CHILULU, Kenya — Brick by brick, in the steady rain, the shared vision of Orange County women and the women of this town took shape.
The women of Chilulu spelled out their plans two years ago, wrestled tree stumps from the red earth beneath the palm trees and prepared the land for a building to be used for meetings, classes and worship. An architect drew up the specifications, workers were hired and the town's women labored.
Now, eight women from Orange County were invited to scoop cement onto trowels and help construct the multipurpose center. Their labor may have been largely symbolic, but their fund raising was real, and a reason the center was being built.
For Patti Johnson, an Irvine resident in her mid-40s, the journey back to the familiar town was a highlight of the trip to Africa. Johnson has visited Chilulu, a two-hour drive from the Indian Ocean, annually since 1990, and said she was moved to tears by seeing "a dream . . . a hope" become reality.
Johnson is a co-founder of Women of Vision, which ran the two-week July trip to a Nairobi slum called Soweto, a collection of Masai villages, and to Chilulu, inland from the port of Mombasa. The seven women with her, from affluent homes in Mission Viejo and Laguna Beach, Cowan Heights and Newport Beach, were trying to help women in the Third World.
Women of Vision is an affiliate of World Vision, a Christian group founded in 1950 that runs humanitarian projects in 90 countries.
The Orange County women paid about $3,000 each to go to Africa, not for a safari or a photography tour but to help the women of Kenya.
Michele McCormick, 35, a clinical psychologist with a home in Irvine and a practice in Newport Beach, also returned this year. Her first trip to Chilulu was in 1990; last year she launched a program in Watts to help homeless and battered women.
McCormick said Women of Vision doesn't dictate to the townspeople what they should have, but asks, "What do you need?" The return trips are to cement the relationships between the groups of women, she said.
In developments in the Third World, "the spirit can flag," McCormick said. Projects are abandoned; money runs out; people lose interest. "We are not just raising money to satisfy our guilt, or to give it to people and have it trickle down," McCormick said. The emphasis is on "sustainable development."
The women who go on the trips attend lectures beforehand to learn what to expect and help raise money afterward, to keep the various projects going. Last year, $200,000 was raised, Johnson said, and the group has become a favorite of affluent women in Orange County. McCormick said Americans make the journeys to Kenya partly because they "want to be sure our money is going where we sent it," and want to show personal support to the Kenyan women.
"The women of Chilulu were as curious about our lives as we were about theirs," McCormick said after her first trip. The Americans "answered many questions we had never been asked before."
The Chilulu women "wanted to know how many cows we had, where we got our milk, whether we had piped water in our homes, and why we had such small families. . . . They were curious about our skin color."
This time, her hosts "took me through an initiation where they taught me to slaughter a chicken" and then cook it, McCormick remembered gleefully. "They gave me an African name--\o7 Mapenzi. \f7 It means love."
McCormick said the women live and cook inside mud huts. "It's very primitive. It's like a time warp."
And Johnson noted that for the women who go on the trips, adjustments have to be made because of the disparities between the way things work back home and conditions in the Third World.
"I love to be on time," said Johnson--who spent the first 13 years of her life in what is now Zaire as the daughter of missionaries--but she realizes that in Africa things don't always run on time. If the plane is late or doesn't come, well, that's the way it goes.
"The people who feel there's only one way to do something, they miss a lot," she said. "They've got to learn ways to handle it. There's things to die for and there's some things not to, like waiting for the next plane."
Johnson said that while the African programs are important to her, it's also important to make sure the women in her group are coping with the strangeness. The Orange County women have made "a courageous choice," she said. "They're not going shopping; they're not on (big) game drives. They've decided they want to honor this" aid program.
Another feature of the trip to Chilulu was the presentation of book bags to students. Suzanne Paulson, a 55-year-old Laguna Beach resident who was on the Africa trip last year and this year, organized Orange County fifth-graders to paint canvas book bags "to represent what their life is like in California." These were swapped for book bags brought to Chilulu and painted by the African children.
Paulson said the Women of Vision distributed 50 book bags in Soweto, the Nairobi slum, and 50 in Chilulu.