I remember the first time we locked eyes. The tiny child in the dirt yard, standing next to a shack was not yet four, yet the hardening had already happened. We stood far out on the whistling plains near Nyahururu, Kenya, wondering who he was, why he was alone, and what could be done to help. As Julie and I attempted to show love to him by kneeling, speaking kindly, handing him a piece of candy, those baleful eyes stared back impassively. It was as if no tracks had been grooved yet on the love template of his heart. Even so, we did not get the feeling he was quitting, whatever his hardships.
We had arrived that morning from four hours away on the worst of roads, which eventually ended at this remote prairie. Pastor Peter Amandui, my Turkana friend from CURE Hospital in Kijabe, now navigated as I turned “left at this tree”, “right at those bushes”, then went “straight through that gulley” for another few miles. A few traditional Turkana women, necks laden with beads greeted us outside of Amandui’s childhood home. We met his elderly father, shared roasted goat, chapati, and chai, and stared awkwardly at each other. Chickens ran in and out of the mud walled house, pecking at crumbs on the dirt floor.
We had decided a visit was in order, having heard the terrible story which now had a happy ending. Pastor Amandui had come here just 2 months before for a family funeral, and found a boy with burned hands cowering in the bushes outside this home. Kevin, age 5, had been left hungry one too many times by his alcoholic grandmother, who had gone drinking for the day. He was caught stealing food from a neighbor’s garden, and when his grandmother found out, she put his hands in the fire as punishment.
Amandui took him to the hospital, and the grandmother to the police. As an act of “compassion” for the fact that this grandmother, only in her late 30’s herself, had her own children to care for, the judge let her return home to continue being a caregiver. Kevin and 2 other small children had been dumped on her by her prostitute daughters. Her response to the stress was to leave these small children all day in a pen, much like animals, without food, while she went to a bar in town.
Pastor Amandui pressured the judge and the family, and won custody of Kevin, who came to CURE where we operated on him. We marveled at how this humble man had gone to bury a dead relative, but ended up returning with a young life to redeem.
And this brings me back to the boy with those eyes. He was one of the other small ones still in the hands of that grandmother, and he was the cousin of Kevin. The son of an imprisoned prostitute, deposited unwanted at his overwhelmed grandmother’s home, he had been in her abusive crosshairs for most of his life. As we drove away from him on that March day in 2010, I told Julie that we would be back for him one day, once our children’s home construction was finished. Her tears told me that she agreed. He could not grow up in that pen, she said resolutely.
We relived that day, his haunting expression, his lack, many times until June 2011. I will never forget returning over those bumpy roads, excited, a bit afraid to see how the little warrior had fared in those 15 months. You see, we wanted him when we did not even know his name – Kibet. God had filled us with a painful yearning to give him the love, the worth, the home he was made to have.
What happened next made it all the more amazing. We got the other child too, a glorious “plus one”, a girl named Chayesh. She jumped in my lap as I ate goat meat at Amandui’s rural home, and the next thing we knew, her grandmother had signed her over as well. Sadly, she never said goodbye or looked back at her grandmother, the shack, or the pen as we drove off. Some places were never meant to be home.
For the first few miles of bumpy roads, Kibet appeared unsettled as he sat in Esther Karanja’s lap in the backseat. Suddenly, he threw up. We pulled over for a moment to clean up and settle him a bit. From that moment forward, Kibet changed. It was as if he had vomited up his vile past and was ready now to move on. He smiled, giggled, and enjoyed “Uncle Bob” weaving to avoid potholes and rushing to arrive at Naomi’s Village by dark.
The twenty Naomi’s Village kids eating dinner in the dining hall eagerly welcomed the two newbies into their midst that evening, and they shared a welcome cake together after that. Chayesh introduced herself as Eliza, her English name, refusing thereafter to go by her old identity ever again.
By the next day, when we returned for Saturday morning “American style” breakfast, they were all smiles, fitting in nicely in a miraculous place that we were all still getting used to. Our first beach vacation and family Christmas happened later that year. Kibet and Eliza grew in size, developed personalities, learned to love and be loved, and welcomed in other orphans like it was no big deal.
And maybe, after all it was no big deal. A boy with a warrior’s spirit can sometimes be found by sheer accident, in a far away place, where he might have languished, eventually lost heart. And he can bring his sweet cousin, who is just brave enough to change her own name. And they can travel to a far away home made just for them, full of wonder and God stuff. And they can live there and grow up strong enough to show others the way home too.
Yeah, maybe it was no big deal. But I’m pretty sure I saw this one happen. And I will never be the same again.