Mwangi’s spirit shines bright. A mischievous little boy with a naughty grin, his chuckle can be heard from across the field. His facial expressions can change at the drop of a hat. He’s not afraid to show his stubborn streak, but he has a big heart.
And yet, he also humanizes the realities of child abuse. He’s a poster child for enterprising orphanages in Kenya.
I met a rambunctious toddler named Mwangi four years ago in the highlands of Kenya. One of my very first sightings of him was him trying to let the little piglets escape from the pig pen. My next encounter with him was catching him drawing across a wall with lipstick, flashing his ‘I’m up to no good but I’m so cute’ smile when he got caught. Obviously, all the children from Stahili have captured my heart, but Mwangi had a curious spark in him and a mischievous spirit that resonated with me.
I took the news really hard when I found out he was caned by an orphanage employee and had his leg broken (his femur) because he did what many 4 year old boys do- he wet the bed. He and his brothers came from an abusive home and their father had landed in prison. The government put these boys in an environment meant to be a loving home but the cycle of abuse continued. My heart ached. An employee and I started at the top with the Ministry of Children’s Affairs. I traveled to the Provincial Head to speak with the Children’s Officer there and then made a trip to the District office as well. I got someone from the biggest news media in Kenya involved. All roads led to a dead end, and with the children placed there on a government mandate, I felt I could do nothing. This was how 2012 started for me- tears, heartache, and guilt.
I knew (or at least thought I knew), I’d never get to see some of these children at the orphanage again, so I had to make the most of my remaining time in Kenya. I owed it to the kids, to John, and perhaps to myself. I sent John away to boarding school. As you may have read, the school search was quite the adventure. I felt a sense of relief for John; I felt a little less guilty over putting him in an unsettling position, and I felt a little less defeated. But that tug in my heart, that big goofy grin of Mwangi forever burned into my memory… it never did cease. With every step forward with Stahili- despite every child that left behind the orphanage for a better future- I still had Mwangi on my mind.
After the orphanage shut down a few months back, it was a huge surprise and I felt an immense weight lifted. We no longer had the government barrier. The children were sent away and left to fend for themselves. While we found most of the kids pretty quickly, we couldn’t track down Mwangi and his two brothers. No one knew the village they were originally from.
I often get asked how we track down our children. I recently met with someone running a similar organization in Tanzania, as she wanted to implement similar child tracking methods. The truth is, we are no experts. But we do a lot of talking, we pound the pavement (or red clay roads, so to speak) utilizing our best guesses, and we don’t give up. Onesmus, Stahili’s Field Manager, and I talked strategy. To be honest, I had my doubts about finding the boys. Onesmus was 100% confident from the beginning we would find them. I really wanted to believe, but I think I wanted to guard my heart. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, only to face the fact that I might never see these boys again. They might never know just how many people loved them and wanted the absolute best out of life for them. I feared they might end up back in their volatile home life, despite our best intentions to remove them from an abusive orphanage. We knew the boys were not from the local villages. So, we started with the kids from the orphanage. One of them told us he thought the boys came from an area about 40 minutes away from Onesmus’ village. It was our best, and perhaps our only, lead.
So, Onesmus went. He started in the town and asked around. No one knew the boys. He made a trip back another day, this time asking in neighboring villages of that area. Again, no leads. I knew that if anyone could find these boys, it would be Onesmus. Honestly. He’s a superhero. But I had this gut feeling that maybe we wouldn’t. Onesmus went back another time, searching the schools. He left his information with Principals of several schools, in case they came across these boys as their pupils. When that lead failed, we knew we were in the wrong area. Onesmus and I considered where to look next. We planned to talk to the kids again, as we didn’t feel confident that the Children’s Officer would give us any information- and that’s assuming that they even kept records of these children. Another girl thought Mwangi and his brothers came from a village where the former orphanage director operated another orphanage. I didn’t think it sounded right, but like all good detectives, we had to follow every (or shall I say any) lead we had. That village turned up empty as well. Onesmus talked to the former staff members there, and one of them told Onesmus to go to another village, very far away. On another outing, Onesmus made the long journey there. Not only did Onesmus approach schools there, but he also went on a Sunday and spoke at churches. He handed out flyers and left his phone number with anyone who was willing to take it.
On a sidenote, this is why Onesmus leads our program in Kenya. If his dedication and his big brother heart weren’t enough, he’s 100% on board. He believes in Stahili, but much more importantly, he believes in a better life for these boys.
The school search and the church search still turned up empty. On one of his last days searching in this area, an mzee (an old man) stopped him in the village. He was a night security guard for a school and asked for the names of the boys. He said he would ask at his school and phone Onesmus, if he had any news. Less than 24 hours later, Onesmus’ phone was ringing. The man told him he had to come quick. Onesmus explained that ‘quick’ would be more like three hours, because the village was far from his home. The mzee waited. He waited in the village after his night shift for three hours. Once Onesmus arrived, they walked back to the school where he works and a child there said he knew the three boys. They schooled about a mile from them. The old man escorted Onesmus to the new school. As Onesmus relayed these details to me, I was on the edge of my seat. Not wanting to miss anything, I asked him what he told the principal once he got to the school. He said, “Oh I told him my name is Onesmus but people call me Blackie, because I am very dark.” I laughed so hard. ‘No, silly,’ I thought, ‘I want to know what else you told him!’ I wanted him to jump straight to the point of why he was there to see these boys. But it turns out Onesmus knew exactly what he was doing. Because after a long talk with the principal, Mwangi’s oldest brother Albert stepped into the office, and the first thing the principal did was ask him to identify this man sitting before him. With a big grin, Albert told him that it was ‘Blackie.’
The boys asked Onesmus if they could go with him. They literally have to cross over a mountain to get to the school from their grandfather’s house and they were in need of food and medical attention. It was too late in the day to stay, but Onesmus made another visit and met with their grandfather. After his tentative approval, Onesmus, the grandfather, and Albert (the oldest brother) visited the prison where their father is being held. We got the final approval and as of September, the boys will be joining boarding school with the other children. After 47 days and a lead from a very generous and caring old man, we found them. This mzee renewed my faith in humanity. His spirit, his initiative, and his contribution as a community member are exactly what I hope our children at Stahili learn to value. Because of the connection this man made, these boys will get three meals a day, excellent instruction, clothing and shoes, and the love of all their brothers and sisters from the orphanage. While nothing replaces a happy home life and the love from parents that every child deserves, we hope that Stahili can provide the next best thing.
It has been 2-1/2 years since I’ve seen Mwangi. Two and a half years since I felt turned on my head and I attempted to navigate the child welfare offices in Kenya. In a very short amount of time, I will be reunited with these sweet peas. I’m not sure what the first thing is that I want to say to them. But I do know when I see those smiles and I wrap my arms around little Mwangi (that is, if he hasn’t reached that stage where it’s not cool to hug!), then I will find them.
I will find the words.