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.