Friday, August 31, 2007

St. Julie Centre - Week 30

Orpa rides the tricycle to help strengthen her club foot

The Kenyan equivalent to the long and dreary winter in Michigan is the long and dreary rainy season of Western Province. It has been raining heavily in western Kenya nearly everyday since May. The dirt roads of Malava become rivers of red muddy water in the late afternoons and early evenings and by morning there is a sloppy, sticky path all the way to the St. Julie Centre. When I arrive at the Centre my shoes each weigh two pounds heavier and I shuffle across the grass to lighten the load. As I sit on the benches out front retracing the pattern of the tread on my soles with a stick, I can see that my newly washed pants now have a red speckled finish. As the rest of the staff arrive, one by one, the routine is the same. On these mornings it’s cold and the children and parents will come late. Everybody seems to have a similar tired look about them. Despite the slow start, all are ready when the children finally walk through the front gate and it’s business as usual at the SJC.

The sloppy, sticky road next to the SJC

Baba Ephraim brings his son, Ephraim, who suffers from
Epilepsy and Cerebral Palsy, to the Centre on his bicycle

My work in play therapy seems to be going well, but it is not without it’s struggles. Sadly, their are parents who bring their children to the Centre that have no interest or desire whatsoever for their child’s recovery. It’s true. While there are some parents who are very good with their children and remain closely involved in every step of the therapy and treatment, many times there are others who seem to be merely waiting for their child to die so that they can be relieved of the burden of their disabilities. I have been told that some of the parents will actually use their disabled child merely to obtain the benefits of the St. Julie Programme for use by their other “normal” child, since some of the families receive food and money for transportation and school fees. Then when the disabled child dies from being neglected, the family feels only relief and they are content in thinking that, although they have been a curse, their lives were able to at least serve some purpose.

Wincelet is paralyzed on her left side and is stringing beads to
help increase the fine motor control in her hands and fingers

My greatest struggle of all, even though it’s not always in my hands, is to try to prevent this very thing from happening. It is my job, not to cut the parents out of the process of their child’s recovery by doing the play therapy as everybody sits and watches, but to involve them in it by showing them how the toys can be used in helping their son or daughter. At the Centre, we always try to keep in mind that if the children only comes for play therapy once a week, what they do away for the Centre might be even more important in their overall recovery. But it is a healthy parent to child relationship that makes this “home therapy” possible and, in most cases, is easier said than done.

Bevan, who has Cerebral Palsy, uses the "popper" toy to help him walk

As is expected, some days go very well, but it is the tough days that make me think about my work more closely. While I think that some doubt is normal for everybody in this type of experience, it is on these days that I seriously wondered if my work here would bear any fruit. It was not until recently that I would realize that it would.

Sylvia, who has Down's Sydrome, uses the parallel bars to help her walk

Besides my duties in play therapy, I have recently been given a new role at the Centre to collect membership fees from the parents of the children. This small registration fee of 200 Kenyan shillings per year (equivalent to just under three U.S. dollars) is not meant as a payment for our services, but rather is used to allow parents to play an active role in their child’s recovery. It also helps to motivate them to attend all of the therapy sessions when they know that it is costing them something. Many parents choose the option to pay this fee off over time. When they come to the Centre, week by week, they pay just a little bit more. For some, it may take months until they are paid in full. When they have cleared their balances, I then take a photo of each child and place their pictures on a board in the play therapy area. It is a fun way to show everyone which children are full members of the St. Julie Programme.

The "members" board at the St. Julie Centre

Mama Rael and her daughter, Rael, play together at the Centre

Up until recently, this job of collecting registration and taking photos for the picture board was a tedious task for me. It was awkward to ask parents, who seemed to have little next to nothing, for their next payment, but frustrating to see others, who seemed more financially able, make excuses why they couldn’t contribute anything. Some of the children are also called by many different names which always made it more difficult to locate the record of their previous payment to obtain their current balance. I would have to look through dozens of carbon-copied receipts only to find that I was looking for the wrong name. When I finally found the correct name, I would have to write out a new receipt by hand and then search for the proper change, which was not always available. When the balance was paid in full, I would then take on the laborious task of trying to make their mentally disabled child look at the camera and smile for the photo. The process always seemed long and arduous.

Mama Joseph removes plaster casts that help Joesph's arms and legs grow straight

Naomi uses the standing box to help her stand and walk

Last month, in July, I was instructed to focus more of my attention on collecting registration and encouraging parents to pay off any remaining balances, now that the year was half over. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to that job and at first, with some cases, it seemed like just another futile effort, but as one parent completed their registration fee they all began to come. The ones that did so became full members of the St. Julie Programme and began showing off to the other parents their child’s picture up on the board. Other parents began asking about their child’s photo and what they needed to do to get it up on the board. It was then that I really began to see their level of commitment. They began to pay off their registration balances left and right. And I began printing more and more pictures for the board.

Mama Lucy and her daughter Lucy use a flute and a puzzle to help her speak

In the end, it was this very task that I dreaded that helped me to put some things into perspective. I have been told that some work isn’t always about bearing fruit and reaping the benefits. Some work is about planting the seeds and waiting patiently. This type of work seems to be the most difficult of all because, without immediate results, there is always an opportunity to fall into doubt along the way. Then it is very possible to quit even before one has reach their goal.

Priscah, who is paralyzed on her left side, strings
beads to help increase her fine motor control

Until a couple of months ago, the board was pretty unimpressive. There were about twenty to thirty pictures filling scarcely one-third of the board. The staff pictures alone took up a great portion of that. But this week, I put up the last few of a bunch I just printed and then stood back to have a look. There are now eighty-six pictures on the board! I really couldn’t believe it! It was over two-thirds full! I took a moment to think about just what this meant. I was actually seeing the results of some of my work. It went way beyond a mere picture board. I was seeing how I, and many others, have touched the lives of these eighty-six children. When the programme started several years ago, there where only six. Now there are eighty-six. In the tiny village of Malava that’s huge! And what’s more, it’s not even close to being finished. There are many that are still showing their commitment little by little and new parents continue to come and bring their children with them everyday. Angela, one of the therapists, said that the board will be filled very soon and we will have to find another place to put the new pictures. I, with a renewed spirit, took this task and without hesitation. I now renewed my own commitment to the St. Julie Centre. I was seeing it through different eyes. The seeds I helped plant were beginning to grow.

Mercy rides the tricycle to help increase the
gross motor control in her arms and legs

Friday, August 24, 2007

Karen Blixen

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”
Isak Dinesen from Out of Africa

The Karen Blixen Museum is housed in the farmhouse where Karen Blixen, a Danish aristocrat who once owned a coffee plantation in Kenya, lived between 1914 and 1931. Her famous memoir, Out of Africa, chronicles that prominent period in her life. The museum is located in Karen, a suburb of Nairobi that takes it’s name from Karen Blixen. The farmhouse along with the nearby agricultural college was presented to the Kenyan government at Independence, around 1963, by the Danish government.

The Karen Blixen Museum as it looks today

The farmhouse at the Karen Coffee Company Plantation from 1914 to 1931

Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing
in vital assurance and lightness of heart.
In the highlands you woke up in the morning
and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.
Isak Dinesen from Out of Africa

Although Karen Blixen came from a family of wealth and luxury her personal life was full of tragedy. She was born, Karen Dinesen, in 1885 fifteen miles north of Copenhagen in Rungstedlund, Denmark on her family’s spacious estate. Her father, Wilhelm Dinesen, fought in the Prusso-Danish war in 1864 and had an adventuresome spirit and talent for story-telling. At one point in his life he even lived for two years in the United States among Native American tribes. However, in 1895, when Karen was just ten years old, her father hung himself and left his wife to raise the five children alone. Although she didn’t know her father well, Karen claimed that she identified with his sense of exploration.

Karen Blixen posing after killing two lions on safari

In December of 1913, Karen’s life changed dramatically when she left the shelter of her childhood home and set out on her journey to British East Africa, now the Republic of Kenya. She married her Swedish cousin Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke at a ceremony in Mombasa and in 1916 bought a plantation and began the Karen Coffee Company, just outside Nairobi, in the Ngong Hills.

Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke

"Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for all conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams."
Karen Blixen, of her years in Africa

Karen was only 28 years old, her husband 27, and both had great expectations of their lives as settlers in Africa, but soon it proved to be more difficult than they imagined. August of their first year, World War I broke out and spread to East Africa. Battles between the British and the Germans led to a shortage of workers and supplies for the plantation. To make matters worse, East Africa was experiencing a three-year drought and in 1917 the British banned the import of coffee.

Karen Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton

Meanwhile, Karen and her husband had many personal struggles in their dream of starting a family in Africa. Only a few months after their marriage, Karen became ill and was diagnosed with syphilis. She had to travel back to Denmark for treatment by a specialist, but was plagued with having attacks of intense pain for the rest of her life. The cause of the disease was never determined, but it was known that her husband had a reputation for being a popular and well-liked by many women. The struggles continued and after their marriage broke down in 1918, she began a secret love affair with the British Denys Finch-Hatton, who was an officer in the army, a pilot, a safari guide, and a big game hunter in Africa.

Denys Finch-Hatton with his private plane

"What is man, when you come to think upon him, but a minutely set, ingenious machine for turning, with infinite artfulness, the red wine of Shiraz into urine?"
Isak Dinesen from Seven Gothic Tales

Karen and her husband divorced in 1921. She ran the plantation by herself until 1931, which was very uncommon at that time for a woman to do, but due to a struggling crop, mismanagement, drought, and the falling price of coffee, the farm ran into debt and was sold at auction. Karen left Africa and returned to her family’s home in Denmark. But only a few months before her departure, Denys was killed in a plane crash on one of his routine flights to Tsavo National Park. He was buried at the foot of the Ngong Hills.

Karen Blixen's painting of a young girl from the Kikuyu tribe

While on the farm, Karen expressed her interest in the arts. She painted a number of portraits and started to write the first of her many books, Seven Gothic Tales, but when she returned home, she began work on her famous memoir of her years in Africa. Out of Africa was first published in Denmark in 1937, under her pen name, Isak Dinesen. Her memoir is considered by many to be a masterpiece. It is considered to be one of the most perfect records of early European ventures in Africa. In 1954 she was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but was passed over in favor of Ernest Hemingway. The book was adapted into an Oscar-winning film, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in 1985.

Karen Blixen and her staff at the Karen Coffee Company

"White people, who for a long time live alone with Natives, get into the habit of saying what they mean, because they have no reason or opportunity for dissimulation, and when they meet again their conversation keeps the Native tone."
Isak Dinesen from Out of Africa

Karen has been criticized for some of her views of the African natives. Early settlers saw her as a friend to the natives while others saw her depiction of them as her “obligation” to be aristocratic and condescending. This attitude produced a conflicting opinion of her work and personal character in Out of Africa.

Karen Blixen's home in Rungstedlund, Denmark

Karen Blixen's final resting place at her home in Denmark

She continued to write and publish books from her home in Denmark and even made several radio broadcasts. In the 1950s her health began to worsen quickly and 1955 she had a third of her stomach removed due to an ulcer. Unable to eat, Karen Blixen died of malnutrition at her home in 1962, at the age of 77. Her last request was to be buried under a large beech tree at the foot of Ewald’s Hill at her family’s home in Rungstedlund.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Just next to the Nairobi National Park is a nonprofit conservation trust which was established in 1977, shortly after the death of David Sheldrick. He and his wife, Daphne, were the first to use techniques of raising orphaned black rhinos and elephants, whose parents were killed due to poaching, in order to reintroduce them back into the wild. Of these animals, the elephants seem to get the most attention. It is for this reason that many refer to this wildlife trust as simply the Elephant Orphanage. For a donation of 300 Kenyan shillings patrons can come to view baby elephants being fed, playing soccer, and even receiving a mud bath from 11AM to Noon.

A baby elephant drinking milk

Eating leaves from a tree branch

As it was with the Giraffe Centre, it was possible to get so remarkably close to the baby elephants that I could even touch them. All that separated me from them was a small yellow rope about four feet high. We were all advised to watch our toes if an elephant walked by. Although they were still young, a baby elephant can weigh over 350 lbs!

A baby elephant fanning it's ears

Elephants playing soccer

Elephants are serious athletes!

Interesting Elephant Facts
  • An African elephant is larger than an Asian elephant and has enormous Africa shaped ears.
  • The largest African elephant recorded weighed over nine tons and stood more than twelve feet high at the shoulder.
  • Elephant trunks can get very heavy. It is not uncommon to see elephants resting them over a tusk!
  • Elephants don't drink with their trunks, but use them as "tools" to drink with. This is accomplished by filling the trunk with water and then using it as a hose to pour it into the elephant's mouth.
  • Elephants cry, play, have incredible memories, and laugh!
  • Elephants grieve at a loss of a stillborn baby, a family member, and in many cases other elephants.
  • Most of the communication between elephants cannot be heard by humans.
  • An elephant’s trunk is boneless and composed of 40,000 muscles.
  • An elephant’s trunk is powerful enough to kill a lion with a single swipe, yet the finger-like lobes at the end are adept enough to pluck a feather from the ground.
  • An elephants ears are packed with blood vessels, and when flapped, they quickly lower the animal’s body temperature.
  • An elephant can charge at more than 25 miles per hour.
  • An elephant has six sets of teeth, each replacing the next over it’s lifetime.
  • An adult elephant eats over 200lbs. of food per day.
  • When an elephant begins to lose it’s last set of teeth it starves to death.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Lang’ata Giraffe Centre

Feeding Mr. Giraffe

During my parent's visit we had the opportunity to visit the Lang’ata Giraffe Centre. The Centre allows patrons to get up close and personal and even kiss (sorry no pictures) the Rothschild giraffe. Although some come just to observe, visitors from all over the world get a unique experience when they hand-feed the world’s tallest species. While there are two other sub-species of giraffes, the Reticulated Giraffe and the Maasai Giraffe, it is the Rothschild Giraffe that is known for it’s lack of spots on it’s legs and so it appears as if it’s wearing four very large white “socks.”

You truly have not seen a giraffe until you have feed one by hand! Their heads are enormous, their very long tongues are like sand paper, and their saliva is gooey and stinky. But it was only after I had washed my hands with hand sanitizer that the guide explained that the giraffe is immune from many poisonous plants by it’s naturally antibiotic saliva! They are no doubt some of the world's most amazing creatures.

I am recalling a joke from my childhood.

Q. What is worse than a giraffe with a sore throat?
A. A centipede with sore feet.


The Giraffe Centre, which is located in Lang’ata, a suburb of Nairobi, was established by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW, Kenya). This organization was founded in 1979 by Jock Leslie-Melvile, a Kenyan of British decent, to protect the endangered Rothschild giraffe and also provide education on the importance of conservation.

Prior to the establishment of the AFEW, Betty Leslie-Melvile, American wife to Jock, discovered that there were only 120 Rothschild giraffes left in Western Kenya. The giraffes were living in an area of 18,000 acres that was scheduled for subdivision and resettlement. She began to rescue these few remaining animals by transporting them to their property in Lang’ata. Betty became the founder of the AFEW, USA. This organization was able to save five more groups of giraffes by moving them to safer areas of the country. Due to their efforts, there are now over 300 Rothschild giraffes living and breeding well in different areas all over Kenya.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Parent's Visit to Kenya

Mom and Dad arrive at the airport

I haven’t had much time to write lately because for the past two weeks I was very fortunate to have my parents come for a visit. They came to see where I live and the work I am doing. To become witnesses to the poverty and illness that is a stark reality in this country. But also to enjoy the simple beauty that is Kenya.

I took the night bus from Malava to Nairobi the night before we met and checked us into the Flora Hostel. The Flora Hostel is a special hostel in Nairobi run by the Consolata Sisters and is reserved for missionaries and their families. Compared to many other places in Nairobi it is clean, safe, quiet, and reasonably priced. An added bonus was that all meals were included and the triple occupancy room that we stayed in was housed in it’s own separate cottage out back of the main building. There was also an on-site chapel that offered daily Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The cottage at Flora Hostel

Cosy room 4NC at the Flora Hostel

The chapel at Flora Hostel

Having never been to Kenya and not knowing if they would ever get the chance to come again they wanted to see as much of the country as possible. So when they arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi on Wednesday, August 25 I became their tour guide that would take on the impossible task of showing them the country of Kenya in just two weeks.

After spending seven months out in Malava, where the kitchen isn’t far from the slaughterhouse, the showers are from a cold bucket of rain water, and a white person is unheard of, it was good to get back to the city, even if for only a short while. I checked into room number 4NC and while I waited for my parents flight to come in I enjoyed a long, hot shower, ate meatballs and cold potato salad, and even talked to a few white people from Australia.

I had been planning for my parent’s visit for several weeks, but even still it didn’t seem completely real. I waited for over an hour for them to come through the baggage claim at the airport, but when they finally emerged from the exit doors I realized it was true. My parents had actually come to Kenya. Although at first I looked on in disbelief, it was good to finally see a familiar face. We greeted and hugged and then headed for the Sister’s convent in Racecourse, Nairobi. I introduced them to the Sisters and after a late supper the three of us slept easy in our beds at the hostel. We would need all of the rest we could get for the following day and the weeks to come. The schedule was extremely tight and there was a lot to see and do.

In the time that they were here, we feed giraffes by hand at the Lang’ata Giraffe Centre, we saw baby elephants being feed and got to pet a cheetah at the Animal Orphanage. We saw traditional African dancing and mud huts at the Bomas of Kenya and visited the Karen Blixen Museum. We visited Arielle and Sandy and the girls and Rescue Dada. We crossed over the equator through the Great Rift Valley and came to Malava to attend the Kenyan Mass at St. Teresa Parish. We visited the St. Julie Centre for Disabled Children and were invited to eat authentic Kenyan food with Tom, a member of the staff. We took boda bodas, or bicycle taxis, to Webuye Falls and took a tuk-tuk, or a three-wheeled motorized vehicle to Lake Victoria to see hippos in the town of Kisumu. We took a trip to the coast of the Indian Ocean, to the island town of Lamu, the oldest town in Kenya, and caught a glimpse of Mount Kilimanjaro on the flight back to Nairobi. But the ultimate experience had to be seeing the Big Five game animals on the four-day safari at the Maasai Mara National Reserve and seeing thousands upon thousands of wild flamingoes at Lake Nakuru National Park.

Giraffe and I at the Giraffe Centre

Cheetah and I at the Animal Orphanage

Traditional African dancers at the Bomas of Kenya

Now officially a grandmother, Mom gets her own hut at the Bomas

Tim at the Equator Crossing through the Great Rift Valley

Dad and Mom on bicycle taxis called boda bodas to Webuye Falls

Tom's brother, Tom, Mom, and Dad

The beautiful Island of Lamu on the coast of the Indian Ocean

Dad on the beach in Lamu

A glimpse of Mt. Kilimanjaro on the flight from Lamu back to Nairobi