Orphans Wait for a Promise Fulfilled

Article excerpt

Byline: David Rothgery For The Register-Guard

I've been failing Japheth. I shouldn't have made my promise to him in the first place.

Japheth Eyama - tall, thin, gentle, studious-looking - is the director of the New Hope Home, a kind of orphanage-school in Mombasa, Kenya, where I worked as a volunteer after I retired from Lane Community College last summer. It serves 127 children from ages 2 to 17.

I've been failing them, too.

Failure can be one of money. An orphanage needs a sufficient amount of money to survive, to feed and educate its children. Failure also can be one of vision, which is perhaps the greater of the two. I'm guilty of both.

My understanding of this started one morning last December when my daughter set a book in front of me: "Children of AIDS: Africa's Orphan Crisis" by Emma Guest. It starts with the story of a 13-year-old Kenyan AIDS orphan who, when asked why she'd given away her virginity in exchange for an apple, replied, "No one's ever given me anything before."

It was to help such children that I went to Kenya. I thought my five weeks at New Hope were going to be personally uplifting, spiritually therapeutic.

I had been frustrated that at LCC, I was always teaching and learning, but never doing. A year ago in my Women in Literature course, I cut into the discussion to ask, "What if instead of just reading these novels and essays about the plight of women in different countries and responding to them in journal entries, we actually respond in action?"

Some of the students gave up a weekend party or a few snacks to send $5 for women suffering from fistulas (I had given them a Nicholas Kristof column on the subject that I clipped from The Register-Guard). Some saved for other causes. Unfortunately, the results were minimal.

It was an experiment. I wanted my students to understand that it was real suffering that inspired such writers as Edwidge Danticat, El Saadawi, John Steinbeck and Chinua Achebe to explore the mysteries of the soul.

As for myself, I knew that sooner or later I would need to explore a more immediate mystery: the one represented by that 13-year-old Kenyan girl.

The need became a sort of desperation, and very early one morning, I Googled "Volunteering," "Africa," and "AIDS Orphanages." Up came about 20 sites in Uganda, Zimbabwe and Kenya. "When can you come?" each asked.

Their response was understand- able. According to Guest's book, `70 percent of the world's 34 million HIV-positive people live south of the Sahara desert, and about 95 percent of the world's AIDS orphans are Afri- can."

I chose Kenya and New Hope. A month later, I flew into Nairobi and bused to Mombasa. I had to take two matatus - rusted, rickety 15- passenger buses that barrel down densely crowded, narrow, potholed streets at insane speeds, forcing off the road other matatus, men pulling carts, women carrying heavy loads of wood and fruit on their heads, and goats.

I was dropped off next to a sizable hill of garbage and sewage that gave off a heavy stench of urine and decayed fruit. Cats, goats and cattle were rummaging through it. To the left of it, weeds almost covering it, a small, old, wooden sign with the words "New Hope" in faded blue letters pointed my way.

The scent of urine followed me as I walked through a maze of old gutted concrete structures and mud huts, most with tin roofs. Torn cloth separated "rooms" - when there were any. Idle young men sat along the small pathways, eyeing me. Children played in small puddles with sticks.

When I reached my destination, Japheth greeted me and showed me around. There I found 127 of those "mysteries" of another kind I'd been seek- ing.

Shebe Ayb was one of them. Shebe is 8. His mother died when he was 3, and his father, not long after, was run over by a truck and went mad. His grandmother had elephantiasis, so she and Shebe survived only by begging on the street. …