This is a story about how we left our hearts in Kenya with a pint-sized little girl named Eva and her 22 brothers and sisters. It is not our story. It belongs to those lovely, heart-stealing children.
It all began months ago when my daughters, Natalie, 16, and Daniella, 13, and I hatched a plan to travel to Nairobi, Kenya to work with Sudbury native, Jacqueline Villeneuve. Jacqueline is the founder and director of Zawadi La Tumaini Children's Home (ZLT), which opened its doors in March 2013.
Over the past 12 months, ZLT has become home to 25 children ages three to 17.
This means that at age 20, Jacqueline has a large family to support.
We arrived in Nairobi on March 17 with our bags full of donated items, willing to help and, we thought, ready for any challenges. Little did we know that our biggest challenge would be Eva. At three, Eva is the youngest child at ZLT. She is a thoughtful little girl with a toddler's swagger and a slow smile that spreads from her lips to her eyes like an African sunrise.
With the other children though, shy hand shakes quickly turned into boisterous laughter, requests for piggy back rides, hugs, group book reading, homework sessions, sing-a-longs and soccer games. We spent our time tutoring English, teaching new games, drying tears, helping to study for exams, teaching basic guitar, assisting with meals and cleaning up messes.
What impresses us from the beginning is the sense of family.
“We (the staff and I) always tell the kids, 'We love you, you are my child, this is your home, these are your brothers and sisters.'”
Gradually, we came to know the children better. Johnito, age 4, is a natural acrobat and could often be found standing on his head. When his mother died, his elderly grandmother tried to care for him. Overwhelmed, she turned to ZLT for help.
I visited Johnito's grandmother at her home in Soweto slum, a rambling shantytown with fetid open sewers, 20 minutes walk from ZLT.
“Johnito used to spend his days looking through that garbage,” she told me.
Penninah, age eight, is shy, smart as a whip and fiercely protective of her biological brother, John, age five. She plans to become a doctor and open her own hospital. Mike loves cars and wrestling with his brother, Bravin. At age 3 he is too young to tell anyone how he received the burn scars that cover the front of his body.
Which brings me back to Eva. Abandoned by her mother in a hospital, she is one of an estimated 1.6 million orphaned and abandoned children in Kenya. She has her reasons to distrust people and we respected her for them. We also hoped that she would change her mind about us.
With the older children in school during the day, we spent some mornings playing with the toddlers. Other days we volunteered in Soweto.
With the blessing of the Chief of Soweto, we held clinics to fit residents with donated eye glasses and taught crochet to a small group of women.
Inevitably, our three-week adventure drew to a close. We said tearful goodbyes and flew home. And now things are the same, but not the same, because we are forever changed by the stories and the love and the hope that is Zawadi La Tumaini.
And what about little Eva? The last time I saw her, she was cradled in my daughter's arms.
I plan to return to Zawadi La Tumaini next year. After all, my heart is still there.