Nyumbani Village
(Nyumbani is Swahili For Home)

Kenya, Africa

September 10 - December 10, 2007

mail to: don@wierenga.com

Nyumbani has helped me strengthen my Christian commitment. As I observe ordinary people doing the work of Christ I'm more convinced than ever that His earthly mission lives on. My hope is that you, too, in your small way, will be able to witness and spread the unconditional love that is the foundation of this, and so many other religions.

It's easy to summarize an event but very difficult to summarize an experience. This report will not do justice to the strong feelings nurtured during my three month stay in the Nyumbani community. Essentially it's about abandoned and orphaned children at Karen (outside Nairobi); the Nyumbani Village where I spent most of my time (reached by a four to six hour, very rough drive East of Nairobi) and Lea Toto a community outreach program located on the outskirts of Nairobi. It's about children, grandparents, facilities, the surrounding community, travel, staff . . . and . . a wonderful group of hard working volunteers. . . Dedicated and united with a common cause. Bottom row from left: John (Ohio), Bethany (Chicago), Ed (Kentucky), Men (Australia), Maria (Spain), Joanna (Australia) and Don (Michigan).

If you click on most of the thumbnails you will be able to view a larger version. Be sure to return to this index page to get the complete 'big picture.'

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"Children who have lost their parents and grandparents who have lost their children" Nicholas Macau

Kenya Update

It's no surprise that those living at the lowest economic level and had the most to gain by an administrative change had the greatest disappointment, and used the most dramatic means to express their anger . . . and also bore the brunt of the police crackdown. When living at the poverty level in the worst conditions imaginable and a different administration represents new hope for a better future, and the election results are questionable . . . it is little wonder that emotions out weigh common sense and violence occurs. All leaders need to recognize if change at the top does not filter down to the bottom, it only becomes a better life for the wealthy. . . and the poor have their own way of being heard. Photo Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

First Impressions - Karen

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Brought together in a remote village East of Nairobi, Kenya. My three months have been packed with life changing events. From constructing a coffin for a four year old child to the exuberance of a goat barbecue, a tragic drowning, helping with a business plan, extended travels and visits to heavily impoverished areas. Emotions rarely rest in the middle and I find myself wondering which peak (or valley) in life I will reach next. My first opportunity to visit children at the orphanage, upon arrival on September 8, 2007, was having my picture taken with a little guy shining his shoes. Happy children that accept responsibility, and enjoy life. The second of Sr. Julie caring for a child . . . a child that died a few weeks later, was a somber reminder that HIV+ continues to be a very serious problem Many of the abandoned children are simply left to die of neglect in spite of the fact that often newborns with HIV-infected mothers give a 'false-positive' and never actually develop the virus themselves. Nyumbani seeks desperately to identify these children and give them a second chance, whether it be through adoption, a suitable community placement or permanent residency. (More Photos Here)

First Impressions - The Village

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I read someplace that Kenya has the most ideal climate in the world. I believe that . . . at least where I'm living in this remote corner of Kenya . . .in the far right corner of the guest house. The temperature is comfortable, humidity is low, evenings cool and unbelievably clear. The milky way seems to extend from one horizon to the other. I imagine it following the path of the equator. I wait for the moon to rise so that I can take my evening walk . . . once I saw two monkeys . . .but I can't locate the big dipper! At noon with the sun directly overhead, shadows shrink and it is hot, but not unbearably hot. The nights and days start rapidly and are consistently twelve hours long. Without electricity the night seems much longer. Taking a cold shower from a basin will only be enjoyable when it is over. I quickly took up an offer to pay someone to do my laundry. I enjoy clean sheets. Using the pit toilet requires a pre-warm up, at least for an old guy who hasn't done squat thrusts since high school football. The meals are nutritious but lack flavor and variety. Tea is half milk, the only "dairy product." I drink instant coffee. All children and adults are friendly. The volunteer staff, out of necessity, bond quickly. We are all very diferent, but share common goals. I don't feel like a tourist, but a legitimate native of Nyumbani village . . . a rare privilige for a an old white guy with white hair. (Continued and more Photos HERE)

First Impresions - Lea Toto (In Swahili: 'To Bring Up the Child')

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Lea Toto is a community outreach program associated with The Nyumbani orphange. It supports families affected by HIV in the surrounding Nairobi communities. The program includes free medical care, family counseling, HIV transmission and prevention education, door-to-door counseling and promotion of behavioral changes. This photo exemplifies the dispair shown by so many on my brief visit to the Kibera slum in Nairobi. Be sure to click on it to view in full size and then the other photos located here. My visit, arranged by SR Little started in the clinic where parents (primarily mothers) were coming with their children for treatment. Many for the first time. The staff were cheerful and hopeful, perhaps because they knew with proper medication, (cont'd)

The Village Staff and Volunteers (My new Friends)

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There are a number of key people that work full time at the village. In addition to the teaching stafff there is a medical staff, social worker, counselor and many others. Sr Mary Owen is the Executive Director of the three Nyumbani components and Nicholas Macau is the village manager. We have discovered bon fires and 'smores' and an infrequent beer as a way for permanent and volunteer staff to get to know each better (More Photos: Page 1 Here and Page 2 Here )

The Farm

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Sustainability is a frequently used word as staff struggles with what will be needed to keep the Nyumbani dream alive. Farming is a big part of the answer and the weather a major factor. Crops are carefully selected and nurtured with an elaborate solar powered irrigation system. Day workers are brought in to cultivate. Volunteers continue to make a major contribution. Each family unit has their own garden and often chickens. Planning and hard work are needed to assure adequate food to feed a rapidly growing community. Without the traditional source of electricity and consistent supply ofwater, food processing and preparation will continue to be a major challenge. (More photos Here)

Sports

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Kenyans are great runners. I know that from my own serious running days, when they won all the races. Perhaps it's the altitude, cool temperatures or diet . . . and lack of public transportation, but they all are beautiful runners. So soccer (or football as some call it) is a natural sport. Sunday afternoon was the time for the weekly dust bowl and most of the community showed up for the event. Sometimes there would be a delay until a soccer ball was located . . . or repaired and the unmarked field seemed to cover several acres. No goalposts, no referee, no arguments, just hard fun . . . the way a sport should be. Incidentally the only sport I observed (other than running). At one point I was given the assignment of constructing swings and other playground equipment. I got bogged down when I was unable to locate the necessary hardware and portable equipment to get into the field and do the job! (More Photos Here)

The Children

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The children come from Katui area families and all are orphans. Ten children live in a cottage with a grandparent (sometimes biological, but not always.) They all attend school and experience a traditional and often rigid curriculum. They are carefully disciplined, take responsibility play well together and happy. I have yet to see a serious argument or fight. While their lives are highly structured. Their destiny seems to be placed on results of a standardized test given to 8th level children in November. Every evening most attend a study session from 7:30 to 9:30 in the only solar lighted classroom. They also attend Saturday morning classes (Continued and more photos Here )

My Job

To provide an opportunity for the young residents of the village to learn a skill beyond the farming tradition of their larger geographical community. Upon arrival I was introduced to the Italian manufacturer who was at the village to install a generator that would enable us to use the extensive woodworking equipment. It was a natural for me and I enthusiastically plunged into my work. Along with Tietus the local carpenter and Matheca an 18 year old student apprentice we set out to build tables, benches, desks, beds a prototype bee hive 'special orders' and much more. (Cont'd and photos Here)

A Simple Wooden Box . . .

. . . best sums up my feelings about this village. A place I will call Nyumbani for three months. It all started when Nicholas, our director, called from Nairobi to request the construction of a coffin for a child that had died recently. Time was of essence as the funeral was to be held within two days. Darkness was approaching, but I was able to get the pieces cut and ready for assembly the next day. Late that evening I was told that the child was not four feet tall, rather four years old and my initial contruction would need to be scaled back. It was completed late the next evening and delivered in time fror the funeral. During those 36 hours and every day since and often in my dtreams (cont'd and more photos Here )

Sunday Hikes

This is a view from our dining table. I knew I would climb this mountain some day. Sunday morning is the time for serious hiking. The first one I did alone and from then on Jen became my hiking partner. Our latest and most strenuous adventure was a major hike to the mountain . . . (More and photos Here)

The Bishop Visits Nyumbani Village

It was an honor to meet the Bishop responsible for the Katui region. He celebrated Mass with the children and they presented special songs and dance for this occassion. The staff and volnteers were also invited to attend a festive fund raising event in Katui presided over by th Bishop. (More)

The Kenyan Diet . . . or How to lose Sixteen Pounds Without Trying

All our meals were prepared on the charcoal fire outside the guest house where most of the volunteers stayed and where many of the fulltime staff also took their meals. It was the social time of the day for most of us. The food was very African traditional and I learned to eat, eventually even enjoy, many of the meals. My appetite was good and I never left the table hungry. But, I did lose 16 pounds! Click here to check out the weekly menu and perhaps a few reasons I lost weight.

Mid Term Break

About the 6th week were were encouraged to leave the village for a week. I choose to spend three of my days on Safari with friends Karen and Jack Hartman and the last four at the coastal city of Mombassa.

Part 1 The Safari

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It was a three day trip into the Massai Mar National park. We stayed at a camp ground just outside the park and both nights had visitors. A Massai warrior stood guard and agreed the noise I heard brushing by the tent was, indeed, an elephant. It was a great experience to see the native wildlife in their natural habitate and be able to observe the full cycle of life and death in the wilds of Knya, Africa. I'm grateful to Jack and Karen (Deb's long time friend) for arranging the trip. More Photos Here.

Part 2 Mombassa

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I took an 8 hour bus ride from Nairobi to the coastal town of Mombassa with the intent of crashing at a luxurary hotel! I found the perfect place located on the beach just North of the city. The climate was much more tropical and very hot! My room was airconditioned and a huge breakfast and dinner buffet were included. . . . a huge contrast to the food and lodging I enjoyed at the village. The first day I toured the city using a car and driver recommended to me by a friend at the village. It included a visit to an ancient fortress a tour of the 'old' city and much more. The second day I struck off on my own, visiting a slum area . . . (cont'd and photos Here)

The School

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The school is essentially pre-school through grade eight, although they use different terminology. At the eighth level all students are given a standardized test which will determin if they advance to high school. A great deal of emphasis and pressure is placed on the students to pass this test. If they don't pass they stay in the elementary program until they do. The students who have advanced to high school attend a nearby boarding school and one student has gone on to the university. The curriculum is largely academic. Hopefully as the poly tec center expands it will provide exposure for those students not qualified to move through the academic program. A crucial question facing the village is to educate children for a changing world or to eke out a living as for centuries their ancestors have done. (More and photos Here)

A Wedding . . .

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. . . And A Tragedy

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Kenya has very little precipation in September and October. I was told they were in a prolonged draught. Not a healthy condition for a community intent on producing their own food. All the river beds are bone dry. Local's manage to find a bubbling spring and scoop our water for their use. November is the start of the 'short' rainy season and this year the rains came early and heavy. It held promise for a good growing season. It also opened an opportunity for tragedy to hit the village. The water had backed up to a significant depth behind one of the dams, forming a beautiful swimming hole. One of the boys got in trouble another went to his rescue. Both drowned. I assisted with the body recovery. The next week was consumed by funeral preparations as the village sought to deal with its sorrow. Every child had already experienced the death of parents, this was a grim reminder.

Sr. Little

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It was Sr Little who arranged for my visit to Lea Toto. A supply of medication needed to be delivered and we hitched a ride. She was well known and respected by LeaToto staff and had the contacts to assure that my visit would be complete and meaningful. She may have had a small hidden agenda as well! After declining a ride back to Nyumbani she opted for a bus and several times asked if I had shopping to do . . . Which I didn't . . . And informing me she did not have money for the bus fare. . . We stopped at a local supermarket. She picked out some food staples, pans and garden supplies, carefully noting just how much money I had. I quickly offered to pay for what ever she needed. We stopped in Karen and she led me on a winding trail to 'The Farm.' After presenting 'my gift' to the two boys tilling the land and the 'caretaker' (not sure of relationships) and we ventured beyond the hut, through a break in the vegetation to her 'paradise.' It was exactly that. She knew every plant and weed by name and looked upon both with tender love. It was a farming lesson I will never forget . . . from the heart with the only objective being to provide food for the children. It didn't cost her a cent and she gave me a gift . . . what could be better? Photos (Here)

Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass by Karen Blitzen

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I read the books those first few, long nights at the village. I had seen the movie and still had vivid memories of Karen Blixen's heroic attempt to keep her plantation from bankruptcy . . . and her love story. I was also taking a prescription drug, as well known for providing vivid dreams as preventing malaria! My dream, bordering on a nightmare seemed to originate with the tribal custom, supported by the author, of not burying their dead, rather allowing wild animals to pick the bones clean. I won't go into details, but it was very vivid . . . a memory I carried with me when I visited the Karen Blizen plantation just a few miles from the town named after her. It was like walking out of that dream into the world of Karen Blitzen. Enough said!