Sunday, January 23, 2011

First two weeks in Africa

So I’m in Africa – Pundamillia, Kenya to be exact.

For starters it feels good to be here. Something had been drawing me away from my comfort zone, away from stability and the known for some time. Something has always told me to not accumulate much so I can sell it and go do just this – jump off to learn about the world, work and volunteer and see what happens. That spirit brought me here to learn and explore with an open mind what I can about Africa and see where I can help.

Why Africa? I’ve been reading about the Millennium Development Goals since I returned from my last big trip where I learned so much traveling in the developing nations of Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and much of Central America and some of South America. It was a whirlwind trip, escape artist style where I left on a leave of absence from a great job for 6 months. I felt I needed to know more about how the rest of the world lived, what was true that I’ve learned and what was a stereotype and what I could learn for myself. I was changed by the experience in so many ways. 6 months after I returned, I found it was time to quit my job and follow this passion learning and assisting where I can. Much of the Millennium Development Goals work is focused in poverty stricken Africa, so I have found myself here.

How did I pick this orphanage to start? – it was somewhat randomly, but decisively after a lot of web researching. Watoto Wa Baraka Children’s Home was started by Geoffry Ndungu. Being an orphan himself he always wanted to give back and open a home for other kids who needed the same help he was fortunate to get. Three years ago he opened this orphanage for children in the area whose parents have died of AIDS families, suffer too much poverty to provide for their kids or were otherwise not able to take care of their children. Watoto sounded like a warm place to start and learn about Kenya from a man whose heart is into caring for the future generation of the surrounding community.

The first two weeks have been a whirlwind of hugging little kids at the orphanage, trying to learn all of their names, getting sick way too much and taking matatus (crowded public transportation minivans, with blaring music) all over the region.
The kids are the best – so sweet, loving and each with their own personality. The really have a family here, each of the 7 staff lives on the compound with their own family and the kids refer to the staff as “Daddy Geoff, “Uncle Zacky” (Geoffry’s brother) Aunt Grace (the cook) and so on each taking an active roll in every aspect of kids lives. The older kids help the younger ones with brushing their teeth, leading the group to go farming or helping with meals. They get along surprisingly well for some rough and tumble kids.

Learning the kids stories is sad and heartwarming at the same time. For instance three brothers Steven, John and Francis otherwise known as Mwangi, Little John and Francis were street kids, placed here by the court in 2009. A good Samaritan brought them to the Children’s Welfare Office so staff can only estimate how old they are. They will never know their real birthdays, but are guessed to be 3,4 and 5 but they are fortunate to be fed, cared for by 7 loving local staff and a cadre of international volunteers here for a week to a year at a time.

I’ve been fortunate be able to join Martha, the orphanage’s community outreach worker to visit some of approximately 70 children who are sponsored outside the orphanage. Community outreach is one of the options I can sign up for during the week along with farming, kitchen help, laundry, homework and coordinating activities. We walk from about 8:30 am- 1 pm on village paths, down dirt roads and through banana and corn farms to visit the schools where we check on the well being of the kids, find out what they need and make sure they have a school uniform, books, food, pens and pencils and that their health is good. If their health isn’t good, Martha arranges to take them to the doctor or gets medicine for their ailment. Somehow this is all paid for by international sponsors who pay $25 a month to take care of all of those things. So much good for so little money. What an eye opening experience to see the variety of class rooms and headmasters offices and situations the kids are dealing with. The kids are so intrigued by their “Muzungu” (white) visitor whether it’s on the street, or at the school they all want to touch me, shake my hand or touch my hair. Some of the little girls dare their friends to run up, touch me, then run away laughing out of reach.

The kids in the public schools share books, two to a student and there are about 70 kids per classroom. Many of the books look so tattered you wonder if you can read the pages. Some of them share pencils, have really tattered clothes when they are required to wear uniforms. One of the orphans here was told by their teacher to walk all the way back to get a pencil because they had no more to give him. You should see them fight for a pencil with a good eraser during homework time. None of the public schools I’ve seen so far have computers for their students or teachers. There is a small vocational school which has 3 computers for 30 or more kids which I plan to help out with Monday, but they look like they are from the dark ages. Many of the schools have dirt floors and some of the kids go to school with bare feet. I was dragged over to a nursery class, one not on our list of visits to see the kids the teacher said needed more help. She said 10 of her 30 kids come to school regularly without shoes, the same tattered outfit (not a school uniform) and no breakfast or lunch and no shoes. I couldn’t help it but start to cry a little, I tried to keep it together but these kids really were a mess. I left feeling like wow, their parents still have hope and are sending the kids to school anyways. They say they will buy uniforms and bring food for their kids and pay the school exam fees when they can but they never do. They teacher’s hands are tied, she keeps them there for hope as well.

I’m beginning to work on fundraising for a teacher to help with homework for the students at the orphanage. I have been told $1200 will fund a live in teacher for one year who can help get the 29 boys and girls who live here up to speed with their studies. I’m torn, because the nursery kids need sponsors but you can only take care of so many kids well and first I feel like this organizations need to help the kids at their own orphanage. As you can imagine, many of them have arrived here with no schooling, are behind for their age and need additional support and mentoring to catch up. A live in teacher can help in the evenings with their homework and create custom learning plans for the kids, monitor and mentor them as they grow as well as help with other important tasks for this budding orphanage. I’ve been trying to help the students with their homework with some success, but as volunteers we can only help so much. We need a teacher who can further explain in their tribal language and Kiwsahili, because the kids only know so much English. I certainly can’t help with their Kiswahilli homework, but they keep pointing to it with confused faces like please, come on, your old you know it! The staff comes in and out to help a bit, but they must dedicate their time to the various tasks of the orphanage. They even have space for them to live. I feel like this would be an amazing asset to the trajectory of these kids lives and I hope you will consider donating a little bit to ensure a brighter future for these kids, any more can help sponsor individual kids like the nursery ones I mentioned above. The orphanage is committed to sending these kids through high school and university, given their grades are sufficient and the program will support them until they can support themselves.

So far I’ve had three sicknesses in 2 weeks, not exactly how I wanted to start off the adventure, but I’m hoping I run all of bugs through my system early to harden by stomach. The first version I’ll call a one bucket version was one super bad day, and 3 living dead days. The second is a rash over most of my body that remains – I think from hand washing my laundry and leaving too much soap in the clothes, but it could be from something like the manure we were spreading around the banana trees who knows and the third was a two bucket night (one for both ends) – one of the worst nights I’ve ever had but I think I’m ok now. The worst part is that I only had one bucket in my room, the one I use to bathe, and I had hope for a moments reprieve so only one was enough. The situation worsened and I had to search for another bucket in the middle of the night so I didn’t have to stay at the community hole all night. Ugh! Welcome to Africa! I don’t’ know if it’s the food or if it’s lots of bugs from the kids – either way it’s been a rough start. The other volunteers and I have started thinking about making a restaurant/meal review with the number of buckets you’ll need after eating. Never fun to be sick when you have to run to a hole in the ground and shower in a bucket, but despite this, I’m actually very happy here believe it or not!

Volunteers pay $90 a week to the orphanage, $80 or so goes to support the build out of a new orphanage called Matheni not far from here, the rest pays the other staff’s salaries goes to support the ongoing programs such as food for the kids, their school fees and community outreach programs. Volunteers wash their own laundry live in simple rooms on the grounds and eat very simple meals that cost likely less than $5 a week. It feels like so much can be done with so little money here, which excites me and is getting my mind cranking.

What I’m eating:
My breakfast is chai tea, which I really like actually, a mix of fresh milk from their cow, water and tea leaves and 3 slices of white bread. I buy something to put on it at the market 40 minutes away. For lunch it’s usually rice and beans or beans and maize the beans and maize version is really bland and horrible to force down (even worse when I was sick, blah). Dinner is ugali which is similar consistency to mashed potatoes but with corn and lentils. That is about it. I’ve seen the prices for these items in restaurants and why my calculations is about $5. When you grow it yourself like the orphanage does it’s even cheaper so I know the money is going to a good place. I have been buying a lot of cheap fresh fruit to supplement this bland meal and keep happy. They grow mangos, bananas and avocados but much of it isn’t ready at the orphanage yet.

I’m not sure what I thought, but I figured African’s love to dance, it’s sort of a spicy festive culture right?– I would have expected some spicier interesting food, well not Kenya so far at least! Fortunately there are a lot of pineapples and I’ve found some ripe mangos, bananas and papayas in the markets. Yum!

There is so much more to say, but I’ll save it for the next update.

Support the project
by making a donation, spreading the word or come for a visit and volunteer. There are so many ways that you can get involved. Email me to learn more or just say hi at Also video skypeing is free and fun, (though very finicky) but this way you can see the kids yourself and they are so cute!

Support a teacher or support in general by clicking on the pay pal link on the site, and indicating your interest of where to put the funds I will make sure the funds go to the right place. (This function will be added shortly.) You can also donate directly to the organization at