Next Page: About Stephen
The numbers in Kenya are daunting -- $250 per capita annual income, nearly 50 percent of its 40 million people impoverished.
George McGee, second from left, with Stephen Omondi Okongo, Stephen's brother Dennis and a CFCA social worker outside Stephen's old mud house ...
... and the group outside Stephen's new home -- which, though it lacks plumbing or electricity, sparkles in comparison.
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Some five years ago I saw the Alexander Payne film "About Schmidt," starring Jack Nicholson. The film gave me two ideas. One was a lyric for a song expressing Schmidt's sense of loss after the sudden death of his wife. The other put me on a plane to Kenya this fall -- for what would prove to be the experience of a lifetime.
Schmidt was suffering from a double whammy of early retirement and premature widowhood. In his loneliness and lack of purpose, he sponsors a poor child overseas and commences a regular correspondence with his adoptee. I thought, this is something I should and could do in my retirement.
And so began a great adventure.
I started with Charity Navigator, a Web-based evaluator of nonprofits, to search for an agency and selected their top-rated one, Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (cfcausa.org). Though founded by Catholics, it is a lay organization without church affiliation. It does not proselytize and takes beneficiaries without regard to faith, race, ethnicity, etc. It also spends an extraordinarily high percentage of its revenues and manpower on those beneficiaries, forswearing expensive TV ads and hefty salaries.
I checked the "neediest" box on the CFCA selection form and was awarded an orphaned Kenyan teenager, Stephen Omondi Okongo.
Both of Stephen's parents had died of AIDS, making him the head of a family of four, two younger brothers and a younger sister. Stephen proved to be a faithful correspondent, sharing with me his struggles of managing a family while getting an education and bringing in a crop in a country at times racked with violent political turmoil and chronic drought. CFCA organizes very inexpensive "mission awareness trips" for sponsors to visit their overseas wards -- thus my venture to Kenya to join 20 other sponsors from all over America.
I arrived in Nairobi on Turkish Airline via Chicago and Istanbul at 1 a.m., 24 hours after leaving Pittsburgh. Wiped out after a long ride through the city, I crashed until noon in the best room I would sleep in for the next 10 days. It was in a charming conference center, behind high security walls, operated by delightful Italian nuns. None of my compatriot sponsors would be arriving until later, so I learned the security procedure for re-entering the compound and took myself on a self-directed foot tour of the area.
The immediate neighborhood consisted of similar fortress compounds. However, just a block around the corner, the crest of a slope revealed a shantytown of dirt alleys winding down a hillside through a sea of tin roofs set atop shacks made of mud and scrap materials, all seemingly interconnected. The alleys, as well as the dirt road leading into the slum, were lined with jerry-rigged vendor stalls, in some cases little more than four shaky posts holding up a stand or a makeshift roof. Potatoes, shoes, grains, haircuts -- you name it and there was a stall selling it. Luxury apartments overlooked the scene from high above a barbed-wire-topped security wall. The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty was striking, one of many stark contrasts I would see in Kenya.
I wandered through the slum, occasionally taking pictures. Though I was the only white person, most people took no note of me and those who did smiled or nodded. On the way back I encountered a half dozen kids coming out of a school yard and asked if I could take their picture. They were delighted to pose and burst into giggles at the sight of their image on the camera's digital screen. Though dressed shabbily, as were most in the slum, they seemed well fed and happy.
The next day after breakfast we were all collected for a presentation on how CFCA works by several members of the local staff. Their core philosophy is to attack poverty one person at a time by keeping families intact and kids in school. Education is the key to lifting people out of poverty. Sound familiar? -- like an Obama speech?
The numbers in Kenya are daunting -- $250 per capita annual income, nearly 50 percent of its 40 million people impoverished. CFCA has about 11,000 beneficiaries here with 1,000 more waiting for sponsors. They administer their support with a staff of 80 -- social workers, accountants, project coordinators, etc. All are Kenyans. As in other countries, CFCA sends no high-cost expats to run the organization, keeping salaries at local scales and assuring aid programs are responsive to the indigenous culture. Absent fathers is a big issue, and to mitigate this CFCA empowers mothers by forming groups of 20 and matching their pooled financial resources to create micro businesses.
While certainly commendable and good to know, none of this was what we had come for. That was next on the agenda as several of the sponsored children and their families joined us. One by one, sponsor and beneficiary were introduced, embraced and cheered by all.
Even though my Stephen was not one of them, it was impossible not to be overcome by the powerful emotion that filled that room. Tears of joy were much in evidence and I am moved now even as I write about it. One memory most vivid is a beautiful 11-year-old girl bonding with her American "auntie" after seven years of talking to each other by mail. They were glued together for the next two days. Clearly, the caring relationship built up through correspondence is as important as material aid in bringing these kids hope.
The next day, with little information on what awaited us, we were bused to a walled compound containing rows of classrooms and a large auditorium. To our great surprise, we were met at the gate by a brass band, then adorned with straw hats and Masai blankets, and paraded into the auditorium past a gantlet of well-wishers. Each of us introduced ourselves on stage to a cheering audience of at least 1,500 of the CFCA family. One group of mothers after another then came to the stage performing song and dance for our entertainment. We were then feted to a banquet of local dishes and left to explore tables set up showing the wares of some of the mothers' micro businesses.
I couldn't imagine Obama being any more welcome here and thought to myself, All this for my $30 a month? It's not that big a deal.
Guess what. It is.
This welcoming ceremony was repeated every day, on a smaller scale, at the subprojects we visited across the country. Singing mothers would greet our bus, moving rhythmically to the beat of their chant. Food and gifts would be presented, bands would play, and we'd be pulled from our seats to join in their dancing.
The end of the week, hundreds of miles from Nairobi, we arrived in Bando in the territory of the Luo tribe by Lake Victoria where I finally got to meet Stephen, grown into manhood at 22. What an exhilarating experience! We were placed in a seat of honor and celebrated with music and food. A five piece "boy's band," which could have as easily been playing zydeco in New Orleans, provided a driving beat with homemade instruments, including an amplified fiddle with a single string that was pulled to change the note. We had lunch together away from the crowd and Stephen told me in halting English he was back in his electrical engineering studies. "I had to stop for a long time because of taking care of family. It has been very hard for us also because of the long drought and the tribal fighting during the election. There are still many people whose homes were destroyed living in tent camps. I thank you and God for our new home."
In Bando we were to visit representative tribal abodes and Stephen's was on the list. This was a special treat for me because I would get to see his new house. Mud houses are common in the rural areas and city slums, the older ones with thatched roofs and no windows or doors.
They are constructed by filling stick frame walls with mud and, after the mud has dried, finishing with a veneer of mud mixed with manure, which has the look and feel of coarse stucco. Stephen's old house still stood on his few acres, a collapsing windowless shell.
His new house, though it lacked plumbing or electricity, sparkled in comparison, with its shinny corrugated roof and brightly colored door and window. Flowers and shrubs adorned the front and potted plants hung from the roof.
One of the other sponsors turned and said to me, "George, you built this house! Must be a great feeling." It really hadn't hit me until then.
That feeling was soon displaced by the sadness of our final departure.
Everywhere we went, be it city, town or tribal village, there were wandering farm animals, street vendors, kids playing, men standing around or sitting on their bikes, women carrying things on their heads (men don't carry) and, with the exception of Luo tribal lands, trash on the ground. This contrasted with the striking scenic beauty of the landscape, from the mile-high Great Riff valley overlook to the expansive savanna game lands, sugar cane fields and rolling lush hills carpeted with tea plantations. Wherever we stopped at a rural hut, we would attract the stares of neighbor kids, some of whom were seeing their first white people.
Riding through the country reminded me of boating on a lake -- everyone waves as you go by, and I got the feeling I was waving back across a time abyss of a thousand years. You could not find a friendlier people. In my 35 years traveling the world for work, no one came close to being as welcoming.
The people I met were bright, industrious and, despite their poverty, joyful. Their government is not. A common object of derision, it is seen as corrupt and incompetent, failing to deliver services as fundamental as a public high school system.
On my last day we toured Nairobi's Kibara slum, home to nearly 2 million, making it one of the world's largest. A bustling shantytown of unbelievably wretched squalor, it is the residence of 600 CFCA beneficiaries, several of whom we met -- a hair dresser, a food vendor, a mother of 10 living in two rooms, a tailor sewing clothes. I broke away from our group and stuck my head in the open door of what looked to be the back room of a tavern. Some 15 young men were watching a soccer game on TV. A tall, lanky 20-year-old standing by the door smiled and invited me in. "What are you people doing in the slum?" he asked. I told him we were sponsors. He said, "It is wonderful what you people are doing." In the middle of the slum we passed through a gate to another world, a YMCA primary school yard teeming with little kids in bright blue uniforms.
One of them reached up and put his hand in mine. I have no words for the feeling of that moment. Another looked at me through an open classroom window and said, "I want a sponsor."
Intellectually, I got rid of the baggage of racism in college. This trip to Kenya took care of any residue on the hidden side of my brain. The Kenyans we spent 10 days with have strikingly different lives from us, yet these differences were quickly overwhelmed by our sameness. I visited an academic community in Siberia a few years ago and was struck by the contrast of cultured people in an ugly run down town. First World people in a Third World country, I thought. Visiting Kenya has made clear, there are only First World people.
A last word about my fellow sponsors: librarian, orthodontist, engineer, nurse, teacher -- men, women -- conservatives, liberals -- from California to Rhode Island, from age 27 to 79. Just everyday folks reaching out a helping hand. We all agreed on one thing -- if you like to feel useful and appreciated -- and who doesn't? -- there is no more powerful way to spend $30 a month.
First Published December 13, 2009 12:00 am