Orphaned kids get to me even more when I have not seen my own kids for a week. And it is almost too much when they welcome me with marches, songs, dancing and poems.
They are wearing their best used-clothes. Cocktail dresses from a different decade. Slacks from another continent. Sweatshirts that seem too hot. Sneakers. Pumps. Flip-flops.
Lucy, the administrator, apologizes that they cannot afford school uniforms.
The economics here are about as close to zero as can be. It seems like we are miles into the countryside but we’re actually close to Nairobi, Kenya, a city of 3 million.
A migrator’s next stop might be one of the massive Nairobi slums, which actually seems more promising than this place.
The midday program includes Sunday school songs. “To Serve the Lord is a Mighty Deed.” “Walking in the Light of God.” “Oh, When the Saints Go Marching In.” “I will Praise Jesus.” Choreography perfectly synced.
Visitors are invited to dance and the only American — me — is invited first. I join the children and dance like a white girl.
Dramatic readings and poetry follow. The words are so profound I imagine they memorized them from books. Lucy says no, the kids invented them and they are not written down. I am able to write down a few of their lines:
Ladies and gentlemen, parents and visitors, we present to you
AIDS, you are a deadly monster. You take away our mothers and father, sisters and brothers
Stop bad habits and be faithful to one another
Mother Africa Unite
Father, pay my school fees. Father, I am pregnant, forgive me
Work hard in school
I’ll commit suicide
There is clapping and laughter. It’s wonderful. But the landscape is stark and the sun is hot. If there were telephone poles, they would be the only shade. I do not yet know what is being demonstrated to me.
I am escorted away from the village of children and I cannot figure out why all eight of us — Lucy, my Kenyan hosts, a driver and two sewage plant workers (yes, that’s right, sewage plant workers) are squished into a little station wagon.
African hospitality lets me sit in the front with the driver. Actually, I am in the middle in the front, with the driver to my left and my Kenyan host to my right.
Everyone else sits on each other’s laps in the back laughing. I hear things like, “Hey, you’re fat!” And then roars of laughter.
I feel that we are a bit lost in the maze of thin dirt roads that border the series of putrid sewage ponds, squared off like a giant patchwork quilt, with the squares rancid and watery.
“Do you want to take a swim?” Hee, hee, ha, ha. “Do we know where we’re going?” More laughter. The windows are closed to keep the dust and stench out and the 100-degree heat in.
Everyone is happy, though, because a hippopotamus is spotted in one of the rancid green pools. “Look! A hippo!” Lot’s of excitement. “Terri, do you see it? Take a picture for your daughter!”
It is a Loch Ness moment, a flash of trunk at a hundred yards. “Let’s go find the hippo!” We’re rocking and rolling with potholes and jokes, trying to get closer to the big animal. “Don’t back the car into the hippo!” Hysterical laughter.
It was not until later that I would understand why I was touring filthy waters.
At the time of this tour, February of 2000, the sewage treatment plant served the whole city of Nairobi. Or should I say, it served the parts of the city that had access to workable pipes.
At night the neighborhood children searched the sewage waters for valuables — marbles, coins and a real find is a corpse with a wallet, rings or clothing.
Sometimes kids drowned while scavenging. Other times the plant workers (the guys in the back, back seat) rounded up the kids and delivered them to Lucy, instead of the police. Lucy took them in. She said they were just hungry and she gave them food. She taught them to read and she taught them how to protect each other against perpetrators.
I think of it as hundreds of Mother Teresa’s who courageously improve their own neighborhoods yet will never be widely known. Jesus loves the little children, and as we support our church, so shall we all.
Terri Mork Speirs is a writer, mother and the communications manager for the Des Moines Area Religious Council. She is studying for a master of fine arts degree in creative writing.