Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Former Intern Finds Misery, Hope In Africa

Mae Waugh with two young
Kenyan girls from Polycarp Parish

By C. Mae Waugh

I have seen families starving. I have seen children orphaned by parents who died of AIDS and left them behind to fend for themselves. I have seen kids sing and dance and play with their stomachs growling. I have seen rhinos romp and antelopes run and ostriches bury their heads in the ground.
All of this I saw in Kenya.
This past winter I went on a pilgrimage to Kenya, Africa with the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts College Ministry. I’d been to Mexico many times before, on mission trips with Ojai Presbyterian Church and humanitarian efforts with the Rotary clubs. Last spring I went to Puerto Rico with the Lutheran Campus Ministry at Northeastern University. But none of my previous experiences had prepared this Ojai girl for what I met in Kenya.
My experience in Kenya was overwhelming, heart-stirring, and stunning. I went for 10 days and in that time I was not able to see all that is Kenya, but I got a glimpse of it. The poverty I saw stunned me. The beautiful children stirred my heart. And the volume and severity of the problems of AIDS, ignorance, starvation, mortality, squalor and violence overwhelmed me.
I hail from our town of Ojai. It’s an idyllic Southern California suburb where, for the most part, the elderly retire, Hollywood stars seek anonymity, and middle class families come to raise their children in a safe environment. This pilgrimage opened my eyes to see the reality of the world in which we live: there is suffering, violence and terror far worse than our own.
Despite the negative image I somewhat expected to receive, yet shocked me just the same, I encountered something I was not expecting: joy. There are problems, there is pain, but rising above both, the Kenyan people I encountered were able to find happiness and joy and that is what makes this a bittersweet story full of hope.
Everyone shakes hands in Kenya. When two people meet in the street they greet with a handshake and ask “habari?” which, roughly translated, means, “what is the news?” The only appropriate response is “misouri,” meaning, “the news is good,” because that is what everyone wants to hear. I found it ironic that “misouri” sounds so much like the English “misery.”
When I looked around Africa my western eyes saw misery: children half-clothed, standing barefoot and hungry outside their thatched-roof homes; women walking for miles carrying buckets of water on their heads; and men standing on the street corner, idle and looking for mischief because there are no jobs. But in these people’s hearts, all they would accept was good news. It is either obtusely optimistic or hopelessly delusional on their parts, but as a journalist I cannot help but admire the way they cling to good news amidst the squalor in which they live.
One aspect of our pilgrimage was participating in dialogues with community leaders. We met with Anglican theological professors, an AIDS clinic coordinator and a local women’s organization. From these different perspectives, I learned shocking beliefs and pieces of Kenyan culture.
Violence against women was a prominent problem we discussed. I learned 60 percent of girls in the villages are raped by the age of 15, usually by male family members. That number increases to 80 percent in the cities. These numbers are alarmingly high not because the Kenyan male is particularly cruel; it is because he is deceived. There is a myth that if someone HIV positive has sex with a virgin, it will cure him of his disease.
There is also a practice of wife inheritance. Innumerable husbands die of AIDS, leaving their wives widows and often infected. When a woman becomes a widow she must remarry or her belongings will go to her late husband’s family. But in order for her to remarry she must be “cleansed.” In villages there is a single man who has sex with each widow to “cleanse” her. Seldom is sex protected in Kenya and so this practice does not really “cleanse” a woman but further spreads the disease of AIDS.
But there is hope in the grass-roots movement of change, which is still small and building, led by the women’s organizations we met with and the Maseno Theological College we visited.
Simplified, the problem in Kenya is lack of education.
The government does provide primary school for free, but students must shave their heads and wear uniforms and the majority of children are too poor to buy uniforms. And children will not go to school if they are hungry.
Children are hungry because there are few jobs for their families to support them. There are few jobs because there are no roads. There are no roads because there is no infrastructure. There is no infrastructure because the government is corrupt. It is a devastating cycle.
Meeting the women’s organizations of Ebisuratse and Emukasa, Kenya, inspired me. These women did not allow their situations to overwhelm them, but instead joined together to make their homes and villages safer, healthier and happier. They advocate for orphans, women’s rights and jobs. They support each other.
I had the opportunity to experience this Kenyan life: meet the Kenyan people, live in their homes and feed their children. I went and I lived and I saw. And despite the stunning poverty, numbers of heart-stirring orphans and overwhelming problems, I loved the people, I loved the beautiful country, and I believe with the help of missionaries, grass-roots efforts and humanitarians there can be education, food and stability somewhere in the future for Kenya.
I remember as a child sitting at the dinner table with a plate half-full of food and my mother telling me there were starving children in Africa, so I should eat up.
But the idea of children across the globe starving was a concept as a child I could not quite grasp. And then I grew up, learned to eat my fill, went to college and began my own life of adulthood, with the starving children far from my mind.
When I went to Africa, however, what I saw reminded me of what my mother had warned me about — children are starving for real.
Due to AIDS, there is a vast number of orphans in Kenya. Their parents die and they are left all alone in the world, hungry and helpless. Some family members are able to take them in, but not all are so lucky.
AIDS is a pandemic and poverty is extreme. Orphans are struggling but persevering, due to the help of people from all over the world. Grass-roots mobilization in Kenya, including widows and women’s organizations, in partnership with missionaries and humanitarians from the US and the Anglican diocese and parishes in Africa have joined together to help feed the orphans.
These concerned people began an orphan feeding program where 14 Anglican parishes in Kenya provide 500 orphans with one protein meal a week. When I first heard this, I thought the orphans received one protein meal a day, and I thought that was pretty good. But I had misheard. This means every Saturday starving children walk for miles with a cup and a spoon to get a bowl of rice and beans, for many their only nutritious meal all week.
The local African women lead and coordinate this program, with the U.S. participants as sponsors. It costs $4,000 to feed 500 orphans for a year. All it takes is $8 to help a child survive.
As a part of my pilgrimage to Meseno, Africa in December, I had the opportunity to help the orphan feeding program at the Emukasa parish. We arrived by car, but the 500 children, ages 3 to 15, walked up to three miles to come to church that day to learn, play and eat. The orphan feeding program gives the children more than a meal; there are all-day classes and activities that take place at the church.
The children are skinny. Some are skin and bones and others have stomachs that are bulging, a sign of malnutrition. Some have shaved heads, a sign that they attend school, while others have braided hair and some have hair sticking out at every angle. They wear dirty, ripped and torn clothes, which they probably slept in last night after wearing all day yesterday. They do not act surly, as one would expect of a hungry child, but they are smiling and skipping for today is a day of happiness – tonight they will leave with a full belly.
The children arrive and participate in worship time. Then they are broken into groups by age to take classes in English and math. Then they play before they get their meal of a cup of weak chai tea and a bowl of rice and beans.
While the children learn and play, the Women’s Organization ladies cook. They shuck beans and boil rice and cook the entire meal over and open flame on the ground behind the church.
During breaks from classes, the children played games, sang and danced. I was surprised that they could be so happy and play so carefree with their stomachs empty. We Americans met and mingled with the children, learning their games and songs, while we tried to teach them some of our own. They had difficulty learning our songs, but they caught on quickly to hi-fives.
At midday we served the chai tea. The children lined up across the grounds, sitting in rows and rows, waiting with their cups in their hands while the women and Americans walked around with buckets of tea made of tea leaves, spices, half boiling water and half milk. After tea there was free time for the children until the meal preparations were finished.
The parish saw my group as missionaries, and so they welcomed and revered our presence. In doing this they served us a special lunch before serving the orphan children. This made us very uncomfortable, for we had eaten breakfast that morning and it could have been a week since many of the children had eaten such a decent meal. But we were torn between our sympathies for the children and not wanting to look ungrateful or insulting. And so we ate.
For our lunch they had prepared not only a bowl of rice and beans like the children would be eating, but also servings of plantains, potatoes, some sort of chicken dish and ugali. Ugali is the food staple of Kenya and it is made of boiled cornmeal. It has the consistency of dried out, uncooked dough and tastes worst — but it fills your stomach.
Once we had eaten enough to not appear rude, it was time to feed the children. Once again they lined up and sat by rows in the grass and dirt across the church grounds. The pastor of the church said a prayer and we began to serve.
And that is why I went to Kenya – for that moment and for that chance to pour a cup of beans and rice into the orphans’ cups. To see a child bright eyed, waiting for their meal and then the delight and joy that comes across his face as he eats a meal of substance was an experience I will always cherish, to have been able to give that child that gift.
As we served and the children began to eat, a hush fell over the yard. All that could be heard was the scraping of spoons against cups and the quiet chomping of little jaws. Where there was once a sound of excitement now came the sound of satiety.
After the meal the children slowly drifted away to wherever they called their home, toting their empty cups, but leaving with full stomachs.
I had mixed feelings as I watched them go. I felt good about the day and the chance to have been able to give them a meal, but disheartened at the knowledge that this was only one day in their lives. What would they eat tomorrow? How would they eat tomorrow? I wanted to stay; I wanted to be able to feed them a filling meal everyday, but at that moment it was not possible.
So we Americans left the church too, returning to the places we were calling our homes for the night. As we went we turned left in the car while the orphans turned and walked right and as we drove away I watched the children leave for as long as they were in sight.
I’m sure those children have forgotten me, but I have not forgotten them.
I have been to Kenya. I have lived in its homes and seen its problems, but what can I do? My advocacy is to feed the children. They won’t go to school if they are hungry. And they must go to school to succeed. The Kenya children are the future leaders of their country. They must be taught to lead. They must be taught how to be upstanding citizens that can then make contributions to their society. But to be taught they must go to school, and to go to school, they must have full bellies. So we must feed the children. It is only with the children that the country can be saved.

C. Mae Waugh began her journalistic career in 2003 as an intern at the Ojai Valley News after being recommended by the Ojai Valley Youth Foundation. She is attending Northeastern University in Boston, and serves an anchor of “Boston in the News” for Boston City TV, a cable television program produced for the Mayor’s office.

Click to download Mae's African Power Point presentation

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