When I got the Orphanage, some minutes past 3 o’clock, Mercy was running up and down ensuring kids don’t fall off stuff, or injure each other with this and that. Good Samaritan Children’s Home, situated inside a pair of huge blue gates sits in the heart of Mathare Valley. Walking by, it passes for a normal estate, but the words “Good Samaritan Children’s Home and Rehabilitation Center”, some email address and contact details Catch your eye. Walking in, the kids were handled in the TV room watching a Nollywood classic, and I peeped in as they all held their breath as an actor was thrown into a bottle. I gave a sarcastic laugh as Mercy, the lady who started the Children’s home and who has been running it for some three decades emerged from the stairway.
She carried a cane on one arm, and a sweat broke from her left brow. She wiped it with the left and did a banana smile heading my way. A short plump lady, with the spirit of a leopard and heart of a lion, she walked with the authority of a just paid laborer. Her hair was short and unkempt, but she was obviously unconcerned, with an estimated four hundred children in the congested home, her personal grooming had to take the four hundred and one positions in preference. She immediately struck me as selfless.
When she finally settled (or so she wants me to believe), it was in a dimly lit office on the ground floor, whose walls were covered with photographs from past decades of mixed race visitors. On the large table lay a half-open red visitors book, and a bored pen on the side. On one wall to my left was a leaning rickety wall unit, stuffed with white plastic tins, each with a name tag. I later came to learn they held ARVs for the various positive kids in the home.
“So, allow me to just call you Mercy…” I smiled at her when we sat.
“Call me anything, names are just that – names” She laughed. I liked her humor.
“Tell me, how long have you been running this home?” I leaned forward and the chair made creaking sounds in protest.
“The real start date would be 2nd August 1991. I was just 33 years then!”
I looked up, did some maths and smiled back, “So it would be wise to say you are 59 years now…?”
We both laughed hard. She is a good laugher (if there is anything like a laugher).
“1991, it must have been a long time ago, things must have been pretty different… How did you start?”
“Back then I was in business, and it was going very well. I had a big shop right at the heart of Eastleigh,” She lifts a hand and tried pointing to Eastleigh but ended up pointing to Ruaraka. “I got some good deals, and savings, I managed to get this plot.”
“So you had this planned out from the start?”
She squinted a little, “No… No, this started quite mysteriously!”
“What do you mean?”
“The plot was not meant for this, I wanted to raise my kids here. One day I got home from work and noticed too much food was being eaten up, and I only had three kids who were young.” She paused like trying to recollect. I let her have the stage.
“This went on for some time until one of my daughters informed me of what went on when I left for work. My son, John (not his real name though), had come across a number of kids, whose parents had either abandoned them or died of HIV, and they were sleeping in public toilets or the streets.”
Her son had secretly started feeding the kids (6 in number), during the day, and he told them they were welcome since there was enough food. In the evenings they would head off to wherever they slept and came back for food the following day. That time John was only 8 years.
“wow, how did you learn about it?” I jumped in once she took a saliva break.
“One day on my way home one of my shopkeeper friends stopped me and informed me of foodstuffs John had been taken on loan from her. That was how he managed to feed them when there was not enough food at home.”
“Did you … eeeh, discipline him for that? Because I swear my mother would have skinned me alive if I took anything from Wakamau’s without permission…?”
Surprisingly, she sat him down and they talked, and that was the turning point. I tried imagining that talk with an 8-year-old trying to explain to him why it’s wrong to borrow stuff from shops without dishing out a spank or two but failed to get the picture. After the talk, she realized he had a point, and she started mobilizing people around, and they formed a self-help group for the slum area with some 26 good Samaritans, (see where the name came from?) and they used to meet, buy and cook food for the homeless children and adults.
“You were doing all this while still handling your business?”
“Yes, for some time, but in 1992 I gave up my business and decided to make it a home for the needy, starting off with the 6 kids. I built some 3 other rooms, which acted as classrooms during the day and sleeping areas during the night.”
“Why would you decide to buy land here in the slums, I guess parklands and Runda were better optioned back in the day…” I asked with a smile.
“My daughters asked me that too, but there is a time Mathare was not so much of a slum. It was for the low class, but not very congested like now. I also wanted to stay close to the place I did business.” She laughed, looking into her palms like a teenage schoolgirl.
After leaving work, she fully embarked on building Good Samaritan Children’s home and started a rehabilitation plan since most of the children she was supporting needed more of rehabilitation than education.
“Talking of education, am imagining most of these kids needed education” I pointed.
“Ooh yes, I planned to use education as my basic rehabilitation strategy, to start by keeping them busy. With the good Samaritans, we embarked on creating an education center, and in a few years we had a school running, with about one thousand students and fourteen teachers …”
“Wait…” I held up my hand to pause her, “did you just say, one thousand children?”
“Yes, one thousand. Somehow everyone in the slum learned about our education center which was free, and they brought their children. The teachers were mostly volunteers, but I gave them some money if something came through, though it rarely did, so some left.”
“how was it starting and running the education center?”
“It was hell at first, there was no money for books or pens, and as you can guess there were so many needy kids. You don’t turn back a needy street child who is willing to reform, so we had to improvise. We used to get a number of books and cut out pages to be used as writing material, but we managed somehow.”
“You had said about the good Samaritans, at least they used to chip in.”
She looked at me and smiled, stopped smiling and looked back to her palms like they had started oozing a golden liquid. She looked up again, placed the arms on the table and looked at me in the eye. For once I noticed the lioness hiding somewhere in there. There was a fire behind the smile and easy personality.
“Not everyone gets in this out of good will son,” yes, she called my son, “I won’t say they were in for the possibility of good funding coming in, but most of them left when things got hard and there was no hope.”
“So, it has been all you?” I ask, lacking a better question.
“I cant say it’s been all me, to be fair, so many people have been part of this, though some left, the ones who remain and the ones coming in along the way gives me the strenghth”
(Watch Out for Part 2 Next week Wednesday then we make it a habit. Hallo and welcome to our journey.)