Darryl met her on the corner of Flying Kites Road while I was exchanging dollars into shillings at the local bank. She was dressed in a red and white checked skirt and navy blue sweater – a school uniform – but said that she couldn’t afford her dues. Instead, she strolled the streets. Many of the townsfolk hissed at her, or conversely, they paid her no mind. Darryl polished her nails – small, skinny fingers – while she leaned against a dilapidated building next to a bike. Her smile was transfixing and mischievous; her skin was perfection. Eve*.
As we made our way up the winding, muddy, mile-long road toward Flying Kites Leadership Academy, Darryl’s little friend followed. Together, they talked in the same way that Leila, Justine, and I chatted ahead of them. Or so it seemed. As we entered Flying Kites, a massive campus of lush, green land, laundry lines, classrooms, and the shrieks of happy children, Eve demurred.
Flying Kites is a place that helps the most needy children in the Njabini community. Most are orphans, though in a few rare cases, Kites requests custody of a child on the basis of abuse. Two of the children, siblings, were taken from a mother that tried to boil them alive. Yes, it gets that bad. Darryl and I were lucky enough to spend time at the center before our Kilimanjaro climb, a climb that celebrated the very children rocking and rolling around us. Over a hundred little faces met me on arrival. My breath caught, my eyes welled; Flying Kites exudes a special feeling. The place is a heaven (and a haven) for the many that pass through its gates and it translates. Immediately.
“Auntie, Auntie,” scream these tiny, virtual strangers. Here, in Kenya, elders are “Auntie” and “Uncle,” making it hard to resist the heartstring pull of such sweet, vibrant kids, regardless of the snot dripping from their noses, or the crust caught in the corners of their eyes. Every one of them wants (and warrants) my attention. “Auntie, watch me!” says Sylvester, as he throws a Frisbee. “Auntie, watch me!” says Rahab, as she jumps rope. “Auntie, read me a story,” says Lucy Obama – a self-designated moniker that evolved when a second Lucy entered the facility.
Willis is hiding behind a volunteer’s leg; Miriam is playing with the new kitten, Matilda; Moses is in back with a cage of bunnies. They beg me to take their photo; they giggle uncontrollably when they see their own image. Like monkeys, they crawl and climb all over me. They hug, and they kiss; affection is in abundance. Sarah and John have recently joined the crew. They are reticent and quiet, and unlike the others, they don’t seek out attention. When I hear the circumstances that preceded the arrivals of the others, it’s easy to see just how Flying Kites puts lives back together again. Sarah and John will be wreaking havoc in no time, I’m sure…
A steady stream of volunteers passes through the home to help Sarah, Brian, and Frannie – celebrities in their own right – keep Kites ticking. There’s the 40-something breast cancer survivor traveling alone for the first time, the Backstreet Boy-esque duo who brought their own Peter Luger sauce and circuit training ropes for backyard exercise, the 16-year old student who came armed with a duffle-bag full of kid-sized Crocs, and the quick-tongued Newport-based college senior who was leaving as we arrived. In that short, three days of time, I saw how the characteristics of the volunteers, vastly different in every way, matched the spirit of the children.
On the Day of the African Child, a national holiday that commemorates the Soweto riots of 1970’s, a feast for the leaders of the Njabini community takes place at Kites. Of course, the generator blows when the reggae band plugs in, but the candlelight sets a lovelier mood. The kids are on fire, dancing and singing to local gospel sensation Jimmie Gait, conga lines form, the goat sacrifice (that took place on the property earlier in the day) was well received, and one by one, the kids are carried off to bed, happy, fully and entirely spent. Except for Eve. She didn’t attend the feast.
Eve qualifies as an abuse case. Nobody can accurately determine her age. Darryl, a social worker, pegs it at around 11. Eve thinks she was born in 2002. Recently married off, Eve’s screams during sex with her husband prompted him to give her back to her family. This, in turn, caused great shame. Her parents beat her to within an inch of her life on her return prompting her aunt to take her in. But when a Kites volunteer gave Eve’s aunt food stamps to help care for her, her family took her back to profit. More beatings. Plus regular rapes by her neighbor. Add to that, Eve has epilepsy, which further stigmatizes her. On the day we left for Kilimanjaro, Eve was again wandering the streets in her school uniform.
Today, Eve showed up at Kites. Beaten. Broken. Again. They have a custody hearing tomorrow morning. God, I hope they win.
*Name has been changed.
*Name has been changed.