Mission of friendship

Mission of friendship

Volunteers from the U.S., many from Vermont, visit and serve a special village in Kenya with which they have nurtured a special bond for 15 years

GUILFORD — In February, 13 people from the United States - most of them from Vermont - moved very far out of their normal comfort zones and spent five days living among people in the village of Kaiguchu, about two hours north of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

The Guilford Community Church has cultivated a connection with the village over 15 years - a world that, for the most part, is much like life in the American West of the mid-1800s. There is electricity, but no one in the village has a kitchen stove or a refrigerator. All food is cooked by the village women over open-air wood fires.

Women spend a large part of the day boiling water, heating milk, and preparing for each meal. Since there is no refrigeration, most food is grown by individual families. Most of the villagers are farmers of varying degrees.

The typical Kaiguchu homestead has at least one cow, a few chickens, and perhaps a goat or two. All of the farming in this area is done by hand. Irrigation is not an issue because water is such a scarce resource and a precious commodity. My host family had an indoor toilet and a rudimentary shower, but those amenities are not common in the village.

In fact, our proud and gracious hosts, Njeri and C.K., do not normally use the indoor toilet or the shower, reserving these amenities for special guests.

Most of the time, bodily functions have to be performed at outhouses with dried-brick floors with a rectangular hole about 4 inches by 12 inches. It takes a bit of skill to master certain techniques, and older people, such as myself, have difficulty with those type of acrobatics.

Few villagers have cars, but a number of motorcycles are used as taxis and for hauling items that no American would even consider putting on such a vehicle. That means that most people walk everywhere and might often walk two to three or more miles on any day.

Kaiguchu offers no internet. Some people have television antennas, and cell phones are ubiquitous. Despite the remoteness of the village, cell coverage appears to be better than most of Vermont.

The people in Kaiguchu seem to be mostly a contented lot. They laugh a great deal, and they enjoy the company of people. Although they might aspire to have a little more of what they might consider a “better life” that we have here, one has to wonder if they are not better off than Americans.

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Then there are the children.

Our group worked on a variety of projects at two schools and, in a short time, we all felt like we had returned home to a long-lost family. The children and school staff appreciated our efforts, and I have rarely experienced that level of warmth and quick connectedness.

It was refreshing to see so many high-school and primary-school students who were eager and enthusiastic to welcome strangers - ours felt centuries apart from the type that might be tendered by U.S. adolescents.

Teenagers at one school displayed many of the behaviors common to teenagers all over the world, but there were major differences.

Close to half the high-school students had been raised in the Kibera slum in Nairobi and come from the diaspora of tribes that have fled to the city from the famine in other parts of the country.

The others are young people whose parents have died of AIDS or related diseases and who have been sponsored locally for many years by the Guilford Kaiguchu Children's Project.

The intertribal mix of students is unique and is, in itself, a promising development in a country where poverty prevents children from all tribes from receiving secondary-school education.

* * *

The Meru boarding school has 125 students in grades 9, 10, and 11, and next year will add a senior class. Most of the school construction is complete, but a few buildings remain under construction. One of those is the cafeteria.

Brattleboro artist Terry Sylvester worked with students to create a mural on the wall of the unfinished building. She sat down with a group of them to come to a consensus about what to include.

Once a sketch was created, Sylvester and a number of students got down to work, along with members of the U.S. contingent, and in four days the project was completed.

Then there was the cowshed project. The school had one cow and two more were on the way, thanks to generous donations from the Guilford Community Church congregation and friends. But there was a need to have adequate housing for the Friesians.

Doug Fontein, a contractor from Tinmouth, Vermont offered a great deal of skill and patience to the project and he, too, was able to complete his work in four days. He not only planned the building of the shed, but he also acted as a mentor to students and staff as they learned how to use power tools safely. They also learned the art and craft of creative construction.

His daughter, Amelia, who also helped with the mural, is a teacher in Brattleboro's Montessori school, and Brian Morgan, a retired Putney School headmaster, lent their hands to the shed project as well.

Morgan acted as a mentor to the students and helped to make sure the scene was safe and organized.

* * *

Then there was the de-worming project that I worked on. Our task was to give pills to 125 students to rid them of common parasites.

The school had recently installed a water-filtration system, and that meant that the water supply was free of contaminants. Theoretically, that also meant that a one-time treatment would rid students of most intestinal parasites.

Payton Lawrence, a senior at Brattleboro Union High School, and Claudia Sparrow, niece to Guilford Community Church Pastor Lise Sparrow and a high-school sophomore in Marin County, California, helped to screen students and assist with the pill distribution. Their being the same age as most of the students added a level of trust to our efforts.

We were able to do some basic health screening and completed the pill distribution in two days. After that, some students felt comfortable enough to come to me for help with minor health problems, which I tried to deal with as best I could.

* * *

At the end of five days at the school and after staying with host families in the village, we said our final goodbyes in a ceremony during which our group gave donated clothing from 30 suitcases to village orphans with AIDS.

Amid entertainment and speeches, the highlight of the event was a surprise honor bestowed upon Lise Sparrow.

The people of the Kaiguchu village made Sparrow an honorary member of the Kikuyu tribe.

This is a rare event.

Sparrow has provided support to this community for nearly 15 years, and the people she has helped wanted to give her the highest honor possible.

Village women surrounded her and dressed her in a ceremonial costume and then bestowed the name “Wamuyu” upon her. A complex folk tale relates to the name, also shared by a number of the women in Kaiguchu village.

We also visited the nearby Karaguririo Primary School, where some of our group completed a fabric mural honoring the work of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai.

Maathai and Sparrow established a relationship when Maathai came to Vermont a few years before her death. That relationship formed the foundation for the work accomplished over the years in Kaiguchu by visiting Americans.

* * *

Many informal moments made the trip a transformative experience for many in our group. One such time was when Terry Sylvester and Amelia Fontein sang and played ukulele for about 20 primary-school students as they were leaving for the day. They all did the hokey pokey and sang with a degree of joyousness and enthusiasm that is rarely seen in the U.S.

After the service work, the group was rewarded with two days at the Samburu Game Reserve in northern Kenya. Monkey and baboon families romped around us, and we had a chance to see a number of lions, elephants, giraffes, impalas, and other animals from the safety of our vans.

As we headed back to Nairobi for what was supposed to be a six-hour trip, we had to deal with a broken radiator hose in one of our two vans.

The trip took 11{1/2} hours, and we made lemonade out of lemons as we stopped for frequent roadside water fill-ups and sang and made friends with local children, families, and vendors.

One would expect nothing less from a group of creative and compassionate people.

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