Wednesday, July 13, 2011

“A Prayer for Children” - Ina J. Hughes

(This poem was shared with me today by my good friend and fellow volunteer, Katie McCann.  I feel that it is very poignant and speaks clearly to the work we have been doing here.)

We pray for children
who sneak popsicles before supper,
who erase holes in math workbooks,
who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food,
who like ghost stories,
who can never find their shoes.

And we pray for those
who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire,
who can’t bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers,
who are born in places we wouldn’t be caught dead in,
who never go to the circus,
who live in an X-rated world.

We pray for children
who sleep with the dog and bury the goldfish,
who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions,
who get visits from the tooth fairy,
who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money.

And we pray for those
who never got dessert,
who have no safe blanket to drag behind them,
who watch their parents watch them die,
who can’t find bread to steal,
who don’t have any rooms to clean up,
whose pictures aren’t on anybody’s dresser,
whose monsters are real.

We pray for children
who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
who shove dirty clothes under the bed, and never rinse out the tub,
who don’t like to be kissed in front of the carpool,
who squirm in church or temple and scream in the phone,
whose tears we sometimes laugh at and
whose smiles can make us cry.

And we pray for those
whose nightmares come in the day time,
who will eat anything,
who have never seen a dentist,
who aren’t spoiled by anybody,
who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
who live and move, but have no being.

We pray for children who want to be carried
and for those who must,
for those who we give up on and
for those who don’t get a second chance,
for those we smother . . .
and for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind
enough to offer it.

Baby Laughs Cure All!

Yesterday, Madame Sharoya, the principal of the secondary school, took us to The New Life Home Trust in Kisumu. This “Home” was started by a British couple in Kenya. Their motto is “Caring with Compassion”. The organization takes in infants from the area that are been abandoned after birth. These babies are found in dumpsters, in the bush or just left on their door step. The home is currently caring for 50 babies.  The organization began with the intent to aid abandoned children with AIDS and HIV and that is still their mission though they do also accept babies who are not diseased. They have wonderful staffing round the clock to care for the children’s needs.  Madam Sharoya informed us that the home is always looking for volunteers to just come and hold the babies or help feed them. Clearly, we jumped at the opportunity to play with more children!
When we first arrived I was overwhelmed and had to hold back tears.  These children do not have any family. None at all. No mother. No father. No grandparents. No family. They were unwanted and so they were discarded. The children can be just days old when they enter the home.  When we arrived there were three children who had been brought in earlier this week. One of them was in an incubator and the other two in basinets. Others stay in the medical care room much longer because they have complications. There are nurses and physicians at the home who care for their illnesses.
The woman and men who work at The New Life Home are all blessings. They are caretakers and angels to these little, innocent children.  These babies are shown so much love and attention. They are played with and sung to by the nurses and volunteers. They laugh and they smile! All toys, clothing, food and supplies at the home are provided through donation.
Like so many of the children at OLG, these babies are orphans. The difference between many of them is that the orphans at The New Life Home never knew their families where as some of the children at OLG knew their parents or guardians and then suffered their loss. I do not know which would be more difficult; To have loved and lost family or to never have been loved by them at all.  I suppose there really is no comparison between the two.  At the end of the day, both situations are incredibly heart breaking. The commonality between the two is, however, that the innocence of these children in both “homes” shines through. They are just that, children. They did not choose these lives; they were merely born into them. It is not the choices that they have made throughout their lives that has brought them to their current situations, they inherited them.  They have no shame, guilt or sin, they are just innocent children. And for that reason my heart goes out to them.
When we arrived at the home we were first taken on a tour to see all the children and their facilities. First we saw those that were younger than 6 months. They were all lying on mats and in bouncies or in the arms of nurses in their “play room”.  Two young British girls and their mother were singing and playing guitar. They have been volunteering at the home for about a year. The next room we entered was designated for “the crawlers”. These babies were between 6 months and 18 months. They too were playing when we came in. Two little boys crawled over to me and used my legs to stand themselves up. With wide smiles they tugged on my skirt as they bounced before plopping down on their bottoms. I fell in love! I had to tear myself away from them to finish our tour.
We then ventured down stairs to where the children with special needs play and sleep. There are 7 children at the home with special needs. Lenorah, was our tour guide through this section of the home. She showed us her classroom before running outside to play. As we walked into the playroom we were greeted by 5 year old Kurt. Kurt was lying on the mat as a nurse held his hand and swayed with him. Kurt is blind and cannot talk. His nurse, with a smile on her face, was bestowing the ministry of presence. She sang to him softly and was there with him. She was showing him love and care which, I am sure, was what he needed most.
After finishing our tour I was itching to wash my hands so I could go play with the kids! I headed back into “the crawlers” room. The British family had made their way over and were now singing and dancing with the nurses and babies in this room.  I spotted a boy sitting alone and went over to him. I sat and placed him on my lap and we began to sing and dance too. He was a bundle of joy with the sweetest smile and bright sparkling eyes beneath long curling eyelashes. His name was Peter! Peter has the most infectious giggle I have ever heard! He made my heart happy. I spent the rest of my time at the home with him and his friends. Tommy and I fed three babies dinner (mashed beans with white bread) and helped them drink their milk before we took them for baths. All 12 of them were bathed and while they waited for their baths they sat on their individual training potties singing to each other! It was quite a sight! After baths we joined the assembly of nurses who dry, diaper, clothe and put the children in their cribs.
When we finished I went to each other cribs and spoke to them before I left. I wanted them to know that they are angels and thank them for playing with me. Leaving was very difficult. I hope to get back their before we leave in two weeks. How fast this time is flying! Though my heart ached for these children, I can smile knowing that The New Life Home shows them love and compassion. These babies are so loved! They are given big doses of the best medicine each day; Love.  When the babies are stable (medically, emotionally, etc.) and have reached a certain age they will be available for adoption. If the kids are not adopted then they will be taken to another home associated with New Life and taken to school.
God Bless the men and women that give these children new lives.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Look Closely

There has been a constant theme throughout my time in Kenya; "Look Closely". So much is missed in simply passing by. Yesterday the 5 of us (Katie, Tommy, Anna, Kevin and myself) were taken on a hike of the surrounding area by the novices' here at the Dominican compound. The novices' are in their second stage of becoming Dominican priests. Most of them are from Kenya and those that are not have been here for almost a year now and so they know their surroundings very well. On our hike we walked through a corn field. I pass this corn field every day on my way to school. In my rush, it has always appeared to be as a blur of greens and browns, never anything more significant than maize. Yesterday when we walked through the field, not past it, I noticed the most beautiful shades of deep purple in the leaves of the stalks. There were delicate orange and purple flowers mixed in among the maize, each one more beautiful than the next.  The field was like a painting I had never taken the time to look at. 

Reflecting upon my time here, a similar thing happened while I was hiking Mt. Kenya. As we would hike and look up ahead at the stretch of land that we had yet to cover everything just appeared green. Slowly as we approached different landscapes they became much more vivid. Beautiful exotic plants each with a special purpose. Some plants looks like flowers and were used to collect rain water, what an ingenious natural invention. Other plants bore fruit and had unique striations in their color, mixtures of golden yellows and chartreuse greens. Just like the maize field, I would have missed out on this beauty if I had not taken the time to notice and "look closely".

In all honesty, I was very nervous about being able to learn all the kids names and even more nervous that I would not be able to tell them apart. They all have deep, rich, beautifully dark skin and each of them, boys and girls, have short buzzed haircuts. On my first day, I thought for sure that I would need them to wear name tags for the next 4 weeks so that I could distinguish between them. STUPID ME! The children of OLG, like the stalks of maize and the plants of Mt. Kenya, do appear very similar when you quickly pass them by. Fortunately for me, I have been able to “look closely” at each one of them. They are each so unique with their own stories, their own aspirations, their own quirks! They are such individuals all bound together as brothers and sisters in this school. My ignorant worries of not being able to tell the people of Kenya apart have surely vanished. It may not be their skin color or haircuts that distinguish them from one another but it is their eyes. Their smiles. Their souls.

A New National Anthem

There are two boys at OLG that are from Sudan. On Saturday their birth certificates had to change to read "The Republic of Southern Sudan" as their home nation. It has been incredible to be this close to Southern Sudan for this momentous point in the countries history. The most beautiful part has been to see the joy and pride streaming from these two boys, "C" and "J". "C" and "J" have brought me up to speed on the issues in the Sudan that led to this necessary split. I knew some information about Darfur regarding Sudan but that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge on the subject. The boys have shared the stories of violence and war that they have experienced as a result of the struggles and conflict within the borders of the former Sudan. "C" had to stop his education multiple times because of the violence; it was simply too dangerous for him to leave home.

It has truly been a gift to witness these young men during this time. What a gift to be with two people as they celebrate the joy of independence from oppression and war. It will not be an easy road for Southern Sudan, these boys recognize that, but it is a start and it brings much hope. "C" and "J" do not have much access to news so they have been asking us about what we are reading online regarding the birth of their homeland. They do have a radio which they can get updates on but they are yearning for information.  I have been doing what I can to look things up and report back to them. Two days ago "C" asked me if I could look up his new national anthem. He wants to have it memorized for when he returns home to Southern Sudan during his December break from school. Katie and I looked up the lyrics that night and in my best penmanship I wrote down the words on a sheet of journaling paper. I included the country's motto: Justice, Liberty and Prosperity. The next morning after mass I handed both boys a copy of the tune. They beamed with appreciation.

I spoke to "C" later that day about what was to come for Southern Sudan and for his own future. I told "C" that based off the statistics I found online, he is in the top 25% of the most intelligent people in his country. He is 20 years old. 75% of all adults in Southern Sudan cannot read or write and 10% of children don't live past the age of 5. He knew these things. I asked if he felt any responsibility as part of that minority to go back to his country and help them progress. He responded, "Anything I can do for the betterment of my country, I will, God willing." We spoke of how the responsibility for the future success of his country now falls upon the shoulders of his generation. He smiled proudly and said, "I know."

My citizenship is something that I have taken for granted; something that I have never questioned. Witnessing these boys gain new citizenship this past week and viewing the celebrations of a country I am so currently close to has been an incredibly humbling experience. The US too was once a new nation like Southern Sudan. Though it there have a long road ahead of them, I am hoping and praying for the future success of the people of the world's newest free land.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"That is the Reality of Life"

This morning we slept in because it was pouring rain outside. We have been excused from rosary and mass if needed occasionally due to weather or health reasons. After waking around 7:30 I got ready for my day. I was scheduled to teach handwriting to grade 5 at 8:05am. I have become particularly close with the 5th grade at Our Lady of Grace. They were the first class I taught at the school and were the first to embrace me into this community. As I crossed over the road toward the school from the Dominican compound I heard girls crying. I looked up to see two girls, one of whom is in the 5th grade and the other in 2nd, being escorted by teachers across the school grounds toward me on the road. My pace slowed as I watched them wondering why they were crying and where they were walking to. One of the teachers looked up and waved to me but the group kept walking. As I passed them heading toward the primary school I saw Mr. Okoth walking toward me. Mr. Okoth is the principal of the primary school. As we approached each other he stuck out his hand and said, “Good Morning Kate.” I shook his hand and returned the welcome and asked about the girls who were weeping. Mr. Okoth informed me that he was just going to join them. He said the girls had just been informed that the mother had died this morning. I lost my breath. My hand shot up to my chest as I reflected on what I had just heard. Mr. Okoth continued and told me that their mother had been ill with terminal cancer and had been a patient at the hospice run by the Hawthorne Sisters down the road. The children were going to view her body before the burial ceremony began. He also told me that their mother was their only living parent, and that their father had died some years earlier. My heart broke. I cannot fathom what it would be like to lose one parent but to have lost both before the age of 12, unthinkable to me. The two girls also have an older brother at the school in grade 8. These three children became “true orphans” this morning. As Mr. Okoth continued to speak I lost all words to reply. I said, “I cannot imagine what this is like for them; to lose a parent. I am so sorry.” Mr. Okoth looked into my eyes and said, “That is the reality of life.”

Such an incredibly hard reality for anyone in life, let alone children. As I walked to my classroom I prayed for those children and their mothers’ soul.  Before I started class, I asked the students to pray for their classmate who was going through an incredibly difficult time. We all bowed our heads and prayed for our friend. About 45 minutes later there was a knock at the open door to the classroom.  When I looked up from the blackboard “Iris” (the 5th grade student who lost her mother) was standing there asking permission to enter. (That is a school rule that they must be granted permission before entering the room in the middle of a lesson) I looked at her, her eyes all swollen and bloodshot and nodded my head. All the students fell silent as she walked to her seat in the back of the room. I was at a loss. Do I just continue with the lesson? Do I stop and speak to her? Have all the kids hug her? I turned back to the board and gave the children an assignment. As they began working I walked over to “Iris’” desk and knelt next to her. She just stared straight ahead as I told her that she did not have to stay in the classroom. As soon as I said it, I realized she had nowhere else to go.  I suppose she could go to the principal’s office and sit alone but as she looked over at me I knew she needed to be with people. I asked if she had been sent back by the teachers who took her to see her mother’s body and she nodded. As I told her not to worry about the lesson or her work in my class I rubbed her back and clutched her arm. Tears streamed down her face as she silently wept. I took some tissues from my bag and gave them to her to use throughout the day if she needed them. I also told her that it was okay to cry and to be sad. I told her that although she may not understand why this happened, her mother was no longer in pain from being sick and that she was now with God looking over her. She nodded and looked away.  It is difficult to console adults who loose parents and that is normal.  Consoling a child who has lost her only remaining parent maybe one of the most trying things I have faced. I just wanted her to know she was loved and cared for and so I just knelt next to her and rubbed her back letting her know I was there if she needed anything as her classmates worked. At the end of class some of the girls came around and stood near her. Open affection is not something I have witnessed in Kenya and I don’t think the girls first reaction would be to console through hugs and touch. They just stood near “Iris” and I told them to take care of her while she was going through this difficult time. The other girls nodded. 

I will never be able to forget “Iris’” face today for as long as I live. I have been surrounded by these children for almost 3 weeks now hearing stories of their deceased parents and knowing that they were orphans but today put all of that into perspective. I witnessed a child become an orphan today. Those three kids will have to live the rest of their lives without either of their parents. There is nothing that can replace the love you receive from your parents but maybe with love and care from others these children can continue to grow and move forward. For now, though, it is their time to grieve.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom's are Privledges

On this birthday of independence for my nation, I reflect on my own life and freedoms in relation to where I am here in Kenya. I so take for granted my feeling of security in our great nation and it is not until I stepped outside its walls that I realized just how lucky I am to have those rights and freedoms. Though we often argue about corrupt politicians, nothing we have compares to the level of corruption in this country. You cannot trust the police here because they can often be bought off. The judicial system is also faulty. The central system of government here is faulty and corrupt and as a result many Kenyan citizens are often not taken seriously outside of their countries borders because they are taken as a reflection of their home land and its problems. Kenyans have a difficult time acquiring visas and green cards to leave the country and head to America or the UK. I on the other hand, coming from America, did not need to get my visa for Kenya until my arrival in the country. I am so fortunate to come from a country that is well respected and taken seriously in the world. It is so easy for me, in terms of documentation, to travel the world because I have the luxury of an American passport. That is something I will no longer take for granted! Tonight we will celebrate the 4th of July with the Dominicans. They have promised us a BBQ and fire. It will be a 4th of July unlike any other! As we celebrate tonight I will be sure to reflect upon my Mim’s latest words of wisdom are from an email I received from her this morning … “As I sit here, I hear the fireworks going off somewhere close and am thankful always that this noise is one of celebration and not of anger or war. We are so blessed in this wonderful land. I pray people of good will not lose sight of that!! and to support and defend Her!” Today, like every other, I am proud to be an American and to be able to use the privileges that come along with that to fulfill my responsibility of helping others.