A Day at Humanity Home
It is a cool, lovely August morning in Kisumu County, Kenya. Outside my room 7 of the upstairs of Humanity Home, the soft chatter of children in the hallway, getting ready for the day or cheerfully mopping the floor, harkens another sublime day at Humanity Home. I make myself presentable as quickly as possible to see the kids who make this place a home. Often I settle for sweat pants, Crocs and a t-shirt, deferring the day’s attire because I cannot wait to greet the kids. As soon as kids hear me turning the doorknob, a crowd gathers outside my door. Mops are dropped and kids sprint to my door. Each child hugs me tightly, and I hug them back, squeeze them, pick them up, tousle their hair. I tell them I love them and that is so wonderful to see them in the morning. And it is.
Reinforcements come racing up from downstairs, and more hugs and greetings are shared. I make my way downstairs, where whoever missed out on the greetings upstairs gets their turn. I avoid mentioning kids’ names in this web site because of all the uncertainties over who surfs the web, but their names and faces, their smiles, their voice, how they feel, all reverberate through my mind and my heart.
Sometimes I help cook breakfast, but most of the time the kitchen and housekeeping staff have already been at work checking the kids as they wake up and preparing breakfast. When they do let me cook (they would rather spoil me), it is likely flipping pancakes or making French toast with the college girls, kibitzing the entire time. Brenda, our 21-year-old chief cook, regards my participation in any cooking with great skepticism. Besides being an incredible worker, Brenda is a sweetheart. She always gives me this look that says: “I love you with all my heart, but you are crazy!”
At HH, the kids always get their meals before the adults. The little kids go first, picking up their cups of milk tea and their plates of bread, sausage, peanuts, a hard-boiled egg or pancakes or French toast. Older kids help the little ones get situated, but not much help is needed. The youngest, “Baby B,” not quite 3, mixes right in and totally holds her own. Next, the older kids get their breakfast. They are at least halfway done by the time the adults sit down to eat.
On this trip, the adults who eat together are my nieces Jenna and Lauren, college girls Phelisters and Violet, Judy a/k/a Mommy, and me. In a modified Kenyan custom, we wash each others’ hands using liquid soap and a pitcher of warm water. Breakfast during school breaks is a time to relax, talk, laugh and enjoy each other’s company. Activities and plans for the day get discussed. Wisecracks and teasing are abundant. We have a lot of fun imitating the facial expressions of kids doing something cute.
These times make the challenges of providing and raising funds, of making the decisions and doing the work necessary to raise twenty children seem distant and readily surmountable.
We are watched by little faces peering curiously over the back of a nearby couch. A simple “cuja” (Swahili for “come here”) will bring the Little Princess and/or her sidekick to my lap. This gives Judy and me a chance to debate whether they are “Mommy’s girl” or “Daddy’s girl.” We tickle them, pat their heads, hold them tight. We teach them to repeat “Daddy’s Little Princess.” We revel in the sheer joy of their existence.
My visit to HH was deliberately timed to coincide with the kids’ school break, for obvious reasons. During school, the routine would be very different, with the kids out of the house to catch the school bus before 7 a.m. They arrive home about 5:00, and have homework to do. During breaks, the kids have holiday school work to do, but ample time for fun.
On days when we have a baseball outing scheduled to a school or some other venue, Judy usually attends to business while we take the older ten kids along to play baseball. We travel in a hired matatu (van). Our kids are stunning in their blue Humanity Through Baseball t-shirts and caps, and most have found a pair of donated baseball pants that fit. I am so proud of them. Rides to venues are usually at least 40 minutes, not because of distance but because of the horrible roads. Bouncing along, the kids are all smiles, listening to and singing along with music from my beat up Ipad and blue tooth speaker. “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys is the number one choice. Zac Brown band is also very popular. We are packed into the van like sardines. I have an assigned seat in the back because of the configuration of the matatu and the girls vie for positions next to me. The joy in that vehicle of just being together is overwhelming.
When we arrive at a baseball site, the difference between the appearance of our kids and the village kids we are playing with is dramatic. And to think that only months before our kids were at the lower end of what the village kids look like. Without even being told to do so, our kids instruct the other kids in basic techniques and rules of the game, learned from playing kickball and whiffle ball in the HH yard and from previous baseball excursions.
On the way back to HH, I produce snacks from my backpack (so this is why Costco exists?) Anything with some chocolate in it is savored. Munching as slowly as possible on Clif bars or chocolate nut bars, the kids look like they are enjoying a gourmet meal. These times are precious. Exquisite. I try my best to soak it in and fight back tears of pride and joy.
Arriving back at HH ,we get mobbed by the other kids and then have a hearty lunch before the afternoon’s activities. The kids will spend hours coloring with crayons (“colors’) and coloring books brought from the U.S. This is popular with all
ages. They may play on their own with jump ropes, rubber balls, paper airplanes, and God only knows what else they might find. They work on homework. Their energy is boundless. Some days, I go with Judy on errands in the afternoon, usually to Kisumu (thirty minutes away). Other days, I play with the kids in the compound with rubber balls or whiffle ball.
The older kids love to take me walking to the river Nyando. It is a classic case of “one mile over and two miles back.” I cannot take a step without at least two kids holding my hands. Chattering and singing, we walk dirt roads shared with cattle being herded to the river to drink. On our first visit to the river on this trip, some splashing began and the next thing I knew all the kids were in the river. They were soaked from head to toe. On the way back, we detour to a tiny roadside kiosk store for a treat of soda and cookies. When she finds out about the swimming in the river, Judy is less than pleased. But by now she understands that is what Daddy does.
The river adventure gave me the idea that these kids would enjoy going to a swimming pool. So, a few days later, we took the older ten kids to a very nice hotel pool in Kisumu. The kids did not own swimming suits. The older girls, who are at a stage of development where tops are becoming an issue, would have been perfectly happy swimming in bottoms only, but Judy went to a nearby mall and returned with cute bathing suits for all the girls. I mention this because it is a lovely example of a mother protecting her kids. It is the kind of love that makes HH truly a home.
If I have ever in my life seen any kids having so much fun as these kids had at the swimming pool, I surely cannot remember when. Only one of the kids knew anything about how to swim, so the first half hour or so I, Jenna, Lauren and Violet taught them a few basics. Phelisters and Judy also did not know how to swim and we taught them the basics too. The kids were absolutely unafraid. They spent two and a half hours non-stop splashing around in that pool. Interestingly, as if I was not occupied enough with our ten kids, three or four other random kids were also all over me the instant I got into the pool. The adults had a lot of fun too. When we were finally able to fish everyone out of the pool, we enjoyed sodas and French fries from the poolside restaurant. Everyone was exhausted on the way home. This outing has got to be the best $130 (transport, admission, food) I have ever spent.
All of the kids begged to go swimming again, which we did a few days later. I think we had even more fun the second time around. Something simple that we take for granted like going swimming was beyond the wildest dreams of these children. Activities like these show these kids that they are valued, that they belong, that they can do anything, that they are worthy.
On days we did not play baseball, I would accompany Judy on errands, to spend time with her, to see what is involved in running HH, and to see what life is like for her and in that community. We went to the farmers’ market in Awasi, which Judy prefers to the larger one in Ahero because the prices are lower. Here we bought probably fifty tomatoes out of the back of a small station wagon, huge
avocadoes for ten cents apiece, large bunches of plantains, onions, spices by the spoonful, greens and other produce. My favorite had to be the live chickens. Judy picked out five of these, lifting them to feel their weight. They cost $4.00 to $6.50 each. The hapless chickens would be dealt with and plucked by Abigael and served for supper that night.
One day, our errand involved having a sit down with a teacher that we learned had caned one of our girls. We absolutely do not believe in corporal punishment of any kind. Our kids come from vulnerable, insecure and sometimes abusive backgrounds. It is not easy restoring a child’s sense of security, worth and self-esteem. This takes constant effort in our attitude, deeds and words. Hitting a child is a violation of this trust and God knows what damage it does. Upon learning of the incident, Judy is incensed. First thing the next morning, she calls the teacher and demands a meeting immediately. We take motorcycle taxis to the teachers’ living quarters on the school compound.
For the meeting with the teacher, we take the involved child with us, to make clear to her and her brothers and sisters that we will not tolerate them being abused, and any teacher who attempts to do so is going to, as they say, “find out who their Mommy and Daddy are.” When confronted, the teacher claims he is not sure if he caned our child because he canes so many (in violation of Kenya law). Wrong answer! Upon being pressed, he admits he caned our girl. We admonish him very sternly and make it clear that this is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. The teacher apologizes but tries to defer some of the blame to the child. We tell him that is not good enough and we demand that he tell the child that hitting her was entirely his wrong-doing and was in no way her fault. The teacher promises not to repeat it. We’ll see. We do have a very good relationship with the school principal and we will continue to have our kids’ backs. We instruct our children that if they are ever threatened with being struck they should come home immediately and report it to us.
One day, we worked on getting new shoes for the children. With the kids’ help, Judy laid out all the shoes we have in the house so she would know exactly what shoes we had and what kind of shape they were in. She made a list by names and sizes of what we needed for school shoes and sports shoes. We went to a shoe store in Kisumu and bought about thirty pairs of shoes, costing about $500. When we got back home, everybody tried shoes on and most of them fit. Four or five pairs had to be exchanged. One thing about shoes at HH: if they are too big, someone will fit them soon.
In between times, kids devil me, get me engaged in rough-housing, and play board games with Lauren and Jenna. I let the kids watch me shave. This little ritual, a common bonding event for dads and kids in many households, is new and amazing for these children. At first, they are reluctant to touch any shaving cream. Once one kid gets a dollop of shaving cream on his hand, within minutes every kid in the house has covered his/her face in shaving cream.
The kids get a late afternoon snack of milk tea, porridge, or mango or watermelon slices. Late afternoon and early evening at HH are a little difficult because the adults are worn out and the kids are still going strong. Sometimes I could muster the energy to entertain them with balls or reading stories. Sometimes I had to retreat and take a nap. The adults informally take turns hiding out and entertaining the kids, covering for each other.
Early evening is bath time for the kids. Brenda bathes the six youngest kids on the back porch using basins of warm water. The kids prance around butt-naked waiting their turn. She gently scrubs each one of them from head to toe until they are covered with soap suds. She scoops the warm water using her hands and rinses them. There is such gentleness and love in her handling of the kids. She wraps each one in a dry towel with a hug. On Brenda’s day off, one of the older girls will handle the bathing duties in the same manner as Brenda does.
On some evenings, the college girls and I walk the kilometer or so to visit with our friend Mr. Abongo, who owns the building that houses HH. Along the way way local kids come dashing out from their houses to greet us, and we give them rubber balls, bandanas, and high fives. The walk gives us a chance to reminisce and discuss life. The college girls love talking to Mr. Abongo and he enjoys sharing stories. We usually end up hurrying back home just before dark.
One evening, during an all-too-common blackout, Judy and I are sitting in the foyer talking and eleven-year-old “T” joins us, looking sad about something. T is an amazing kid. She is always helpful to our staff and the younger kids. She is a natural leader and organizer who stands up for her brothers and sisters. T sits on my knee and hugs me. The three of us talk and laugh and cry as we tell her from our hearts how much we love her, how awesome she is, how proud we are of her and how happy we are that she is with us.
It came to light that our 16-year-old girl has a cell phone we did not know about and has a “boyfriend.” Judy is pretty upset because she is especially close to this kid and she feels betrayed that the girl did not confide in her. I try to reassure Judy that this is pretty typical teenage behavior and we talk about the woman in this teenager trying to pull away while the little girl still needs lots of TLC. We agree that a “facts of life” talk would be appropriate. Now, this is a great idea if Judy is going to do it. But Judy’s viewpoint was that we should both participate. In that moment , I really appreciated the fact that, having had three sons, I had been spared from having such a talk with a teenage girl for 64 years. Oh, these new experiences! We do have the talk and it seems to go well. My involvement in such things means a lot to the girl, and to Judy. And to me.
Dinner time followed a similar pattern as breakfast. Our kids are provided good food. In Africa, you do not find picky eaters. One thing we insist on is that the adults eat the same thing the kids eat. This is different than every other children’s
home we have seen and different from the practices in many Kenyan homes and schools. We believe that providing the same food to adults and children is important because, first of all, it assures that the kids are being given the best food that the home can afford. More importantly, it sends the children the fundamental message (which, sadly, is contrary to the messages they constantly get from other aspects of Kenyan society), that children are complete human beings, that they are valued.
On two nights, I am called upon to barbecue. Judy manages to get pork ribs (rarely eaten in Kenya) one night and plump frozen chickens from Kisumu another. Several kids get involved in making the homemade barbecue sauce. We construct a makeshift grill from a pile of charcoal outlined by loose bricks and a rack from some long-gone appliance, with aluminum foil as a lid. I am surrounded by an audience of 20 fascinated kids and several adults. Brenda is off the night we do the ribs and misses the event. This gives Judy an excuse to make me do it all over again with the chicken. Brenda, despite her reservations about my cooking, enthusiastically approves the barbecued chicken.
Every night, by the time we are finishing dinner, the kids are assembled on the couches waiting for bedtime stories (“storytime”). When I am there, the privilege of reading the stories is reserved for me. No matter how long the day or how tired I am, I love storytime. Everybody is snuggled up together. Little kids sit on older kids’ laps. Kids jockey for position closest to Daddy. Even the college girls love storytime. Most of the kids probably do not understand most of the words, but that isn’t the point. On this visit, for the first time, older kids were reading some of the stories aloud along with me. This is one of the reasons we read bedtime stories. Great stuff. After a few stories, at least half of the kids are sound asleep. At the end of the last story, (usually “Goodnight Moon” of course), we sing:
You are my sunshine
My only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You’ll never know, dear
How much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away
The kids have added two verses, substituting “Daddy” and “Mommy” for the word “sunshine.”
Then there are hugs for everyone. Long, tight, heartfelt hugs.
Sometimes the adults have enough energy remaining to stay up and talk a bit.
Sometimes there is a hot shower. Sometimes a cold shower. Sometimes no shower, but using buckets and basins to bathe. Sometimes the water is hot. Sometimes not. It doesn’t matter.