AIDS orphans nearly overwhelming Kenyan orphanages

It has been only seven months since I first visited Africa. During that first trip I spent two months teaching at a secondary school in northern Namibia. While I learned a great deal about Namibian history and culture, I also fell in love with the “African” way of life — where, even amidst hard times and violence, most people are genuine and eager to share and help each other, and where relationships are straightforward, uncomplicated and pure.

A whirlwind fall semester at Harvard left me feeling worn out and craving this lifestyle again.

Because of this, I impulsively signed on to spend winter break with four other students living and teaching at an orphanage virtually unknown to Westerners in Bukembe, Kenya. The orphanage, Wema, is run by two Kenyans and is in perpetual danger of going out of business due to lack of funds and resources.

Packed with more than 100 children orphaned by AIDS, the Mt. Elgon political violence, and families having to give up children they are too poor to feed, Wema is barely able to give each child three meals a day.

The story of how Wema came to be and the difficulties it faces today exemplify some greater challenges faced by Kenyans, but it also is an example of the compassionate, tenacious and thrifty character of its people that has allowed them to carry on. Wema, run by Teresah Wati and Stephen Juma, was founded in 2007 after they recognized the growing need in the community to take in orphans and children from poor families. The orphanage is an umbrella to the couple's Highway Academy, a private school founded in 1999 that now ranks as one of the best for primary and secondary education in the country.

While it has been a great source of pride to bring quality education to the orphans and children in the surrounding village, the academy and orphanage lack many necessary school supplies and adequate living conditions. The orphanage and school have no computers, only a box full of books, and a well with contaminated drinking water. Most children wear the same tattered clothes every day and some have no shoes.

In spite of these challenges, the orphanage somehow manages to scrape by. Faith is very important to the founders and the children. It is one of the few things they have left. Nearly one in five Kenyans in this region is infected with AIDS and approximately 25 percent of the children are orphaned due to the AIDS epidemic.

In spite of the prevalence and fatal consequences of HIV/AIDS, strong Christian and traditional values discourage educating and discussing with the children the causes and dangers of HIV/AIDS. Some of the children have not even been told that the death of their parents was due to AIDS.

Another reason for the influx of orphans was the Mt. Elgon political violence that took place 30 kilometers away from the orphanage in 2007 and 2008. This violence between rival political groups was spurred by land disputes. Armed young men, part of the Sabaot Land Defense Forces (SLDF), forced people from their homes, raped women and ultimately left hundreds dead and more than 45,000 displaced.

Children fled the violence and hid in the forests or stayed with relatives when their parents were killed or went missing. As Wema had just started at that time, many children were brought to the orphanage and have since made a home for themselves here. It is easy to spot a child orphaned by the Mt. Elgon violence — they are very timid and uneasy about contact with adults. One can only hope that with time and in a safe and nurturing environment, they will regain their youthful demeanors.

While Teresah (perhaps coincidentally dubbed the 'Mother Teresah' of Wema) and Stephen have been keeping the orphanage afloat these past few years, they have encountered quite a few setbacks.

A man claiming to be a priest working for Finnish Child International duped them and got away with around $35,000 of the orphanage's money. They have also been faced with a broken school bus, torn malaria nets, omnipresent illnesses, a contaminated well and overcrowding at the school.

It is humbling to visit the orphanage, to learn what they are up against, and still to see their persistent optimism. Stephen works another job at a sugar plantation to make ends meet and Teresah, very unfamiliar with the internet, somehow found the addresses for the Gates Foundation and other non-profits and has written them hopeful pleas for help.

When my group of students arrived at the orphanage for three weeks of teaching and helping out, they told us their prayers had been answered. It was somewhat daunting but also inspiring to know they placed so much hope in outsiders' desires to help.

Wema Orphanage has reminded me of the unwavering optimism and friendliness that I encountered in Namibia. These people, who have been through so much, are still so giving and compassionate toward us and each other. 

The other volunteers and I have adopted a phrase for our time here: "Katika Kenya, tunagawana," which in Kiswahili means: "In Kenya, we share." When I said this phrase out loud at the orphanage, a woman who worked there looked up at me and said, "It is true, that is how we survive."

If you have old laptops, books, school supplies or children's clothes you would like to donate to Wema and Highway Academy, you can send them to:

Highway Academy

P.O. Box 1103-50200

Bungoma, West Kenya