The remnant smell of breakfast fires traveled across the East African Rift Valley on the wings of a soft breeze. As the shifting air picked up speed, it became the conductor of a small symphony of squeaky nuts and bolts, pushing an empty swing set worn down over time with love.
I closed my eyes briefly, memorizing the moment. When my arms began to ache, I opened my eyes and realized the limbs were frozen overhead, half-way through a task I should have already completed. I finished pinning a child’s sock — smaller than the size of my palm — to the clothesline. Then I lowered my arms so the blood would flow once more through them, and reached into the laundry basket for another damp item to hang.
Trying to refocus on the task at hand, my muscles found a methodic rhythm as they carried on with the work. By the time my fingers scraped the bottom of the grass basket, my lower back ached from bending over at the unconventional angle. I quickly stretched before heading over to the main building for my next assignment.
When I turned the corner, I slowed my step. Three women sat in the shade on the porch, softly fanning themselves. Their eyelids fluttered in the lazy, late morning heat that creeped into the compound and threatened to dispel any lingering memories of the crisp, early morning air. For a moment, I thought they were readying for a nap and I fretted — had I lost track of time? Was this some type of post-lunch break the workers took each afternoon? Did I miss lunch?
My mother, who had been volunteering in the orphanage’s nursery, stepped out into the courtyard and I watched as similar thoughts ran across her face. Wasn't there work to be done?
Without opening their eyes, one of the Kenyan women slowly called out to us. “Come and sit and I will tell you a story.” Eagerness to hear a tale overrode my embarrassment at being caught awkwardly standing there, and I moved closer before plopping down on the dirt.
Cross-legged, I sat with my hands folded in my lap, waiting for the woman to begin. But her eyes were still closed and her breathing grew slow. Surely she hasn’t fallen asleep?
I waited a few minutes more before I could no longer control the fidgeting and extended my legs across the ground. I picked at the few springs of grass that had forced their way through the red dirt, kicking up micro-dust clouds with my fingers. The dust turned to mud as it mixed with the sweat on my hands, my nail beds outlined in a visible layer of soil.
I was unsure how much time passed when the woman gave a small snort, as though awakened by the sound of my thoughts. Her breathing adjusted and she shifted slightly in the chair.
“I will tell you a story,” she began again, and I questioned myself can she actually stay awake long enough to do so? But this time she continued.
“It is the story of every American who comes here, who comes to Naomi’s Village.” At this, an amused twitch gripped the woman’s shoulders to her right — a silent laugh passing through the neighbor’s body.
“Each American comes here to see what we do, to help. Have you come to help?” Unable to find my voice, I nodded in affirmation, forgetting her eyes were still closed. It did not matter, she knew my answer. “So I will tell you how to help.”
Another interlude. In her silence, my ears detected the vibrations of a far-off sound that I could not yet distinguish. And then —
“It is important to learn this…” The sound was coming closer, growing more familiar.
“…it is something you must share with others…” Louder the sound grew, a cacophonous collection of sound waves rolling in steep crescendos and fading as the breeze shifted and carried it to and from us.
“…so that maybe one day, an American will arrive who understands it. So that I no longer must teach this when I am an old woman.”
“This. The importance of African time. You Americans — you do not understand it.”
African time? Was she referring to Greenwich Mean Time? Surely she knew I understood standardized time zones after traveling more than 30 hours to reach the East Africa. I even knew Kenya’s GMT was +03:00. Confused, I looked up to find her gaze on me, an amused look on her face.
“You must learn to be OK to do nothing. This is African time. To enjoy the moment. When the work is ready for you to begin, you will know.”
With this, the three women stood up, fully awake and smiling the genuine, soft smiles that you cannot help but mirror. “Ah, it looks like the work is ready for us to begin.” At this, fifteen laughing children rounded the corner, the far-off noise descending upon us in full force. Without a trace of exhaustion, the women greeted the children and ushered them into the dining room for their midday meal.
I lingered only a moment longer on the soft ground before moving to join them. As we ate together, I pondered over the caregiver’s words. It is against American nature to sit without any distraction. And I often find myself anticipating the future, rather than participating in the present. What do I miss by practicing such a terrible habit? Is it less helpful to always be looking towards the next task, rather than focusing on what's at hand?
We received a hearty dish of goat stew and sukuma wiki. I focused on the taste (delicious), and the company I was in. Joshua, a lively (and questionably mischievous) boy around 8 years of age sat to my right. He asked for my extra goat meat when he noticed I was paying more attention to the vegetables on my plate. In contrast, Soni, a shy and quiet girl with beautiful brown eyes and a sweet smile sat across from me. And behind me, the affable Quincy fidgeted in his chair, his infectious laughter spreading through the room as he joked around with his mates through the meal.
I forced my brain to not stray from the moment — a meal I will always treasure. As it drew to a close, the children washed and headed back to their classrooms for afternoon lessons. I waved goodbye to them, choking back tears. They did not know, but I knew each of their stories. All orphaned, some were victims of sexual abuse. Many were simply unwanted mouths to feed. One was even left unprotected by her mother (as an infant) in the African wilderness for a hungry predator to discover. Others were rescued from the slums, where living conditions, disease and starvation reduced the chances of living past childhood.
Every day, over 700 children become orphans in Kenya. A staggering statistic, it is one that gripped the Mendonsa family and led them to found Naomi’s Village. After six years of praying, fundraising and construction, the orphanage opened its doors in January 2011 and welcomed its first children. Joshua, who struggled throughout our lunch to understand my reluctance at eating goat, was the first to call the Village home.
Fast forward to 2016: Now a family of 64 children under the age of 14, Naomi’s Village is looking to expand its Cornerstone Preparatory Academy — a primary and secondary school in Maai Mahiu, about an hour’s drive north of Nairobi. Expansion of the school will not only prepare the Village’s children for university, but will also allow the academy to welcome other children from the surrounding community with the help of student sponsorships.
The construction of the new campus began in January 2015, and is still underway. Although USD 1.7 million has been raised for Cornerstone, it has a long way to go before operational expenses, school furnishings and scholarship program are funded.
For now, Naomi’s Village stays hopeful — their faith strong that when the time is right, they will be able to open the doors of the new school.
As Joshua, Soni and Quincy left the dining hall with full bellies, I walked back to the courtyard. Only one of the women had returned to her sitting post as the others cleaned the kitchen. She looked at me with a curious expression, as though waiting to see what I would do next.
“The laundry is not yet dry,” I replied. “The dining tables have been cleared off and cleaned. The porch has been swept. And the infants are napping after their afternoon feeding.”
I walked closer and squatted down in the dirt near her feet, picking up a small rock. Then, “I do not think the work is ready for me to begin.”
A smile flitted across her lips. “Not yet. Not yet.”
Gabriel and I try to give back whenever possible. There are a few ways you can help us give back, too.
1) Consider making a donation to Cornerstone Preparatory Academy and help the school meet their fundraising goal.
2) Consider making a donation to our Giving Back Fund. This fund allows us to:
- Continue volunteering for organizations on our travels by assisting with transportation costs (i.e., bus tickets to reach a village or school)
- Raise awareness of different causes
- Purchase supplies (i.e. educational tools, medical/hygiene products needed by organizations, etc.) to donate when we volunteer
3) Are you connected with a non-profit that is doing something awesome? Send us an email detailing the name, location, website (if applicable), and volunteer opportunities available there. After reviewing, we will reach out to you to discuss the possibility of partnering together.