I heard about her several years before I met her. In fact her story became the lynchpin upon which Sanctuary of Hope #1 (SoH) swung into existence. Near the end of my sojourn in Kenya in 2005 while adopting our daughter, Mama Karau told me about a very ill member of Mathare Worship Centre (MWC), the church she and her husband pioneered. The woman begged Mama Karau to promise to take care of her twin babies when she died. Mama, already mother to four grown children, held up her hands helplessly, “What can I do?”
We stood in the courtyard area outside MWC as Mama told me the story. The church perches on the rim of desperation. Beyond its walls sprawls Mathare Valley, second largest slum in Nairobi. Venture into its depths, and you might stumble upon a helpless victim of severe poverty, like my son, 13 years old at the time and visiting homes with other members of a short term mission team. Somewhere down in the Valley, they passed a one-year old baby sleeping face-down in the dirt. No adults seemed to be paying any attention. When they walked by again a half hour later, they saw the baby still lying there. Mama Karau returned the next day with team members to investigate. They discovered that the child spent every day playing and sleeping in the dirt where his mother, Susan, could see him while she worked in a bar across the way, and as a prostitute, risking HIV infection. Susan’s own mother passed away, and she couldn’t say how old she was, somewhere between fifteen and seventeen years old. Later that day, Jacob tried to process what he witnessed. He concluded quietly, “It is not right that a one year old child has no one to pick him up out of the dirt and give him someplace to sleep.”
This is Mathare Valley. As she told the story to me, Mama Karau and I began to dream aloud together of a vision she carried close to her heart for many years, a small home for orphans. When I returned home after Lily’s adoption, I spoke with the Director of Hope’s Promise, our adoption agency; and the organization agreed to open an orphan care ministry in Kenya. Pastor and Mama Karau were hired as Hope’s Promise Kenya Country Coordinators. Eleven children came home to SoH #1 beginning in 2006.
Fast forward two years, and in an unbelievable miracle, a church contacted Hope’s Promise out-of-the-blue. They connected through friends of friends and asked if they could fund the opening and one year of operations for a second home. It was a fundraiser’s dream-come-true, and arrived without so much as an “ask!” Through the process of opening SoH #1, I also came on staff with Hope’s Promise; and I returned to Kenya in 2008 with members of the church, skilled child therapists and social workers, to interview orphans for potential inclusion in the second home.
And now, coming full circle, here is that very same mother of the twins, sitting across from me in a plastic white chair, so close our knees nearly touch. She is weary, so weary. Her eyes downcast, she answers our guardian interview questions softly yet intently. Why does she want her children admitted to SoH #2? She is weak with HIV, often too sick to get out of bed. Her husband is dead and her ten year old son is also HIV positive. She can no longer care for Laban and Michael, who are miraculously HIV negative. One of the twin boys climbs into her lap, whimpering. A social worker serving with the team, Teresa, asks through the translator what is wrong. “He is hungry,” is the reply. I know what the mother doesn’t say. He is not hungry in the way a child is between meals; he might not remember when he ate his last meal. Teresa scrambles in her bag for some crackers. The child settles on the ground with his prize, and the interview continues. She loves the children, but she longs for a better, secure future for them, for them to go to school and to have enough to eat. I have to pause for a minute, choked with emotion. “Please,” I am finally able to request of the translator, “tell her that I admire her courage.”
Two months later, Michael and Laban were the first children to come home to SoH #2.
Memories of that afternoon stalk me relentlessly. Although I am no longer employed with Hope’s Promise, I pray for the mothers and other guardians whose homes are now still and silent, the light of children’s laughter gone away, even as the lamp of hope for the children’s futures burns brightly at Sanctuary of Hope. And, often, thinking of them, I hug my own kids a little bit longer and a little bit harder.