Extreme Makeover, Nairobi Style

Susan Page
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Wednesday - August 06, 2008
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The definition of the word “extreme” is all relative when it comes to a home makeover - especially if where you live is beyond horrific.

The idea of an African orphanage building project in the style of ABC’s Extreme Home Makeover is insane, but somehow, thanks to the persistence of Janine Maxwell (It’s Not Okay with Me author and vice president of Heart for Africa) and about 50 volunteers, including from Hawaii, here we are, ankle-deep in the thick, putrid mud of Merciful Redeemer orphanage in Nairobi’s dangerous Mitumba slum. Soon we’ll load up 65 children in buses for their new home, which, though not American TV grandiose, will be extreme.

I wrote about visiting this orphanage last year (May 7, 2008 “A Home For Needy Nairobi Kids”). Seeing it now with the promise of a new home for the children is overwhelmingly emotional.

It’s cold, the rain forming slippery mud streamlets on the “playground.”

As I place name tags on each child, Janine organizes the bus loading. Their few belongings are in plastic bags.

The children are ecstatic. “My name is Susan Njoki,” one of the children says with a broad smile and perfect British-accented English. “I’m glad to go to another home, because here there is lots of mud and we are happy that there is a beautiful place where we are going to stay.”

Each child’s new shoes are covered in sticky muck, but their spirits are so high, even the stench of sewage oozing down from the pit latrines can’t dampen them. Will you miss this place? I ask, half joking. “No,” each shouts without a qualm. Moving from “hell,” what’s to miss?

The Heart for Africa team is at the spacious ten-acre location on the other side of Nairobi National Park, hurrying to assemble 40 bunkbeds and place new pajamas, sheets, blankets, wash cloth and towels, toiletries, Bible, underwear, and windup flashlights on each bed. Janine is coordinating the timing by cell phone, but the children can’t wait. When one bus arrives, they scramble in, flinging globs of mud on the steps to “freedom.”

Since the January Election Day riots, slum dwellers have begun to surround the orphanage, threatening the children’s safety even more. I watch them lurking like vultures.

Finally the buses are crammed with kids, teachers, caregivers and supplies (the dog won’t get in despite desperate tries). When the engine starts, so does the singing; joyous children’s angelic voices praise God for their blessings on their one hour journey out of a nightmare into a dream long dreamt. The children’s beloved “Mama John,” Merciful Redeemer’s founder, never without her purple tambourine, steps up the singing.

Pastor Laban tells the children about “move that bus” and they practice shouting it. Certainly they’ve never seen the show, but quickly get the picture. A half mile out, we tape plastic bags over right side windows and, closer in, tell the children to squeeze their eyes shut. Joyce and Veronica, the care-givers, are giggling. Janine is crying. Maybe I am, too.

Entering the gate, the singing quiets. The HFA team awaits.

“OK, open your eyes and get out of the bus.” Down the mud-caked stairs they come, singing another song, now dancing, too. Eventually comes the big “reveal.” On cue, the children shout, “Move that bus!” and there before them is their new, permanent home. It’s made of stone with cement, not mud, floors. The school is still under construction, but the 100 tomato “trees” and a seedling farm delight them. A water well 250 meters deep eventually means toilets and showers.

The boys and girls dorms are separated by a big kitchen, stocked with a ton and a half of food - rice, fruit, bread, milk. The children break into singing and dancing again.

Finally, after a dedication ceremony with their Masai neighbor community council, each child is escorted to his or her new room. From inside come squeals and shouts. For the first time in their lives - Patricia, the eldest, is 16 - they have something new. Footlockers bearing their names sit aside each bunk. The whir of flashlights being wound comes from the boys dorm. One boy clutches his Bible, disbelieving it’s his own. Another won’t come off his bed, even for dinner. Neema, 9, who wants to be a pilot, is quiet, softly stroking her pajamas.

Extreme makeovers can be about more than snazzy kitchen appliances, custom bathrooms or TV ratings. Extreme makeovers of the heart are sometimes more important. Just ask anyone who bore witness to the events of that day.

For information about Heart for Africa mission trips, go to www.heartforafrica.org.

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