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Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Roller Coaster Ride

We met Dennis on the street near our house . We saw him frequently, both separately and then finally together one day. We couldn’t figure out why he was always on the street when he clearly should have been in school. The third term of the school year was in full swing and here he was, looking forlorn, clearly not well fed, dirty and always alone, and was usually struggling to carry some heavy object, like a large water or milk container. We knew by then that primary school is mandatory so it didn’t jibe. He was also curious about us, and particularly about Liam, as he always asked me about ‘my boy’ and wondered where he was in school (this was when Liam was enrolled in the Kenyan school, his first term).He was friendly, polite, and had a sweet smile.
Although Michael and I  weren’t spending much time focusing on understanding Dennis’ situation, partly because we were confused about many things that we were encountering, our curiosity was heightened one day when we ran into him while walking together. We  began to greet him but he suddenly ran away like a scared rabbit, no doubt  because I asked him one too many questions.  After briefly discussing our individual “takes” on Dennis’ situation, we began talking about what we might do to help him out. He should be in school, we agreed, because otherwise he was just going to end up living in the streets or worse. We weren’t aware, yet, of his familial situation, so we needed to do some investigating.
The next time one of us saw him, we invited him to come to our house for dinner one evening. He came, happily, with a large hunger and a lot of woes. We found out that evening that not only was he not getting enough to eat, he was usually left alone by his grandfather, whom he lives with, because his grandfather often goes to Nairobi, driving for a local businessman. Although Dennis has a family, his relations with them at that point seemed to be tattered, and he was having trouble figuring out how to take care of himself which was what he seemed to be expected to do.  He was 11. Unfortunately, Dennis had been chased out of his mother’s house six months or so before we met him because his “stepfather’ did not like him around. Why was he not in school? Grandfather has a lot of his own children and several wives, apparently, and cannot afford to send him to school. For the perennially impoverished, school here is quite expensive. Even public school requires that you buy a uniform and books every year, which is impossible for a lot of folks. So, Dennis, it appeared, because his father had left when he was a baby, and his mother’s family was not willing to take him in, seemed to be the “odd man out.” We were and still are befuddled by this situation but it has proven to be true many times this past year.
 That night, overtired and dirty, Dennis ate voraciously, tried to explain his situation to us in his broken English, and was on the verge of tears most of the evening, genuinely unhappy with his current situation as the kid that no one in his family wanted. Needless to say, albeit, wary not to interfere too much, we were motivated to try to change his situation a bit.  We were impressed both by his sincerity, his motivation to go to school and that he had not actually gone down a different path, which could have been much worse.
Often  the combination of poverty, overlarge families, and no societal safety nets pushes kids away from families and into the streets where they can find community(other street kids), food (they dig through the garbage mostly or get waste from restaurants), sometimes avoiding aggressive and unpleasant adult behavior at home. We had already knew a bit about  the street kid situation in Eldoret through our involvement at Tumaini Drop In Center so we could sense how close Dennis had come to going that direction. Having avoided that, he had shown some self preservation skills, anyway.
Any  uncertainty about helping  Dennis  was washed away after speaking to his grandfather. Grandfather was not showing much capacity to care for him nor interest, for that matter. He was using him as a mule, to haul water and get him stuff, yet not providing for him when he left town. Soon Dennis began hanging around our house a lot, mostly for meals, and then he would go back to his grandfather’s shack. Over time his stays here became longer and longer.  Needless to say, he loved the attention, the food, the clean bathroom and hot shower, and having a “big brother” in Liam to play with.
Suddenly one week, he stopped coming. I began to get worried but since we didn’t completely understand his home life we did not pursue it for the first few days of his absence. Towards the end of that school week he reappeared, wearing a very tattered school uniform, seams badly sewn, hems ratty, patches here and there, but a uniform nonetheless.  I asked him what was up and he tried to explain to me that he had been walking to the next town, where he had been in school the term before, to take the final exams. I was NOT able to comprehend what the heck was going on. How could he take the exams if he hadn’t been in school all term? It made no sense to me. Plus he was walking at least 6 miles each morning to and back each afternoon, ON AN EMPTY STOMACH to get to the school. Grandfather, apparently, had procured the beat up uniform and forced him to go to prove that he was in school because you can get arrested for not sending your kids to school! I found out from a Kenyan friend that some people send kids just for exams so they won’t get in trouble for not having them enrolled in school.  I left that discussion, feeling angry, sad, and completely unnerved.  The value of an education here cannot be overstated. It is, in fact, the only way out of grinding poverty and everyone is striving for it, although many are not attaining it. No matter how we view the “system” it is greatly valued by the Kenyans  who perceive it as  over expensive, required, highly respected, and very difficult for families of little means.
The end of the term was nearing and upon the advice of some other Kenyan friends, we asked Grandfather if we could provide Dennis with schooling next term. Of course he accepted. We went with our Swahili teacher and met with his mother in her garbage strewn neighborhood in Milenne, a slum outside of Eldoret, to let her know of our intentions. We caused quite a spectacle that day and although he was taunted by the neighborhood drunk, Dennis stood strong and proud and introduced us to his mother, promised to work hard, spoke clearly about his desire to learn and get back in school, and his mother gave us her blessings while crying and bemoaning her situation and the fact that she is unable to care for her children well (there are at least 6 others all younger than Dennis). We left that meeting feeling discouraged and a bit helpless although buoyed by the notion that at least we might be able to get Dennis onto a better track.
We enrolled him at the Lions School which is right down the street from us because I knew he had a lot of gaps in his education and that he would need monitoring and help learning how to study. 
Dennis' 12th Birthday Nov. 2013. First birthday cake and presents!

with Jeannette and Liam Feb. 2013

Making a cake with Liam early 2013

with Nick and Liam July 2013

first day of school Jan. 2013

MG's birthday Nov. 2013
The local public school was an option but I had heard enough about the classes with 80+ students in them that I really wanted to get him going in a place that would be supportive and where he could get some much needed attention.
The day we went to get Dennis’ stuff for school was the day he thought he’d  won the lottery. He was practically floating he was so excited.  He needed all of the essentials for his uniform:  socks, black shoes, Lions School sweater, two pairs of grey shorts, white shirts, and Lions School tie. He also needed a “sports suit” which oddly is not the same color as the Lions School colors. After we purchased all that, he carried the big overfull plastic bag across the street as we headed to the School Depot where the books and school supplies are sold. I looked over at him noting to myself that he had probably NEVER had anything new and his own in his whole life! “Are you happy?” I asked. With a broad smile, the likes of which I’d never seen, he said “I’m as happy as a king!” Seeing him so happy brought tears to my eyes.  We headed to the school supply store and got all his books, notebooks, pens, erasures, etc. At the end as we checked out and the salesperson loaded them into a box, he said to Liam, “these are for you.“ “No man, these are for you!” Liam said, smiling at him. “I’m not in Standard 5! You are!” I don’t think he could believe it. After all the years of not getting what he needed, he was suddenly getting it all.
 Dennis has been at the Lions School for a full school year now. He has been in Standard 5 because of the gaps. The system here is not designed for any but those who can read, write and regurgitate information. Often the teachers just write notes on the board and the students must copy. At first I was not really aware of these issues and did not follow his work too closely, but after he bombed the first set of exams (there are 3 sets per term and then they are averaged. No other grades…no grades for homework, no participation, and no grades quizzes) I realized that he really had very little idea of how to study and how this program works. So, during the term break, we studied. His math skills were very weak as was his reading. I am no mathematics whiz, but I do know that knowing your multiplication tables at the age of 12, especially if you are going to be  tested all the time, is essential to success!
Now we are at the end of that first school year. I can’t say it has gone completely smoothly, but Dennis’ schoolwork has improved, he continues to try hard, continues to get to school every morning after coming here to dress and eat breakfast, and he studies here and has dinner with us most nights. His family situation has deteriorated even more, with his grandfather disappearing for weeks at a time and leaving him with nothing to eat and no funds. About midway through the school year we realized that we had committed ourselves to Dennis for some time. It seems to be somewhat standard that if you decide to help a kid by sending him/her to school, you actually are taking on all his problems and it makes it very difficult to disengage from his family. We have had several “moments” with Dennis’ mother which have been difficult and unpleasant, we have been conflicted about the entire situation, and we have had issues (relatively minor) with Dennis’ behavior from time to time.   His being a preteen who has had little to no guidance plays a role in his behavior, but in general it’s gone well and Dennis has thrived. He’s bigger, stronger, more secure, smarter, more articulate, and a better student overall than he was last December.  He actually may have a chance of getting out of his family’s never ending cycle of poverty and dysfunction.
We decided early on this year that what Dennis really needs is a safe and secure home where other adults are paying attention to him, especially since we will not be here forever. He really has nowhere to be during the school holidays, despite the fact that his mother has family. We have tried to encourage her to find a place for him to be. We have found a boarding school for him that is out in the country, seems to be well run, and where the adults seem genuinely interested in the welfare of the children. We took him there the other day and although he was hesitant about certain aspects (he’s had his own private hot shower in our house for one, and he loves to eat, for two), I think he realizes that this is a good opportunity for him, and probably the best way for him to succeed in school. The idea of more friends and other adults in his life is motivating as well. We are keeping our fingers crossed that it is the right solution. Dennis has just turned 13 and he is like a whole new person in a lot of ways. He has grown a lot, his English has improved enormously and he is more self confident and becoming more conversational. He still eats like he has been starving but his manners and  his behavioral issues have greatly improved. He has a good understanding of how important it is for him to do well in school. He can now see the possibilities of having an education and what that can do for you here.  All we can do at this point is get him prepared to go and hope that it is a good solution.
It’s been a bumpy year, one in which we’ve learned a lot about the enormity of  taking  on a kid whose situation is so out of our “normal” and what a challenge that can be. There have been many moments of frustration, sadness, anger and even some tears, but I will guarantee you that if Dennis succeeds in school these next two years and makes it through to HS, it will have all been worthwhile.

Dennis' 13th birthday Nov. 2013
Dennis looking at new shoes he received for Birthday.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


Chronic diseases, and particularly cancer and cardiac issues have had a significant impact on my life and the life of my extended family and friends.  I am fortunate at 56 years of age to be of sound body, something far too many others cannot claim as they have been afflicted by one form of chronic disease or another.

So I will get my 56 year old body into the best shape I can in order to successfully make the trek up to the  Lanana peak of Mt. Kenya at 16,535  feet.   As I get in shape I am mindful of the daily struggle others have to go through in their battle with chronic diseases.  When someone has a chronic disease at home it is very, very tough.  Here in Kenya it is regrettably even more difficult due to the lack of trained personnel, adequate facilities and adequate equipment.  At present there are 10 oncologists in all of Kenya and a very, very limited number of facilities that even provide treatment.  The only facility that provides treatment for those of lesser means is Jomo Kenyatta Hospital in Nairobi and it is overwhelmed with demand from both Kenya and the surrounding countries.  The next possibility is Kampala, Uganda. Unfortunately, for those diagnosed with cancer or chronic heart disease, the chance of receiving treatment is very slim and the consequence of that is devastating to the families.

Thanks to the vision and determination on the part of doctors at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret and the Indiana University led Ampath Consortium there is now a dynamic effort to change the tide of this struggle.    A new 110,00 sf Chronic Care facility is under construction that will house not only treatment space for chronic diseases, but will also provide  research and educational facilities.  The building is approximately 45% complete and is scheduled for completion in January of 2015.  There continues to be a need for additional funding not only for the building, but also, as importantly, the education of Kenyans in oncology, radiation oncology, cardiac and pulmonary care and diabetes.  Equipping a facility of this nature is also a financial challenge.

Clearly our climb to the Lanana peak of Mt. Kenya is not going to raise all of funds needed, however, each dollar and each shilling will make a significant difference.  I am fortunate to be able to undertake this climb with a great bunch of people working towards the same end…… bring quality care to our Kenyan, Ugandan, Tanzanian and Ethiopian friends and families so that they may live a full life. 

Your support will be greatly appreciated.  You can meet the climbers and make a donation by going to: Your donation is tax deductible also !

Asante sana for your consideration!!!

Changes of Pace

After travelling for  several weeks from Kenya to the US to France and then back to Kenya, I thought it would be fun to share some of my observations about how interestingly different the pace of life is in these three places and how pace seems  to affect the cultures and mentalities of the people there. When you live in another culture, after some time, what was once “normal” slips away and your new “normal” becomes what you are experiencing in your new home. Thus, when you return home you feel both shocked and amused by how different things are. These are strictly the observations of a lucky wanderer.
Kenya’s pace, anyone familiar with Africa will not be surprised to hear, is slow. People move slowly, work gets done slowly, time is NOT of the essence. The only place that this is not true is in traffic in Eldoret. There is a sense of panic and chaos in the traffic that could cause you to think that things are moving quickly. That is a hallucination because nothing much happens quickly but there is a definite sense of “hustle” when one is on the road. Otherwise, there is no sense of urgency. Time is definitely not money here. There are all sorts of reasons that things move slowly and coming from the U.S., which is quite a bit more fast paced,  it does make one ponder. One of the main things that is different here from the US is that in Kenya , very few people are connected to the internet all the time and very few people on the streets are walking with headphones or blue tooths (blue teeth? ). Most often, here, people get where they are going when they get there.  Sometimes they just don’t show! Our attitude has become “oh well!” when things don’t go as planned, or people don’t show as previewed. What are you going to do?  In the States, some of these situations would be completely unacceptable, people become very uptight, but here, there are many ways to look at it. Some say it’s a lack of respect, some say it’s the issues with transportation and jams, some, the fact that people have family crises regularly. Others are inclined to point out poverty, dependence, and development issues. Whatever it may be, and it may be all of the above, it does increase the necessity to be patient in one’s dealings. The funny thing is, it’s not like people are not under stress here, because they certainly are. Most people’s stress revolves around getting their basic needs met, but for those who are educated and/or in positions of responsibility, they have a lot of personal stress around helping folks in their families as people rely on them heavily.  Life is not fast paced but it tends to be burdensome nonetheless for Kenyans.
Another impressive occurrence, that is reflective of the pace also, is that when you are shopping here, you almost always have to wait awhile to be served in a shop or restaurant. In fact, you may not even be acknowledged until you yourself make a point of going up to a salesperson saying “can you help me?” This has happened to me so many times I am now used to it and sort of assume there is some cultural piece I don’t quite understand.  It seems absurd, indeed, considering that one might assume that a shopkeeper would want to make a sale. Earlier on my reaction would be, “Well! I’ll take my business elsewhere, harrumph!” but since it is the same everywhere, that doesn’t make much difference here. Business practices and standards are quite the opposite here than in the U.S.
 Upon returning home, there was plenty to which I had to acclimate.  I so appreciated the orderliness of the traffic  and I was struck  by the amount of things getting done at once. My first amused moment came while driving on 86th St. and leisurely observing the road around me.  I saw a delivery van that had written across it “EVERY HOUR IS RUSH HOUR”. I think I actually laughed aloud, thinking, ‘well, in some places…”  That sign expressed so well the culture and approach of the United States. Sometimes the mind-set of extremely fast paced marketing/consumerism seems gross, and insincere, but I have to say I did appreciate while home, customer service and attention to detail that is lacking in Kenya.  My second favorite sign that I saw, again on 86th St. in Indy, was a giant big box store called “Buy Baby Buy” Wow! It kind of says it all, doesn’t it?   Sometimes it seems that the U.S. attitude that money should drive all activities and that the sale is always the most important thing is paramount in our consumerist culture. That said, a friendly salesperson, a meeting which takes place on time, with respect to others’ schedules, and a market place structure which is designed to actually help the consumer on some level can create a pleasurable feeling for those not experiencing it regularly. I know it is not like the good old days, when you could actually  talk to a salesperson and get a friendly response, and  certainly the cut throat commercialism is tiresome, but there is a nice in between that can sometimes be found.
France seems to have found it, I have to say. The French, honest to god, know how to live. Aside from having a society that is so appreciative of its history, gastronomic culture and art, it is also a society which does not break people who work, takes care of its people who are struggling, and seems to in general not be so stressed out by the hustle of making a living. The pace is quite different than in the States. According to my French friends, it is becoming more breakneck, in the big cities,  but people in general there are not so stressed because of their need to hustle all the time. There is not this culture of RUSHING RUSHING that you find in the States, and the need to bust your butt  all the time seems to not be present. In places like Paris , where I recently visited, people are rushing, but that is just the essence of big cities. From what I observed, the French,  in general,  have yet to don headphones and blue tooths either in the public sphere so you know they are not as focused on the next transaction or communication as Americans tend to be.  My experience recently, in rural and small town France, was just so pleasant and mellow. I didn’t do much shopping, although I did go to several markets and I found the pace both lovely and enjoyable and the attention (not cloying but friendly) of the salespeople quite pleasant.
 On the farm where I was working, the people had their established routine, and I was pleased to learn, did not get up at the crack of dawn and rush around all day trying to get stuff done before sunset. In fact, they got up leisurely, ate a nice breakfast, drank coffee, then we would go milk the goats. After milking, we would take a break, during which time Farmer Ingo would play the piano, read the paper, drink more tea, and begin to prepare a lovely lunch. One of the best things about the French of course, is that they know how to eat well and they take time to enjoy their meals, their friends and family, over a meal filled with all sorts of delightful dishes. At least the French I know. A meal might include an aperitif, good wine, a lovely salad, good bread,  a delicious assortment of cheeses, fruit usually, chocolate,  and possibly a digestif as well. I know for sure that some of these are skipped during a busy work week, but having a leisurely long meal in a French home is really quite an outstanding and unusual experience for an American!
I also visited friends in the suburbs of Paris, both of whom work full time, but they make sure they eat a nice leisurely dinner, take  time to bicycle, walk or swim each day, and enjoy each others’ company. Both of these families claim that  French society is changing and becoming much more fast paced and “Americanized” i.e. people eating more fast food and processed foods, not spending time around the table, and losing focus on family time, but I did not see much sign of it. I hope, for their sake, they can maintain the balance.
One of my favorite moments relating to pace was when I was helping at a market in France, selling cheese. I was asked to only help when the farmer was not there as he didn’t like us running into each other. I pointed out that it would go more quickly if I helped and that there were people waiting. His reaction was just to look at me and say, “yes, they will wait. They like our cheese. “  He was right. They did wait, and they were perfectly pleasant about it, even when I ineptly tried to give them change! On the other hand, I was at the market in Columbus, not a real fast paced town relative to others in the U.S and I was waiting in line, like a few others . We had been there a few minutes and clearly the vendors were very busy and doing their best to keep up. It was a beautiful late summer morning, not even that hot, but from behind me I heard a woman with a very annoyed voice say,  “for god’s sake, my hair is going to turn grey standing here. “ Really?  If she only knew how most people in the world have to wait and wait for service, food, water, whatever it may be. It  felt like such a teachable moment but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything as I figured if she was that spoiled and impatient she would be unlikely to want to take a lesson from a complete stranger! So her pain became my gain as I again noted my appreciation for a patient, flexible and calm attitude when it comes to waiting, wherever I am in the world!