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SmileBlog

SmileBlog

Christmas in Kisii

After nearly a year in India volunteering at a leprosy community, I've traveled to Nairobi, Kenya to spend six months collaborating with Jared Akama and his NGO, CEPACET, which serves Kenya's vulnerable children and underserved communities.

The challenges and complexities of living in poverty in Africa, from the little I've seen, are similar to what I saw in India and also vastly different.

It seems harder. There are issues of hopelessness and despair in the people, created not only by being in poverty but also by extremely harsh, unsanitary living conditions in slums, lack of government support, broken families (it's not uncommon to meet single mothers with several children living on $1-2/day), as well as drug and alcohol use.

It inspires me to think about how any seeds we plant over the coming months, could in a small way, help to bring some goodness to the tough situations I'll be in.

Celebrating Orphan Children

You could say that the first formal activity here was helping to provide a Christmas celebration to a group of 200 orphan children from Kisii—a beautiful, tribal farming village about 6 hours outside of Nairobi.

Mother Nature's glory abounds in Kisii. It is made up of highly fertile land, alive with the African spirit, with pure mineral water streams, vast tea fields and farms, and is almost entirely untouched by modern society. There isn't electricity in most of the area, you even have to walk into town to charge your phone!

Just about everybody who lives in Kisii, lives off the land and farms to make a living, primarily through tea cultivation. Not much money can be made with farming and, with the rising cost of household goods, this is why so many villagers are moving to big cities like Nairobi in search of opportunity (only to find they don't have the proper education to find better paying jobs and so end up in slums performing menial labor).

Being a remote village, you have to travel some distance to see a doctor. That travel costs time and money, time and money that isn't typically available in the daily struggle to earn.

It's for these reasons there are so many orphan children in the area, somewhere around 2,000 I heard. The majority have lost their parents to diseases (including unknown/untreated HIV/AIDS) that might have been able to be treated if there were local, affordable medical care. As Jared put it, "People don't know they're sick until it's too late."

Jared was born in Kisii and grew up there on his family's farm.

Jared and his grandmother.

Jared and his grandmother.

I asked Jared why he gave up his career path to start an NGO and pursue a life of service to his country's needy populations.

He said: 1) He didn't feel fulfilled in his paid work as a medic but that working with communities made him feel fulfilled and 2) He knows what it's like to go to bed hungry, as he grew up poor. He said he often wished somebody would come and help him out—now, he's that somebody.

This is why, in conjunction with the community leadership, he helps to organize and fund an annual Christmas celebration for a healthy portion of the orphan children living in Kisii.

I decided to help Jared with his fundraising efforts and sent a few emails out while I was still living in India. Within a matter of days, about $1,000 came in. Jared would tell me later that without that support, the event would have been canceled.

It was a beautiful celebration. Nearly 200 children showed up and all left with big smiles on their faces, which was the whole point.

Highlights

This video shows some traditional singing and dancing from the welcome ceremony. The women you see are members of a volunteer group who act as surrogate mothers and grandmothers to the orphans, overseeing their care.

May I also say they took care of me that day. The moment they welcomed us with their beautiful singing was the moment when my grief from leaving India dissipated.

We distributed baking supplies so that the children's guardian parents could cook a traditional Kenyan sweet, Andazi, a favorite around Christmas.

After the baking supplies were distributed, it was time to open the "smile bag" I brought from India. The bag was filled with all kinds of goodies. Various school supplies, smile buttons, khadi bracelets, Christmas cards, bangles, and more.

Here are smile buttons from Gramshree getting ready for distribution, as well as paper flowers from Manav Sadhna that have positive terms and sayings on them like "Love all, serve all," "Peace," and "Faith."

Both of these items are made lovingly by children and women living in poverty in India. By selling the products through these two NGOs, they are able to earn money in a dignified way.

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Some of the orphan children were really young, no more than four or five years old.

Guests from the Seva Café in Ahmedabad and some members from the leprosy community wrote Christmas cards for the occasion.

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The money for the program also covered the expense of new uniforms for the
orphan's caretakers.

Next,  a hot lunch was served to all.

The Indian bangles I brought were well received.

Even with the boys, though I specifically said they were just for girls (how did he end up with two smile buttons?).

This brings us to the end of our Christmas celebration in Kisii.

While many smiles were created this day and the kids left happy, I observed a genuine need in them for ongoing care, love, and support. This prompted an idea, a potential project that I will consider over the coming months.

A big thank you to those who supported this event, you literally made it possible and here are some of those who you helped expressing their gratitude as well.