“One, two…..… jump!”
I land heavily, just missing the patch of water.
This side of the road is a little dry. My boots don’t sink in as quickly. A genius in government decided to dig up the road and deposited the red soil on the side. A remarkable use of my tax money. The red soil on the edges act as an embankment. Turning the road into a river.
I am on my way to Little Angels Children’s home. It is in Ndeiya, just past Ndenderu. The matatu deposits you at the center, where you can walk or take a bike. My pockets decide we need the exercise. We are a half hour’s drive away from Kereita Forest. It explains why it is this cold. It rains consistently here. During the rainy seasons, as it is right now, the locals do not walk without a good umbrella. The matatu driver kept telling me, “Kuuraga bura ya bebe!” Directly translated, “it rains maize.” His way of describing hailstones.
It is almost 10:20 am. Normally, at this time you would find me working hard. Pulling the duvets over my back, using my legs to spread it over. Making sure that cold air can’t get through. Perks of being a writer. Instead, my friend Murimi asked me to visit this children’s home. He wants me to see the work he does supporting the kids. I refused. I have no desire whatsoever to write a PR piece. He insisted, reminding me that his mother may have fed me once or twice when I was broke. A low blow. But a valid point. I agreed to come, the fool quite happily forgot to mention I’d need to cross the rivers of Babylon to get here. I trudge on.
The villagers I have encountered are all liars. They keep telling me, “ni hapo mbele tu.” Then I walk on for what feels like 42 km, where another villager will tell me, “ni hapo tu mbele.” My legs are killing me. I stopped admiring the scenery some 25 minutes ago. Initially, I was taking photos of cows grazing every 3 seconds. The grass here showing off, as if each blade wants to prove it is the greenest. Now, I would give anything for tarmac.
I hear it before I see it. The sounds only children can make. A low buzz made up of kids eating, crying, blowing of noses, small feet running around and yet another one crying. I make the bend and a signboard proudly announces.
Little Angels Children's Home Sister of Mercy, Ndenderu Parish P.0. Box 72, Kiambu Est. 1998
The signboard has obviously seen better days. Its aesthetic function long forgotten. It now does the basic function of telling people where they are. There’s a young man at the gate. He has a kind face. He seems happy to see me. I explain who I am and who I need to see.
“Oooooh, Murimi? Huyo ni kijana mzuri sana. Ametusaidia sana.” You can detect a subtle accent. His enthusiasm all but hides it. He asks me to fill in the visitor book. I do. He wants to see my ID. Why? No terrorist is going to come all the way to Ndeiya I assure him. He laughs.
“Ni sheria ya kazi boss.”
I hand it over. He mutters something about me being far from home.
“Sijakuelewa ndugu,” I ask him to explain himself.
From my ID, he can see that my home is somewhere in Njoro, Elburgon. He asks how it feels being this far from home. We laugh. My parents were from Njoro. I have never been there.
“Kwani umezaliwa wapi?”
He looks disappointed, he probably thinks only bad people are born in Nairobi. I assure him only the politicians are bad. He waves me in smiling. He thinks I am funny. If I were a lady, I’d probably get a, “naweza kununulia soda baadaye madam?” Instead, I bear the burdens of masculinity. Making brothers laugh and getting a nod, only.
We are walking towards the administration block. I am generous with my definition. It is really a 4 room colonial building that has no hopes for a better tomorrow. It is separated from the other buildings by a small clearing, with a flag post at the end of it. There are few children near it. Kids always know not to go near boring people. Murimi has always been boring. The gate man gets to a door, knocks, opens the door, peeks in his head and…”Mkubwa, kuna kijana ako hapa kukuona.” They exchange a few words which I can’t quite hear before he opens the door fully.
Murimi is seated behind a desk looking like a respectable adult. Like he finally sat down, broke down the formula to being a grown-up and understood it. He welcomes me in. No, I don’t want a soda, but some tea would be nice. They don’t have sugar right now. No, we can’t send someone for a quarter of sugar. Yes, there’s no shop around they would have to go all the way to the center. Plus, they always have what the kids are having. If the kids aren’t having sugar in their tea. No sugar for me. But I understand?
“Ni sawa,” I tell him. Let’s get on with the reason I am here.
He wants to do a series of articles on this Children’s home. To raise awareness and funds. He works here as a Community Development Officer, a fancy title that means he has to find ways to get the home money.
“Si unaelewa ni expensive kulisha hawa watoto wote?”
I nod. They have 500 kids in the school. From kids who are barely a month old, all the way to 20-year-olds.
“What are 20-year-old kids doing here?”
“When a kid has grown up calling this place home. You don’t kick him out just because he is over 18.”
They have kids in primary. The good thing is the home has teachers for those. It’s the older kids who present a challenge.
They are enrolled in Secondary schools around the area. Someone has to pay their fees, uniforms, books and upkeep.
“But isn’t that the government’s job?”
Part of his salary, unfortunately, comes from the government. As such, he made me promise not to say the government does shit for those kids.
He stands up, he wants to show me around. To give me an opportunity to see how the school actually runs and the work they do. But he has to take me to the Matron first. She is the “principal” of the home. Like a mother to all the kids.
He opens the door. I stand up and follow him to the office next to his. He knocks, gently. The way you would if you needed to ask for money from dad and he was in his bedroom.
“Come in.” A female voice orders.
He opens the door.
“Habari Matron, ndio huyu mgeni nilikuambia!”
The lady stands up and eagerly makes towards me, unfolding her arms and pulling me into a hug. The type you give to a long lost lover. The hug lasts a little over 5 seconds. My typical hugs last 1.5 seconds max.
The matron nods. She calls the secretary/assistant/chef in and gives instructions for tea to be made. She turns to me;
“Utatusamehe leo hakuna sukari, but we are getting some soon.” It’s okay, I don’t particularly like sugar in my tea.
“Na tunaweza pata mkate?”
The assistant nods. I get a feeling that this is their way of going above and beyond for me.
“Can we walk him around, ndio ajionee the home?” Murimi asks.
The matron leads the way, taking me back towards the gate. The kids watch but stay away. Perhaps worried that if the matron sees them interacting with guests, “watakipata!”
“Hapa ndio hii children’s home inaanzia.” She starts. I nod.
“When was the home started?” In 1998, by Catholic Sisters before they were called back to Europe. She took it over in 2004. She didn’t have a choice. It was either that or it would have been closed. The land it is built on belongs to the community. They don’t have the title deed for it. A rich man attempted to grab it from them in 2008. He even came in with cops and bulldozers on a cold morning to flatten the buildings.
This gets me excited.
“What did you do matron?”
She lined up all her kids around the school, called the neighbors over. Then told the cops they would have to kill her and the children before they got a fucking inch of that land. No, she did not use a curse word. I just added it for effect.
It didn’t work. The man driving the bulldozer would have happily driven over a kid or two if not for the neighbors. They promised to kill him if he as much as stepped over a single shoe owned by one of those kids. Now, you can imagine my surprise because this area seems pretty chill. No one as much as talked to me on my way here. Everyone minded their own business, except for Nduthi guys who would ride past quickly. Stop, turn, come over and ask if I needed a ride. Quote a silly figure, then ride off when I said no. Matron explains that the people here view the home as a blessing. Before the home was started, crops did not do well here. The cold or excess rain would destroy them. Somehow after the home was started, the gods have been generous.
“Umeona vile mahindi zinamea mpaka kwa barabara?”
I nod. I was almost tempted to grab a maize cob and shove it into my bag. But I figured I would rather not get accused of stealing in the middle of nowhere.
“What does it take to be matron?” I ask. “Is there a course one needs to take to earn the qualification.” She laughs. She wishes there was. She was a secretary for the nuns, before they left. The church couldn’t afford to keep them here. The parish then was quite small. It didn’t have as many funds as it has now. So the sisters were all recalled home.
“The church just abandoned the home?”
No, they wanted to break up the kids into the different homes the church ran. Matron didn’t think it made sense to subject the kids to that. Considering this was all the family they knew, they would end up feeling abandoned all over again. She took up the challenge of running the home. The church, of course, promised to support the home with the basics, food and some cash. And did it? She remains silent, ignoring the question. “Why does the home still have the name Sisters of Mercy on the signboard.”
They don’t have money for a new signboard. And she figured there was no harm in keeping it up.
We are in the dormitory now. The girls’ section. There’s a certain neatness here that was missing in the boys’ section. A deliberateness to how the green covers are pulled tight over the bunk beds. Pillows plumped up. Shoes in a straight line, perpendicular to the beds. The owners of these rooms want to be neat. The boys’ section had a chavalierness to it. The owners needing to be reminded that tidiness is next to godliness.
She walks us into one of the rooms. Cubicles really. But we will call them rooms out of respect. She shows us the beddings. 1 blanket per child. 2 bed sheets and a pillow.
“Is that enough?” I ask.
Of course not. It is all they have, but they need more. The cold seasons have been getting more brutal these past years. Surely she must have talked to local administrative and political leaders. She has. But promises won’t keep her kids warm or well fed. “Where does she get food for all these kids?” Food here is relatively easy to find. They grow vegetables on their land. The kids do the tilling when they don’t have classes.
I don’t ask her how she defines child labor.
She mentions that one of the vegetable gardens, where they grow cabbages, is right behind the dormitory. I peek out a window, and I see it. Rows and rows of cabbages, jutting from the ground, taking half the land. There is a bit of empty space before another row of wooden crosses planted in the ground starts.
Matron walks us into the girl’s bathroom. It is made up of little cubicles without doors in them.
“What happened to the doors?”
One of her workers colluded with thieves and sold them. They don’t have the budget to replace them. The kids are now used to it, they even stopped bugging her to replace them.
I don’t ask her how she defines indignity.
I notice that there are cut up bars of soap in each of the cubicles. The type we use to wash clothes in Nairobi. She tells me it ensures that soap is used a little more efficiently here. You use it, then leave it there. The next person uses it, then leaves it. No wastage.
As we walk out, Matron is working hard to sell me on supporting the place. I tell her that I have little to my name beyond house furniture, a gas cooker and an old laptop that I use from time to time.
“But Murimi tells me you are a writer.”
I agree. She just wants more people to know about this place. Maybe someone will be touched and offer to help.
“What do you need matron?”
She wants blankets. Lots of them, the thick kind that feel heavy when you lie under them. She wants bursaries for her kids, especially the older ones who need to go to secondary. She would not say no to trench coats. Maybe some diapers for the young ones. Finally, she wants to pay her electricity bill so KPLC stops threatening to cut off her electricity. I can’t give her all of that. But Murimi can pass by my place the next time he is around and pick up a blanket. She smiles, happy. I get mad at myself, how is she this happy with the promise of one blanket?
“Na si utaandika about Little Angels?”
I nod. Wondering how to write about this place without it sounding like everything foreign NGOs write about Kenya. We head back to the administration block in silence. The chai should be ready by now. I figure, this is a good time to ask a question that has been bugging me for a bit.
“Matron, why are there little crosses behind the kids’ dormitories?”
I saw them when I peeked out of the dormitory window, just next to the patch of cabbages. I am worried she might tell me that she is running an illegal cemetery. Where rich people come to her and whisper. “I need one matron.” She knows they want a kasmall plot to bury their dog Rex who died of Leukemia. She then leads them to that area, using the circuitous route so the kids don’t see them. Rex is wrapped in silk and a Maasai shuka, looking like a baby who is fast asleep.
“Watoto wa maskini huko kwenu wakipata Cancer na magonjwa ya watoto, wanaendanga wapi?” She asks.
I stay silent. Some questions deserve silence. I had never thought of it.
She tells me of how parents too poor to afford treatments such as chemo or radiotherapy bring their kids here. They get to leave them with her, go back home and rebuild their lives.
“Surely matron, what type of parent abandons their child?”
The poor kind. It is either that, or the family risks losing their whole lives and destroying their future. She takes them in, no questions. The kids get to spend their final days with some semblance of peace. They don’t come here to build a life. They come to die. Where did I think the home got its name from?
I had figured all of God’s children are little angels.
Well yes, but for them, their angels are in a small plot of land next to their vegetable garden.
“How do those kids look like when they are brought in?”
They are usually very sick. They have no strength. They just lie in their beds and follow you with their eyes. Most times, they are heavily medicated with pain meds. They are in no pain, just a haze where they feel nothing. She tells me, that in the final hours, there is usually a remarkable improvement in the kid. Her first time seeing it, she thought the child was miraculously cured. She even called the parents back in. The child was running about, happy. Hugging anyone and everyone, then the child went to sleep. They thought the child was tired from all the running around. The child didn’t wake up.
Murimi peels off, the truths matron shares get to him. I can’t leave yet. There are more questions to ask. Isn’t it a waste of space to have a cemetery in the home? After all, there is always another kid waiting to die. She agrees. But they have a system. They can only use the space they’ve allocated for the cemetery. They don’t expand it. They dig deep graves, they make them narrow. Just enough to fit a small body and nothing more.
Every time they have to bury a child, they do the ceremony in the small clearing in the middle of the home. All the kids can attend. When the ceremony is done, the adults bring the body over to the cemetery. A grave has been dug, they remove the body from the casket, place in the grave and bury it. Piling the body on top of the others.
“Have they ever seen another body when digging a grave anew?” I wonder. “Maybe the men digging were just trying to finish their job when a shovel hit something. A skull?”
She doesn’t know. She doesn’t supervise the actual digging. Kang’ethe the grounds manager does that. Can I talk to him? She would rather I did not. She can answer any questions I have. They are many. Is Kang’ethe okay? Does he secretly do hard drugs? Because being the man tasked with digging the graves of children has to break something in you.
Kang’ethe is, fortunately, a sane man. “Mothuri wa itura.” A village elder. He doesn’t even drink. He tends to his business managing the school grounds and ensuring everything in stores is safe.
“Matron, you mentioned you dig narrow graves, aren’t the kids buried in coffins?”
“Would I rather feed these kids or buy a coffin?”
It is a rhetorical question that makes me feel a little foolish but I have to press on.
“But during the ceremony are the children in coffins?”
“Where do those come from?” She dithers before explaining. They have a section in their store that has a few child size coffins stored.
“So ceremonial coffins?” I ask. She nods.
“And where does the coffin go after they are done using it.”
It goes back to stores….Until next time.
I have been getting lots of inquiries on this piece. For the avoidance of doubt, the events in this story are FICTIONAL! I feel it is necessary to clarify that.
However, a friend runs a little trust he calls Kizazi Kipya Initiative that supports a children’s home hidden somewhere only God likes to visit (Kitengela). Perhaps pray for him tonight. For strength, perseverance and patience. He needs it. They need it.