From Death’s Door To Mama Na Dada by Michelle Henderson

Living in Kunya village has been a remarkable experience thus far. It could not be farther or further from San Francisco, aside from the fact that it is right on the coast of Lake Victoria, so I enjoy beautiful views of the water and sail boats carrying fisherman as they pass.

I am learning a little Luo, the primary language spoken in the village. It is challenging. The more I learn, the more people talk to me in Luo and I have no idea what they are saying. Even though the primary language taught in school is English, everyone prefers to speak in Luo. Many people, especially the children and youth in school, actually understand and are able to speak decent English but they are often embarrassed to try. I will have to keep encouraging people to make the effort so that my tiny circle of friends will grow.

My primary work in the village is on a Memory Box Project with clients of a home-based health care program for people living with HIV/AIDS or those with family members who have HIV/AIDS. The purpose of the project is to encourage those living with HIV/AIDS and their family members to talk about their lives, to share their experiences, family stories & traditions, hopes for their children’s futures, even living wills and to keep them safe in a box for their families, children and future generations. I brought a recorder and a Polaroid camera to document the meetings with the clients and family members. I visit people with a Luo translator named Wilkister, who is the administrator of Mama na Dada. She is also the one who will transcribe the conversations in Luo so that families can have a copy for their Memory Boxes. The project has been well received but some are still hesitant to share openly. With multiple visits, Wilkister feels that people will start to open up a bit more.

When I am not visiting clients, I volunteer at the daycare and nursery school for orphans ages 2 – 6. Working with the kids is so much fun. They are too young to have learned any English in school; however, as I am an adult working as one of their caregivers, they can’t quite grasp that I don’t understand Luo. A child named Kennedy, who is quite brave, keeps talking to me in Luo in spite of my telling him in Luo that I don’t understand the language. His response is to simply repeat what he said but in a louder voice, which makes me laugh and then he laughs and this happens a few times a day. It doesn’t really matter that we cannot verbally communicate well because they like me for helping to feed them, play with them, teach them the alphabet and their numbers in English and occasionally bring them balloons or other small gifts.

Funding for the daycare center was generated by volunteers who were in the village in June. The community health care workers who conduct weekly home visits to their clients with HIV/AIDS noticed that many of the children were not being properly cared for. One day, one of the workers found a 4-year-old boy named Gidi lying listlessly on a mattress virtually dead. His 2-year-old brother, Tony, was also sick and malnourished, and had not yet learned to walk. The client had been their mother, who passed away from AIDS weeks before and the worker was conducting a follow-up with the widow.

With their father’s permission, she took Gidi and Tony from the home and went with the volunteers to the local clinic to get them treatment. The doctor said there was nothing he could do for Gidi and that he would soon die. The volunteers said they would pay to take Gidi and Tony to the hospital in Kisumu (the third largest city in Kenya) and pay for their treatment. Gidi spent the first week in intensive care and another 2 weeks in the hospital recovering and regaining his strength. Aside from being HIV positive, he had contracted a host of other illnesses, primarily related to malnutrition. Tony was in better health than Gidi, tested negative for HIV and returned home after a week.

Fortunately, with the help of the volunteers and the women at Mama na Dada, both Gidi and Tony are doing very well. They are now running around and playing with the rest of the children. I can’t wait to show you all a photos of them. Gidi is a wise, old man in a 4-year-old’s body. He jokes around all day and laughs every time an adult tries to scold him, as if to tell us all “don’t take life so seriously; we are here to have fun!” Even at the age of 4, he told one of the daycare teachers that he did not want to return home because his father cannot take care of him, so she and her husband became his informal guardians. Gidi’s older sister, Mercy, age 7, is now the woman of the house since her mother died and must look after her two other brothers, cook, clean, etc.

I am amazed each day by these children’s strength. Some of them walk far distances by themselves to get to and from the daycare every day. Needless to say, when the volunteers learned that there were many other orphans like Gidi and his siblings, they began fundraising to start the daycare so that these children would have breakfast, lunch and a bath everyday, and enjoy a safe place to play and learn while their parents, relatives or guardians are working. I only hope that the daycare will continue, as it has become a vital part of these orphans ability to live and thrive.

Read more about Michelle’s experiences in Beauty of Humanity in Times of Adversity.

Michelle Henderson
San Francisco, USA
September 2005