Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thankgiving!

Turkey Dinner?

Unfortunately Kenya does not celebrate Thanksgiving Day, like in the States, and so I had to work, as if it were any other Thursday. As I came into the St. Julie Centre I wished all of the Kenyan staff members a, “Happy Thanksgiving!” To which they replied, “What?!?” When I greeted some of the American Sisters of Notre Dame in the same way, they replied, “Oh yeah!, Is that today?” Many of them have been in Kenya for so many years that they don’t even think about it anymore. And so it seemed that I would have to celebrate on my own..

Roast Beef?

That evening, I gave thanks and ate my fill of all the sukuma wiki (kale) and rice I had in my kitchen, but ironically St. Teresa Parish grounds are always full of animals that would be perfect for any Thanksgiving feast. Everyday, my backyard is literally filled with cows, goats, sheep, pigs, ducks, chickens, and of course, two very fat turkeys. And so as I sat and ate my greens and rice I couldn’t help but think of what I could be eating had I been better prepared.

Pork Chop?

One story of thanksgiving that came to mind was that of Marcelline, one of my volunteers at the Centre. As the year is quickly coming to an end it has been my job, as Volunteer Supervisor, to evaluate each of the volunteers on their performance and then allow them to give us any feedback regarding the programme. As I worked my way through the volunteers, evaluating one after another, some of them seemed to lose sight of what it meant to be a volunteer. One volunteer, after I had given her a good evaluation asked, “Now why can’t you pay me?” But it was when I came to evaluate Marcelline, truly one of my best volunteers, that I was pleasantly surprised. I told her that she comes to work on time and always does her job well. I told her that she really seems to enjoy helping the disabled children because she always works with a smile. I thanked her for her year of volunteer service and asked if she had anything to say. And all she said were these two words, “I’m grateful.”


And so on Thanksgiving I thought about Marcelline and the words that she said to me. I want to thank my family, friends, and all of those that have supported me back home. I want to thank all of those that are here with me in Kenya, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, my fellow volunteers, all of those at the St. Julie Centre for Disabled Children, and St. Teresa Parish.

“I’m truly grateful.”

Don't even think about it!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Malava Kids

Kids gather on the road for a "snap"

My house at St. Teresa Parish is constantly surrounded by kids. They use the footpath from the church to the hall and as they pass my house they stand at my gate and call me. “How are you Timoth!” That’s what they call me, Timoth. They don’t pronounce the “y.”

Kids at my gate

When I first came to Malava many of the children were very shy and would smile and hide their faces while others were afraid of me. Now that they have seen me around for many months they greet me on the road and come to the gate at my house all the time. When they greet me I respond, “I’m fine.” Then the small ones repeat over and over again, “How are you?”, “How are you?”, “How are you?” The older ones say, “Give me twenty bob! (shillings)” or “Mbekho Iswiti!” (Give me sweets) in their tribal language.

Stephen shows off his new lamb

Many months ago I was very courteous with these children and would answer, “I’m fine” over and over or would say, “I’m sorry I don’t have any money or sweets.” But now since I have seen them around for many months, I simply say, “I’m fine” only once and “No!”

Gathering firewood or cooking

They come on the weekends and watch me through my gate while I am doing my laundry or sweeping the courtyard. They always want to help me, but I never encourage them because I think it’s important that I do my own work, but also because they will expect payment and then when the word gets out more and more children will come for money and sweets.

Eunice climbs the trees by my house

Malava kids are cute and fun to be around, but they certainly don’t allow me much privacy. When I am reading on my bed they come to my bedroom window. When I am preparing food in the kitchen they come to the kitchen window. Some days when I just want to listen to music on my iPod out in my courtyard they will poke their heads through the wide bars on my gate. Many times they want something from me other times they just come to stare.

Rope swing

When I really just want to be alone many times I must go in the house with the door close and the curtains drawn. This is when the smallest of the children will climb through the bars of my gate and will run and play with my camp shower lying on the patio just outside. They will call my name for me to let them in the house, but I know better and will ignore them for ten minutes until they go.

Malcolm's homemade soccerball

When I’ve told them “no” enough times we get alone very well. A group of nearly twenty children, girls and boys, come to the parish hall on Saturdays to learn how to be liturgical dancers for the Sunday mass. They have asked me to join their group many times, but having been born with two left feet, I unfortunately declined. They dance and sing for me and even teach me songs in Swahili.

The latest model made out of bicycle spokes

They are truly amazed by the color of my skin and the hair on my arms. I keep the hair on my head pretty short so it tends to look really straight and so they are always wondering if I use chemicals to get it that way.

Just hangin' around

When I walk to the Sister’s house to work in the afternoons I am greeted by children herding cattle, gathering firewood, and carrying milk and fruit to the market. But perhaps the most amazing thing about these kids, besides the fact that they always smiling and cheerful despite how little they have, is their talent for making their own games and toys. While kids in the States might occupy themselves with television and videogames, Malava kids occupy themselves with what is available. They can make a soccer ball out of plastic bags or a toy truck out of bicycle spokes, an inner-tube, and lids from plastic bottles. Some can make a jump rope from a vine, or a swing from a tree branch, while others will make up their own games with marbles and bottles caps. These games and toys are not fancy or high-tech, but are in many ways more impressive, but even more so are the kids that make them.

Monday, November 05, 2007

St. Julie Centre - Week 40

A mother holds her son as he gets two plaster casts on both legs

At the St. Julie Centre, a few of our staff members have returned from their scheduled leaves and now it seems that we have a full staff again. Angela has returned from her maternity leave and the staff, last Friday, went to visit her in her home to see her new baby boy for the first time. Novice Joy, who had worked at the Centre as a volunteer earlier in the year, took her vows as a Sister of Notre Dame in August. She has returned to the Centre, now as Sister Joy, and also as a new staff member. Neto, a student volunteer has been able to continue his classes locally, instead of in Nairobi, and has been able to stay on as part of the staff. During the months when it seemed like the staff was dwindling away there were a few days when the Centre was being run by only two or three people and everybody had to be strong and fill in for those on leave to keep it going, but now the staff members are all in their respective roles and things are once again running smoothly.

David prepares a cast for the left leg

The St. Julie Centre is open for therapy Monday through Thursday and each client typically comes once a week. While the day on which any client comes is based simply on their availability, not on the disability of the child, Tuesday is somewhat of an exception. Tuesday is the day on which the children with clubfoot come for plaster and many times it is the busiest day of the week.

Mama Javan shows her son's left clubfoot

Clubfoot is a disability that a child is born with in which one or both feet are unnaturally curved down and inward. A clubfoot generally looks like it has an extremely high arch. A child that suffers from clubfoot typically has trouble placing his or her foot flat on the ground when they are walking.

A mother and father remove an old plaster cast

The good news about clubfoot is that if it is diagnosed early it can be treated without surgery. This is done so by putting a plaster cast on the foot while it is still growing. The cast will slowly straighten the foot before the bones have fully developed. In many cases, a child with clubfoot can make a complete recovery from their disability.

A mother plays with her child after the casts have been set

On Tuesdays, there is fear in the air for the children that I see for play therapy. Each child that I engaged in a play activity is continually distracted by the screaming, shouts, and crying coming from the occupational therapy room. This is where the therapists are twisting the feet of the children with clubfoot in order to set the plaster casts that hold them straight. Once the cast is set it is usually not painful, but before the plaster hardens, the foot must be held in an uncomfortable position. One by one the children go in and come out with tears in their eyes. While there are still some cases that are not coming for plaster on this day, all of the children are struck with fear when the occupational therapist opens the door and calls, “next.”

The last volunteer meeting of the year

In October, I had my last volunteer meeting of the year. We began on a somber note by praying for the eight children that have died this year. Two children had died since our last meeting, Emmanuel who suffered from hydrocephalus andspina bifida and Bernard who suffered from cerebral palsy. As usual I spoke to the play therapy volunteers about keeping up with their duties and gave them some advice on how some things could be done more effectively. Then we shared our stories about some of the children from the past couple of months at the Centre. But it was when I told them the news that in December I would be leaving that I really knew how they felt about me. I thanked them for their service and told them that I enjoyed my time working with them, but I also said that I would soon have to go and that there would be other volunteers coming in January. They very graciously told me that they really enjoyed me as their supervisor and really wished that I could stay longer. It was when they told me this that I remembered that they said the same thing to Cindy, the volunteer supervisor last year, before she left.

Emmanuel suffered from hydrocephalus and spina bifida

Bernard suffered from cerebral palsy

When I began the position as play therapy supervisor back in January and I kept hearing how much they liked Cindy as their supervisor the year before and I wasn’t sure that I would ever be able to fill her shoes. I was told that when they heard that a man was coming to take her place, the volunteers were all very concerned because they thought that Cindy, as a woman, knew them so well. But what I’ve come to see in these last few months, is that the staff and I have also worked very well together and that they will also be sad to see me go. We have developed our own relationship with each other and in many ways it will be tough for me to leave. I struggled in the beginning to carry on what she started, but in the end, I now realize that I didn’t need to be like Cindy, I just needed to be myself.

We are quickly coming to December and there is still so much to do before then. On December 3rd the Centre will be celebrating World Disability Day. It will be an opportunity to create some awareness of disabilities in this community and help to remove the shame for which sometimes they are hidden away or seen as outcasts. It will also be a last farewell for me to those parents, children, and staff members with which I have spent this blessed year.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Kenyan Funeral (Feast of All Souls')

Burial at the homestead

If there is one thing that I have learned this year in Kenya, it’s that life is fragile. The combined deaths of the children at the St. Julie Centre along with those of the families of the staff members this year are more than I have experienced over my entire lifetime back home in the States. To die may be more a part of life, here in Africa, than any other place on earth. And so it was on the Feast of All Souls that we remembered those that have died this year in our prayers that God may raise their souls with Him to Heaven.

Prayers at David's home

Last month, Rose, the wife of David, the head occupational therapist, passed away leaving behind her husband and their three-year-old daughter. Her death came as a shock to all as she was only thirty-two years old and it was not known that she was seriously ill at the time. She died at a nearby hospital due to a reaction to intense anti-malaria treatment. The funeral was held at David’s home in Malava and the burial at his parent’s home on Saturday, October 27th. Rose was a nurse by profession and so along with her family and many friends, many of her fellow nurses were in attendance. The St. Julie Centre staff members also came to offer their condolences.

Many attend the funeral at David's parent's home

While it is only proper to provide for the visitors to one’s home, a funeral can be a very busy time for a Kenyan family. Something to eat must be offered to each of the many guests and so it is normal to slaughter many animals on the day of a funeral. While, in the States, a funeral can be a small private affair with only the closest of friends and family, in Kenya, hundreds can be in attendance. Sometimes it can take an entire village to bury somebody.

The burial procession

At the funeral and burial services, some people, especially women, can be very emotional and can throw themselves upon the casket wailing loudly and crying out. A funeral can last several hours as traditional religious songs are sung and many friends and family, one by one, tell the story of how they came to hear of the death. Some may also tell stories of spiritual signs they have seen and experienced regarding the person who has died. Lastly, a history is told aloud and all rise and begin the burial procession.

A Kenyan funeral is a beautiful service of song and prayer in celebration of a person's life such that if they were able to look down upon it from above there would be no doubt indeed, they were loved and will be greatly missed.

After the casket is buried at the family homestead all prepare for their long journey home.
And life goes on…

For Rose, the children at the St. Julie Centre, and all those who have died this year...

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. Amen.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Feast of All Saints

While Halloween is not celebrated in Kenya, the Catholics do, of course, celebrate the Feast of All Saints. Before I left the States my friend JP gave me a copy of a book titled, The Saints Show Us Christ, by Rawley Myers. It is a book that gives daily readings on the spiritual lives of the saints. While I am no saint, on this feast I remembered some of the saints that I have learned about, admired, and sought the intercession of this year.

St. Julie Billiart represents my mission in Kenya working with disabled children and adults through therapy, treatment, and education.

St. Julie Billiart (1751 - 1816) is the foundress of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. She was born the fifth of seven children in Cuvilly, France. As a child she liked to play “school,” but when she was sixteen, to help support her family, she began teaching for real the stories of the bible. She carried this mission of education with her the rest of her life. A parish priest, recognizing that she was something special secretly allowed her to make her First Communion at the age of nine, instead of the usual age of thirteen. When a murder attempt was made on her father’s life it shocked her nervous system so badly that she became completely paralyzed and was confined to a wheelchair. During the French Revolution she offered her home as a hiding place for priests, but because of this she became hunted as well. She had to flee five times in three years to avoid involving her friends that allowed her a place to hide. In 1803, she began living a religious life and was miraculously cured from her illness and began walking again after twenty-two years. In 1805, she took her final vows to the congregation and was elected Mother of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. In 1815, she nursed the wounded of the Battle of Waterloo and fed the starving as her own health began to worsen. She died peacefully on April 8, 1816 at the age of 64.

Saint Philip Neri keeps my sense of humor alive when my mood becomes too serious.

Saint Philip Neri(1515-1595), a resident of Rome, was known for his love of humor. His many jokes and pranks were usually at his own expense, in a humbling manor. On one occasion he shaved off half of his beard and danced through the streets of Rome before attending a ceremony held his honor. St. Philip lived in the 16th century, in a troubling time for the Catholic church, but in he responded by forming an Order of priests called the Oratorians. The Oratorians were called so because they met in an oratory to pray. They were known for reaching out to the ordinary people of Rome. One time, while in deep prayer, his heart grew to the size of a fist. While he never complained of any pain, when he died 50 years later, an autopsy showed that two of his ribs were broken and fused together in an arch to accommodate his unusually large heart. He invited friends to his room where he lived, and when they arrived expecting to see a saint, he sat wearing a small hat and big shoes, reading a book of jokes. Saint Philip was loved by a succession of Popes, but out of humbleness he resisted their attempts to make him a Cardinal. When one Pope sent him a red Cardinal’s hat as a sign of respect he played with it and used it as a football.

St. Ignatius Loyala keeps me strong when I feel weak and reminds me to be charitable.

Saint Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) was a Spanish soldier that founded the Jesuits. He was one of the defenders of Pamplona against the French. Not willing to surrender during the battle, his right leg was hit by a cannon ball, which completely shattered the bone, while his left leg was hit by falling masonry. He was sent to a hospital in great pain. As the hours in his sickbed went by slowly, he began to read of the lives of Christ and the saints. Saint Ignatius had tremendous courage and endured the pain of having the bones of his leg set without complaint. After the operation, when it was found that a piece of his bone still protruded, he insisted on having a doctor saw it away as he suffered the agony. When his legs healed he started on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He gave away his possessions and begged for food as he stopped in the town of Manresa, where he lived at a monastery with Dominican friars. He retreated to a cave at some nearby cliffs to pray and to meditate. It is during this time that he began to contemplate the religious life and the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. He later wrote The Spiritual Exercises, which is considered by many to be a masterpiece.

The Prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola

Take, O Lord, and receive my entire memory, my understanding, and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough and will desire nothing more. Amen.