I haven’t blogged in a month and a half… by far the longest I have been silent on this blog in the past 3-1/2 years. I meant to blog about my drive across the country (and all of the beautiful places I saw) and then settling into Portland and all the fun places we visited when my college friend came to visit, but alas, time slipped away. Between getting Amsha into the weekend market here in Portland and job hunting, I had little time. But there is one big project I have been silent about that I’ve been working on for nine months now. Initially it was for security reasons and then life just overwhelmed me and before I knew it, even my family didn’t know exactly what was going on. I value each and every one of my blog readers, the lovely and encouraging emails I receive, and my support network that has grown because of it. I want to share something with you that is so important to me and what has caused so many sleepless nights this year!
For those of you that have been on the A Wandering Sole bandwagon for a few years, or who know me personally, you will recall that my story with children’s education in Kenya started back in 2008. I witnessed on a large scale how many children did not attend school and saw intimately, from the relationships I made within a community, just how devastating it can be. Add in a dose of corruption and a lump of abuse and child labor, and as you might imagine, it deeply impacted me on an emotional and very personal level. I started with John. John is an older child in the village, orphaned, and had been ‘assisted’ by the organization that I had volunteered with. He was bright, very driven, highly respected in the community, and was not being sent to school by the organization, and instead, was being used as child labor. He had been taking himself to a village school which I sent him money for, but it was not going to help him achieve his potential. He was essentially enslaved to this organization. You might recall the roller coaster I was on when I cried in the principal’s office. I got turned down school after school, after school. I felt despair. I felt helpless. I was afraid of broken promises and lost dreams. After the school search was finally settled, I will never forget John telling me that when he received his acceptance letters to secondary schools, and the organization I had been working with refused to send him (despite having a sponsor), he ripped up the acceptance papers and threw them in the fire. I will also never forget the day he told me he had been building a fence for said organization and, exhausted, hot, and tired, he sat down under a tree and began to cry. That was the day he said he gave up on his dreams of going to school and that was the day I knew I never would. I would never give up.
How it all began:
After I got John settled into school, I started speaking to government officials. I spent a week in government offices, reporting, among many things, that an employee of this organization beat a child for wetting the bed and broke his leg. To be specific, she broke his femur bone, which is the strongest bone in the body. There were so many reports flooding in from so many former volunteers. People donating for the same projects, kids being forced to work late into the night, other kids being beaten for ridiculous reasons. I saw too much, and I had heard too much. While so many had remained quiet, I knew I could not (this is not to say that I had a lot of support behind me. My family was, understandably, fearful for my life). A former employee of the orphanage went to the offices in Nairobi with me, and we made every effort to get an investigation going. I was sent to offices all over, but in the end, no one from the government did anything. I even contacted an organization in the US who got a Kenyan reporter involved, but that lead ended when the reporter was in a car accident. After I started making the reports, the director forced the kids to chant that I was the devil. They literally had to march on the football field and chant. It would be a year and a half before I would see these kids again, and I had no idea what they would think of me.
Six months later a child was kicked out of the orphanage for holding a cell phone, and a volunteer paid for him to go to boarding school, which my friend Hannah had found. A few months later, Hannah removed two kids from the home and paid for them to go. We had helped four. I didn’t know what would happen after that.
Fast forward to the end of last year. More people started contacting me. An anonymous person made a facebook page publicly stating the abuses and forwarded messages that it received to me and another former volunteer to respond to. Before we knew it, we had a group of really wonderful and concerned former volunteers that wanted to do anything to help. I was nervous. I had my doubts that it would work. But we formed a plan. I was in Kenya for Amsha, and my friend Hannah would be coming. We had funding in place to help six more children. The hardest part was deciding which children to help first. The boy whose leg was broken was off limits because he was placed at the orphanage by the government. We had to help those who had legal guardians. The decision wasn’t easy but we started with siblings. In the future we knew we might have one donor here and there and we didn’t want to help one sibling without the other. We also looked at the length of time the children had been there and gauged their necessity to leave (one was legally blind and living without glasses or eye care).
We worked with locals and former staff members. Together we worked on money issues, found schools for the children, got guardians’ approvals, and hatched a plan. It took months. Skype meetings, budget reports, lots of emails with “OMG are we really doing this???”, and long email chains among donors and supporters. I made a visit to the kids’ school three days before they were to leave the orphanage, and it was one of the hardest f*ing things I’ve ever done in my life. Initially, only one child out of all the kids would speak to me. It was made even more sad by the fact that the teacher had no idea what was going on, so she forced the children to come greet me. Their heads were hung, and only a couple made eye contact. They had been threatened not to ever talk to me. After I realized my mistake, what was going on, and that the oldest child was on watch to tell the director who was breaking this coveted rule, I had to think on my feet. I searched the school yard trying to greet every child so that none of them could be singled out. I’m not sure if they were beaten for speaking to me… quite frankly, I was too afraid to ever ask.
In April of this year, we had 10 children’s lives in our hands. The six had made it out. We had done it. I will never forget the day when I met the kids in town to go to school, and our eyes made contact. In fact, I tear up just thinking about it. Truly the most incredible feeling I have felt in my life. Their faces lit up, they all broke out in big grins, and I had kids clinging to me with the biggest hugs. I heard chatter. Lots of chatter. The younger ones argued over who would sit next to me on the way to school. We took silly photos. The guardians who spoke English thanked me profusely and asked me to thank the sponsors. The kids stayed up until midnight, as there was no shortage of laughter and discussions. I got to spend that night with them and it was truly incredible. Kids are resilient…and they are far smarter than we give them credit for. At the end of the day, being forced to chant that I was the devil and being threatened not to speak to me had made no difference. They knew the truth.
Where to go from here:
Within just a couple of months, we got more sponsors and donors and had planned to help six more children. That six turned to five, as things don’t always go as planned and a guardian chose to send her granddaughter to be cared for by someone else. Hannah went back in August and assisted in the rescue. As I sit here typing, I can’t even believe that we have helped fifteen kids. I just stare in awe at photos of the kids and when they ask me on the phone when I’m coming back to visit or complain that I bought them a sweater that is too big for them, I am still grateful knowing that they are happy. When the biggest complaint is having to wake up early at boarding school or to wear clothes that are big on them, then we know it must be good.
It’s not over. The latest kids that we helped reported that the children are still being beaten and now their food is being rationed back at the orphanage. There are more kids still living there. But we have made progress and we have a momentum of support behind us.
Learn more about Stahili:
Three of us turned our grassroots operations into an organization called Stahili Foundation (Stahili for short). Stahili is a Swahili word meaning ‘to deserve‘. You can read about our beliefs on our website, but essentially we know that every child deserves a life free of abuse and child labor and has a right to an education. We want to see this through for all of our children.
Please check out our website www.stahilifoundation.org and our Facebook page facebook.com/stahili. If you feel compelled to give, we welcome any size donation (here)… even if it’s just a matter of skipping that Starbucks coffee today (which trust me, I know it’s Friday and we could all use a little caffeine!), the kids would appreciate the extra $5 immensely. Five dollars will cover a day of tuition and boarding at school. Although at the end of the day, this would not be possible without funding and generous supporters, it’s just as important to spread the word. I don’t ask very often for people to stumble or share my blog, but I would sincerely appreciate it if you could share this blog post if you have a minute, invite people to ‘Like’ our facebook page, or let us know if you might be able pitch a helping hand. While I am very grateful for your support, the kids appreciate it that much more.
Thank you again for your patience during my blogging absence. I’ve been just a tad busy :) In my next posts, I will introduce you to the kids and to the people behind this entire operation.