Watoto Wote Wazuri

Nyumbani Village: An oasis of good will and common cause

Posted in AIDS Orphans by Lynn Ouellette on 02/04/2010

We returned from Nyumbani Village in Kitui last evening, but fatigue, slow internet access, but mostly time to process the experience so that I could even begin to do it justice, kept me from posting yesterday. I feel as though I should write a book after a three day experience there and even then it would be hard to put into words……

Kitui is almost 4 hours away from Karen and even the ride was interesting as we passed different areas through villages with markets, people herding their cattle on the side of the road, mountains with terraced gardens and saw giraffes and camels as we passed through the bush areas.

Typical roadside image

We were warmly (an understatement as is the case in all of Kenya) welcomed to the village and given an introduction and tour to start. We learned of a community dedicated to caring for about 450 AIDS orphans matched in groups of 10 with grandmothers or “shoshos”  (susus? sp) who care for them in very small, simple (2 rooms, no power, very primitive “toilets”) stone houses that have been built from bricks made from the soil right there on the land. The houses are arranged in groups of 4 around a common water area and this is referred to as a cluster. The goal of this arrangement is to preserve the village life of the Kamba tribe as much as possible since most of the people come from this local tribe. All food preparation is done over an open fire outside. Contrary to my prior understanding all of the children are “double AIDS orphans” but most are not infected with the HIV virus. Many, however, were rescued from conditions in which they were not being cared for by any adult and were left to care for themselves in horrendous circumstances.

We learned that in addition to preserving the culture,that the Village is committed to sustainability in a way that is beyond anything I have ever seen (and I have been exposed to communities focused on sustainability before). They are doing organic farming, raising crops for biofuel, raising animals for milking, collecting human waste for fertilizer, (they use urine to kill termite hills and we all “contributed”), etc, etc. Literally nothing is wasted. Water is in very short supply, the rains are unreliable, but they have creatively addressed these problems. The sustainability projects are fascinating and many.

Signs at Nyumbani Village

The children go to school right in the village and are some of the most successful students in Kenya. They go to school at 6:30 AM and study until the teacher arrives at 8, have a full day of school and those who are beyond the equivalent of 5th grade return for preps, a self driven homework session in the evening at 6:30 until 8:30. Their school uniforms (required in all schools in Kenya) are made in their polytechnic program as is every piece of furniture in the village. There is a medical clinic and a counseling service and regular home visits are part of the routine assessment of children and how families (one “grandmother” caring for 10 children) are assessed.

Nyumbani Village orphans in the school yard

There’s so much more to say, but enough of the description… Our first evening, some of us did a home visit with one of the social workers. We received the most incredible welcome, first with 2 shoshos engaging us in dance and song and then the girls of the house were so excited to do a welcome performance for us—this was a traditional tribal dance and song done by 4 girls 6-11 and was wild and beautiful. They did not want us to leave and it was clear that they were all doing well, the house well maintained and there was much love and pride.

The following morning I spent doing home visits with the social worker and brought art from the Jordan Acres students. The grandmothers were so excited, welcoming, grateful…we taped the art on the walls where it adds much color to the sepia colored bricks. After visiting about 12 homes, we brought art to the schools where we showed it to the students and hung it on the walls there. The teachers were equally excited and the students were so curious and interested. Jordan Acres artists, your art now hangs in Kenya where students and others are really appreciating it. They have just begun to incorporate a creative arts program at the school so these and all the supplies were so appreciated.

Shoshos holding prints by Jordan Acres students

In the afternoon, I worked with students who are in the “Young Ambassadors Club” who were thrilled to be making art to go back to the US. They were focused on artistic posters that would tell American students about Kenya and they did a wonderful job. This is only some of the art I will be bringing back. After we finished I had the pleasure of joining a “drama” class in progress—really a high energy singing and dancing extravaganza that I captured on videotape.

On the following day we went to church, Kenyan style, an uplifting musical experience with a young priest, Father Julius, who has a sense of humor and totally engages the children who all leave school to attend in a huge migration of green uniforms from the school yard.

I then had the honor of meeting with Lilian, the counselor for all of Nyumbani Village who briefed me about four adolescent boys whom she wanted me to see. I assumed that she would be with me, but that was only true for the first boy since he didn’t speak English. So I saw him with her and then interviewed three others with my psychiatrist hat on taking into account the context of the culture and circumstances that she had shared with me. I have to say it was an amazing experience as all of these boys were very forthcoming and open with me and had incredible, tragic, heartbreaking, but in many ways resilient stories to tell. While I can’t give the details, one told me he wants to be a lawyer and an advocate as his future goal—I believe he will do that. Lilian and I then talked about interventions and I felt that I had been helpful; Lilian was effusively grateful telling me that I had made a huge difference in the lives of these four boys since they do not have access to psychiatric services and that I “must come back for a few weeks and get right to work.” She will keep me informed of their progress by e-mail and asked me “Did you ever imagine when you were training, that you would be having these clients in Kenya?”

Wandering through the village there were always happy friendly people, delightful children with broad smiles always delivering hugs with great exuberance. And the shoshos….they are hard to describe, they are the most enthusiastic women who break into dance on a moments notice, give you the special forceful but friendly three part Kamba handshake followed one of several greetings in the Kikamba language, and if you don’t have the appropriate response, they just keep laughing and greeting you until you remember which one applies! They are the hardest working women I have ever met raising 10 children in primitive conditions, tending gardens and on the side they all weave beautiful baskets which are sold for miniscule prices to help support their families. We all bought many of these.

Shosho making a basket

Elizabeth, shosho (grandmother) to Mercy, the beautiful child at the start of this post and me holding one of her baskets that I bought.

In fact, the village is filled with the hardest working people I have ever met, staff included. Staff and teachers live in the village and work incredible hours and all are devoted to the children of Nyumbani and take pride in the mission of the Village. The work itself is hard and long and  it is also extremely hot, and since we lived in the village while there, I can say that the conditions are hard even with our luxury accommodations (stone toilets with no plumbing but at least we had seats, inside running water). Everything is hand washed for 10 children, all the meals are prepared over the outside fire, and children often wash their own clothes. We saw children of 5 or 6 gathering firewood. Clothing is worn and tattered, does not fit, children are without underwear (we brought lots as a donation) and shoes often don’t fit. Tom brought 20 pairs of running shoes, but those will be “communal shoes” shared for sporting events, no one child can own them. Life is very hard work and resources are scarce. There is, nonetheless, something very magical about the village, its spirit, the culture, the tradition, and the enormous sense of pride and community. I had anticipated I might feel some sadness being exposed to children who were AIDS orphans but, except for the individual interviews I did in the clinic, I felt none of that. I felt moved to tears on many occasions, but it wasn’t sadness, it was the recognition of this oasis of good will and common cause that is saving lives and that people are thriving because of it. They live simply, by our standards they live extremely sparsely, but they really celebrate life. There is much we can learn from the people of Nyumbani Village.

6 Responses

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  1. Judy said, on 02/04/2010 at 2:44 pm

    You wrote beautifully of your experience thus far. My favorite books are one’s that transport me to another place. I just experienced a piece of Kenya. Thanks.


    • Lynn said, on 02/04/2010 at 2:58 pm

      Thanks Judy! I can barely begin to describe this on the blog since there is so much more to say. And I am so diassappointed not to be able to share the photos as they are amazing and the visual images tell so much of the story, but I will share those later. The internet may work better in the morning (it’s almost 11PM here now) and it seems slower this time of night so I may try again. If not, then later…….. and I have lots of video footage of amazing singing and dancing.


  2. Vicki & Mark Myers said, on 02/04/2010 at 8:39 pm

    Dear Lynn,
    You do not know me but my husband Mark is a patient of Dr. Keating’s. He shared your blog with us and I must say it’s great and I am enjoying it. I look forward to reading and seeing updates of your trip everyday. This is an amazing contributiion to mankind that you are doing. You are two of the most wonderful people, we love Dr. Keating of course. He is such a very nice man and great doctor (very humble). Mark wouldn’t have had treatment for his cancer if not for Dr. Keating. Looking forward to your updates on all the great work you are doing in Kenya. And we loved the picture of Dr. Keating holding the little girl in the pink hoodie, (she’s adorable). You can just see the love and compassion in his eyes.
    Enjoy your journey.
    Vicki Myers


  3. Anita said, on 02/06/2010 at 6:05 pm

    AMAZING AMAZING AMAZING. i keep thinking how it’s so perfect that YOU are doing this. SOmeone who will dive into the entire experience fully and be able to capture all the amazing details with your great writing, beautiful photography and keen sense of observation and general loving and positive attitude. I’m so happy for you to be there experiencing all of this and i’m so happy to be able to experience it vicariously through you! I can’t wait to hear and see more!



  4. Jane Quinlan said, on 02/14/2010 at 8:28 pm

    Hi Lynn. Just started reading your blog. What an incredible experience. Thank you so much for your blog…what a great way to stay connected with everyone. Looking forward to reading all of your entries. fondly, janie


  5. Lloydie said, on 02/19/2010 at 12:17 pm

    Jambo Lynn, I finally had time to check out your blog again and your photo of Mercy grabbed my heart. I did not see her in my latest and last visit to the village but I will find her when I return in June and get an updated photo of her for you. Missing you all the way from Kenya! Mungu akubariki, Lloydie


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