Channeling my Inner Angelina

Kenya, Volunteering & Giving Back — By on October 24, 2006 at 12:07 am

I found love at an unexpected place: Sister Freda’s Hospital outside of Kitale, Kenya. Sister Freda is a native Kenyan, mother of four and registered nurse. She constructed a clinic in this rural area to help the masses of displaced tribe members who couldn’t afford the 60 cents it costs to take a bus to the hospital in the neighboring town of Kitale-let alone pay for medical care.

The Lost Girls and I were volunteering with a program called Village Volunteers, which connected us with Sister Freda. She led our group on a tour of her establishment, consisting of a clinic, small school, farm and nursery. This is where I found little Esther. Or, rather, she found me.

The three-year old orphan with a crop of rebellious braids toddled into the dark room next to the school that serves as her home. She brushed past the eight other people in the room, ran over to me and buried her head in my lap. I picked her up and carried her on my hip for the rest of the tour. I was surprised by how heavy she was when she let her whole self fall asleep on my shoulder.

After an hour of holding this baby weight, I tried to put her down. She burst into tears. So I carried her a bit longer as I chatted with the staff. Then I carefully placed Esther onto her feet. She shyly trailed behind me the entire time I was at the clinic, tilting her head up to look into my eyes.

When I asked about Esther’s story, Sister Freda confided Esther’s mother is mentally ill and allegedly drowned her older sister. Then she ran away into the forest and hasn’t been seen since. Esther’s grandmother brought her into the clinic with her legs sticking straight up towards her ears. The staff speculates her muscles developed abnormally because Esther’s mom kept her tied to her back with her legs bent up in the air instead of dangling down. After about a year of physical therapy and healthy eating, Esther can run around like any other three year-old.

She’s also smart. I thought she spoke only Swahili (a cross between the African tribal language of Bantu and Arabic), but she started counting in English after grabbing my hand and motioning for me to push her on the swing set outside of the open-air classroom. “One, two, three…eleven.” Her normally serious expression broke into a smile and she dissolved into giggles as she swung through the air. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing right along with her.

Then I heard Amanda and Jen calling me-it was time to go. I helped Esther off the swing, hugged her goodbye and turned to leave. She started wailing-crying huge raindrop tears that rolled down her Cabbage Patch Kid face.

I wanted to wrap my arms around her, take her with me and make her feel secure. I wanted to save her from a life of lacking-a family, clean clothes, a good education. But I don’t have Angelina Jolie’s bank account (or Madonna’s). Hell, I don’t even have health insurance. And I’m only in month three of this yearlong journey.

So I bent down to brush a few tears from her face and give her one last hug. Though I walked away, I couldn’t wipe the images of Esther’s tears from my mind.

When Jen wanted to return to the clinic the following week to drop off some medical supplies, I went along to ask Sister Freda questions for a story I planned to write. I was nervous about seeing Esther because I didn’t want to feel that knot-in-my-stomach sensation from having to walk away again.

“Esther won’t even remember me,” I reasoned with myself. “She’s a poor little kid who’d cry if anyone taking the time to hold her left.”

Again, Esther saw me before I saw her. She spotted me in a group while walking the hospital’s grounds and sprinted full speed ahead for my legs, wrapping her little arms around my knees and burying her face in my skirt.

“She remembers you!” exclaimed a surprised nurse named Agnes. It felt completely natural to scoop her back up into my arms.

You know, life is strange. I’m a very indecisive person at times (from the small stuff such as, “Should I order chicken or fish for dinner?” to big issues like, “Do I really want to leave everything familiar behind for one whole year?”).

But once in awhile some mysterious force makes things magically click and I just know. Case in point: I knew the second I laid eyes on my boyfriend that he fit with me (even though he doesn’t believe me). And I knew on some subconscious level that Esther fit with me, too.

I wish I was a trust-fund baby or had a sugar daddy so I could take Esther with me. But would removing her from her homeland, Kenya, really be the best move? So I’m vowing to do the only thing I know how: Sell a story about Sister Freda’s clinic to a magazine and use the paycheck to help sponsor Esther (her nanny, food, clothes and education).

Before I encountered Esther, the sheer number of needy, barefoot kids dressed in little more than torn T-shirts and begging in the streets made me feel there was nothing I could do to truly make a difference (I mean, they’ll just keep depending on the next tourist to fork over a guilt-given dollar). But meeting Esther changed my mind: Touching just one child’s life, even from a distance, is enough.

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