By Sally Kenney
During my first visits to Kenya, we visited a compound where Masai women could flee to avoid being cut or married off as girls to old men. On this trip, I wanted to learn more about women’s activism and microenterprises. As always, I was on the lookout for new birds. But mostly, I wanted to spend more time with the children I sponsor.
Memories of my first visits
My first visits were intensely emotional. I took Sharon, the girl I have sponsored since 2009, shopping for new clothes for the first time (both of her parents are dead). We walked amid open-air furniture manufacturing to wind our way to Nelson Mandela School with its corrugated iron walls and roofs and joyful children in brilliant red sweaters and wooly hats.
I visited her home and was overwhelmed by the contrast between how much we have and how little they make do with it. I chose to sponsor a second child, Cynthia. The girls were enthralled with the Mardi Gras beads I brought and the airplane toiletry kits, reminding me of my sister and my excitement over the Avon Lady’s samples when I was a girl.
Sponsoring another girl
During these visits, I decided to sponsor a third child, Eddah, who turned eight while I was there. I visited her home and met her mother and squinted in the dim light to make out her eighteen-month-old brother wearing the NCAA women’s final four Mardi Gras beads I had brought.
I cry every time I remember Iddah’s face lighting up when she would see me and the passion with which she ran to greet me. A fearless feeder of the giraffes on our trip to the Giraffe Center, she had a limitless appetite for chicken, French fries, soda, ice cream, and I-pad math games.
Culture shock in their own country
We took our children on safari to spend more time with them and to begin to rectify the injustice that most Kenyans will never see the animals their country is so famous for. Typical teenagers, what they most enjoyed was swimming in a pool for the first time and sleeping in luxurious accommodations. But they were startled and cowed to be asked what they would like wait staff to bring them having never been to a restaurant before in their lives. The disjuncture between the pampering of the safari and the dark slums we returned them to was jarring. Peter said simply, “they are safe and used to the dark.”
Life stories have an impact
One morning, we gathered to hear the life stories of our Form Four graduates. They have endured terrible loss and deprivation, yet are joyful about learning, determined, and hopeful. Their brutal sincerity impelled me to share some of my own secrets. I hope we bore witness to their lives and struggles, shrunk the distance between our lives, and conveyed how deeply we care.
I am so grateful to be a part of these three girls’ lives. I am in awe of the work that Peter and the staff do. I am inspired by what Paula has led us all to do. I am determined to appreciate my own great privilege and continue to find ways to contribute or as Paula would say, add value.
In my case, I arranged to lecture to the University of Nairobi Law faculty and brought along four students who saw a college campus for the first time. I loved listening to the buzz of them talking on the way back, and watching their delight in having tea with the Dean.
On safari, I loved seeing birds and wild dogs. (I enjoyed less hearing them pant around my tent at night.) I loved talking for hours with Peter and Muthoga about their lives, how the children view us, and their hopes for Kenya’s new government.
Deep connections with people
But in the end, what I most treasure is the memory of Eddah on my lap, watching Cynthia’s poise in introducing herself in church, witnessing this watchful girl laugh out loud or devour her new copy of The Hunger Games, and seeing Sharon’s tears when we surprised her with a visit to her school. What deep connections do we make by doing this work? How lucky we are to have these people in our lives.