Feeds:
Posts
Comments

What does it take to care for 106 small children—all at once? That question loomed over my trip to Lewa Children’s Home, an orphanage at the northwestern edge of Kenya funded by Bread and Water for Africa. As a fundraiser, the question first came to me in the abstract: 106 mouths to feed. How do you get it done? How much food, supplies and labor is required just to keep Lewa going? The project is made up of three interlocking parts: the orphanage that raises the kids; the school that educates them; and the farm that produces their food and income. And the closer you get to Lewa–once you fly over continents, cross the vast plains of Kenya and find yourself face-to-face with 106 other little faces–you realize that the endeavor is even more complex than you thought. But more on that later. First, I had to actually get there…

Laundry hanging at the Lewa Children's Home

Children’s laundry

I travelled to the Lewa Children’s Home on August 30th, after having spent a few days in a Catholic mission in Karungu, on Lake Victoria. I arrived two hours early to catch the local bus(or matatu) that runs between the town of Kisii and Eldoret, the closest city to the Lewa Home.  By the time the bus came, it was so crowded that there was only one seat left: An unenviable space wedged between the driver and other passengers to his right. That implied riding over 200 kilometers of bumpy roads with the stick shift between my knees. So, with a little bit of arguing and the support of strategic alliances I had formed with other passengers during the wait, I managed to finagle a more comfortable seat in the second row. Despite the heavy rain and the fact that no one had the faintest idea of when we were scheduled to arrive, the ride was relatively comfortable. (It’s worth noting that I had actually snagged a seat on a “luxury” matatu).

Matatu bus

A Matatu bus

Phyllis Keino, the founder of Lewa Children’s Home, was waiting for me at the gas station in Eldoret, where I disembarked. We then drove another thirty minutes to reach Baraka Farm, the 200 acre cheese and dairy farm that hosts the Lewa Home.

When I arrived, the children were getting ready for bed. On the say to my room I passed the dormitory and glimpsed a flurry of small bodies jostling into their beds, which were lined up in neat rows. By the time I got back from dropping off my suitcase, it was too late. The kids were all tucked in. Exhausted by a long day on the road, I had a delicious dinner with Phyllis and Jos and went to bed. Outside my window the night air hummed with insects. The quiet before the storm…

Photos from Lewa

I know everyone loves photos, so here are some of my favorites from our time at the Lewa Children’s Home in August…

Day 6: Eldoret

21 August
 
If there’s one thing that this tour isn’t, it’s uneventful! Today was jam-packed with activities meant to get all of the safari goers acquainted with the Lewa projects and the people that make them great.

The plan was to start the day with a tour of the Lewa Children’s Home and the Kipkeino School bright and early. Mid-way through our tour of the Home, however, we got a bit sidetracked… on the playground. This was the first chance that everyone had to meet the kids that call Phyllis “Mama” and Lewa their home. When I saw the looks on the faces of the safari participants as the children ran towards them, abandoning various playground activities, I was reminded of the first time I met these affectionate little ones a little over a year ago. The safari participants had the same look on their faces as I’m sure I did on mine the first time around – a combination of shock (that the kids are all so unabashedly affectionate) and joy (because who can be sad when you have a bunch of toddlers hugging you?).

Playground romping

Promising to return to the playground as soon as we could, the group then set off on the short hike to the Kipkeino Primary School where we were met by the School Administrator for a special tour. The children are all on what equates to a winter holiday in August (the school year in Kenya begins in January), so the school was empty save for the eleven of us, plus the 30 or so children that made the trek across the road to show us their school.

Touring the School

The participants seemed impressed with the sprawling campus that, educates 288 students each year. Aside from the nine classrooms (Nursery through Class 8), the School also has a music room, computer room, library, two sports fields, multiple dormitory houses, a large canteen/auditorium, a sick bay and laundry facilities. Unlike most of the other primary schools in Kenya, Kipkeino does everything it can to ensure that students have access to a well-rounded education placing emphasis not only on academics, but also on the arts, sports, and multiple optional extracurricular activities including scouts and choir.

Inside the School dormitory

After the tour was completed, we all headed downtown to visit the Imani Workshop (http://imaniworkshops.org), an artisan shop run by AMPATH, an HIV/AIDS outreach program run by Indiana University. The workshop employs HIV/AIDS patients to make artisan goods that are then sold for profits to benefit AIDS research. The benefit of working at this workshop is that the artisans are allowed flexible work schedules that they would not be privy to elsewhere. Due to the nature of their illnesses, it is often difficult for them to keep regular jobs where they aren’t allowed to take off multiple sick days when necessary. It truly is a wonderful project that you can’t help but want to support. And support we did. After our tour of the workshop, we were ushered into a small store that displayed bags, notebooks, cards, aprons, dolls, carvings, paintings, jewelry and many other beautifully constructed artisan goods. Having already visited this workshop last year, I knew what to expect, but it was wonderful seeing the strongly positive reactions of everyone else to this noble venture. We didn’t quite buy out the store, but I think we came pretty close. 🙂

Tour of the Imani Workshop

The rest of the day was spent on the playground with the children, playing soccer (or “football” rather), volleyball, tag, and, my favorite, “let’s all just sit down for a minute because apparently I’m out of shape”.  

Dinner was, as always, wonderful. Phyllis always outdoes herself in the culinary department, and the company wasn’t so bad either. Tomorrow is the tour’s last full day in Kenya, but it promises to be a good one… 

Day 5: Maasai Mara to Eldoret

20 August

I think we were all intentionally dragging our feet a bit this morning. It was hard to leave such a magical place after having been here for only three days. There’s an urgency about the fight for survival that is apparent at every turn in this vast natural wonderland that makes you feel strangely calm. It’s simple. It’s beautiful. And it’s the way the world was intended to be.

The silver lining on the cloud that was our departure from the Mara is the fact that in a few short hours, we would be in the loving arms of the Lewa Children’s Home – a place with a different definition of the word “calm” but with an undeniable beauty all its own.

Another plus about today’s adventure was the promise of the opportunity to see a vast stretch of the Kenyan countryside during our drive from the Maasai Mara to Eldoret. In total, this trip took around eight hours, but was broken up by stops at a few artisan workshops and the famous colonial Kericho Tea Hotel.

The roads didn’t improve until an hour or two into our drive, and by the time we hit the tarmac highway, we had all had enough of our complimentary African massages. Who needs the spa when you’ve got gravel and potholes?! But hey, it’s all part of the experience.

Though we began our journey in the dry heat of the Great Rift Valley, by the time we reached the hills of Kericho, the terrain had transformed from a dusty brown to a lush green, covered with vast tea plantations that made the land look like it had been covered with emerald velvet. One of my fellow travelers remarked that, were he to show a photo of this part of Kenya to someone who had never visited the country, they would guess that the scene was laid in the south of France or the hills of Ireland. Kenya is, without a doubt, a country full of wonder, and its diversity never ceases to amaze.

One of Kenya's many tea plantation complexes

Lunch was held at the Kericho Tea Hotel. To my surprise, one of the women traveling with us (who had lived in Kenya for 12 years during British colonialization) informed me that she had held her engagement party in this very hotel, over 50 years before. Her anniversary being tomorrow, she said that she felt as though her life had come full circle and, though her husband passed away a few years ago, it was lovely to be back in this place that held so many fond memories.

After lunch, we were given a tour of the tea plantation owned by the hotel. As soon as we neared the fields, the fragrant scent of unplucked tea leaves hit our noses. The smell was bold as if the tea shrubs knew of their celebrity (Kericho is one of the most famous tea brands in the country) and wanted to remind all of us of their superb breeding.

As we all crammed into the quilted tea field, our tour guide explained to us that the workers who are responsible for harvesting the tea leaves get paid per kilogram picked, with the average worker earning around 550KSH per day (about $7). The workers were also given free housing and free schooling for their children, however, with the plantation acting as a sort of self-contained base complete with schools, clinics and houses. Having driven through “towns” consisting of make-shift huts and trash-filled streets, I can honestly say that these workers are among the luckiest of the laborers in Kenya. If that doesn’t put things into perspective for those of us coming from middle-class America where “luck” is often defined by one’s ability purchase the hottest sports car of the moment, I don’t know what does.

The group in the Kericho fields

The second half of the drive was as beautiful as the first. We wound our way up through the Nandi Hills, an experience that would have been terrified had we not so trusted our drivers. These “hills” that seemed more like serious mountains to me and the winding roads that perched themselves precariously on narrow cliff-edges  were slightly intimidating for those of us who prefer to stay away from heights.

Four hours later, we all arrived in Eldoret in one piece. Having now had the opportunity to see much more of the country this time around, I was viewing Eldoret through different eyes than I was last year. What had once seemed like a small, albeit busy town, now appeared as a bustling metropolis when compared to the many ramshackle settlements that we saw on our journey north. The bright lights, colorful billboards, and crowded streets welcomed us wholeheartedly and, for a few moments it felt as though I’d never left. My memories of Eldoret town came flooding back and any lasting pangs of remorse for having left the Maasai Mara were instantly washed away. I was glad to be back.

Phyllis, having harnessed her superhuman power of preparedness, had the dining room ready for us and the smell of the kind of delicious food only Phyllis is capable of creating met us at the Home’s gates. Phyllis and Jos were both there to meet our group and we were all immediately swept into the dining room for a late dinner.

Despite the excitement of finally arriving at the Home, we were all a bit tired from the long day of traveling. The children had already gone to bed by the time we arrived in Eldoret, but early to bed, early to rise. Their morning routine will be sure to wake us all up bright and early tomorrow, so we turned in soon after dinner in order to physically and mentally prepare for tomorrow’s excitement. Stay tuned for updates on the kids, the Home and everything that comes with them!

Photos from the Maasai Mara

A picture is worth 1,000 words, so here are approximately a bajillion words for you to look through. Enjoy!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All photos are property of Bread and Water for Africa. Do not copy or reproduce without permission.

Day 4: Maasai Mara (Part II)

19 August

I decided to write today’s post in two parts so as not to overload your unsuspecting brains with too much Kenyan awesomeness (yup, that’s a word) which was pretty much the theme of the day.

After our very lucky cheetah sighting, the group traveled the final 50 kilometers down to the Mara River. This is the first time that we’ve gone a fairly long distance in the Mara and during our journey I found myself looking at the zebras, wildebeest, giraffes and other animals that now seemed like normal parts of the landscape. I would then quickly give myself a mental kick to the shins and think “YOU’RE STARING AT ZEBRAS, WILDEBEEST, GIRAFFES AND OTHER INCREDIBLY AMAZING CREATURES… WAKE UP!” This is what happens when I have to get up at the crack of dawn for more than two days in a row. It’s not pretty. I’ve tried to keep my internal monologue as internal as possible so as not to scare my fellow adventurers.

"scenery"

Once we reached the river, our ears were immediately met with the grunts of the 20 or so hippos bathing in the shallow river below. Sidebar: the Keekorok Lodge, our home for the past few days, is smack in the middle of one of Africa’s wildest savannahs… and has no fence around its borders to keep the Mara’s residents off the property. This has led to some fairly unique encounters including a poolside run-in with some grazing warthogs and a faceoff with some particularly curious Vervet monkeys. Last night, well after Susan and I had turned off the lights and retreated to our mosquito net canopy, I was awakened by what I thought was Susan snoring (oops). Even my groggy, half-asleep brain deduced, however, that whatever noise I was hearing was not being produced by any normal-sized human being. I walked over to the glass doors leading out to our back porch and saw four full-grown hippos grazing about 20 feet from our room. Thanks Mr. and Mrs. Hippos for the midnight serenade, but next time I’d prefer something a bit more relaxing.

The hippos we encountered in the Mara river must’ve been taking music lessons with our late-night visitors because they were singing exactly the same tune, a tune which sounded like a cross between a lion’s roar and a broken muffler. They were also joined by a sunbathing crocodile that looked a bit disappointed by the low river that prevented the wildebeest from migrating and robbed him of a particularly tasty meal.

He's in serious need of a muffler patch

He's in serious need of a muffler patch

After leaving the river, we went in search of the most fantabulous tree in the whoooole park. And we found it. We ate our box lunches under a giant Acacia overlooking the vast Mara plains. From that shady spot, it was hard to imagine that there’s anywhere else on the planet that even comes close to rivaling the beauty of this Kenyan heaven.

On the way back to the Lodge, after our delicious box lunch, we stopped at one of the Maasai villages situated not far from our accommodations. The reason that the Maasai Mara is a reserve and not a park is that the Maasai people are allowed to live within its borders (which makes sense because it was their land to start with). We were met by a group of the Maasai men, wearing their brightly colored cloths and various hunting apparatus. I made sure I was on my best behavior for fear of ending up on the wrong side of a spear.

We got to see traditional dances both from the men and the women of the village. Beth and I even got to compete against the men in their adamu (“jumping dance”). The purpose of this dance is to figure out how many girlfriends each of the men are allowed to have… the higher you jump, the more girlfriends you get. Unfortunately my 5’2” self couldn’t beat any of the tall, lanky warriors. No girlfriends for THIS guy.

Jumpin' around

Next, we ventured into the walls of the village where we met some of the Maasai children and had the chance to look inside one of the typical households. The home, constructed of wood and dried mud mixed with cow dung, was about 10 square feet and slept between 6 and 10 people. Some of the participants looked a bit worried after seeing this homestead, wondering if our lodgings in Eldoret would be similar. I’ll let them sweat a little bit longer.

Tonight is our last in the Maasai Mara and I think the only word to sum up our experience here is unreal. Kenya outdid itself over the past three days. Though I’ll be sad to leave tomorrow, I can’t wait to get up to Eldoret and back into the arms of the Lewa Children’s Home. The Mara showed us Kenya’s brilliance, but Eldoret will show us the country’s other wonders – hope and love.

19 August

One of the most impressive aspects of the Maasai Mara game reserve is the sheer size of the place. Stretching 1,510 square kilometers on the border of Kenya and Tanzania, it would take days to explore the whole of it. In order to make the best of our limited time here, our drivers suggested that we take a full-day game drive today instead of breaking it up into two drives as usual. Eager to discover the far reaches of the Mara, we all clambered into our respective vans at 7:30am, box lunches in hand. I was momentarily transported back to my elementary school days, re-living the excitement that I felt before embarking on a particularly special field trip, and looking around at the faces of the rest of the group, I don’t think I was the only one who felt that way.

The itinerary for the day included a drive to the Mara river, home to the world-renowned wildebeest migration, a savannah picnic, and a trip to one of the local Maasai villages. I drank an extra cup of tea, just to be sure that my sleep-filled eyes wouldn’t miss a thing on this unique adventure.

As if the Mara had decided to reward us for our desire to take in all it had to offer, the two biggest surprises of the day came almost immediately after we left the lodge. As we were making our way to the river, we came upon a group of safari vans, gathered by the side of the road. Just like circling vultures indicate the presence of an animal carcas, circling vans indicatethe presence of one of the Mara’s more elusive creatures nearby. Indeed, about 300m from the right side of the road, there stood a lioness in the midst of her morning hunt. After acknowledging the addition to her white van fan club, she began digging furiously at the ground. It had never struck me how alike these powerful creatures are to their domestic counterparts until now. Though the paws on this creature could fell a man in one blow, her movements still held the graceful curiosity I often associated with all things feline. After inquiring as to why she was digging, I was told that, in the absence of any other forms of prey, lionesses often attack warthog boroughs in hopes of finding a tasty snack. Poor Pumba.

The other vans, having grown tired of watching the lioness’ fruitless pursuit, continued on their morning drives, leaving our two vans alone with our new friend. She herself grew tired after a few minutes, though, and made her way across the road, directly in front of us and began drinking from a puddle that had formed in one of the road’s ditches. Unlike many of the other animals that call the Mara home, the lion seems to be the most unaffected by the presence of humans. I suppose a millennia of having no natural enemies has lulled these kings and queens into a state of blissful aloofness.

A few moments We bade goodbye to her highness and continued on our way across the Mara. A few moments later, we came upon another white van convention. Craning my neck to see over the top of the van (these things weren’t made for little people like myself), I literally gasped at the sight in front of us. Off in the distance stood a cheetah, standing sentry atop an anthill. Seeing a cheetah would have been amazing enough for me, but the Mara had once again provided us with yet another expectation-surpassing experience. Six (or perhaps seven?) cheetah cubs roamed at their mother’s feet, romping around, play fighting with their siblings, and altogether enjoying their family outing.

Later, someone would ask me whether  I found this sight, or that of the rare Mara leopard more impressive. I was unable to provide an answer to this question and, instead, have decided that it is not the particular sights, but this experience as a whole, that will forever seem like a dream come true. Kenya bestowed a bit of its majesty on us over the past few days and I think all we can do in return is recognize all the beauty that this country has to offer despite the suffering that man has brought to its doorstep over the past decades.