by Jeff James
Thorn bushes fortified with vines fenced the compound, a homestead once occupied by a vibrant and strong Luo family. Standing as corner posts like castle sentries, jacaranda trees adorned in purple blossoms radiate harmony and distract from recent memories of death. The shells of vacated houses lay heaped in broken piles around the courtyard, like figurative burial mounds, cluttering the grounds and serving as grim reminders that a tragedy has occurred; one that could have been prevented, perhaps.
But one house remains standing. With 4 mud walls, 10 feet across and 6 feet tall, capped with a rusted tin roof, this is the home of Gladys Onyango, a grandmother well over 80 years old with 11 beautiful grandchildren (9 pictured), ages 6 to 15, all of whom are orphans.
When we arrived, Gladys was resting in her plastic chair under the eaves of the roof, a cool sliver of respite from the mid-day sun. A cluster of children played in the dry earth, kicking a soccer ball made of plastic bags and string. A few chickens pecked about the dirt in search of a tasty insect. When Gladys saw us pull up in the Land Cruiser, she picked up her chair, nodded at us, and ducked under the roof, disappearing into the darkness of her home. The children stopped playing and followed her inside. This was their home too, and we had been officially welcomed.
It was a poorly lit house with a shiny dirt floor polished smooth by bare feet and daily sweeping. It was tidy. Crudely made benches lined one wall, and baskets and pans hung from the ceiling in the corners, displayed like utilitarian artwork, unintentional yet inspired. In the middle of the house, a wall divided the sleeping from the living quarters. I stood there, peering into the dark room of slumber and tried to imagine how 12 people could sleep in a space so small. I imagined a heap of bodies, comfortably intertwined, feeling safe, loved, and dreaming of happier days, days before the family shattered. Life can explode sometimes, but our desire to love and connect will always reveal a path back to wholeness.
All the adults sat down, and the children stood around. We shared our stories and a sobering cup of conversation. Tea would have been offered, were there any, but you see, Gladys is the sole guardian of these children, having lost her family: 3 sons, their 6 wives, her husband and 2 sister wives, to AIDS. Polygamy no doubt contributes to the spread of HIV here, but there are hopeful signs that monogamy is becoming the norm among a younger generation of Luo.
Food for the Onyango family is scarce, and the children are often hungry. With her age, the responsibility of providing for 11 children is more than Gladys can handle. Farming and pulling fishing nets from the lake had been her life’s work, but now it’s difficult. All of the children help, sharing the burden of responsibility, but they are also all in school — a blessing and a mark of pride for the Onyango clan. Everyone knows that education can bring liberation; in every impoverished community there’s a legend of the smart one who got away. The Onyango kids have a chance, not an easy one, for their path out of poverty has many obstacles.
Lalmba helps Gladys and her grandchildren by providing some basic assistance, and a community center where they can turn for support. The children are enrolled in Lalmba’s children’s program, and receive school support, health care, and supplemental nutrition. The services are basic, but they are lifesaving and empowering. Gladys’ grandchildren have heard the inspirational stories of former Lalmba orphans, real legends, to inspire them with a sense of purpose and hope. (See “Gift of Hope” below)
If one searches long enough through a rubbish heap, a treasure will be found. That treasure gives hope, and sometimes it’s just the catalyst one needs to rebuild life. And so, I think, from those broken homes, those mounds of despair that clutter the Onyango homestead, a castle should be built, and within it, a happy, intact family should live. And “from the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be blade that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
Romeo Rodriguez, Chiri Health Center Project Director, enjoys his time at the Chiri Children’s Home.
Reflections From a Lalmba Volunteer
by Romeo Rodriguez
I have been a volunteer in other countries including Uganda and my own Guatemala, and there is always that feeling of wanting to do all you can and more for the people, and always that sense of fulfillment at the end of the day, even after a rough day. Working in Lalmba-Chiri Health Center has been no different and also a significant enriching and growing experience. Not only because of the length of my stay in rural Ethiopia but for the tremendous impact that Lalmba has had in Chiri and the whole area, and all the challenges that have been there and that are implicit to the job. Those could be from making tough decisions when dealing with local health authorities, or local staff, to having to drive a patient at 4:00 am to Bonga Hospital, when our driver is unreachable, or picking up a delivering mother with complications from one of the surrounding villages.
My heart beats fast as the woman screams and I’m not sure whether to drive faster or slower over the bumpy roads of our area. Sometimes it happens that the woman begins labor in the middle of the journey and I have to stop. Then the time seems to run slowly as I worry about the health of both mother and baby. But thanks to our wonderful staff, the accompanying nurse attends her well and then we proceed to the health center with an extra healthy passenger.
Sometimes after the end of regular working hours I like to go down to the Children’s Home where they always make me smile and laugh, especially the little ones when they run to greet me. I think they like me and I’m so glad because I truly love them. I dream about their future, about the dreams of their own and I know that the good memories of growing together with everything they need and with the love and care of their home in Chiri will remain with them forever.
It often happens that when I walk in Chiri or even Bonga town I hear people murmuring “Lalmba” and it makes me think about the many different stories I have heard from people who have been saved or cured at the health center, or how they’ve been supported through other Lalmba programs. And then I think about Hugh and Marty. I wonder if they dreamed about having this great impact in different ways for so many people in Africa. And I feel honored and grateful for having the chance to do my small contribution to this program, for growing and learning together with local and expatriate staff, and for being part of this family and this wonderful story; not just a story of aid but the story of love that is Lalmba.
Romeo and Tafesse have made a great team running Lalmba Ethiopia.
Romeo’s 2-year term with Lalmba ends in January 2017. His quiet, strong model of leadership has allowed him to make lifelong friends in the community while also making difficult decisions on a daily basis. We have been blessed to have him in this role, and we are dusting off a space for him in the Lalmba Hall of Fame.
Gift of Hope:
A Letter from a former Lalmba orphan
by Kenneth O. Odida
The four years after the death of my father seemed a lifetime! I still look back and wonder how I managed to wade through successfully. I was only a 6-year-old innocent soul, hardly understood a thing.
At the time Lalmba came into my life, my education had reached a dead end. I was only in class four, and my grandmother, with whom I stayed, already could not afford to pay my school fees. The fee wasn’t much though, only about $3 a year. I remember the school principal allowing me to stay in class when others who couldn’t pay their fees were sent home. I did not know for how long he was going to excuse me from paying fees.
One thing I thank God for is the gift of hope. Despite the challenges we faced at home, I always remained at the top of my class. The big dreams my father inculcated in me just wouldn’t go away. Staying with my grandmother, we would often go without food. We didn’t have soap to do our washing nor have a proper bath. At some point, my friends at school would tease me that I was the dirtiest of all. And we would laugh about it, because they too were not clean.
Although my mom had passed on three years earlier when I was 3, it was dad’s death that brought me face-to-face with hardship. Somehow, he had managed to seal the hole left by my mom’s death. He would walk me to school before leaving for work, a rare thing for village kids those days.
I joined Lalmba’s Ongoro Children’s Home in August 1999; I was in class 4 then. At last I had gotten a home where food was not a problem, and clothing not a challenge. With my basic needs taken care of, I could now concentrate on my studies. I used my time at Ongoro to shape my future. I would occasionally be the translator when western volunteers came to work. It was a rare opportunity to interact with educated people from other countries and cultures.
I worked hard and finished grade 8 in a first position, and then proceeded to high school, fully sponsored by Lalmba. In a few years’ time, I would start my undergraduate course in pharmacy and finally become a man in the society. All of my accomplishments are courtesy of Lalmba, and Hugh Downey’s noble idea.
The Downeys are old people now, aging gracefully in their Nyagiribe home in Kenya. But their little work in Africa has had tremendous impact on my life, and on lives of many others. Today, I work for the government of Kenya as a hospital pharmacist. I graduated with a PharmD in December 2013, and plan to enroll for MPH (Masters in Public Health) pretty soon. I’m so glad that Lalmba supported me to exploit my gift of hope and turn my life around!