Challenges, Changes and Remembering Cu-cu Kagure & Mama Njeri
Stepping off the airplane and into the busy, humid Nairobi night after traveling for more than 24 hours is both an exhausting and exhilarating moment. I am back!
I’ve spent the flight thinking about our grandmothers, moms and students while organizing pictures from my last trip. I will gift these mementos-rare photos of loved ones-to each family during our wellness visits over the next few weeks. Photos of Mama Njeri and Cu-cu Kagure* are on top ready for our first, and for me, most enjoyable stop. As I wait impatiently in the visa line then struggle with my luggage (weighed down with donated vitamins, backpacks, shoes and school supplies) I wish I could press ‘fast forward’ on this part of the voyage and find myself in Gilgil, sitting in Cu-cu Kagure’s immaculately clean mud home listening to her laugh and share stories from the neighborhood.
Searching the crowd for the smiling face of Wana Duma founder Susanne Garrison and taxi driver and friend David, my sleep-deprived brain is already buzzing with messages from home and the long to-do list I am committed to accomplishing during my limited time here. I have yet to learn that my time is not my own in Kenya. Soon I will remember the simplest tasks take days to accomplish and my priorities, planned so carefully on lists in the comfort of my home office (or the discomfort of an airport terminal), pale in comparison to the real priorities and work happening each day at Wana Duma Children’s Project.
I go to Kenya ready to move mountains, ready to navigate the bureaucracy that is Kenya’s broken school system, ready to help with whatever Susanne, and my counterpart in Kenya, Director Susan Nyambura, need me to do to improve services and support for our families and growing project. All of my precious planning goes out the window and priorities are instantly reframed the next morning as I settle in for the drive to Gilgil. Susanne tells me a family lost their house during the latest rains, Mama Naomi has fallen and broken her leg, she tells me about the new family of 8 who are living in a one room shed behind a chicken farm, and the bright young woman who dropped out of school during her senior year to care for her dying mom and now can’t find placement in any local public high school to finish her certificate. There are good stories too - a fun tree planting party on the Wana Duma Eco-Village land, Mama Emily (HIV+) gaining weight and back on her feet - he kids happy and healthy, the comical scene last week of the older boys teaching the littlest kids how to throw a frisbee, stories of rescue puppies finding loving homes, and of our food program providing more struggling families with the basics.
As David negotiates the steep, windy journey, I strain to see the first view of The Great Rift Valley - the line of volcanic caldera and Mount Longonot, the fertile farmlands in the valley, the rows of long green houses which produce millions of roses for the European market, and finally, Lake Naivasha whose sight signifies we are almost to our first stop - a visit with Cu-cu Kagure and Mama Njeri…
To date, each of my journeys to Kenya have begun this way. A long trip, a long to-do list, and a visit with my two favorite ladies who instantly ground me in the ‘why’ part of why we do this work. This spring when I return to Kenya things will be different. I will still arrive overly ambitious and idealistic convinced I can accomplish it all, Susanne will still meet and greet me with stories both heartbreaking and triumphant, I will again be awed by the beauty of Kenya, humbled by the struggle of its poor, and inspired by the people we serve. But this spring, my visit will not include Cu-cu Kagure and Mama Njeri who passed away within weeks of each other this year.
Cu-cu Kagure touched my heart the moment I met her. She practically leapt out of her house and down the walk in a hurry to greet Susanne and Susan with hugs and questions. In her late 90s she looked so frail but readily enveloped me in her strong, slender arms and beat my back heartily upon our first introduction. She had a sparkle in her eye and was equal parts sweetness and sass. Cantankerous and complaining one moment and teasing and laughing the next, Kagure had a practiced scowl that could turn into a smirk then full on smile in a matter of seconds. We adored her storytelling and infectious laughter. Children of all ages were drawn to her. Many grandchildren and neighborhood kids found safety, comfort and tough love in her arms during times of great sadness and loss. We will miss her spirit!
Just down the road from Kagure, Mama Njeri lived in a barn in the absolute worst conditions you could imagine. In spite of her dismal surroundings, Njeri’s light truly shone brightly touching all who knew her. Living with leprosy and in near constant pain, Njeri could not tolerate anti-malaria and TB medications and was often ill. She loved her visits from Susan and Susanne who she called ‘her daughters’. She cherished her dog, Simba, and all of her chicks and hens that nested around her. In spite of her illness, Njeri was fiercely independent. She wouldn’t leave her drafty home no matter how many times Susanne offered to find her a warm, dry place and give her the space and independence she craved, as well as, the attention and care she deserved.
On my very first visit, Njeri told of the aid workers who came to offer training to “disadvantaged women”. The women who completed the course were given a loom so they could earn a living. At the end of the course her trainers told Njeri that she was going to die soon so they shouldn’t waste a loom on her but give it to a woman who could really use it. She laughed and smiled and said “That was 20 years ago and I am still here!” Looking at my shocked face, she finished the story with something that has stuck with me, “Becca, I have always been poor but I have never been stupid and I knew I would be okay.” I am happy she is now pain-free and truly at peace, but I can’t imagine going to Kenya and not seeing her.
As I write this letter I am planning my next journey to Kenya. A corner of my office is piled high with donated vitamins and backpacks. I’ve also started a to-do list knowing full well even with a plan there will be new challenges, many changes and even more people in need this year.
I also know Wana Duma Children’s Project is only able to support these incredible women and their families thanks to our generous donors and friends! Thank you for making our work possible. We couldn’t do it without you!
Director, Wana Duma Children's Project