around this particular law. We decided to persevere and really push the long term residency envelope, in hopes that whomever we were dealing with ultimately would see us for what we are: nice people who want to help these kids. Over the summer 2014 months, Michael was here alone and continued to visit the boys and he began making more aggressive moves with the children’s welfare department to get information and figure out what we needed to do to make this adoption happen. We had been told by friends to “not show our white faces” at the doors of these offices because once people see westerners they see cash and that would mess up the whole path by our being construed as people that had money to offer in payment. This was a difficult piece of information for us to digest and Michael decided not to take it too seriously. We agreed, after many discussions over email, as I was out of the country, to pursue the adoption through the “legal path, “ so he went to the offices of the Children’s Welfare Society and I talked to an international adoption lawyer in the US. The news was never good. The guy in Eldoret, who was running this office alone, basically and dealing with the abandonment of 25-30 children a week, was overwhelmed and claimed to “not be able to do anything to help.” He told Michael the boys’ case was complicated because “the father was around” and he told Michael to go to Nairobi to have an official meeting there. The lawyer in the States was not optimistic either and told me that the only possibility was to stay another few years and then get them out. Tears were flowing and hair was being pulled out at this point. Michael and I agreed that we could not put our health and marriage at risk due to this stress. We had to be a united front and totally on the same page at all times.
Finally, when I returned in September, and fell back into my relationships with the boys, we had to come to some conclusion. Our time here was getting short.  I had hoped that Phyllis would advocate for us but it soon became clear that she was not comfortable in that role.  I know she trusts us and likes us. She made a comment one day, about the boys “being fine staying here” which made me realize that she did not feel any urgency to adopt them out and also that perhaps she was trying to protect us, or herself. I went to see the director of the Children’s Welfare Society in our county myself to better understand what was going on, and he “appreciated my passion” but couldn’t help me because of our prior contact, but also, it came out that day, the boys did not have a certain number, which the police give to abandoned children for their files. Apparently, the night that their father left them at the hospital, no one reported it to the police, so the boys never received the proper documentation. I have to say, I felt like screaming at him, “So, give them a number!”  Meanwhile, and most horrifyingly for us, he said they “were looking for the boys’ father.” Whether that is true or not is unclear, but what we finally decided was that they were safer at the children’s home than with anyone in this family that had shown no interest in them for over 2 years and had left them, malnourished and sick, in the hospital.
Suddenly, in November of this past year (2014) we were shocked to see an article in the national paper saying that all international adoptions had been made illegal. Apparently there had been some homes in Nairobi that were abusing the whole international adoption process, probably taking more money than they were supposed to and there was some male missionary arrested for sexually abusing children. We were saddened to know that our path had thoroughly been blocked then. There was a feeling of severe defeat and sadness, but it was the clearest statement on the topic that we had heard. Oddly, no one else seems aware of this new law, including the children’s home directors that we know or other childcare workers, but most of them don’t deal in international adoptions.
Our story is sad but not unusual. We have learned a lot and have seen that the boys are being well cared for at the children’s home and they are “happy” it seems. They are “loved” by the caretakers and family members who live there. It is a very personalized place and living as a family is what strive to do. Therefore, not without ambivalence, we have accepted the situation and know that we will be forever in the background.
 We feel sure that Julius and N’gang’a   know we love them. We want them to understand that, profoundly, yet we are uncertain how to make that happen, except to stay engaged.  We have committed to sponsoring them and keeping in touch with them, and making sure they know we are in the background as they grow up there. Phyllis has promised to keep them there and that she won’t allow a family member to come and take them away. I am not na├»ve anymore. I know this could happen. I know that the next email I get from the home could say that the boys have been moved to another home somewhere else or adopted to a Kenyan family (although they need that number!) or sent to a family member. I know that Phyllis is not completely in control, although if anyone has experience and sway in this world, it is she. My fantasy is that instead of one of the above emails the one we receive says we can bring them home.
 No one seems to be able to give us clear information on the family or if they are truly in the area because the police actually have never gone looking for them. We are deeply saddened to be leaving them and fully committed to coming back to see them and check on them. We plan to stay in close touch with the home. Both boys know, I think, that we come and go and that we do come back. They are so young, it is hard to know what they understand and I honestly don’t know what the childcare folks are telling them. Volunteers from the west come and go. Playful nice people who bring toys and candies. The kids love them too!  They are two of many small children out there and I don’t think they are seen as particularly special by anyone but us. Phyllis did tell me the other day, again, that it was up to her that they stay, and she planned to keep them, because of our caring for them. This made me breathe easier.
Our story is probably not all that uncommon in the world of child welfare in Kenya but it felt important to share. Despite all of our experiences in Kenya, many of which were positive and interesting, this is one of the deepest and most intense that we have had.  Although growing up in an institution seems   unideal, we are  thankful that they are in a home that is a very positive place, focuses on taking good care of them, they  spend a lot of time outdoors, and they will definitely get a good education. Things could be a lot worse, is what we’ve realized and seen. However, it is still heartbreaking.

Check out the home where the boys live at and the school they will go to is the Kipkeino School. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Smiling Faces

When reflecting on the lives of Kenyans , sometimes I am amazed at how “happy” the Kenyan people seem to be. They have so much to be concerned about, have gone through so much, and continue to deal with so many things that people in the developed world do not ever have to think about. However, they persevere, uncomplaining and always with a smile on their faces. It is a bit disconcerting sometimes and makes one wonder what is going on, but ultimately, as a guest, it is certainly nice to be greeted warmly regularly and to see that smiles can carry one a long way, and perhaps they are the key to managing difficult times. Sometimes I think it must be the weather here in the Great Rift Valley region of Kenya, because it is practically perfect, from my perspective. We have had amazingly blue and sunny skies, a slight breeze, and temperatures from high 70s to low 80s for 6 months now. Of course, I think the weather is nearly flawless, but the Kenyans do complain about it, which is ironic to us because they are generally not complainers at all.  They don’t complain about the things that happen in their lives which are truly lamentable. Or at least I have not heard them do so. If a complaint is mentioned, i.e. a lack of funds for school fees, a laugh and or big glowing smile is often its accompaniment.
There is a lot going on here that causes stress beyond what any of us can even imagine. The situation with education is the one that we are the most familiar with due to our work with the orphanages that we have helped support. Of course orphans want to go to school, need to go to school and should go to school, but the hardship is that PUBLIC school is expensive in Kenya. So it’s not just difficult for orphanage directors, to send kids to schools, it’s difficult for your average family to send their kids to school. I don’t know a single family that is not struggling with the issue of school fees once their kids get to High School. High School is the most expensive, and has become increasingly prohibitive,  so of course a lot of kids don’t end up going. The cost of labor here is very low, and people are not paid according to the cost of living, especially if they have children, which most do. An average family needs to make about 40000 Ksh/month to survive, if it has two school aged children (BTW that is about $500). That is not a lot and certainly illustrates how low the cost of living is here, but UNBELIEVABLY most people don’t make that much. Teachers make about 16000ksh/a month, on average. So if both parents are working as teachers, they are not even making ends meet! And most families have more than two children. Although teachers’ salaries are considered to be “good” a common day laborer might make only 300 Ksh/day which is about $3.50.  So….it’s very stressful both because people truly want to educate their children and they are encouraged and expected to do so.
There are also the issues of health. Although many kids are getting immunized now in Kenya there are still a lot of diseases out there threatening people’s health,  that we in the north and west, don’t ever have to think about. Many people don’t have access to clean water, so water borne diseases are common, like Typhoid fever, and of course Malaria and Tuberculosis are prevalent, among other things. The AIDS pandemic, although in some control now, thanks to the work of AMPATH in western Kenya, is still a big threat and many people still don’t understand it. They’ve gotten to the point where they do talk about it, especially in cities and where health workers are prevalent (like Eldoret) and they are teaching children about it in their science and health classes at school. It has left a wide swath of destruction in families and communities.  Most of the people I know have been affected by AIDS in one way or another….either they are infected themselves or they have lost many family members to the disease in the last decade. I can hardly believe how many people I know who have lost either both parents and all their siblings, spouses and children,  or other members of their family. It’s quite astounding and it makes you wonder why the population isn’t walking around as depressed as can be.
There’s also a very high rate of infant mortality and women are still dying in childbirth here. Despite some modern facilities, it still happens and for the most part that is also a matter of education as many people come from very rural areas to have their babies but if they are in trouble, they often come too late.
Because water is not accessible to all, nor power, people have to spend a lot of time and money finding clean water if they understand the importance, or finding a source of fuel, if they don’t have power. Many don’t. Especially in the rural areas, and Kenya is still about 70 % rural. For the folks in town, for now, anyway, there is power most of the time, and there is water, if you aren’t in a slum. We do see people, not far from the city, washing themselves, their children, their foodstuffs, their containers for milk and water, and their clothing in what I would deem unhygienic circumstances. You also see people, mostly women and young children, carrying large loads of wood on their heads, great distances. This would seem like a good reason to complain and be disgruntled to me, but upon greeting them, these children and women usually offer up a big smile and “very well!” as a salutation. It’s a little hard to believe.  
Not only are there health threats and financial difficulties, but on a weekly basis, their government is going through some sort of scandalous drama that would make anyone feel insecure and untrusting of the government. Either some big wig has stolen funds that were meant for a project, or someone in the government  has caused some sort of horrifying issue  in his/her home region by “inciting violence” against another group of people whom he/she feels threatened by, or monies have disappeared or a project has been delayed because of some scandal. It’s all somewhat mysterious and hard to follow from our perspective and although the Kenyans are up on the news and seem to know who is responsible for what, it doesn’t seem to faze them. Maybe they are just used to it and have become super cynical and don’t have high expectations for their leaders, which could be seen as another problem. It isn’t that different than the scandals that one hears about and sees in the States or Europe, but it just seems so much more problematic when the majority of the population is not getting their basic needs met.
When we talk about problems with Kenyans, they just shake their heads and smile. Some laugh outright and seem to find it funny that we would be concerned or even interested. I guess that’s really what I think. I think they think it’s strange that we, as visitors, are showing interest or concern in the country’s problems. We don’t hesitate to comment on the things we see if we understand them, but very infrequently do we get much traction for a serious conversation, and usually we just get a brilliant smile. Perhaps they smile in lieu of grimacing. Perhaps they don’t want to share bad news with us, as we are wageni , or guests. Perhaps they just want to carry on and stay on the bright side as long as they can.
I have even asked people, when they begin laughing after a comment I’ve made, “what’s so funny?” or “why does that make you laugh?” and there is usually no response. Just a big wide smile. I know now, after being here for so long that I sound funny when I speak Swahili, that they are not used to older white women talking to them, or men, for that matter. Many people have never met a white person so it’s a seems hysterical to  have one address you. OR we are funny looking, sounding, dressing, who knows?  What I do like is that people I do know, always greet me warmly and with a big smile and handshake or “air hug” as is the cultural norm. There’s a complex hand shaking ritual which I have finally gotten better at, which involves a large clap of the hands, some grasping and gripping maneuvers and then a shake, along with a big smile.  I am not always prepared and sometimes flub it up, but in general it’s a feel good way of greeting someone and although it does take some getting used to, it seems like an upbeat way to deal with an everyday environment that can be seen as having a lot of challenges. And those big smiles are definitely good for warm fuzzy feelings! 
There are a lot  northern Europeans in Kenya who come to do work on trainings and research  in the hospital (I guess East Africa is where their governments focus their international development work) and other places, and I have the opportunity to speak to many of them. Often they are sort of semi-friendly people but usually show  interest in my insights when they learn how long we’ve been here.  Once I mentioned to a Swedish woman doctor who was at a dinner party at our neighbors’ that we in the U.S. admire so the the lifestyles and society of Sweden, because  it seems so democratic and works for everyone... She laughed. “Oh yes, it’s great, we have it all….free healthcare, free schooling, free childcare (can you imagine?)" but", she said," there are so many Swedes who just love to complain”. I was like, “Huh? complain about what?” “That’s it,” she said, “just to complain, because they are never satisfied. Really, most of them should come to Kenya and see what these people are dealing with in their daily lives.”  Amen to That!
The concept of people complaining when they have so much or their lives are truly quite blessed is an interesting one. Of course there are millions and millions of people in the world who struggle with the basics of life, like feeding their kids and keeping them alive. Yet, how is it that those people are often the most uncomplaining and smiling folks that you may meet, not to mention generous? It’s a grand mystery, that is for sure and definitely one worth pondering and keeping in mind

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Fine Line

It’s interesting living in a country where there are a lot of needs yet the country is working hard to be independent and people are highly sensitive to the reality that they “need to do it themselves.” It’s a fine line, we have found, figuring out when and if we can be helpful rather than just doing things, which is sometimes tempting. Over time we have realized that our “way” might not be the way that it should be done, or that Kenyans might want to do it. There is a lot of western/developed country thinking  that needs to be let go of and sometimes this is hard when you are in it or faced with something that seems like an easy fix.  
Being people who like to get involved in our community, we have sometimes learned the hard way that it can be a double edged sword to get involved here, where it is not our home or really our community, yet where there is a need for more manpower, more ideas, more money and more willingness to help. Kenya has an underdeveloped sense of volunteerism,  it seems, because most people are too busy running “up and down” or “hustling” to make a living and trying to put food on the table, to be concerned with larger community issues. The people who might have some insight into the larger problems are typically people who have traveled or studied overseas or who have good solid jobs and make a reasonable living. However, they are so busy supporting their own families (their siblings, parents, nieces and nephews) AND being leaders to one degree or another, that  they basically don’t have enough time in the day to do much beyond what they are already doing.
Most others don’t have the means to do much  aside from  feed, clothe, and educate their families. We have encountered many kinds of people in Kenya and have a sense of how the society functions and one thing we have learned is that even though we may have the time, some money to put towards something, and the willingness, we cannot be the ones to do it, mostly because we are going to move on, and also because it is not our place to do so. It’s better to be asked and respectfully participate than to just “jump in.”
Africa in general, and Kenya in specific, spent over a hundred years under the thumb of the British and other colonial powers, so there is a sensitivity about being told what to do or pushed in a certain direction by outsiders. Although from the British perspective, I can imagine they thought they did a lot of good, bringing the Africans into the 20th century back in the day, and that may be, but the reality is , they also totally trampled on the African cultures by  pushing their religion on them, and forcing the native people into schools and churches where they not only lost their cultures but also their languages. They took their land, swapped it for other lands, raised up certain people based on their loyalty to the English, and did all sorts of other damaging things.  From our perspective, the Kenyans are still, 50 years after independence, suffering from many after affects within their society. The complexities are too great to articulate here, but suffice it to say that as outsiders if one is not careful and does not tread lightly, one might end up either much detested or out on one’s head. In fact, we have recently had an illuminating experience with a group of missionaries who were supporting the orphanage we also support up in Kitale, about 2 hours north of where we live in Eldoret.
These missionaries came to Kenya with the sole goal of “helping the orphanage” become more sustainable through agricultural means. This orphanage, like many, struggles mightily under the burden of providing housing and trying to educate 85-100 kids each year. The children mostly come from Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, where conditions are worse than horrendous, but they also come via the Children’s Welfare Society in Tranz Nzoia County, and they come off the streets. The poverty in some areas of Kenya is a bit hard to describe, but let’s just say that these kids have NOTHING. The owners/directors of the children’s home, Patrick and Phoebe Kimawachi, try their best to support the children, providing them with housing, food, school fees, clothing and guidance. Their struggles and challenges are great but they have been the beneficiaries of some financial support from several organizations in the west over the years and have reasonable facilities and a few staff people. Like the hundreds of other orphanages in the country, they get no financial support from the Kenyan government.
 The missionaries who came hailed from Iowa and brought their young family with them promising to stay for 5 years and help get the orphanage better organized and on more solid footing financially. We visit the orphanage often and bring trees, food, clothing and other items when we have people who make donations or our little UU Church in Columbus Indiana takes up a special collection. We are considered “good friends” although our help has not been great, financially. The home has been improving though, with our help and the help of these missionaries, who were sent by another group of missionaries, for whom they seem to work. We were a little unsure of their goals, but for the past 11 months it has seemed that they were sincerely interested in assisting the orphanage and the Kimawachis figure out a way to make more money and spend less on operating costs, and to help fund the children’s schooling. A very generous and extremely important part of their mission. They were nice people, seemed to have a nice rapport with the children and Kimawachis and us, ultimately, but we never felt that we totally grasped where they were coming from.
Now, in retrospect, I have to think that they actually were misguided, and thought they saw a vulnerable situation in the management of the home by Patrick (he is a preacher with a big heart, not a manager or social worker). We were all aware that there were issues with the organization and management so we had begun a “strategic plan” effort.  Although we had recently started meeting, over the last three months, suddenly,  a couple of  weeks ago, the missionaries became very hostile in our monthly meeting, falsely accusing Pastor Patrick  of discrepancies in his financial accounting and also in how they  take care of the children. We had come to visit on the strategic plan but the bomb was dropped that the missionaries had no intention of carrying on with their support unless Pastor and his wife GAVE UP THEIR HOME TO THEM. Needless to say, we were astonished, not just by the timing but also by the lack of communication because NOTHING had been said about their concerns up to that point, and we felt that many of them were totally unrealistic based on what Pastor has to deal with in the system of Children’s Welfare. Although they subsequently admitted that the accusations were inaccurate, the damage was done.
The fact that they have completely pulled  all their funding on the home right now, on the eve of the children being sent off to High School, which is quite expensive, AND they think they could handle it all better, seems  a severe case of western arrogance. In fact, if they had done their research, or talked to anyone, they might have learned that the Kenyan government is discouraging westerners from owning businesses and children’s homes, and they probably never would have been able to legally take it on anyway. We have washed our hands of the missionaries, although we have some serious concerns about what they did and did not do before dropping the bomb (they made some financial promises which we feel they need to keep and which they raised funds for, so basically they  lied to their donors). We will continue to support the home and the Kimawachis but we are all well aware that they have some serious and ongoing challenges ahead.
I have told this story to several Kenyans, smart people who are also familiar with Americans and other westerners and are happy to work in partnership with them.  They have each said to me, “and who are they?” My feelings exactly. Who do they think they are? In fact, at the meeting last week, Pastor had a friend /board member there who has been involved in his mission in Kibera and Kitale for over 20 years. It’s not often that I’ve heard a Kenyan actually speak directly and show his anger, but this man, Victor, thankfully did. “Who do you think you are, coming in here and telling us that you want to take over Patrick’s mission?” he said in an exasperated voice, “ Do you have any idea what we have been through over all these years? You need to just leave. Just go away and leave behind your work permit and the keys to the tractor, because it’s because of this children’s home that you have been able to raise the money you have.”  Whew and Amen! We were sort of shocked at this truth-telling, but we were also relieved that they were taking a stand. Pastor Kimawachi also said “NO Thanks” to any more of the missionaries’ input because he felt their trust had been broken and they had not been truthful in their communications. It was a dramatic and eye-opening experience for us.
Indeed, for us, early on, our motto became, “try not to judge, be generous, and listen well.” The idea that we might “know better” here in a culture and society that are so foreign from our own, is absurd.  So it is with humility and respect that we approach every situation in which we get involved.  It is not always easy to discern what is going on or why because there are layers of communication and history which are not necessarily divulged.  During the time we’ve been here, we have sincerely endeavored to lighten loads, working in partnership with Kenyans, adding positive energy, different perspectives, and funding certain sustainable projects. We can only hope our efforts will be remembered and viewed as making some sense for all those involved.  It’s the least and the best we can do.

For more information on the situation at the orphanage go to the Facebook page of our not for profit, EcoSource Sustainable Initiatives. Their struggles are great and will continue until another large donor group comes along. Unfortunately, school fees are their biggest and most important financial burden and until the government makes secondary education free, as it should be, the children’s homes will have this challenge. Fortunately for the children, they are extremely committed to educating these children as it is their only hope for getting out of the cycle of poverty that they are in. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Splendors of Kenya

Since we are soon going to leave Kenya, we wanted to share some of the more positive aspects of what we have experienced here. We have been here for 2 ½ years now and have had the opportunity to travel quite a bit.  We've been all the way south west to Lake Victoria, the second largest lake in the world (after Lake Superior), west to the border with Uganda, south through the savanna and east to the coast, then north of Nairobi through the Central highlands, and up to the Samburu lands. There is still more to see, unbelievably, and we may get another chance to go further north, but at this point we feel we've had a good taste of this vast and interesting land.
Travel here, the way that we do it, by driving ourselves, is a bit exhausting because the roads are not always in great shape. There is only one true “main drag” through the country, running from the coast to Kampala, Uganda, and it is in much better shape than it used to be, but it is full of large lorries, many of which are old and in uncertain condition. The flow of traffic is totally dependent on the lorries which means it could be flowing really well, or it could be backed up for hours.  There aren’t many road rules here, which might be fun for driving, but for me, as the passenger, it is exhausting and nerve-wracking.  Aside from the main road, the others are usually quite bumpy as they are worn out and full of potholes.
We camp, as well, so our experiences have been quite different than they would be if we were paying for a driver and staying in fancy lodges. We feel, as we do at home, that camping is a great way to be “in” the parks and to be surrounded by the natural beauty that is Kenya. Anyway, it’s a full body experience, travelling our way! Certainly not the way all who come here would choose to travel and there are many options for ways to do it!
Our goal is generally to experience the natural world as it is supposed to be. Like everywhere that humans live, the natural environment is always affected by their incursion, and that is true in Kenya as well. Truly nothing has gone unchanged here over the centuries. Although the majority of the people are still farmers, herders and pastoralists, their lifestyles affect the habitats of the indigenous animals both because of human/wildlife conflict and erosion caused by pasturing cows as well as the building of fences and dams and ponds, etc.  Despite the intrusion of humans and the reality of habitats changing, there is still a lot of natural beauty that to the untrained eye seems rather amazing and unfettered.
Kenya is as big as France, and very diverse. It has a biological diversity that competes with only a few other places in the world, with over 1200 species of birds, many hundreds of species of mammals, reptiles and trees. The flowers and flowering trees are quite spectacular and colorful as well, and draw many birds and pollinators. There is also a large diversity of pollinator insects, which we have been made aware of by our association with our friend Dr. Dino Martins, Phd Biology. Pollinators are his area of interest, so we have learned that there is huge diversity of butterflies, bees, dragon flies, and just “plain old” flies. ( The sizes, shapes and colors of insects, birds, flowers and trees is an ongoing thrill for us. It would take years to become well versed in all of these creatures, but as novices, it is quite fun to try to get to know them and we fancy ourselves birdwatchers now.  Most of Kenya is rural and there are loads of parks and reserves and conservancies, so it is not hard to “get out in nature”. Once you leave the city, you are out in it, and you are struck immediately by the natural wonders here.
We live in a city which is situated at an altitude of almost 8000 ft. near the Great Rift Valley. The Great Rift Valley is one of the earth’s incredible geographical phenomenon, running all the way from the Middle East to Botswana, in southern Africa. The upheaval that occurred millions of years ago and created the Rift Valley also created many of the volcanoes which dot East Africa.
Looking out over the Rift Valley is striking because of its enormity and breadth. The Great Rift Valley is  approximately 6000 feet long and several thousand feet deep. It’s breathtakingly beautiful both because of its grandeur and also because you know what you are seeing at is only a small segment.  You can drive down in it and experience a dramatically different environment than what is up on the escarpments. We have done this several times and have seen new and different micro-climates and habitats along the way each time.
The most notable aspect of the  Rift Valley in Kenya, from North to South, is the presence of several large lakes at the bottom of the valley. Some of them have interesting chemical makeups, like salty or alkaline, making them home to specific birds and animals who prefer that environment. Flamingoes, for one, apparently eat an algae that is found in the alkaline lakes and aren’t really seen much elsewhere. The environment in the valley has changed quite a bit due to many rains and erosion up on the hillsides. There is one lake, Naivasha, which we have visited frequently, which has natural springs feeding into it and therefore is freshwater mostly.  As appealing as the water sometimes looks here, it is not a good idea to get in, as there are hippos, crocs and lots of other little parasites in them. 
Unfortunately, the British, while they were here for over a hundred years, and the Kenyans because of their need  for fuel, have deforested much of Kenya. You can see far and wide over the valley, and there are small farms coating all the sides of the escarpments which stand out over it like great rocky mountains. There are trees now, because there has been an effort to reforest, but most of them are young and not indigenous. (
 The only true swath of virgin Rainforest still in western Kenya is the 90 sq. mile  Kakamega Rainforest, which is not so far away, and which we have visited a few times. This much smaller than the original swathe of rainforest has been protected since the 1930’s and offers a verdant and lush selection of  giant hardwoods, long swinging vines and many ferns in the undergrowth. It is home to plenty of unusual and  lovely  birds and monkeys and has a humid pungent smell unlike anywhere else we’ve visited here.  Our favorite monkeys  are the Colubus, which from a distance look like flying skunks because they have a white shawl of fur which covers their otherwise black back and flies out behind them as they jump from limb to limb. They wake up the rainforest at dawn with a lot of hooting and hollering which is both spooky and exciting.
 Another spectacular phenomenon in the western part of Kenya, is Mt. Elgon, the second tallest peak in Kenya, at 13500 ft. Kenya’s mountains were once volcanoes so the landscape around them is quite different due to the climate, soil and elevation. The plants are not any I’ve seen anywhere else in what is called   Afro-alpine moorland.   It hosts many interesting and even bizarre  plants, including succulents and trees that look like giant cacti. It looks as if Dr. Seuss was there for a visit helping plan it out! The peak itself is preceded by a caldera, considered by National Geographic as one of the 150 most beautiful sites in the world.   Although you can walk into it, that would be another large hike, so you walk the rim to the peak, enjoying the view along the way. The whole area is covered with large boulders which one must assume were blown out of the caldera at some point. Although not always easy to get to when it’s been raining, Mt. Elgon National Park is one of our favorites and also has many animals and caves to see. We have even seen forest elephants, a much smaller version of the savannah elephants, which was a terrific surprise. They migrate across the park and into Uganda and back again and we luckily got a little view of them wandering into the woods.
During  our travels through the valley we have been amazed both at how dry that particular savannah is and also how many people live there. It is not an easy life, for certain, because the search for water must be ongoing. We are always amazed by the lifestyle and physical challenges that the peoples living in the valley and in other dry areas of Kenya face.  As you come out of the valley, although the elevation is higher and it is cooler, you enter true savannah, which is where one finds most of the big animals for which  East Africa is famous. Elephants, Lions, Water Buffalo, Wildebeest, Giraffes, warthogs, and all the rest live in these huge swaths of land that the Kenyan Wildlife service has set aside for these animals to live and migrate through. Although it doesn’t seem like much, 10% of Kenya’s land is preserved and the animals are protected. Visiting these parks is quite amazing, especially if you are not in an area where there are other tourists. You will inevitably run across large animals. The feeling you get when you see a large land animal in the wild is hard to explain.  It’s a kind of shock and the suspense you feel as you are looking around is indescribable. “La magie” (Magic) is what a French speaking friend called it, and I’d have to agree. The fact that they are comfortable in their environment and doing what they naturally do is both heartwarming and reassuring.
North of Nairobi, is an area called the Central Highlands which is green and lush and home to Mt. Kenya. Mt. Kenya is sacred mountain in the traditions of the Kikuyu. It also is a volcanic mountain and has a beautiful Afro- landscape as well as several peaks, the tallest of which is Battian at 16000 ft. Michael and Liam and Jack who was visiting us found it quite a challenging climb yet fabulously beautiful with many vistas and interesting stone formations. Although on the equator, it was quite cold as they ascended which the Kenyans they were with did not appreciate!  It may be the only truly cold spot in Kenya.
Kenya also has a beautiful coastline, which is dotted with small villages of people from different tribes than anywhere else in the country, mostly eking out a living as fishermen and tour guides now. The coast is lush and tropical and the Indian Ocean is as stunning as any you’ve seen. The colors are unbelievable from striking turquoise blue with white sandy beaches to the sky blue and shining bright green of the coastal trees.  Birds from Europe migrate to Kenya, some staying here and others going further south and often their plumage changes to a bright hue as they are here during breeding season. Thankfully, the coast is somewhat under developed still so it is easy to find remote places to hang out.
The other interesting aspect of Kenya, aside from its natural beauty is the diversity of people. Although there has been a fair amount of mobility of people over the last 100 years, the people in western Kenya are different from the people in Central Kenya who are not the same as the people on the coast or up north. In fact, there are 43 tribes in Kenya and although all of them have been somewhat influenced and affected by trade and cultures from the east and the  west, there are those who still dress traditionally and have traditional customs.
Sometimes, as you drive around in 2015, it’s hard to believe that there are still people here living in situations that seem very primitive, but there they are! Huts, animals, spears, headdresses, and all. I've been with Kenyans in the car and seen young men running through the fields dressed in their special “circumcision ceremony” garb and had the Kenyan we were with say, “look at those Africans!” as if  they no longer recognize themselves in these people.

So interesting and so complex. So wondrous and awe-inspiring. That is what Kenya truly is.

(credit for the majority of photos goes to Liam Greven. Check him out on FB:

Colubus Monkey

Wild dogs in Tsavo West

Vervet Monkey at Hell's Gate

Rhino in Likipia


Mt. Elgon landscape



Wildebeest during migration



Tree in Mt. Elgon National Park

Cave at Mt. Elgon

Colubus and trees at MT. Elgon

Afro-Alpine moorland at Mt. Kenya

Pied Kingfisher

Malachite Kingfisher

East AFrican Cranes

One of many Weaver birds



looking out over Kakamega Rainforest

Masaai homestead

Samburu warriors

Samburu women hitching a ride

Samburus on the road

Rift Valley Escarpments

Rift Valley Tortoise

Kakamega Rainforest


In the Rift Valley

Water Buffalo

Coast of Kenya



Euphorbia next to termite mound

Goliath Heraon