In June 2012, I led a group of volunteers on an unusual adventure. The goal was to take four of the orphans from the Rolling Hills Orphanage on a journey through a place they have never seen: their own country, Kenya. Beginning in the Great Rift Valley at a Displaced Persons Camp, Baraka, Mutuku, Keli, and Mulwa alongside Julia, Matt, Connor, Kate, and me —walked nearly 200 kilometers across Kenya. It was this journey that inspired me to write Muchoki and Jata’s story, which followed the very same route and distance.
If you’re looking at this site, you probably know the story I tell in Walking Home: that of a 13-year-old boy needing to walk, along with his younger sister, 150 kilometers across Kenya to find his grandparents whom he’s never met. After I’d climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to write Between Heaven and Earth and crossed the Sahara as research for Just Deserts it seemed only “logical” to walk across Kenya to research this story. Putting the logistics into this logic was a little more complicated.
The idea started simply as me walking with Henry, who was the patron of our children’s program in Kenya, volunteering to come along. Upon hearing of this adventure, four young Canadians who were planning on travelling to Kenya that summer decided they wanted to part of the adventure. Two became six as my daughter Julia, Kate, Connor and Matt signed on for the walk. Next it was decided that it would only be appropriate for four of our residents of the children’s home to also join us and Mutuku, Keli, Mulwa and Baraka volunteered to take part. Our route was going to start on the Mara, travel through the Rift Valley to the top, down to Nairobi, along the Mombasa Highway and then up into the mountains of Mbooni to our children’s residence in Kikima. This journey would pass through some dangerous areas including “lion” country. He was decided that we needed to have along protection and two Special Forces Police Officers, one of whom carried a submachine gun, were the last two members of our party.
In Creation of Hope T-shirts, from left to right, are Henry, Kate, Connor, Julia, Mulwa, Mutuku, Keli, Baraka, and me in the back row. Missing is Matt who took this picture and the vast majority of the images in this project along with crafting his documentary Born in the Night, which he released in 2014. The film focuses on the walk from the perspective of Mutuku, Baraka, Mulwa, and Keli. (If you’d like to get more information about the documentary or a copy of the film, please contact Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Kate had previously spent two months in the program as a volunteer in the local school and living with Henry and Ruth, in their home, on the grounds of the orphanage. Kate and her family sponsor four children in the program.
Connor, an accomplished runner, had been my tent-mate when we crossed Tunisia. The Connor character in Just Deserts is, with his permission, roughly based on the real Connor. Connor and his parents sponsor a child in the program.
Julia, my youngest daughter, was in Kenya for her third time, and co-sponsors Baraka along with her friend Megan. She is a dedicated supporter of the program and hopes to spend more time there in the future.
Matt, a young film maker, took on the role of chief photographer, taking both stills and video, to be used for this website as well as his documentary. He also sponsors a child in the program.
Our young Kenyan participants
Mutuku was the first child in our program, and in some ways, the reason the program was formed. I first met him in a crowded market in Kikima. He was living with his mother who was suffering from Malaria. Malaria is a disease that affects tens of millions of people in Africa, killing over a million people each yet. It’s a disease that is chronic, coming and going. When it’s bad you can’t work. When it’s really bad you can’t even walk. With her it was so bad that she couldn’t get out of bed–not that they had a bed. They had been evicted from where they lived, sold all their possessions to survive and were living in the market. At night they’d sleep on the dirt in one of the stalls. In the morning when the market opened he’d help carry his mother to a place where she could lay for the day. If there was employment he’d work in the market to support them. If not he’d go to school. I found out there were over 500 children like him a community of 22,000.
His fate stayed in my head and in my heart and we as a family decided we needed to do something for these children. A family friend, Mollie, upon hearing about his story said, ‘if you can find him I’d like to support him’. This kind offer began us thinking about a sponsorship program.
My wife and two daughters and I returned the following summer. We partnered with Ruth and Henry and the local community to form the Creation of Hope (www.creationofhope.com)
We found Mutuku. His mother had died the following Christmas. He lived in the market, sometimes staying under the roof of a great-aunt who couldn’t feed him. He worked in the market to try to survive.
Matuku is now in Form 4 (grade 12). He is a talented musician–you will hear him sing some of the songs he wrote–a dedicated student, and a born leader. He is going through the same dilemma faced by many young people as he tries to decide his ultimate course in life. At times he wants to be an entertainer, a lawyer, inventor, pastor, a politician and a stand-up comedian. In all these options he seems himself as somebody who can ‘make a difference’. His plan is to give back and help those less fortunate–the way he was helped.
We first met Keli at the home of his grandparents. They were elderly, unwell, and unable to provide for him. His bed was a bundle of rags on the ground, his clothing ripped, and his feet infected with ‘jiggers’, an insect that burrows under the skin causing pain and disfigurement. His grandparents were caring people but simply did not have the resources available to care for him.
While the children’s residence was being build they were provided with monthly food packages, clothing, beds, medical treatment, goats and school supplies. The grandparents requested that he enter into the residence as soon as possible as they feared that with their advanced ages and medical complications they would be prevented from being able to raise him to adulthood. He was one of the first children admitted.
Keli, sponsored by Canadian writer, Deb Ellis, is pictured this past summer with my wife, Anita. He is a remarkable young man. He is a leader in the residence, where he is the ‘Head Boy’, a role he takes most seriously. He is most often the first to voluntarily offer to help do chores, to assist with the younger children, and is a big brother to all. He is presently in Standard 8 (Grade 8). He made a decision to go back two grades to make up for work he lost prior to entering the program and to enable him to get better marks and to ultimately go on to a better high school. He is dedicated student, a skilled soccer player, the booming bass voice in the residence choir, and always has a willing smile for everybody. He is well liked and well respected.
Mulwa’s parents died when he was quite young. With nobody to care for him and his sister they were placed in an orphanage in Nairobi. This orphanage was unable to continue to operate due to funding issues and the two were basically going to be placed on the street. The only relative, an older brother, was hardly in a position to care for himself. It was agreed that the sister would take up residence in a children’s home in Machakos and Mulwa would be taken in by our program.
Mulwa is a gentle, kind soul. He has a shy smile and is quiet by nature. This never stops him from helping others. Along the walk he was the one constantly, but quietly, making sure that Baraka was doing alright, helping him if necessary, always offering encouragement.
His name, Mulwa, means ‘forgotten one’. When he was to be baptized he asked if he could take my name because he ‘wanted to help his people the way I’d helped them’. I don’t know if anybody has ever given me such an honor.
Mulwa is presently in Form 3 (grade 11) and has a dream of someday becoming a lawyer.
Baraka was born with no fingers on his left hand and only two complete fingers on his right hand. His mother’s response was to abandon him. He was raised by his grandmother, Grace, along with eight other grandchildren she was caring for. She came to us requesting that he be placed in our residence as she was not able to provide the care that he needed. Baraka, along with one of his cousins, Kanini, entered our residence. Two others, Benjamin and Jackson, were sponsored so the whole family would be provided for. And, of course, the grandmother remains the legal guardian and the children have regular and frequent contact.
Baraka is an amazing young man. Along with most children he speaks his “mother-tongue” Kikamba, as well as Swahili and English. His English is amazing. He plays and jokes with the language and loves to laugh and make other people laugh. He is very bright, an excellent student, and has already been ‘marked’ as the Head Boy after Keli goes on to high school.
This past summer I met with Grace, his grandmother, to give her the second copy of the book about Baraka, My Name Is Blessing–Baraka was given the first.
Jackson, Grace, myself and Benjamin, along with My Name Is Blessing, the story of Baraka and his grandmother.
I explained to her that since he is my daughter’s ‘son’, then he is my grandson. And since she is his grandmother, that makes her my sister. I promised her that as my sister that she and her family would never go “without.” I recently bought her a cow and had windows installed in the two little houses in which she and her grandchildren reside. She and all of her grandchildren are being cared for.
Julia with Baraka
Baraka tells us that he wants to be an engineer when he grows up. He has the ability to pursue this goal and the support of the program to make sure his potential will be reached. Along the way he may change his mind. Regardless I know that whatever route he pursues he will be a success. He’s already one of my heroes, a special young man who will become an even more special adult.