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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.


  1. This is such a moving little story, Lizzy. He is darling and you all are really doing a great service to help him move forward. Perhaps, someday when he is older, he will come to the U.S. and meet the rest of our family and maybe go to university in the States! That would be a wonderful addition for us all.

  2. Hi, Lizzy!

    Just enjoyed myself at Mary and Bob's so much and read your Dennis post there Saturday morning. My reaction was to feel, as we did when we lived in Guatemala or when I've lived in Mexico, how *relative* prosperity is. For example, I spend most of my time here dithering about how the U.S. economy is in the shitter, how Tim and I are going to make it and retire, how and when I'm going to be able to travel since flights are so expensive but travel feels like the only thing I really care about in terms of spending $$, etc., living in the challenges of the modern day U.S. But when we are in a developing country and come across the poor folks there, of course, we appear to be living the dream, every matter solved, no anxieties AND infinite financial resources. Dear Dennis doesn’t know he may well be stretching the budget with what you darlings are doing for him. He has no idea because he knows no other way but his own.

    This has the good effect of forcing me to try to meditate on the topic of having ENOUGH and to try, philosophically, to live mindfully in the moment of enough-ness. What is enough? We have enough, certainly, in comparison to Dennis. Media, by its nature, urges us to obsess on what we do not have and think we must have. For me this is not things as much as experiences that I desire, yet it’s the same envy of looking over the neighbors’ fence to see what they’ve got I haven’t.

    Cool your jets, Anne: YOU HAVE ENOUGH.

    I am thankful for all the kind gestures and efforts of your family toward these sweet Kenyan souls. Blessings be upon you!

  3. Wow,! It has been some time since I last "checked in", and what a story this tells. You have saved another life, no doubt; bless you for that. I tend to remember all the 'good' about Africa, and it is easy to 'forget' all the pain and suffering and deprivation. I live on such a small amount, here, and I'm so wealthy compared to very many others. Of course, I hope Dennis will have the strength and courage to stay in school. Interesting, when I had applied to the Peace Corps, I was told that my assignment would be to 'teach teachers' in Africa, or in the South Pacific; never was able to find out what that would entail, though it seems that teachers, there, could use a bit of inspiration and imagination in their methods.

    Well, the good you are doing will be multiplied countless times...know that, remember that.