After a whirlwind semester at Harvard, I impulsively signed on to spend winter break with four other students, living and teaching at an orphanage unknown to Westerners, in Bukembe, Kenya. The orphanage, Wema, is run by two Kenyans, and it is in continual danger of shutting down due to lack of funds and resources. Packed with over 100 children orphaned by AIDS, the Mt. Elgon political violence, and poor families unable to feed more mouths, Wema is barely able to feed each child three meals a day. The story of how Wema came to be and the difficulties it faces today exemplifies some greater challenges faced by Kenyans, but displays as well the compassionate, tenacious, and thrifty character of its staff members that has allowed them to carry on.
Wema was founded in 2007 by Teresah Wati and Stephen Juma, who recognized the growing need in the community to take in orphans and children from poor families. The orphanage is associated with Highway Academy, a private school founded by Teresah and Stephen in 1999, which now ranks as one of the best for primary and secondary education in the country. Although 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 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.
Nearly one in five Kenyans in this region is infected with HIV/AIDS, and, close to a quarter of the children have been orphaned due to the epidemic. In spite of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, strong Christian and traditional values discourage educating and discussing with the children the causes and dangers of HIV/AIDS and some of the children have not 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 2007-2008. This violence between rival political groups was spurred by land disputes. Armed young men, part of the Sabaot Land Defense Forces, 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 missing. As Wema was just started up 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, in a safe and nurturing environment, they will regain their youthful demeanors.
While Teresah (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 the couple 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 and omnipresent illnesses, a contaminated well, and overcrowding at the school.
It is humbling to visit the orphanage, learn what they are up against, and still see their ever-present 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. Faith is very important to the founders and the children, and they retain a strong sense of spiritual center. Working at Wema helped me begin to realize the astonishing breadth and variety of challenges facing Kenyans today. It is all too easy to get wrapped up in our problems and never ending to-do lists at Harvard. Getting to see and experience firsthand the challenges that others from different countries face provided me with invaluable perspective. While many of my peers have had similar experiences travelling abroad, I hope all Harvard students will get to travel and work outside their comfort zone in a new place with a new culture and new challenges at some point during their college experience.
Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House. Her column usually appears on alternate Thursdays