By Elizabeth Keys
CNHI News Service
The sounds of angelic children’s voices echoed into the deep Kenya valley.
Harmony so beautiful filling the air in rural Africa intrigued Christian missionary Mark Dawson so much, he followed the joyful noise over the hills to find an orphanage struggling to survive near Thika, a few hours north of Nairobi.
The home for orphaned and vulnerable children was created five years ago by pastor John Kameru Muhika, who felt the church should do more for at-risk youths. Known as Agape Mercy Children’s Center (AMCC), the home is a secure environment supporting 45 children, with more than 450 others on the waiting list.
AIDS and poverty have taken a severe toll throughout Africa, leaving many children without parents or guardians, creating overwhelming needs for assistance. Muhika and Dawson soon enlisted the help of their friends, Oklahoma State University graduates and Enid residents Nick and Maggie Jackson.
“In Kenya, people celebrate and cry with songs. Singing is a part of their daily life, and sometimes, that is the only way to express their happiness and sorrow,” said Nick Jackson, who works at Jacksons of Enid. “The fact that so many people have died of AIDS in Kenya is just as sad as the lives of adults infected with HIV and the families affected by the pandemic.”
Children are no exception, and their lives have been negatively impacted by HIV. According to UNICEF, 15 percent of all child deaths in Africa are related to HIV. Being a child should be associated with happiness, laughter and no worries about tomorrow, but unfortunately, that does not apply to children affected by the HIV pandemic, Nick said.
“Kenya has the largest percentage of orphans due to AIDS than any other country on the continent of Africa,” said Maggie Jackson, who works for the Garfield County Health Department. “If the students at AMCC were not there, they would be working to support their families, no matter how young. They probably would be picking tea or sold into the widespread child trafficking in Kenya.
“Due to prolonged drought, poverty and unemployment, the responsibility of providing to the HIV/AIDS infected and affected orphans, at-risk children and other siblings have become a burden to many single parents and guardians,” she said.
Nick and Maggie met as Freshman Follies directors at Oklahoma State University, where both graduated. Nick also is a 2003 Enid High School graduate.
Life at the orphanage
AMCC has five staff members. Muhika desires to see the lives of AIDS and at-risk orphans transformed, while seeking to meet the physical, academic and spiritual needs of every child. Programs are approached with a biblical perspective serving as a moral compass.
The orphans range in age from 9 to 21, and all are enrolled in the local public schools. When not in school, their day is filled with studying, chores, praying and songs. They work hard to keep the home running as they sort beans and rice, wash dishes and floors, and scrub the few clothes they have by hand.
In their spare time, they love to play card games and soccer. The children’s home is a simple two-story cement structure that originally was a chicken co-op. It’s the result of an attempted income-generating project of raising chickens for capital to cover the costs of running the home.
The rising costs of chicken feed forced them to prematurely halt the project, and when their landlord began demanding three times the going rate for their former place, they moved into the chicken co-op, the only property they owned. There is no electricity, and the only running water is a small tap from a local well. They have three large tanks to collect rain water, a separate wood-structured kitchen and a few tin washrooms and toilets.
Drinking water is treated with chlorine. Laundry is done by hand with bar soap or detergent. Clothes are hung to dry. The kitchen often is smokey and warm because of an open fire, although it is ventilated fairly well. Most of the food consists of maize and red beans boiled together with little spice added. Ugali and bean stew is another staple, along with beans and rice. Cabbage is more of a treat and often is eaten with chapati, a thick tortilla-like bread. Beef or goat meat is more of a delicacy and is only served on big occasions.
There is Internet access in the town of Thika, but it takes about 40 minutes to get there by “matatu,” a public minivan often filled with grain sacks and hordes of people. The closest place for Wi-Fi is a three-hour trip to Nairobi. Yet, the children don’t seem to notice the lack of amenities and help with duties every day.
“The children are very engaging, asking lots of questions about American culture, and they enjoy teaching us about their way of life,” said Maggie Jackson, who also holds a master’s degree in public health from the University of Oklahoma. “The day begins for them at 5:30 a.m. as they rise to sing and pray immediately after eating porridge and before they report to school by 7 a.m. Each evening, they return to sing and pray before they eat dinner and head to bed by 9:30 p.m. The children seem genuinely happy to be here despite their humble conditions and difficult past.”
Physical dangers from tribal conflicts can disrupt daily life. One of the longest nights happened when an organized gang called “mungiki” was attacking villages, Dawson said.
“Our village had been warned that they might be a target, so the elders arranged for all of the men to stay up through the night patrolling with whatever weapons they could muster, mostly just farming tools,” Dawson said. “Nick and I were supposed to help patrol, too, but they decided last minute that the work we were doing with the kids was more important, so we should just stay at the children’s home and be alert to protect them there.”
Dawson has returned to the United States and is a Rapoport Center Human Rights Scholar at the University of Texas law school.
How to help
“The children and staff are living by faith for all of their provisions, and they have such genuine trust in God,” Dawson said. “I felt called to remember them no matter what and to try to help them. In Africa, poverty tends to beget poverty, and if some outside source doesn’t intervene, it’s more likely than not that the poverty will persist.
It’s how their system works because of injustice, corruption, exploitation, and the like. What’s at stake is another generation continuing in poverty, these individual kids continuing in poverty. They haven’t done anything to get into poverty, and they have almost no chance of getting out without help.”
Dawson said current goals include developing income-generating projects so they can help even more kids and provide jobs for people in neighboring villages. Education is free only until the eighth grade, so there is a need to sponsor children with secondary school fees.
Developing help from other Americans has been a project of the Jacksons since returning from their third missionary trip to Kenya in August. They are working from their home in Enid to continue supporting AMCC as they follow the words of Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Tax-deductible donations may made online at www.amcckenya.org. Money donated through PayPal will go directly through Grace World Outreach Church, a 501(c)3. PayPal will send the donor a receipt for tax purposes. Donations also may be sent to Bloom Church, 2210 S. Lowell Blvd., Denver, CO 80219 or Grace World Outreach Church, 2502 W. Elm, Enid OK 73703.
AMCC also has partnered with www.theschoolfund.org to finance secondary education tuition for the children. Updates are posted in the AMCC Supporters page on Facebook.
Keys writes for the Stillwater NewsPress. Staff Writer Robert Barron contributed to this story.