When I joined the board of Jitegemee last year, I knew only what founder Farah Stockman had told me about Africa and the street children she had taught there. I spent a lot of time before the trip looking at maps of Kenya and reading about Machakos, the semi-rural town southeast of Nairobi, where Jitegemee runs a scholarship program for homeless and destitute kids. Of course, nothing could have prepared me for the trip I made this summer with four other Jitegemee board members.
All of us had saved up our own money to make the journey possible, but none of us were sure of what to expect. Our two hectic weeks in Kenya were an immersion course in the challenges that shape street children’s lives and the institutions that strive to remove those obstacles. We saw doctors who provide health care for poor children, government employees and private administrators who are developing programs to help children like ours, and teachers who believe that street children can attain as much success as any other children in the world. All of these people showed me that we are not alone in trying to change the lives of Kenya’s street children. And, of course, the highlight of it all: we met the kids.
The first morning after our plane landed in Nairobi, the Kenyan teachers who work with our program came to meet us. We made each other’s acquaintance in traditional Kenyan style, taking our time and talking over sweet milk tea. Despite our very different backgrounds, the Kenyans and the Americans grew into one team very quickly. The head teacher, Alex Mutiso, asked deliberate, thoughtful questions about what we hoped to get out of our visit. The other teacher, Sammy Mutiso, joked around and made everyone feel as if we’d known him forever. And Eva Kivuva, who is helping us set up a new vocational workshop, responded to every potential challenge we encountered with entrepreneurial creativity. It was my first moment of unexpected inspiration. They were just as Farah had described, but smarter, more ambitious, and more caring than I ever dared to guess.
After tea, we headed out for the first of many meetings with groups that serve street children in various ways. We visited the clinic of Dr. Thomas Olewe, who oversees a health care program subsidized by missionaries. Dr. Olewe had the quiet, assured manner of someone who knows that good work speaks for itself. We met for an hour, and in that time, we were easily convinced that he could provide an answer to one of our biggest problems: What to do when one of our students falls seriously ill. For about $10 per year, per child, Dr. Olewe’s organization would give our children annual check-ups – the first in their lives – eye care, medicine, basic surgery, and AIDS education.
We looked across the table at each other, relieved and ecstatic. Finally, kids like Mutindi Kimatu, an 8th grader who suffers from mild seizures and frequently blacks out in class, would be able to get help. Last year, we never would have been able to afford Dr. Olewe’s service or the tests that Mutindi needs. But this year, we could make it possible.
The next day, we finally made the one-hour drive to Machakos, and there I made the most inspiring discovery of the trip: I met the kids. Muli Kieti, a lanky 14-year-old boy, met me at our modest guest house to show me around town. We visited the crisply painted compound of Muli’s elementary school – the place that Jitegemee sponsors made it possible for him to attend – and passed by mouthwatering piles of tropical fruit in the town market. As we walked, Muli talked about his hopes for getting into a high school with boarding facilities and his dream of being an engineer. Then he took me to the three-room mud house he shares with a dozen sisters, brothers and cousins. Twice orphaned – his mother and his aunt both passed away – Muli now depends on his 18-year-old sister to care for all the children there.
Muli’s family is as poor as any family I have ever met. They often do not have money to pay the rent. They do not have enough kerosene for Muli and his brothers to have reading light for their homework. And many nights, they go to bed without supper and get up without breakfast. In Muli’s house, I knew that the shiny, ripe fruit we had seen in the market were nearly as exotic to Muli as they had been to me.
Yet, Muli has an immense trust that something will change for the better, and a real joy in the things that are good in his life. During my visit with Muli, I was struck by the realization that I had expected something entirely different. I had steeled myself to meet children beaten down by the reality of a difficult existence, children whose grief made them unable to see that life might be different someday. Instead, Muli and the other children I met in Machakos deepened my understanding of human resilience and hope. Despite their hunger, their need for such basic items as shoes and clothing, and the time that many have spent living on the street, they are still, just like children everywhere, innocent and expectant.
I believe that all people start out with hope like Muli’s, but many lose it, and I know that Jitegemee has nurtured Muli’s hope by opening up possibilities for him. It was intensely gratifying to see first-hand that Jitegemee is working. Our scholarships are not only giving children a future, they’re changing the present for these children. Jitegemee’s scholars know first-hand that hard work can be rewarding and that there are people out there who care enough to make their lives more manageable.
By Michelle Sullivan