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THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING

In Kenya, reason for hope

Slums and AIDS are found in abundance. But there are many ways to help alleviate the suffering.

December 20, 2009|By Amanda Jones

Reporting from Nairobi, Kenya — Rose is 17 months old. She weighs 15 pounds and looks the size of an American 5-month-old. She cannot sit up, walk or speak. She has the toothpick limbs and saucer eyes of the malnourished and the dull skin of dehydration.

In another corner is Caroline, a waifish 9-year-old who sleeps in a crib. She is a whispering, otherworldly child, pretty and fragile. Her parents are dead, and she is severely malnourished. I have just given her a teddy bear and accessories from a bag of toys we brought from the U.S. When I gave her the bear, she looked at me in disbelief. This, I realize, is probably the first time she has had a toy all her own. Now she sits in her crib slowly undressing and dressing the bear, over and over again.

Then there's Benedict, a 2-year-old boy dressed in pink. He cannot walk by himself or talk, although he's trying. A child his age should be running after a ball, but Benedict struggles to stay upright.

I look at my 11-year-old daughter, Indigo, and wonder whether this is just all too much for her. But she smiles back at me, happily playing with Claudia. Claudia is 18 months old. She arrived three weeks ago weighing 13 pounds, the size of the average American 2-month-old. Now she is 26 pounds, still not talking or walking, but a beautiful, happy child.

These children have HIV/AIDS and are orphans, or their parents are simply too poor to feed them sufficiently. But they are fortunate. Rose, who was staring death in the face, now has a feeding tube and a nurse to watch her 24 hours a day. Unlike 12% of Kenya's children under age 5, she will live.

We are in the "respite wing" at Nyumbani, a home for abandoned, HIV-infected children located in a leafy suburb of Nairobi. After eight glorious days on safari, we are spending the next two days helping out in Nyumbani and New Life -- both homes for HIV-positive babies, then visiting the Harambee Community Center in the Mukuru slum.

Before we left the U.S., Indigo collected school supplies, clothing and soccer balls. People gave generously, and we had brought four extra bags with us. And now, at Nyumbani, I am wishing that we had many more bags so the boys would not have to wear pink and every one of the 110 children would get their own toy. Later, Indigo, my wise child, chided me. "Wearing pink is the least of their problems, Mama, and we did our best."

The previous day, Indigo and I spent a peaceful afternoon playing with, feeding and holding the babies at New Life, a sunny, whitewashed home for HIV-positive babies who were abandoned. Parents are often unaware that with good nutrition, 75% of infants born who test HIV-positive will test negative by the time they are 18 months old. They panic, abandoning their children. Unlike Nyumbani, which takes chronic cases of all ages, New Life fosters only babies. Those who eventually test negative are adopted out to families from Kenya and abroad.

We had come to Kenya for a mother-daughter trip, something I try to do annually with each of my daughters. I also try to do one philanthropic project a year with them, large or small. Indigo's contribution to this trip was to gather the items the homes needed.

Micato Safaris, a Nairobi- and New York-based company, organized our trip. When I told Micato I wanted to tack on a few days to make these visits, they told me they could assist with that as well. The family-owned company, which has a class-act reputation as a travel operation, has poured millions of dollars back into the community and wildlife programs through its philanthropic arm, AmericaShare.

Most Micato guests don't spend two days doing what we did, but most do spend a couple of hours at AmericaShare's Harambee Center in the Mukuru slum. Some are so shocked or moved by what they see that they leave having sponsored a child's education or even having paid for a new building. And some are just too afraid to step foot near a slum, so they don't go.

The Nyumbani Children's Home is in Karen, the posh neighborhood named after author Karen Blixen, and the Harambee Community Center is in the heart of the slum. The Mukuru slum -- or "informal settlement," the ridiculous new politically correct term for slum -- is one of the worst. About 700,000 people crowd into a five-mile stretch of littered, polluted river. There is no running water, no sewage system, no electricity and no garbage collection. Dwellings are 10-by-10 shacks cobbled together from rusted corrugated iron. By day, people go about their business, and it is safe to enter; but by night, even residents stay off the streets.

As we entered the slum, I watched Indigo observing the scene from our van. She has seen poverty all over the world, but this was the worst. Garbage was piled everywhere, sewage seeped in open channels, and stalls selling tomatoes, goat's heads and soap stood between the two. Throngs of women with plastic containers waited patiently to buy water.

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