This August I travelled to Etora to teach a two-week session of courses to some students studying for the ministry. The Etora New Church which hosts the Theological School sessions also hosts the General Church Sacred Care Orphanage, with its 65 orphans.
Kay Alden had asked me to take photos of the children and Gretchen Keith had loaned me a camera (and attempted to educate me about how to take good photos). We managed to get photos that paired the faces with names. I took some shots of the children’s rooms, featuring the new beds with nets that HCIC helped purchase. I also got a smattering of other shots of the children and their environs.
The houses where the orphans sleep are on a lot that’s close by the church property. The children spend a lot of time on the church site—for school, for play, for meals, for some of their chores, and for church on Sunday. So, though I was there primarily to teach, I saw quite a bit of them.
The presence of the orphans at Etora was an added joy to my trip. (On my previous trip I had more limited exposure to the orphans when I visited Riounde on a few occasions.) Of course, it’s difficult to generalize about so many children. The youngest ones are a bit shy. (They don’t learn English until they are in school, so they didn’t understand me.) The elementary age children are more interactive and outgoing. The oldest children tend to be more reserved and not around as much. But I was delighted with how friendly and good humored they were as a group. I saw a lot of play—kicking a home-made soccer ball around, dodge ball, jump rope, etc.—and I never saw a fight or unpleasantness. Even when they were vying for a turn to look through my binoculars (with some of them cheating by coming for a second look before others had gotten a first—knowing that I couldn’t easily tell them apart), they seemed remarkably good natured with each other. They are certainly accustomed to waiting their turn for meals, and doubtless for much else besides.
I saw school in session during the first week of my visit. (Imagine dark classrooms with no electricity or lights, muddy floors, leaky roofs, windows with no frames or glass, simple desks, no cheerful colors or pictures on walls, a make-shift blackboard, amazingly well-behaved students!)
During my second week the school was on break, except for 8th grade students, studying hard for November exams that will determine their future education. But a special field day was held in the second week, with races and soccer games. It was fun to see the students (mostly orphans) having a great time with the teachers and other adults.
The graduation event for our theological students at the end of the second week also proved to be a fine day for the orphans. They waited a long time for adults to arrive for the ceremony (such is “African time”!). Then sat patiently through the ceremony, with worship, valedictory and response (my contributions had to be translated). But the prize at the end was a special meal (each orphan receiving a bottle of soda—on my budget—which is a very special treat for them). Afterwards we hiked up a local mountain, which has a spectacular view.
The life of these orphans is not a life that most people reading this would be content with. Very small personal spaces (the rooms are tightly packed with bunk beds, with virtually no space for convening or for keeping personal belongings—though they have next to none of these). Food is evidently adequate, but very simple, and with little variety, by Western standards. Lots of mud, dirt, and normal human wastes, yet limited access to clean water. Little light at night for the kinds of tasks and recreation we are accustomed to. Coping with rain—especially at meal times—with limited access to shelter or rain gear. The list could go on. Yet in spite of these things, the orphans seem amazingly content. Part of this contentment may be that it’s all they know. Part of it is that many of these conditions are shared by most others around them, outside of the orphanage.
It might be tempting for Westerners to focus our help on the material challenges. Certainly helping with good nutrition and health-related things is important. But the more important things to help with are mission-related—keeping before the staff the ideals of respect for children, the need for both freedom and order, the importance of education. When these kinds of things are talked about and modelled by leaders, the effect is that the orphans are benefitted at a higher level.
I believe that Samson Abuga is a fine leader. He keeps the mission before his staff, and articulates the standards that they are trying to achieve and uphold. Samson seems to have a good relationship with the adults who work at the church, school and orphanage (—and there seem to be many adults around). They seem caring, and they seem to look to Samson for leadership. Samson also seems to have a good relationship with the orphans. I loved seeing him joke with them. He is a man with a ready laugh. They seem secure with him. He is an important part of the wellbeing of the orphanage. Yet I think that Samson benefits from being accountable to HCIC for the support it gives. This relationship with HCIC helps remind him of the standards he is trying to keep as a priority, and inspires him to keep modeling them.
In being in Kenya and mindful of the physical challenges, it occurs to me that bettering external living conditions has a lot of immediate appeal for Westerners. Yet we need to remember that they are accustomed to living with many conditions that we find stressful. A greater value of HCIC’s oversight is to promote a clear sense of priorities and to help inspire mission-focus. Help with tangible material improvements is great, but oversight is really the greater gift.