Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you. – St. Augustine
The Great Rift Valley, a geographical feature spanning almost 4,000 miles and portions of both Africa and Asia, has been called the most significant physical detail on the planet that is visible from space. In Kenya, that valley is deepest to the northwest of Nairobi, with spectacular views available from the highways leading through Naivasha and Nakuru, two popular tourist destinations. The lower of the two main highways winds precipitously down the side of a massive escarpment face, treating uninitiated travelers to a dizzying mix of Out of Africa grandeur and jarring moments of sheer terror as oncoming trucks execute tight passes on its harrowing switchbacks.
After snaking past miles of dense forests and rocky overlooks, small brightly painted roadside vendor buildings, hopeful roasted-corn sellers, and occasional baboons, the road dumps unceremoniously into Maai Mahiu. Entering this particular truck stop town after the preceding array of sights can feel like being awakened from a pleasant dream by bad news. Drought has taken up permanent residence here, rendering the landscape a featureless brown, its monotony broken only by clumps of scattered garbage, run down shacks, bent signs, and crumbling building facades. Noisy semi trucks clog the center of town, spewing exhaust fumes and creating jams, while small dirty children mix with sickly stray dogs wandering around aimlessly. The absence of hope hangs like a sentence over the town, which seems forever destined to be stifled more than others. Significant commerce falters year after year, corruption and crime flourish, and citizens stay fixed in the crosshairs of systemic generational poverty.
By contrast, the upper highway drapes like a thin ribbon over the peak of the raised 9,000 foot ridge, allowing a much more direct route from Nairobi to Nakuru, both situated at much lower elevations at both ends. At various times, this mostly 2-lane stretch has been listed by different online publications as one of the top ten most dangerous roads in the world, due to its deadly combination of speeding, unsafe passing, and drunk drivers. Just before the halfway point lies a junction called Gichiengo, which is partially known as a smaller hub for those seeking prostitutes, drugs, illicit brew, and pornography. A connecting rural road, partially paved on its upper half, drops off suddenly into a long, winding descent connecting the towns of Gichiengo and Maai Mahiu. Along this transit down the side of the Kijabe escarpment are turnoffs to numerous Christian ministries, including Rift Valley Academy, Kijabe Hospital, CURE Intl. Hospital, Moffat Bible College, and further down, Naomi’s Village.
Truckers stopping overnight for rest and entertainment around either Maai Mahiu or Gichiengo find desperate women and girls willing to take life-altering risks so they can buy food, pay rent, and cover school fees and health bills for their children. Hundreds work around these 2 junctions, surrendering their bodies for only about $2, sometimes to violent and controlling men. Fully 30% of women in this business are HIV+, according to 3 studies conducted since 2011.¹ Unwanted pregnancies happen regularly, often the result of a lack of funds for birth control pills. Late-term pregnancies and needy babies can seem like costly work interruptions, and panic has even caused desperate mothers to abandon or kill newborns. Fathers are no more than a fading concept to so many children, the disappointing ache of their absence becoming the keystone anchoring a deeply rooted lie they have come to believe – “I am of little value to anyone.”
Case in Point:
Janet Atieno, 39, died quietly in her small house near Maai Mahiu on Jan 16, 2017, her 75-pound body no longer able to muster the strength for another day of fighting. She had succumbed to the effects of one of the most efficient killers of marginalized people in modern history. Her six fatherless children were inconsolable, left to soldier on alone, in the wake of losing their gentle, loving mom.
Her life had begun in western Kenya on the shores of Lake Victoria in the town of Oyugis, as the second-born of four kids. Her father later moved their family to Maingi, just down the hill from the aforementioned Gichiengo, after he hired on at a local quarry. As she turned 20, Janet had Paulette, who is now 19 and married with a child of her own. After that, Janet continued having children, though she never married. Margaret (17), Dominic (11), Lloyd (9), Archibella (7), and Denzel (19 mos.) all followed as products of unstable interactions with transient, uncommitted men. Like millions before them, these men blindly rejected one of life’s greatest joys for lesser trinkets like sex and money, ran from themselves, grasping at ghosts and shadows in the shape of bottles and pills. They did not see that their greatest masculine destiny was to be found in an intangible, yet indescribably valuable matter – being a loving, present father.
Janet’s struggling family had become part of the Naomi’s Village community because of Janet’s inclusion in a redemptive outreach to provide food, vocational training, and Bible teaching to ladies needing a way to escape lives of prostitution. A gracious family who donated regularly to the outreach, the Kleins, had raised funds and helped build a home outside Maai Mahiu in mid 2016, relocating sickly Janet from the Gichiengo rental where she and her kids were facing eviction. Because their love for her compelled them to take compassionate action, Janet lived out her last 7 months just a few miles from Naomi’s Village on land that Bonface and his wife Margaret own, with her children’s needs taken care of. Julie, Emily, and I met her in that small, well-kept house in December, along with a family from Grace Community Church in Arlington, TX. Though frail and bony, she emanated grace and hope from behind sunken eyes. I had never before gotten to know the mother of any of our orphaned children before they became parentless, nor did it even occur to me that Janet would die so soon.
On the Monday morning in mid January when we got the call that Janet had passed on, we were headed along the upper highway to Naivasha to buy groceries. Hearing the crushing news from Bonface, we listened as he informed us that he had gone to pick up Janet’s body in the Naomi’s Village Land Cruiser, and was now driving down the lower highway with some of her family to Naivasha, taking her to the mortuary. We trickled along upper and lower margins of the Rift Valley towards Naivasha, converging at nearly the same point, but never meeting up at that time. By late afternoon, when we stopped at Janet’s little home in the dusty farmland back near Maai Mahiu, we discovered Bonface, Anne, Flo, Peris, and Oscar visiting her grieving kids. A few extended family members had already arrived and sat mourning together. We delivered food items and tried to help fill the deep void of Janet’s absence for a while, now gathered in her tiny living room on another spot along that ancient geological gash. The fading amber sun symbolically sank below the distant horizon of our ever-spinning Earth.
Our NV staff unanimously voted on Wednesday to bring in the youngest four, since 17-year-old Margaret was already boarding in secondary school. Baby Denzel had been recently tested and needed immediate treatment for ongoing secondary illnesses. He arrived through the gate amidst a jubilant wave of singing and dancing, a mere 3 days after being held in his mom’s arms for the final time. His older siblings accompanied him that day, and when it came time for me to speak in the dining hall, it felt appropriate and necessary to speak tenderly to them first, rather than to the assembled crowd. My initial words were plain and unplanned, “I’m truly sorry that your mom is gone.” Before I could say more, 11-year-old Dominic’s hand shot up to hide a face bursting into tears. All I could do next was to walk over and put my hand on his head and let him cry for a moment while the room fell silent, allowing a moment of unhindered grief. We then collectively reassured the 3 older children that those in the room understood what they were going through and were determined to love them and see them through the days and weeks ahead. Several children, most notably Joshua, John M, and John N spoke tenderly and confidently to them, with words streaming out from empathy pulpits only their healing youthful hearts had a right to stand at. The sharing of Denzel’s welcome cake that day, usually enjoyed more as a celebration ritual marking inclusion in our family, seemed more importantly to be emphasizing to the 4 that we would never turn our backs on their needs.
The 3 older children would not officially return to stay at NV until 4 days later, because we felt it best that they mourn with the extended family until the weekend passed, since many of them had traveled so far to be there with them. In the meantime, we started Denzel on a regimen of twice daily liquid meds that were necessary to preserve his life. Our loving baby staff struggled with having to force feed a terrified 19-month-old a very bitter tasting concoction when they had not yet formed trusting bonds with him.
On the 3rd day following his arrival, I went to the baby room and opened the door, finding all 7 babies on the rug. Most were watching a DVD, but Denzel sat staring into space, a glum expression firmly locked on his face. I didn’t enter, instead calling each one by name from the door. Noelle and Sammy ran over at points to repeatedly shake my hand, while Evelyn and Annemarie waved sweetly. I received an angelic smile from David, and also one from Andrew, who was crawling around cooing. But Denzel kept scowling as I said his name and called out to him in Swahili. Then surprisingly, he calmly stood and walked over to me, saying “baba” (father) with his hand out. I opened the door wide, took his tiny hand and allowed him to lead me around our courtyard to the swingset. Next he turned and headed for the gate where the vehicle he rode in had first arrived, all the while repeating “baba”. I was later informed that Baba was the name he used for his oldest brother Dominic, who he had come to depend on as his mother’s health declined. When we got to the gate where he had come in 3 days before, he tried to squeeze through the bars. I picked him up and held him, comforting him for several minutes, and letting him know softly that his brother would be coming to live here soon. His sweetness overpowered me at points, and I quietly told God I would do anything to help fill the void in his heart. After taking him back to my office for a piece of candy to distract him, I arranged with Bonface for Dominic and his other siblings to come visit right away.
The next afternoon, Dominic, Lloyd, and Archibella came home to live at NV, now a week removed from Janet’s death, with faces still marred by shock. God showed mercy and providence by having their new home be one graced by several people they already knew and loved. They were given countless hugs, cakes of their own, fresh new clothes and shoes, and the best beds they had ever slept in. Smiles broke through at points, though had they not, we would have surely understood. All of us have accepted that this might be a harder recovery than what we are accustomed to.
The following Sunday, we gathered for church to celebrate 6 wonderful years since we first opened NV. Just 6 days after they had come to NV, the 3 were already laughing and enjoying a celebration video that included photos of all 76 children now living in their family. I marveled as Lloyd ran past me with his new playmates towards the basketball court after church, a genuine smile of glee plastered across his face. Glancing up at the mountains as I have countless times before, I breathed in, renewed with a certainty that I am at home here.
Meanwhile astronauts still orbit, enthralled by the giant rift crossing their distant, seemingly peaceful planet, and amazed that they can see such detail from tiny windows. Safari planes crisscross the Maasai Mara, as awed tourists take in the sights of giraffe, elephants and migrating herds of wildebeest, feeling they have somehow escaped civilization for a bit to get a glimpse behind some proverbial curtain. Thousands more trickle down that winding escarpment road daily, their perspective trailing off from from the scenic until they touch down on the floor of the rift itself, some encountering scenes of stifling poverty for the first time. Others rocket along the ridge above, oblivious to what they are really passing. And beyond where the rubber meets the road, millions in towns like Maai Mahiu and Gichiengo see life through lenses chronically narrowed and dulled by the effects of desperate lack. No matter the perspective of others, this is the way things really appear at ground level when sin and suffering have an unrestrained stranglehold on life.
Yet God sits enthroned, beyond time and space, all knowing, doing as He pleases. I imagine His calm, and question whether He participates actively in, steers gently, or simply allows each stanza in the symphony of beauty and affliction playing out on tiny Earth. Does He pay particular attention to the broken towns rimming that jagged scar marking her lower hemisphere? From His divine viewpoint, I wonder if they appear like periodically brightening jewels of redemption on a necklace, reminders of His grace to save, visible during each turn of the struggling ball?
It makes my heart swell at the thought of a smile cracking open the corner of His mouth before filling His unimaginably magnificent face, as Janet’s bright and brief sparkle reached his divine eyes and then faded on January 16, 2017.
Will there come a day when the children of our children are the fathers Kenya needs, and the ripples carried forth have become a wave of unstoppable cultural change? Could there really be generations of rural women who eventually live without crippling desperation and fear, able to truly choose wisely for themselves and their precious babies? Is it reasonable to imagine a decline in the number of abandoned, orphaned, hopeless, and abused children across Africa over the coming decades? I cannot say how it all turns out. I only know that I want to carry on joyfully laboring near this jewel along that ever-reminding scar, while leaving the unanswerable to Him, until the day when it is time for my sparkle to flicker out as well.
For Janet Atieno
Sunset Jan 16, 2017
By Bob Mendonsa