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Church in Action: From San Francisco to Nairobi, Kenya

Saturday, April 4th, 2009

I believe in the beauty of children, and as a photographer I have my own way of seeing them. I like how light shines off the backs of their hands, silvers their cheekbones and warms their dark (or light) hair. I like their differences—the personality that looks out at you announcing I am bold, restless, shy, hopeful.
15-year-old Vannah cares for her 5 younger brothers and sisters after the death of their parents to AIDS.

Light also illuminates the darkness in which they sometimes live. When I visited a friend, Heidi Pidcoke, who works with children in the slums around Nairobi, Kenya, I became aware of a depth of hurt and abandonment unlike any I’d seen before. These children—14, 15, 16-year-old girls—were all orphans and caring for their younger brothers and sisters. Children cared for children all because their parents had died of AIDS and they had no aunts, uncles or grandparents around to help.

Jacob and Sophie help their mom at the bake sale

Being children, they had dreams. But when I asked about them I found they were largely unattainable. These “dreams” by the way, would be considered rights where we live. They wanted to go to school, get a backpack to carry their books, have enough food for themselves and their brothers and sisters.

Jacob organizes the food and handles the cash container

I decided to focus on the schooling of the girls that headed six of the families I met. I talked this project over with members of the Mission and Justice Committee of Temple United Methodist Church in San Francisco, CA. We soon recruited many enthusiastic committed friends from the TUMC community, Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA. And I must say, never underestimate the power of a well-placed bake sale.

So, one Saturday morning in Noe Valley we sold Sandra Hardin’s bread, the Crain’s devastatingly good pecan pies and German chocolate cake, and cookies, muffins, candy from many of our friends at Temple and beyond. Sophie and Jacob, children of the M&J Committee chair Mary Hagen, did the artwork and managed the cash box. Frank Espada, photographer extraordinaire, documented the event.

All bake sale photos thanks to Frank Espada

We raised $1900 in four hours. Then with the additional help of donations from the Quakers and Barbara Brown, who committed to funding the entire four years of high school for one of the girls, we more than reached our goal. In January 2009, six of the girls started high school and another six began vocational training.

I thank all of my friends who took part in this project. Because of you six orphaned, teenage girls will now have an education and practical skills to support themselves and their families. “If you educate a boy you educate an individual, but if you educate a girl you educate a community.” African proverb

 

Abundance and Chickens

Friday, July 4th, 2008

Journalist Ruthann Richter and I met Joseph and William one morning in their two-room home in Naivasha, Kenya. Their rented house for which they paid $15/month was simple, unpainted wood. The floor was dirt and the furnishings included chairs, a bed separated from the rest of the house by a torn sheet, a kerosene burner and shelves that contained pots, plastic utensils and a flowered teakettle.

Joseph boiling milk tea

We wanted to meet them because we knew they were both HIV+ and had to handle the stigma that comes with this illness. They had little money as Joseph lost his job when he was diagnosed, and now struggles to pay rent and feed himself and William. On slim days they have “black tea” (tea without milk) and a cup of maize and beans for lunch. Other days the meals include ugali – a stiff maize-flour polenta – greens, bananas, and sometimes a little meat or fish. The point is that their living conditions are harsh and their protein intake inadequate to maintain health even though they are on antiretroviral medication.

But Joseph has a radiant smile and said, “I am enjoying my life and I thank God for giving me this chance.” And we loved the tenderness he offered his spunky, but very ill young son William.

William plays with his new toy car

Ruthann and I wanted to help, but didn’t want to give money without a plan. Joseph said that he thought he could earn an adequate living by raising chickens to sell to members of his church. The parish social worker said she would enroll him in classes to learn about the business.

It does not take all that much money to train set up someone in the chicken business in Kenya. We returned from our trip, sold our souvenirs to friends for holiday gifts, and through the Thomas Merton Center, wired the funds to Joseph’s social worker.

Joseph\'s chicks

Friends who visited them recently said he was doing well. He has 210 chicks, water dispensers, feeders and a charcoal burner to keep them warm. When they are 8 weeks old they will be sold, providing the capital to purchase more chicks as well as money to support his family. Here is a photo we received of the first batch of chickens.

Hello world!

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

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As the plane tilted downward to land in Nairobi, Kenya in the summer of 2002, I had no inkling my life was about to change. I had come to see the animals, with a few short days on assignment for a nonprofit that worked with kids in Kibera, a Nairobi slum. We’d been traveling over 20 hours from our home in San Francisco.

While my husband went to sleep in our hotel, I went off under the wing of a social worker to visit a school in Kibera. The kids tumbled out the door of a corrugated metal shack, laughing and shy around the sleepy white woman carrying a camera. They lined up, a patchwork of colorful hand-me-down t-shirts and green gingham uniforms. I looked through the camera viewfinder. The sun reflected silver off their faces, and one girl, diminutive and regal, tossed her magnificent braids.

I was in the first hour of documenting the devastation that AIDS leaves in its footprints across the African continent — the trail of children left behind at the death of their parents. In the six years since that morning I’ve visited remote villages, towns and slums, capturing their stories with my camera to bring them to you. Because if you and I won’t reach across the oceans to help these beautiful and brilliant children, who will?