Africa

Kenya

Dreams of Kisumu

Schoolmaster Ombambo believes that any child, given the right foundation and support, can succeed despite their background. (All photos courtesy of Cherie Catron)

Walking the dirt streets of Kisumu, Kenya, on a short-term mission trip with 24 Americans confirmed everything we heard or read about the devastation of AIDS and the degree of poverty in Africa, but it was the plight of so many children that we found the most dismal and unforgettable.

According to UNICEF, millions of African children have been orphaned by AIDS and other diseases. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the number of orphans has grown from 1 million in 1990 to over 11 million by 2001. In many African countries, as many as one out of four children will be orphaned. By merely calculating the current numbers of HIV and AIDS infected parents, the number is expected to double again by 2010. These children are all too often left to a future of abuse, starvation, crime, sickness, sexual predation, and even torture. Yet, in the midst of this misery, we found four stories of hope.

Their stories cry out of pain, asking not for pity, but for aid as they pursue their passionate dreams. Their dreams are not like the American dreams of success and fame, but dreams formed from immense suffering, built of sacrifice with no promise of financial profit.

A comfortable family chooses to move into a slum, adopt an orphan, and build a church with no promise of a church building. A schoolmaster gives up his living room for a classroom, feeds his students from his own kitchen, and builds a five-room school with his own hands, offering an affordable education to poor children with no promise of a future. A sickly widow, living in a mud hut with a dirt floor, chooses to take in over 20 orphans with little means to feed them and no promise of survival.

A fourth-grade dropout serves as a translator, eloquently interpreting three different languages. Working as a motivational speaker and evangelist, he challenges college students and street boys alike while supporting his four younger brothers, at the same time keeping them off the streets and in school with no promise of reward.

Their stories are set in the small slum of Manyatta within Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya. Each one is driven by the pain of their past kept ever so fresh in their minds as they walk down the red clay streets of their community, as sewage leaks out of the gutters, where barefoot, neglected children play among goats and chickens, all scavenging for food.

Their task is overwhelming, but Pastor Michael Omollo contends without fear or doubts that, "We will reach a million souls. Yes, Africa will be saved." Looking at his resources, one would be tempted to smile skeptically at such a claim, but Pastor Omollo does not blink, waiver, or even smile when he says it. His mild, soft-spoken demeanor turns stoic at any attempt to question his ability. He stands firm and repeats his objective again, as if it is already a fact. For Pastor Omollo, there is no room for doubt or even questions: the stakes are far too high. He knows there are millions who need help. He believes he has the answer, so there is no need or room for further discussion or doubt.

Pastor Omollo does not have a church building. He preaches in a small classroom, offered free of charge, at the Kisumu Elite Academy. This modest concrete structure emerges from the filthy streets of Manyatta in stark contrast to the bleak disorder surrounding it. The school is "elite" by Kenya's standards, but far from the elite academies of America. The schoolmaster is Michael Ombambo, who invites us to spend a day at his school, sharing stories of America together with stories from the Bible. Meeting in his living room, which has been turned into a computer lab, we discover that we are standing in the midst of his dream emerging into reality. Ombambo is not only a schoolmaster and teacher, but also the custodian, cook, and carpenter, having built the tin-roofed, concrete-walled structure himself cutting the wooden beams with a chainsaw. He also used the chainsaw to cut wood, one of the three jobs he held to supplement his income before he had enough students to pay his teachers. However, his attention soon turned from cutting wood to developing the curriculum as his enrollment increased from less than 10 students, just over a year ago, to more than 70, in July.

When asked what drives him to make such sacrifices in the face of such poverty, he tells us a story about three students at the top of their class. Of the three, he was the only student who made it out of poverty though they all had the same potential. The main difference, as Ombambo explains, was a single teacher, who believed in him, encouraged him, and even financially supported him when he could not afford to continue his education. As a result, he was able to complete college and dream of providing a better life for African children through education. His dreams became reality when he established Kisumu Elite Academy.

Surrounded by poverty, it is not hard to imagine that one of his greatest struggles is collecting fees from his poor students. He states that his tuition is lower than most other schools, and he often works with parents to set up financial plans they can afford. He currently offers free tuition to two AIDS orphans. When finances were tight, or to fund further expansions, he sold many of his few possessions, like his car, which he once used to earn an income as a taxi driver. Contrary to the schoolmasters sometimes depicted in movies, he is a generous and caring man, often loaning his students change to take the public bus home. Their welfare is always his primary consideration.

One other member of our group noticed the meticulous account the teachers took of student attendance. A teacher explained that child trafficking and sexual abuse is a real threat. A child had recently been attacked near the school, so they take great care to ensure the children are picked up by the appropriate person. We also noticed children at the school as late as 5 p.m., when we would leave our meetings. The teacher further explained that this was very common, as he would not allow the children to leave without a parent or guardian. When a parent cannot make it, as often happens, a child will stay late into the evening and may even spend the night.

Schoolmaster Ombambo believes he helping to shape the future of Kenya by educating the younger generation and providing them with "a firm foundation" (the school's motto). He believes that any child, given the right foundation and support, can succeed despite their background, but is quick to ask, "How do you expect the feeble to survive in the jungle without support and protection?" He hopes to build a brighter future for his students by challenging them, encouraging them, and protecting them.

Unfortunately, not all the children of Manyatta can attend the school; many peer over the barbed wire fences surrounding the school, listening in and watching the school children playfully learning. According to UNICEF, Kisumu now offers free public education for primary school children, yet we encountered large numbers of children on the other side of the school fence. It appears that their education is still not entirely free: they must buy uniforms and other school supplies. Some children we met claimed they were forced to leave their schools when they could not afford their fees. And according to UNICEF, orphaned children are likely to drop out of school for a myriad of factors. One common reason is that nearly an entire generation of their families, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles has been wiped out by HIV and AIDS, leaving no one to take care of them or to provide them with guidance and supervision. Others leave school to nurse sick relatives or to work to support their siblings.

An interpreter for our group, Joel Pauls, now 27-years-old, was once one of those children. He dropped out of school in the fourth grade. He and Pastor Omollo share another dream. Although there is no biological relation, the two men call themselves twins because their connection is as strong as kinship. They share twin stories. Both were neglected, orphaned street boys who fought their way up the brutal street hierarchy to become notorious ringleaders. Both experienced dramatic conversions at an Evangelical Christian crusade, and both are driven to change the plight of street boys. While Omollo pastors a budding new church, Pauls is an evangelist, speaking and motivating with his message: "No man is too scrap beyond repair" — one of his many coined expressions. Sitting in Pastor Omollo's living room, the two men share their stories. One starts and the other continues. Their stories are intertwined. The word, twin, seems to describe their bond perfectly.

Individually, Pauls has dreams much like that of Omollo: to preach and to teach countless Africans, but together they have another vision that they say, "cries out from the pain" of their past. The two men recount their horrendous experiences as street boys, going through torturous initiations at the age of eight and nine, eating trash, sleeping in filthy sewers, and fleeing from mob justice and the police. They say it was "survival of the fittest." Only the absolute strongest survive. Being tough enough to survive into their teenage years, they called themselves "ninjas." Pauls recounts a story when he and two other street boys robbed a grocery store. The other two boys were shot and killed. He remembers vividly knowing his "colleagues" were dead when he saw their blood flowing into the gutters as he was trying to escape.

Like his unfortunate colleagues, many street children do not survive into adulthood. Pauls states that a recent study estimated nearly 3,000 children are on the streets of Kisumu alone. UNICEF's research substantiates their claims. In the last year and a half, Pauls and Omollo have attended over 200 funerals of just those street children they know. He and Omollo also explain why many initiatives to help street orphans fail. Omollo states, "It is one thing to take a boy out of the street, but it is another thing to take the street out of him." Both men believe that most orphanages fail to understand or address the effects that street life has on a child, psychologically and spiritually. Often the conditions in an orphanage are no better than the conditions on the streets; caregivers have become overwhelmed with the vast number of children who need help. As one widow states, "People used to care for the orphans … but these days there are so many, and many people have died who could have assisted them … The few that are alive cannot support them" (quoted by UNICEF).

"How can I be silent while my generation perishes," Pauls paraphrases from the biblical Esther story. He goes on to articulate how terrible he feels knowing there are so many dying around him that could become the doctors, preachers, and teachers of tomorrow. The two men propose an initiative to start a rehabilitation center to reform the boys from "the inside out," addressing the psychological damage of being neglected, abused, and malnourished. They envision a center that provides more than just food and shelter because they know what the street orphans have been through and what changed their own lives. They believe they have the answer, but need the resources and direction to see their dream become a reality.

Finally, we visit Silviah Odongo, who was widowed just days before we arrived. With the death of her husband, her dreams seemed to be fading. Pauls interpreted her story, which she told in her native dialect, Luo (the native language of the Luo tribe living in Manyatta). Sickly, she sits in a broken-down chair in her mud hut, which is filled with over 20 children from infancy to adolescence. Once again, her story is filled with pain and compassion. When asked if she ever had to turn a child away, her response was, "Never. I was born for sympathy. Whenever I see a child who is crying because she has lost her parents, I begin to cry. No. I cannot turn anyone away." She goes on to explain how her faith in Jesus has kept her going in the face of such desperation.

Despite living in one of the most primitive huts in the slum of Manyatta, word of her compassion spread quickly, and so the children come. Often she even finds babies abandoned around her hut, left out in her yard. Although Pauls states that her living conditions are the most pathetic he has ever encountered, the children cling to her appreciatively for the sacrifices she has made for them. Two of the infants, asleep behind us, were sick and in need of medical care. Odongo states that the dirt floor hurts the children's backs and causes all sorts of sicknesses. Several of them were currently in a hospital. A handful of teenagers assist her with the younger children, but they should be in school. Unable to pay their fees, they were sent home. When we left her, she had no means to support or feed the children or herself other than from the small crops she grows in her yard and the milk from a cow. Her hut is small and cramped, but her heart is large and generous.

Odongo faces impossible odds, and unfortunately, she is not alone in her struggle. UNICEF reports a similar story of a single mother in a Nairobi slum: 40-years old, she cares for eight orphans in addition to her seven biological children, selling vegetables and often sending them to school hungry. Without support, the children Odongo and others care for may very well end up on the streets. Yet, there is still hope.

Since our group left Kisumu, Pastor Omollo along with another Kenyan, Milton Mao, who works for an outreach organization called Navigators, has been following up with her to connect her with additional assistance, but her needs are still great, like so many others. UNICEF's reports not only spell out the grave state of millions of African children, but also propose a strategy for change. Their findings, like the dreams of Kisumu, offer "hope in the face of an epic disaster." If you would like to become a part of the solution, please visit the following links.

The Navigators. Learn how Kenyans like Milton Mao are helping others through Navigators.

UNICEF. For more information about AIDS orphans all over the world.

e3 Partners. Learn more about short-term trips to Africa.

If you would like to learn more about helping the specific people mentioned, you can contact the author at kisumudreams@hotmail.com.

Pastor Michael Omollo, c/o Springs of Living Water International Ministries, P.O. Box 41251, Kisumu, Kenya.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Cherie Catron.

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