Wednesday, April 25, 2007


(Written Wednesday April 25, 22:31 Kenya time)

There are no words to adequately describe our arrival in Pokot today. But I will give it a try.

As we drove up the last of the dusty, bumpy road to the Pokot orphanage, after passing through the town of Marigo to purchase supplies for tomorrow's famine feed, driving through (not over; through) an active river, and picking up a pregnant hitchhiker from another pokot village, someone in the front of the van yelled "there's your children!" (Carol refers to the orphans as her children. This goes for all 4,000 orphans the IFC cares for worldwide). Carol started bouncing in her seat like an excited school girl. This was it! We were here, and the children were waiting for us at the entrance to the orphanage!

We pulled up and opened the door, and as we both struggled out of the car over errant luggage and runaway watermelons, the children broke into song. Led by one of the older girls beating on a small yellow plastic container with a stick, she would chant and the rest would repeat. It took several verses before I fully understood what they were signing, but the moment I did I nearly broke into tears. I've never seen a group of children so unbelievably happy to see someone. This is what they sang.

We are happy, to welcome you,
to welcome you, our mommy

We are happy, to welcome you,
to welcome you, our mommy

We are happy, to welcome you,
to welcome you, our daddy

We are happy, to welcome you,
to welcome you, daddy Joseph
Simply unbelievable. Such love and caring in their eyes. I wasn't even sure I was hearing my own name at first but yes, there it was. Pure elation.

They danced and chanted and sang all the way up the path to the orphanage, probably for a good 15 minutes. Carol was dancing and in tears. The few adults there were following behind, smiles beaming on their faces.

Yes, it's safe to say, we had arrived.

We spent another half hour with a procession of hugs for mommy Carol. She knows every one of these kids, except for a pair of twins born (and who's mother died in childbirth) since her last visit. Of course she knew all about them and couldn't wait to meet them. Many of the children are teenagers, and have had growth spurts since she last was there – and some of these kids are really tall! It was fun to watch her reaction as she saw each child again.

Then, they gathered and danced again for us. This time they grouped off into threes, and jumped up and down to the music. This seemed more impromptu than planned, and everyone quickly got into it. Song and dance is such an important part to their culture, and it's wonderful to see everyone so involved, singing and dancing together, from toddler to adult.

From here we all gathered in their classroom where Carol put on a little English quiz show for them. She would ask, "what's the English word for…" and then walk across the room. Point to her ear. Cry like a baby. Point to me and pretend to blow her nose. Yep, kids all around the world are now making fun of my for the way I honk my nose when I blow. Wonderful ;-) It became quite clear that their english lessons are going well (along with swahili, math, geography, and more).

Unfortunately, the tone turned very sad after this. Carol was shown two babies, twins, that were barely alive. They were being held by two very elderly, uncaring, and unapologetic grandmothers. They clearly had no desire to be caring for these babies at all. Their sad story starts before they were born.

Their father died while they were in the womb (never heard how). As is tribal tradition, the most senior member of the tribe inherits any widowed wives. It is then his choice if he wants to take her children or not as well. Since the babies father died, their mom went to this senior member. As he didn't want the children, he provided no care to the mother. When she went into labor, she labored, birthed, and died, entirely alone. The newborn babies laid there through the night until a neighbor came to visit in the morning and found the dead mother and two nearly dead babies. One can only presume that the mother had the strength to pull them to her breasts before she died, or they assuredly would not have survived the night.

The babies were brought to the orphanage, and given to two elderly members of the tribe to care for. For whatever reason, these grandmothers did not want to care for the babies. However they did, albeit reluctantly. Sadly they couldn't have seemed less interested in the barely alive infants in their arms.

This all happened a week ago. The orphanage was unsure of what to do with the babies, as they were under directive from IHF to accept no more orphans until more financial sponsors were found. (Believe it or not, the IHF houses, clothes, feeds and educates 4,000 orphans around the world for only $8,000 per month. That's $2 per child. But more on that later. Much more, and in a future post). Anyway since the orphanage knew that Carol was coming soon, they decided to wait until she arrived to make a decision. In the meantime, the babies were bottle fed but no attention was paid to their deteriorating health. When we arrived, these children had virtually no response to any stimulation whatsoever. When asked if they'd been feeding, we were told yes, but we watched one repeatedly fail to take a bottle. Any milk squeezed into her mouth dribbled down her chin. (I actually don't know if they were boys or girls, but writing "it" when referring to these babies just isn't right). I pulled up on the skin of one babies arm only to see it very slowly pull back to form, a sure sign of dehydration. I told Carol that these children needed an IV or would almost certainly die. Carol immediately arranged for our driver to take the grandmothers and the babies to the closest hospital, three hours away. But not before first making the grandmothers promise something.

Before deciding to take them to the hospital, Carol kept asking them what they wanted her to do. They had no answer. So finally she said, and this sounds cold but I'll explain in a moment, that she would allow them into the orphanage ONLY if the grandmothers PROMISED to visit the children regularly, to be a part of their lives. Otherwise, she would have to refuse them. But here's why. Carol has been doing this for 30 years, and one of the things she's learned in any culture like this is that if an orphan has NO family at all in their lives, then as they get older they will be identified as having "bad spirits". No one will marry them, they will have few friends, and they will essentially fail at life. It sounds horrible but without some sort of family to love and care about them (outside of the orphanage), they are lost souls. So tonight, finally the grandmothers agreed, and so Carol was able to promise to ensure that these children will have food, clothing, and an education, in exchange for simply a few regular visits. She'll find another sponsor or pay for it herself. After all, it's only $2 per month per child.

It was a sad way to enter the evening, but in the end the babies were taken to the hospital and are promised a home. If they survive. I'm obviously no expert but I unfortunately don't think their chances are very good. We did hear one baby cry a few notes at one point; a good sign. The other lay completely still and silent the entire time we saw them. We should know more tomorrow when the driver returns.

Ending the evening on a higher note, once they babies were sent off to the hospital, I was taken to my room. I've been honored with quite a nice place to stay. It's a private hut, built of mud with a thatch roof, on a cement foundation. There is a makeshift shower in the back that will be filled with water in the morning, and an outhouse within a few minute walk. The outhouse consists of a cement platform with a small hole in it over a very deep hole which you, er, squat over. One can only hope the cement is thick and solid.

The village has a solar panel brought over by Dan Gray, another volunteer, some time ago. This charges a large battery cell (like a triple sized car battery), and is used to power their one computer, rechargeable flashlights, and cell phones. Yep, they have cell coverage out here. No electricity or running water, but they have cell. And a small black and white TV which they were quite happy to have in my cottage. It gets horrible reception but they love it. I immediately detached it from the battery since it's about the last thing I want to waste energy on here! In doing so though I saw the truly frightening way in which it's wired up. I'll let the picture speak for itself.

Once I dropped off my gear in the cottage (in the pouring rain), we headed back to the orphanage where dinner was being served. This was cooked over an open fire, and consisted of ungali, a cornmeal based staple that is served with every meal. Think grits, but with less flavor. For those who don't know what grits are, think wet sand, with less flavor. This was served alongside a vegetable medley that appeared to be cabbage and perhaps tomatoes. It did have some nice flavor to it, but from what I understand this is nearly every meal. Something tells me in ten days I'll be looking longingly at the family dog.

After dinner, Carol had asked if I would read stories to the boys in their dorm. The entire orphanage consists of three buildings; a girls and boys dorm, and a general room in-between them. So off I went to their dorm, surrounded by a dozen beaming faces. They picked out two books and we laid on the cool cement floor as I read to them. Only a few of the boys spoke english well enough to stop me on occasion to explain a word they didn't know, and the rest enjoyed the funny voices and sound effects that went along with the stories. Then they all had questions for me about where I'm from, what it's like where I live, family, and so on. They are taking geography lessons in their classroom, so I promised to show them on a map where I live. They also wanted to know what sports I liked ("soccer" was met with a round of cheers and a challenge for the following day), and wanted to know if I knew how to fly a plane. Such wonderful kids. It's going to be a great week.

Tomorrow morning we are driving to another village for a famine feed, where apparently conditions aren't nearly as good as they are at the orphanage. The following day we'll be going to another location for another feed, this time to nomadic tribes that are somehow being told where and when to meet us.

There are lots of objectives for me on this trip. I need to photo-document the true cost of food here, so NGO's that claim that food costs 10x what it really does can be forced to start explaining themselves. I need to photograph the orphans so they have pictures to send with their thank-you letters to their sponsors. I also need to train some people here how to take pictures with a donated digital camera they have, then to download them to the computer and email them along with the thank you letters (on an old laptop PC with a donated GPRS card). I will be photographing children in various stages of malnutrition to show the progress that can and is being made here. And documenting the orphanage itself, the famine feeds, and whatever else we do over the next ten days. These images will be used for fundraising events, for an exhibit Carol wants to create to show the true cost of sponsoring children in programs like this (which will be hung in art galleries around the world that a friend of hers manages), to create postcards for awareness and fundraiser projects, and also to create a coffee table book. And of course to use on their web site.

OK, time to sign off. It's now past midnight, all my photos from the day are downloaded, and this entry is written. As I get ready to sleep, I have to close this by describing the sounds around me. Since I've been sitting here in silence, I've heard crickets and other night bugs singing their song, dogs barking, cats meowing, goats doing whatever goats do, what sounded like a geriatric old man being beaten to death (I think it's one of the goats complaining), coyotes howling, something bigger than me following me to the bathroom, and at least one werewolf. Yep, gonna sleep like a baby.

1 comment:

Pratt said...

Joseph, wow, this brings me to tears and I am only reading it. How did you keep your thoughts straight as a witness? It must be humbling to witness such life.