Ebenezer, Heartbreak, & Hope
Click Here to See the Kenya Photo Album
We also decided we would make them food. But what to make for 40 kids and adults in Kenya? After much deliberation, we decided upon spaghetti, because everybody loves it. With spaghetti sauce here pushing $5 per little jar, we decided to just buy 12 pounds of pasta, 10 pounds of crushed tomatoes, lots of spices, and make the lot of it from scratch. I'm glad we did, because it turned out deliciously. One sticking point was the actual cooking of the noodles and sauce, though. You see, here they cook using extremely high heat charcoals, so when the "stove" is on, there's no setting between 1-10. It's all just 11. After getting used to that, though, we were golden.
After dinner, we all watched a movie together in the dining room on a little 12 inch TV. It was at this point I realized that all the 80 inch flatscreen, 3D, 1080p, LED, 7.1 surround sound in the world can't hold a candle to watching Kung Fu Panda 2 with a roomful of kids all huddled around and engaged with every frame.
After half falling back asleep, I was again awoken, this time at 5am, to the sounds of the kids singing hymns, beautifully, from the dining hall. As much as the bed and pillow were calling my name, recording their singing so I could share it with you and the rest of the world spoke up more loudly. Dragged my lazy bones out of bed and into the hall, where I was serenaded for a few more tracks.
After breakfast, the kids were told to go to school and that the teachers, threatened with being fired if they didn't show up and end the strike, would arrive. The teachers were no-shows, so the kids came back home. That was a-ok with me, as it gave me a chance to check the progress of the rap class participants. I was a little disappointed to see that several of the kids who I'd hoped would participate in some of the "homework" I assigned lost interest, but it happens. There are a few who have progressed and are showing real promise, so I'll be sticking with them: Obadiah, Kevin, Ronaldo, and Angela.
After leaving Faraja in the afternoon, Megan and I were approached by a boy, 14 or so, in the street. Normally I just smile and wave, because 99% of the time when the kids come up to you and ask for something, it's just for money. But he didn't ask for money. He told us he was homeless and he wanted help and to live in an orphanage and go to school. His clothes were tattered. He told us he'd been living in the streets of Ngong for several months. I didn't know if he was a scout who was going to lead us to a group of older guys who would mug us and take our valuables, so after placing our money, phones, etc. back at our homestay, we walked with the boy, Joseph, over to Faraja.
Becky, one of the caretakers, came outside and spoke with him for a bit before inviting him inside for some tea. With the kids back from school, I was interested to see how they would react to a street kid coming through their door. To be honest, they didn't speak a word to him, but rather sized him up as kids do and kept their distance.
We then walked with Joseph up to the district children's office, waited for the official to show up, and then sat with him as he was interviewed by the officer so she could determine what to do with him. She told us some of his story didn't add up, and that she had to speak with him further, alone, to suss out more of his background. So with that, we left Joseph in her care, hoping that he got some needed help.
For starters, he was fired because he was accused of stealing money from another one of the workers. He told me he didn't do it, and I believe him. (I'm pretty good at telling when people are lying). Martha fired him in front of all of the kids and other workers, and didn't let him defend himself. He also told Megan and me that 8 of the kids at Faraja are children of the workers, and that two of the workers are Martha's sisters. If this is true, that means that about 25% of the kids at Faraja not only aren't orphans, but they live with their mom at Faraja.
This would be fine if this was made known to us upfront. But I've always been told that every child at Faraja is a complete and total orphan. There's no need to lie to anyone who wants to help, just so they'll hopefully help more by making the situation sound more desperate.
In addition, Paul let us know that two kids had been kicked out of Faraja, one for being accused of stealing money. That's not right. Faraja has legal custody of the kids that live there, so kicking out one of the kids would be like kicking your own child out of your house years before they turn 18. Who would do that? Where would they be expected to go?
Right now I feel manipulated, lied to, and taken advantage of by an organization I've vocally and proudly supported for three years, not to mention a place where I've put hundreds of hours of sweat and work into and more money that I can probably realistically afford. This is disappointing, to say the least.
To be honest, right now, I'm not sure in what capacity I can continue to support Faraja if this is true. This information doesn't change anything about the kids, or how I feel about them, or the fact that they could still benefit from extra support. They're the only reason right now I'll still go back.
Seeing baby versions of our favorite animal, bounding down towards us in a line - each one a pint-sized version of an adult - was one of the most endearing sights I've been witness to in a long time. The elephants ranged from a couple months to a couple years old, most of them made orphans by the actions of poachers killing their parents for ivory. Once they're able, the workers at the orphanage re-integrate them into the wild, but the process takes about 5 years for a new heard of elephants to accept them. It's true what they say about elephant memories, too: years can pass, but if one of the workers goes into the wild to check on the progress of the elephants, they will still remember each and every one of the people. Awesome.
While we weren't going to go into Faraja today, I got a call that Omare, Martha's oldest son - the one who had his face split open while trying to protect the children of Faraja from armed bandits who attacked and wielded machetes - was coming in today. I needed to jump at the opportunity to interview him about that night.
Filming him as he walked me through how that night went down was a powerful experience, and it took a tremendous amount of courage for him to defend the kids. It was really good to see him again, alive and well.
7.20 - 7.21.13
We were picked up by Martin, the founder and director of Ebenezer. He's an outspoken, opinionated, charismatic guy with a good heart. When he picked us up, I noticed bullet holes in his car. A month ago, he was sitting in his car on the side of the road when 5 guys pulled up with guns and held him up. He was able to get away, but not without damage to his vehicle and a few injuries (though, thankfully, no gunshot wounds). Wow.
On the drive out to Ebenezer, which is a little over an hour, Martin told me every kid would remember me. Last time I was there I helped to build a library, which they still use, and I guess sometimes when they do it reminds them of me, which is humbling. There are also six kids at Ebenezer who are mentally handicapped, and Martin said that they, too, remember me, but refer to me as "Axe" because Alex is tough for them to pronounce, since there aren't really any words like it in Swahili.
As soon as the first kid I saw smiled in my direction, my nerves subsided. Most of the kids were shy at first, but when I made it clear that I remembered their names, they started to open up. Seeing them interact with Megan with such inquisitive awe and compassion was a sight to cherish.
There's a game the kids taught me the last time I was here, which is basically chasing one another around with a long piece of savannah grass, trying to stick it in one another's ear. Simple, but seeing and hearing how much it makes the kids smile and laugh? Well...it'd be impossible to not feel like a billion bucks after that. Perfect way to end the day.
The most disturbing thing I learned from the interview with Paul is this: at Faraja, the children are caned - beaten with a thick stick on the butt or back as a means of discipline, which often results in deep contusions. I asked Paul which children had been caned, and he said most.
It's never OK to hit a child. It's also illegal in Kenya to cane children, as of three months ago.
On top of that, the more accurate reason why the kids were lethargic and morose last week is because, according to Paul, all of the older kids were denied lunch and dinner as a means of punishment for the dairy cow not having been fed that morning.
So, caning and denying the children food goes on at Faraja. Neither is OK. Neither is justified. Right now, I don't know how to go about approaching this. I don't want this to happen to the kids, but if I speak up and Faraja is closed, what will happen to the kids? Will they be put in an even worse, more abusive situation? How much bad can be justified for some good to be done? And is it worth it to stay silent about this because the children there are, ultimately, at the end of the day, cared for with food, clothing, and shelter?
One thing I do know is I haven't felt this sick about a situation on the trip as I did when experiencing the child being sex trafficked in Cambodia with nothing I could do about it.
We were all standing outside as the sun was going down, the kids and Martin showing Megan and me the greenhouses they've built and the plans about them. Everyone was quiet, and out of the blue I asked if they remembered the chorus that I taught them three years ago. They did. Not only did they remember it, they sang it in almost perfect unison without me prompting any of the lyrics. And the thing of it is, they never had a copy of the lyrics written down, or a copy of the song that the chorus appeared on. They sang it all, including the melody, from memory. If I weren't a programmed automaton, I would've cried.
During the day today, I also paid to have about an acre of property they own plowed. They're going to use it to plant a bunch of crops and, as soon as they get irrigation fully installed (it's almost there) they'll be able to be almost fully self-sufficient food-wise. That's one of my ultimate dreams for Ebenezer, and I hope this goes some small way to helping them achieve economic independence soon.
Megan and I made the most of it, and went to the Masai market after getting the ticket. I wouldn't say this should be at the top of your "must see" list, but it's certainly something to experience. There are about 100 small shops in a small area, with many of the exact same things sold at every one. Even though there are carbon copies of everything from fake Masai spears to drums to chessboards to jewelry, every shop owner will try to convince you his or hers are carved /weaved/whittled by hand in their house.
They'll also start you out at a price that's about 10 times what you'll end up paying if you're a skillful haggler, which is an art I love to hate to love. Anyway, I got some bookends and Megan got some souvenirs for her folks.
We also met with Hezekiel, the cousin of Shadrack who you may remember from my experience at the airport in Mumbai. Hezekiel works for Citizen News, which is one of the largest news outlets in the continent, if not the largest. He's a journalist and a super nice guy, and wanted to know more about the trip. We chatted over pizza, and he wants Megan and I to stop by the Citizen News tour and see the whole operation - TV, radio, newspaper - when we get a chance. Awesome!
I also confirmed with them that Becky and Lydia each have several kids at Faraja, which is something about which I'm still lied to.
Aside from the fact that caning children is, in my opinion, morally wrong, it's also illegal (as of 3 months ago) in Kenya.
I'm not naive. I know, first hand, how poorly kids around the world often get treated. Having worked as a guard in a maximum security juvenile jail for three years, I've seen its effects. Some people might say that it's cultural, and that it's wrong to impose an individual set of ethics on another culture. Largely, I'd agree with that. But in the case of children being beaten, ethical relativism is something that just doesn't hold weight. Not in the slightest.
Upon returning home today, I noticed that I was missing money out of my luggage, and Megan was, too. I did my finances for the last month and a half, totaling every last schilling I spent, and realized I was missing well over $150. Megan, about $75. My gut tells me it's probably one of the other "volunteers" that rarely leaves the house, but there's no way to be sure. Starting tomorrow, though, we'll be able to lock our door.
Afterwards, we went and had some of the most delicious Indian food either one of us had experienced and got caught in a downpour with no coat or umbrella. In over a month, this is one of the first times it's rained, and I'm sure the farmers sorely needed it. Here's to hoping it'll help with the newly plowed field at Ebenezer!
Nothing like a head split open and getting stitched up to put a little kink in your plans for the day!
If and when you go to Kenya, you need to make a trip here. It's worth it. The staff is without question the most hospitable and polite of any place I've ever stayed, and after sleeping on a single bed where the metal frame of the bunk bed has been poking my ribs for the last 6 weeks, this felt like sleeping on a big puffy, pillowy cloud of buttery mashed potatoes (which I imagine must be comfortable).
It's tough for me to write about Faraja right now. As much as I love the kids, it's tough to be here and not confront Martha and the other workers about everything I've learned over the last couple days. It's tough to keep a poker face.
In the afternoon, Megan and I went into town to the headquarters for Citizen and Nation Media with our new friend Hezekiel. We were shown the TV studio (home to KTV and Citizen television, broadcasters of the Spanish soap operas I've grown to love while staying at Naomi's), radio stations, and all the different newspaper rooms. In the span of about 10 floors of workers, we saw one white guy. He looked just as shocked and confused to see us as we were to see him.
Mary didn't want to be married off, and her mom didn't want her to be either. Her mom stood up to her dad, who subsequently beat her. Mary's mom is now in the hospital in serious condition, and Mary is staying at Faraja until everything gets sorted out.
I'm gonna fly high
And I won't back down
I won't touch the ground
On the wings of sound
And you won't see me anymore
Until we stand together in the sun
Run, run, run
I love it here.
At first she was defensive, and asked if I wanted to leave Faraja. I said, "no, I'm just talking about things I've experienced and heard about. What kind of discipline goes on here?" To my surprise, she admitted to caning, and even to doing it herself. She denied not giving the children food, though. She said she canes the kids because they all agreed that that would be their punishment for bad behavior. I asked her if she knew caning was illegal, but she told me that even though she knew it was, a lot of people still do it. When I told her that, in my opinion, caning a child was never OK, she told me she was just doing what she knew, what she was given growing up. I told her it didn't have to be that way.
We talked about positive reinforcement as a means of discipline. Giving gold stars to kids for good deeds and acts and grades, and rewarding positive behavior with something small like a movie night or a pizza or ice cream. She took notes on the ideas Megan and I brought up, and seemed excited and interested to instill them in lieu of caning. I hope she means it, because positive reinforcement is proven to be more effective than corporal punishment.
I understand that she's a product of her generation, or her childhood, and doing what she knows how to do, and what she was taught. It's hard to fault her 100% for everything if she really didn't fully know any other way of disciplining the kids. The true test will come moving forward, now that she does know an alternate way. If she makes a change, she truly wants to do better and cares for the kid. But if she doesn't, it'd be nearly impossible to say that she has the best interests of the children at heart. I'm hoping for the former, but fearful it'll be the latter.
So it also came as a bit of a surprise that they were holding a rather spontaneous fundraiser on the grounds of Faraja today, for one, and for two that we were each asked to make a donation just to walk through the gate to volunteer today. Not a fan.
After a couple minutes, Edgar - the social worker at Faraja - arrived and asked me about the conversation I had with Martha regarding the caning and discipline. I told him that Martha, bluntly, said that she does it. He said that was news to him and that I must have misunderstood her. He looked shocked and taken aback, and told me that she was quite upset after our conversation which, in and of itself, was news to me, largely because she didn't seem upset in the slightest when we spoke about it.
It's incredible how careful they must be about when, where, and in front of who they cane the kids. The fact that Martha apparently shields this practice from volunteers and Edgar says to me that she knows it's wrong and illegal. I wonder if she confessed to Edgar that she does in fact cane the kids, but it doesn't sound like it.
As much as I love the kids here, and hope that Martha and the rest of the caregivers begin to be truthful with future volunteers, from Kenya and abroad, with people in the community, and, most of all, to themselves, it's time to move on. I realized today that even though I've learned goodbyes are never easy, I still hold a wish for how they would hopefully go. I wish for true heart-to-hearts, hugs, smiles...authentic human interaction. When that doesn't end up being the case, it's a little bittersweet. Almost two months here, but the goodbye was about as brief as they come.
I'll never be able to communicate to him how much he changed my life by simply being. He's said goodbye to dozens of volunteers before and after me, and many more will come and go. Truth be told, his goodbye to me may just have been the same as it is to everyone else. The brevity of our goodbye may be for the best. I just hope I've repaid a fraction of the impact he made on my life.
I interviewed as many of the kids as I could, asked them about their favorite things, what they want to do with their lives, and what makes them the most happy. They sang songs for us. They danced for us.
One of the youngest and sassiest girls, Catherine, asked if she could sing me a song. I said of course she could. She shyly sang me the chorus for the song I taught them three years ago (when she was only 6), and the chorus I taught them the other day. That will definitely be one of my favorite memories from the whole trip.
When the kids were eating dinner, Megan and I walked into the dining hall to say goodbye. When we entered, all of the kids stood up, and you could've heard a piece of hay hit the floor. It was time to say goodbye. The fact that it was the kind I always hope for? I realized that makes it even more difficult.
With Megan set to fly out the 8th, we wanted to spend our last days together on a bed bigger than a shoebox, and maybe with the luxury of a hot shower. We went into downtown Nairobi, back to the awesome hotel with the really unfortunate location from last month. A good place to try to sweat the fever out. And less than $60 for a penthouse suite? That's a no-brainer.
Also, I woke up feeling worse than the day before. It probably didn't help that the hotel was right next to a mosque broadcasting prayer at intermittent intervals from 2am until 8am, due to Ramadhan coming to an end.
We changed venues from our little island oasis in a sea of a whole lot of danger to the hotel embassy, which is about 10% as nice, but safely in the heart of downtown. Even though we went from a really comfortable king size to sharing a double, and our view went from sunrise to paint peeling off a pipe that runs up the side of the building, it was a good move.
At night, we went to the Faraja fundraiser. In my head, I envisioned it being held in a moderately large venue, with a program and a couple hundred people, based largely off of the impression that I got from Martha telling me about it. But when we arrived to the spot, it was the opposite. About 50 people sitting quietly in a small room, few people even talking to one another. (Side note: it's amazing how much technology inhibits human interaction, even in a place in which it's introduction is relatively recent).
Regardless of how differently I feel about Faraja now, I hoped for their fundraiser to be a success. It was painful to watch Martha and the other workers force smiles as they thanked us for coming. It was also tough to get the impression from the way we were nonchalantly said bye to that the work we poured ourselves into for two months didn't seem to be appreciated. While recognition never was, isn't, nor will ever be the aim for any part of volunteering on this journey, everyone appreciates feeling appreciated.
8.9 - 8.10.13
We did go to a delicious Chinese restaurant, and selected it almost solely due to the fact that every single person eating there was Chinese. I've found it's always a good rule of thumb to eat at restaurants where people of that ethnicity seem to be piled in by the clown car. Such was the case here.
Three massive groups of Chinese folks came into the restaurant, one after another, which is vexing because neither one of us ever saw a Chinese person on the streets of Nairobi. We also sat next to a man whose face looked EXACTLY like the laughing Buddha. It was uncanny. And awesome.
Finally got the chance today to interview Martin, and I'm glad I did. He's a well-spoken, charismatic, and knowledgeable guy who really cares for the kids at Ebenezer. Though we had to shoot it in our tiny hotel room, it was better than nothing, and a really great interview.
Of all things I'm not a fan of in life, being the cause of someone I love to cry is at the top of the list. I suppose it's unavoidable in the work I've chosen, but the knowledge of that doesn't make it any easier. Thank you, Megan, for the smiles and sharing the adventure with me.
Next stop, South Africa.