Friday, August 18, 2006

Visiting ministries in Kisumu

I recently spent a good but tiring week in two villages outside of Kisumu City, about 7 hours from Nairobi on the shores of Lake Victoria. A good friend of mine, Ken Prussner, founded an NGO called STARS Children Africa which supports orphaned children in secondary school. By working together with a Kenyan pastor in Kisumu called Joshua, they were able to send 55 orphaned children to secondary school this year (there is no free secondary school in Kenya). Ken offered to pay my travel expenses if I would be willing to travel to Kisumu to get stories, interviews, and pictures of children involved in STARS, as well as details for a group of 10 American volunteers who will be traveling to Kenya next year. Of course I was more than willing!

Through friends in Nairobi, I learned of another small community based program in a village near Kisumu. This program is connected with the Mennonite church and reaches out to orphaned and vulnerable children and widows in several villages. The bishop of the Mennonite churches in that region, Clyde Angola, invited me to stay with him and spend a few days visiting there. So I spent the first half of the week with Pastor Joshua and the second half with Clyde.

I spent the first two days with visiting secondary schools in the area and interviewing children who have been sponsored by STARS Children Africa. I was both inspired and heartbroken by their stories. Largely due to cultural traditions and poverty, the Nyanza district (where I was) is the hardest hit district by AIDS in the country. The five children that I interviewed had all gone through incredible challenges after losing their parents to AIDS. Two of them had contemplated suicide, one had turned to prostitution to survive, and another had become pregnant at the age of 15, when she desperately attempted to support her ill mother by finding a “boyfriend” who would give her money. All of these children are now in school and are doing very well. They have received incredible support from Pastor Joshua and his wife Abigael, but more importantly they all have a strong faith, hope, and trust in Jesus Christ which encourages and sustains them.

In the middle of the week I headed to a village called Songhor, which is about 2 hours from Kisumu City and is very rural. The small program there is called KEDHAP (Kenya East Diocese HIV/AIDS Program). This program was started several years ago when a few church members decided they needed to reach out to people affected by AIDS in their community. They began by doing a survey, and spent several months going from house to house to identify all of the orphans and widows in the community. They had kept very organized records and had recorded 648 orphans in their community (these were very small rural villages, so 648 is a huge number!). The program is organized and run completely by community members. Clyde is the overseer, and then there is a program manager, four district coordinators, and six local church coordinators. There are also five people who have been trained as community health workers. The community health workers visit HIV positive people in the community to pray with them and do home based care.

One of the things about the program that impressed me the most is that KEDHAP does not have a single paid employee – all of the people involved are community volunteers. Even Clyde is not paid anything by the program or even by the Mennonite churches – the average offering at his church is about 200 shillings ($3) because the people in the village are very poor. All of the people are involved in farming or other small projects to earn an income.

Despite a lack of resources, the KEPHAP workers are committed and are doing everything that they can to help their community. They have received donation to provide school uniforms for hundreds of orphans, and recently received a donation for 98 goats. They gave one male and one female goat to families that were caring for orphans as a sustainability project to help the community members earn an income.

They also have a support group for widows who are HIV positive. They offer these widows home based care and referrals to the closest hospital, which is one hour away. (They have a long term plan of starting a hospital in the village, and they are in the process of receiving free land from the government for this hospital). There are free ARVs available at the hospital; unfortunately, many of the members cannot afford the 200 shillings ($3) each month to get to the hospital to pick up their medicine. One of their goals for a sustainability project is to buy a dairy cow for the HIV support group. The women could sell the milk and the profits could be distributed to cover the medical costs for the women as needs arise. As the cow gives birth and continues to reproduce, the calves can be given to community members so they will be able to earn an income.

On the last day that I was there, I had the privilege of taking part in a Luo tradition (Luo is one of 42 tribes in Kenya). In Luo culture, when sons grow up and get married, they build a house for their families on their parents’ land. However, at a certain point, they move off their parents land and establish their own home on their own land. Gordon, the project coordinator for KEDHAP, happened to be moving to his own land the last day I was there. The new house is built as their old house is being demolished. According to their culture, the family must sleep in the new house that night, so the house has to be built completely in one day or they have nowhere to sleep!

Clyde told me that Gordon had spent about one year gathering material and saving money for this day. About 50 people from the community gathered starting at 9am. The women cooked and the men built the house. There was one carpenter who was paid a small amount, but the rest were community volunteers. The house was made out of wood, sticks, mud, and a tin roof. I was amazed that they were able to build a house in a single day and I really enjoyed seeing the whole process. They had very tools – for example, there was no ladder but the carpenter spent about 10 minutes nailing some branches together and making his own ladder!

Now I am back at NEGST enjoying the last few weeks of my holiday. The family who I was housesitting for has returned, so I back in student housing. All of my roommates have been away this week, so I have been there alone (although I discovered I am not really alone because there are rats living in my ceiling, but the maintenance people came today to take care of that so hopefully they will be gone soon! And thankfully there is no way for the rats to get out of the ceiling and into my room).