Day 4: Open Hand Orphanage, Nairobi

February 25th 2009, 17:00

Jane, who runs our guesthouse, is one of four directors of an orphanage in Githurai, one of the few stone buildings on the edge of one of Nairobi’s 183 slums. Thursday was her visiting day and she was happy to take us along. We arrived just in time for a bible reading, which was weird because only the previous day, I’d told Alex I’d like to go to one. I’m not religious, and don’t believe in God, which is not something I’d recommend bringing up in conversation in Africa (and many other parts of the world), but I can’t help having respect for many of the principles, even if I have trouble with the God part specifically. But something was working in mysterious ways. The kids were at school, the babies were asleep, we all sat round a table in the courtyard, an island of order and calm, as Jessie, another director, read a passage out loud. 

It was a story about giving thanks, about how twelve people had been cured of things and, of the twelve, only one returned to the temple to give thanks. “Only one out of twelve,” said Jessie when she’d finished reading, folding her glasses and closing her copy of the bible. The day we arrived in Nairobi, we’d read in a newspaper in the back of Francis’ car about a disaster in which a fuel tanker had spilled its load. People had tried to collect the spilt fuel, in an area of poverty people tend to try to make the most of every opportunity that comes their way, but it caught fire and the whole lot went up in flames. Hundreds of people had died and the death toll was still rising. The event had reminded Jessie of the passage and to be thankful for what she had, in the face of what so many had lost. Jane also gave thanks, for us as her visitors and for the donation to the orphanage that Dad had made during his last visit to Nairobi. I also had many reasons to be thankful; for my trip with Alex, for the care taken of us so far, for the opportunity to see the things I’d seen, and for the visit to the orphanage. I just don’t know how to thank God. Too many other people seem responsible. I made a mental note to thank them. But I couldn’t give thanks for being spared from a disaster. That seems too cruel to those less lucky. 

After the bible reading, lunch was served – kidney beans and maize. All over the world, home cooked food is often better than the stuff you get in hotels or restaurants. I have an ignorant pallet, I can’t tell you how it was flavoured and seasoned, all I can tell you is that it was delicious. Then Jessie took me on a tour, which didn’t take long because the place is smaller than the ground floor of my parents’ house. It was impossible to see how they found room for 36 children. Most of the time, they have about 20 of them because the older ones go to boarding school, but during the holidays, they had all 36 mouths to feed and beds to find. The number used to be 37, but on the day we’d arrived in Nairobi, one of the babies, Lucy, had been the latest of only 5 kids to be adopted (apparently most often by Germans). Jane had been too sad to visit the orphanage that day. The staff have no say in who adopts the children, other than to report any potential parents who don’t seem suitable. Until then, they’re mothers with many children, any of whom could be taken away at any time, which is the ideal result. All of the food and clothing is stored in a room smaller than my bedroom. Two kittens, little more than fur and bone, keep it free of mice, without which they are vegetarian. The orphanage receives no financial help from the government, whose only role is to make sure they stick to the rules, and rely entirely on donations and whatever income the directors can provide, as Jane does with her guesthouse operation. 

Noah, who was splashing around in one of the water basins, interrupted us. “Noah! Don’t drink that water. Noah! Don’t drink it!” Jane shouted. But Noah took it as encouragement rather than a warning. “No, Noah! Tsk, now he’ll be sick and we’ll have to take him to hospital.” Jane and Jessie burst into exasperated laughter. 

More of the kids were coming back from school. Immediately, they spotted Alex for a walking, talking climbing frame and were all over him within minutes. I was jealous, I’m not so good with kids, but they soon worked out what to do with me and had me spinning them round in circles. I managed not to smack anyone in the head with a flying foot. 

There was one girl in particular that I fell for, Faith. She’d been at the orphanage since only a couple of weeks old. Like most of the kids there she wasn’t an orphan, she’d been abandoned. Her mother had left her behind the wheel of a truck, knowing the likelihood of what would happen. Her screaming saved her. Shortly afterwards, she suffered a stroke that paralysed the right side of her body. With a lot of effort from both her and the staff at the orphanage, she’s built up her strength and, although the signs are still visible, she’s very active and not far from physically 'normal'. But I had an idea of how this might be affecting her; I recognised the exaggerated bends in her wrist and elbow and her refusal to high five me with her right hand. I'd suffered a similar kind of stroke when I was born, the problem was even on the same side as mine. She reminded me of an unluckier me.

Having fallen asleep on the flight to Nairobi, I’d missed the duty free trolley and couldn’t buy any presents. A kind Virgin Atlantic airhostess gave me a bag of chocolates the staff had been sharing with about 10 bars left. There were twice as many children at the orphanage, but when we dished the chocolates out, they broke them into pieces, ate one and, without being asked, returned the rest to the orphanage staff for further distribution, meaning there was just about enough. When I came back into the room with my camera, they all waved the wrappers in the air, shouting ‘thank you!’

Time passes quickly when you’re playing with kids; soon it was time to leave. But we would return.

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