Having been firmly tied to life by two loving parents, it’s hard for me to imagine what it must be like to be an orphan. Untethered, how do you find a sense of yourself? How disorienting must it be? You can tell it is so when you see them, the orphaned; a lost look in their eyes. Bewildered. Confused. Looking for what they cannot find. We see it all the time in Kenya. So many children start out only knowing their mothers, which makes them vulnerable to begin with, in a world where women too often die from childbirth. All it can take to slip you into orphanhood is the complicated birth of a sibling.
AIDS takes its toll as well. Most AIDS orphans are taken in by members of the clan, but because food and resources are so scarce, the AIDS adoptees are often ranked even below the cattle. Still, there is often kindness from others. What, after all, symbolizes vulnerability more than a parentless child?
But what really gets to me is to see a child, secondary school age, often thought of as an adult, who becomes an orphan. I interviewed three such students during this trip. In a world where children grow up quickly and stoicism is the norm, these kids can flounder in a sea of sadness.
Abubakar: he arrives late to meet us. Tall. Bone thin, he is looking distraught. He’s just escaped some boys who are bullying him. Why? Because he’s a very serious student. And he’s the poorest among the poor. His year has been a hard one. He lost his mother, taking him from the “half-orphan” category to the “full orphan.” Who says a boy of 18 doesn’t need his mother? You can see it in his eyes. The unmooring. The haunted grief. The fear about how he will now provide for his younger siblings. After all, that is now, most definitely, HIS problem. And it will be for life. We talk. I bring him greetings from his sponsor. And I assure him that if he can continue with such great marks, his sponsor will help him go to college. His eyes fill with tears. Hope is an amazing thing. “Please thank them,” he says. “Thank them very much.”
Naomi: another one of our students that lost her mother this year, leaving her an orphan as well. She apologizes that her grades have gone down. Madame Zani, her principal, tells me she cries a lot, but that she’ll get over it. She’ll rebound. Kids eventually figure out that they have no choice but to rebound. Rebound to what? To me their lives appear to entail such a grueling amount of work. But their expectations are so different than mine, their humility so much deeper. Their sturdy determination, their resilience, and quiet calm never cease to amaze me. I show Naomi the picture of her sponsor, a good woman with a big heart. I tell her she has a mother in America that cares a lot about her, as expressed in the sponsor letter she has just read. I see the first hint of a smile. I can see that the thought is a beautiful one to her – that perhaps she’s not as orphaned as she thought she was.
Nicholas: he’d heard of Kenya Keys after being out of school for two years. He’d been the top boy in his class the two years before he had to drop out. No parent to insist he stay. So, so alone and so, so responsible to somehow not only create a life for himself, but to look out for siblings as well. He’d tried to pick up odd jobs. Read every book he could get his hands on, “so his mind wouldn’t die.” Slept at night in a filthy flour mill. His wrists the size of my 5 year old grandson. I assured him that we’d stick with him. That we’d recently found a sponsor for him, a young woman who had wanted to come to Kenya with us but had had to cancel because she got a bad ulcer. Maybe she could come meet him next year. His penetrating eyes light up.
How must it have felt to be the mothers that knew they were dying and leaving these children so alone? Disease cuts so many lives short here; old age the privilege of few. Untimely death is a visitor to almost every household. I wish I could be a parent to these children that I ache for. But in many ways they are already and older and wiser than I. All I can do is listen. Look deeply in their eyes, and try to communicate that though I’m white, and almost old enough to be their grandmother, there is a human tie that binds us. Education is the key I can offer. And maybe, maybe they won’t feel quite so bereft.