Dear readers, several week ago I began writing an account of my days in Kenya, of how Kenya has changed me forever. I am considering this manuscript a first draft as I both consolidate some previously written and some new passages into a cohesive story, and it continues today… To start at the beginning, click this link: Another Day in Kenya – Chapter 1.
Another Day in Kenya – Chapter 7
A Sacred Current
Once again I hear the singing of exotic birds and the laughter and Swahili chatter of boys playing soccer nearby. Just beyond the boys sprawl vibrant green hills, spotted with flowers. It feels so different from a year ago as I awake to another day in Kenya. This Kenya feels safe, so much less shocking.
Most of all, everywhere around me, I feel my Jedd. This is his birthplace, its scents and sights woven into the fabric of his being. This is home to generations who came before him. The boys playing soccer could have been his friends.
Again, we drive the road of increasing disintegration into the slum. This time, the layer of first-time shock peeled away, I notice details. People hunched over in kiosks made from scrap wood tied together sell metal sinks, shovels, grain, sunglasses, mounds of dried fish, piles of potatoes, kerosene, and buckets of coal. A knife-sharpener furiously pedals his machine. Dogs lounge in the mud. A tall, thin, red-cloth draped Masai tries to heard goats, grazing in the trash. Men strain to push jerry-rigged carts made of scrap metal and sticks, and children play with old tires beside four foot deep hills of trash. A boy in a blue winter coat waves his arms wildly while a girl in a bonnet, ragged dress, and over-sized flip-flops watches us pass with wide brown eyes. The “Safeway” butchery shack leans on the “God is Able Shoe Shine.” A lime green matatu (privately-owned mini-buses which provide public transportation) passes the turquoise piece-meal metal constructed “Uncle Hotel.” The stench of burning trash hangs heavy. Our Kenyan friend who is driving, Kennedy, tells us if we were to walk through Huruma unaccompanied, we would find a knife at our throat or a gun to our heads.
I see myself a year ago in the shocked eyes of my students, rocking in the seats beside me over increasingly rough and uneven ground.
And then, as crowds press in so tight as to obscure the road, we arrive. We learn the people are waiting for a daily distribution of food from the nuns.
One of the sisters waits to greet us and leads us through the compound.
I step foot again in the sun-drenched baby ward, scrubbed clean and sparkling, my flip-flops tapping lightly on tile. Around me, the students take in their first impressions of a place I’ve returned to countless times in my daydreams, and which I’ve described in detail to them. There is something here I want, something here I want for them.
I caught glimpses of it one year ago when I first crossed this thresh-hold. Not even the challenges of extracting our son from a hap-hazard bureaucracy, not even returning home only to discover we brought with us unwanted souvenirs – intestinal infections of giardia, not even my husband’s loss of twenty pounds and subsequent dire passage through mono piled on top of giardia … none of it could erase the allure of that glittering treasure, that joy in the sisters’ eyes. I read every book about Mother Teresa I could find. But none of the written accounts quenched my longing to understand their secret. Somehow I knew I would never find it in books, but only in walking the path their feet tread.
So, I invited six students from the college where I worked as an InterVarsity campus minister to go treasure-hunting in Kenya with me. We joined the InterVarsity Global Project to Kenya, lead by dear friends of mine, Brian and Debbie Lee, and asked to spend our three week ministry immersion assignment at Mother Teresa’s orphanage.
Everywhere I look, stepping back in that room after a year, I see Jedd’s eyes in little faces peering from blue slatted cribs. My student friends fall into the rhythm of the hired workers: feeding, changing, cleaning babies.
I help in the toddlers’ ward. Some wake from a nap, some still snuggle in beds. Some wobble down the hallway, crying and rubbing sleepy eyes. I see their destination – a mat on the floor where a single worker ladles cups of milk. I pick up a couple sleep-walkers and help them reach their destination. I cuddle them close as they drink.
When my students and I gather in a private guest room for lunch, the held-back tears of the previous hours overflow. Some speak, some are unable. We weep in repentance for the selfishness we know we harbor, revealed in the face of such need, even as our tears merge into longing for a better way, a better day.
After lunch, we duck into the sisters’ chapel. Simple white walls surround a floor covered in scraps of brown carpet. As we settle into the pews, we hear the swish-swish of novitiates washing the tile side floors, bent over and pulling towels across the wet surface. At the front, a painting of Jesus presides over a white-curtained table. A shelf holds a yellow rose and a lit candle. On another props an open Bible, a crucifix, and a sign proclaiming, “I thirst.” Under the shelf, another sign reads, “I only want to give thanks.”
In the quiet, here where the sisters seek solace and strength, with the ache for the children I held that morning still hammering in my chest, I feel I am drawing closer to what I came for.
The next morning, I go to the baby ward with a couple students. We search the cribs for babies who are awake and ready for feeding time. Most of the babies have already been taken by the workers; but I find one still there, awake but not making a sound. Her eyes are dull, and I notice sores all around her mouth. She is terribly thin. I pick her up and she slumps limp like a rag doll. I feel a wave of shock and fear. She is so languid and emaciated. Nevertheless, she eats almost an entire bottle. One of the workers remarks in surprise that she has not been eating. I cradle her for awhile, and then feel an obligation to help with the other babies. I settle her back in her crib, but she seems to muster every ounce of strength she has left to protest, a mere squeak instead of a cry. I pick her up again. I take her away from the noise of the ward to the steps just outside. And for three hours I hold her, sing to her, pray over her, tell her she is loved and precious. And I feel a current I’ve never felt before coursing through my body. It is a current that at once feels hot and intense, yet gentle and tender. The closest I’ve ever felt before is the rush of love I feel for my children. But this is different, this is sacred. It is as though the heart of God Himself tramples my own heart, pulses in my chest, and flows through my fingers into this tiny little body. She is too weak to move, and if I shift, she winces. I fully expect her to stop breathing at any moment. But I keep on singing and telling her Jesus loves her, I keep on letting that current flow through me until she drifts off to sleep and it is time for me to go.
I learn more about her story the next day. The head sister of the baby ward says she was found abandoned, walking alone in a field. Soon after being admitted to the orphanage, she fell ill and struggled for several months before I met her. Another volunteer with a team from America tells me she receives little attention. In the hubbub of a room crowded with babies’ needs, she is too weak to draw notice to herself. I spend the day with her.
Every day after that, I search eagerly for Emma as soon as we arrive at the orphanage. Slowly but surely she grows stronger. Soon she can sit on my lap with her own strength. We play little games: peek-a-boo, hand clapping, and singing nursery rhymes. When others approach us, she cuddles into me with a shy smile. I am utterly smitten.
Spending multiple days there, it’s impossible not to fall in love with at least one child. Even though we start by joining the assembly line of physical care needed for the babies, we enjoy the luxury, as volunteers, of veering off to spend more time with different children as we feel led. Hannah, Brian and Debbie’s sixteen year-old-daughter, serves with our team. She falls for a baby named Isabella. Isabella is obviously ill, but unlike Emma, she does not improve. Debbie and Brian visit us at the orphanage after a couple weeks. Hannah introduces her mom, a nurse, to Isabella. With her medical expertise, Debbie recognizes the symptoms of severe malnutrition. That night, she can’t sleep. Isabella haunts her thoughts, and she asks God what she is to do. Deep in the dark watches of the night, she decides to ask the sisters if they will allow her and Brian to take Isabella to the hospital and pay all her medical expenses.
The sisters agree to her request. They also plead with her to take another very sick baby. When I learn of the plan, I beg Debbie and Brian to take Emma, too, at my expense. While Emma has improved dramatically, she is still sick.
I wait with Brian and Debbie until the workers emerge with three heavily bundled little ones. I wave as they drive out the heavy metal gate into the chaos of Huruma beyond.
The orphanage feels empty without Emma. I realize the love I feel for her is swelling into a full-fledged yearning to adopt her and never say good-bye again. The Lees learn at the hospital that she is anemic and also has pneumonia. Isabella is diagnosed with rickets, which explains her severe malnutrition. The doctors say both girls would have died within a couple weeks without the treatment they receive at the hospital. And the third baby, eleven month old Sammy, is near death with a septic infection and dehydration. He most certainly would not have survived a day or two longer without the intervention of these modern-day Good Samaritans.
When Emma returns to the baby ward, she grows stronger by the day and her spirit blossoms. Her face lights up when she catches sight of me entering the ward. She waits quietly, watching my every move, until I reach her and pick her up, as she knows I will. We spend hours together. She especially loves to go outside and watch the older kids play. I fall in love again and again with each passing day.
The phone lines are down at the place where we are staying for the first couple weeks. When I finally connect with my husband, far away in the US and buried under the daily care of our three young boys, he feels no inclination to add another child to the mix. But he agrees to pray.
And then comes the dreaded moment when we must say good-bye to the children we poured our lives into for three weeks. When I lay Emma in her crib for the last time, she wails. Every fiber of my being pulls me towards her, and tears irrevocably as I walk away. I can still hear her crying in protest as I walk down the long, sun-laced hall, like a gangplank. The flap of my flip-flops echoes off tile floors, metal-frame windows, and cement walls. I pass an open doorway where older children huddle at a wooden table, perched in an otherwise empty room. A sole caregiver spoons porridge into clanking metal bowls.
She will never know that fate, I vow. But for now, there is no way not to leave, my heart intentions a far cry from legal requirements that will allow me to carry her away. I will fulfill those legalities and return for her as quickly as possible, I add to my vow. It’s the only way I can keep putting one foot in front of the other.
At the end of the hall, I open the door into equatorial sun, even as shadows fall deep, dark across my heart. Inexpressible tears slip down my cheeks that night as we drive through the murky streets of Nairobi to the airport.
On the flight home, I watch a strange and moody 2002 film, Dragonfly. Every twist and turn of plot expresses the yearnings of my own heart. A husband loses his wife in an international accident, but can’t let her go as she seems to be communicating from the beyond the barrier of death. He hopes she is telling him to come and find her, actually alive. But there is another surprise in store. I cling to hope that somehow God will lead me through this pain and back to Emma.
At home, I see dragonflies everywhere. At first I interpret them as promises from God that He will restore Emma to me. When my husband rapidly moves through the emotional process of deciding to pursue Emma’s adoption, I feel certain we will soon hold her in our arms.
And then, less than a month after I return home, I receive a message from SueAnne, still volunteering regularly at the orphanage. She knows we plan to initiate Emma’s adoption process imminently. She starts the email, “I have a report from Huruma for you; and Colleen, you may want to wait until Dave returns from work to read this. It is going to be hard for you.”
Shock registers and plunges deep as I read her account of how a woman claiming to be Emma’s biological mother appeared out of nowhere and took her.
She closes her email, “Emma came in a sick and malnourished little girl… and she left a happy and healthy one, largely due to the care you gave to her those weeks. Now we just have to trust that God will work in the heart of the mother to really cherish and nourish Emma. And may he be with you as you deal with the grief of this loss for you. Everyone there sends their greetings to you. They all know how much you loved Emma.”