Sunday, September 18, 2011

September 2011....Toronto, Canada

Hi everyone..all the best to you all!!

I am in the process of applying to the Canadian government for charitable status and am reminded of the great enthusiasm and generosity of so many people who made this very exciting project actually come true! The Majengo Orphanage! Thank you so much!!

I'm off to Tanzania in October...signed up for a great micro-finance conference in Arusha for a couple of days with a participant list made up mostly African people, very exciting. Our PLWHA (people living with HIV AIDS) micro finance project is coming to a close in October. So far 3 of the 4 groups have paid back interest-free loans my uncle donated a year ago..very successful, with lots of them reporting profits in small businesses, enough to enable their kids on into secondary school...

All is well at the orphanage. The 67 new kids who came to us last December have settled right in, our teachers giving them extra tutoring to bring them up to the levels of our original kids.

We're revising our website...just had a great meeting with the folks in Warren Pennsylvania to map out plans for the next year...our budget almost doubled with all these new kids...I'm praying for my CRA charitable status. Very exciting...

I sent the following letter out to all our Canadian donors who kicked off the first year finances to get the orphanage guys were the first FOUNDERS. You may have heard the story, but to refresh, sit back and enjoy!

Like they say, we have come a long way baby…the above pictures are of the orphanage as I found it back in March 2008, with 52 little kids squeezed onto a mud floor in a dark, dank, leaking foyer of someone’s house – no furniture, no resources but for one teacher who gave a year of his time with no pay, and a few neighbouring farm women who came by to cook lunch for the kids – in most cases the only food they would receive all day.

These were the poorest of the poor kids in the district of Majengo, an agricultural community just outside the rural village of Mto Wa Mbu, Arusha, Tanzania. Back then they ranged from age 3 up to about 6…none were old enough for primary school. Many were found roaming from house to house without family, their parents lost to HIV AIDS…relatives and friends off at work, without a home.

Charles Luoga our local project coordinator took me to see these kids the day after I was kicked out of an orphanage on the safari route, overloaded with sick and starving children set up purposely to lure in tourist money. I was the whistle blower, and after working with those kids for two years, was forced out by their director who in fact had a criminal record, had spent time in jail, and was paying off local church and government officials.

I was devastated and determined to pack it all in and leave Africa for good. But Charles dragged me over to Majengo, and that is where it all began..

You wonder whether, if you knew what you were getting yourself into, like for any project - a marriage, having a child, renovating a house - would you have gone into it in the first place?

Sure, sometimes I wonder…But when I look into the faces of these kids now, and the so many others who have come to us since, I have to say YES YES YES!

It has been a harrowing experience and a miracle too, as I will tell you…but before all that, know that you guys were the first, the FOUNDERS…who got this little orphanage off the ground…I thank you so much!!

March 2008….We found a half finished house down the road and committed ourselves to fixing it up at our expense, for use of it. We figured the reno would cost around $15,000, but once we put in a cement floor, new roof, electricals, (although we wouldn’t actually get electricity hook up till last December! Imagine putting 77 children to bed in the dark!!), water, built an outdoor kitchen, showers, toilets, ran a fence of bougainvillea around the whole property, planted trees and flowering bushes, tiled, painted, new windows, screens, 17 bunk beds, mattresses, kitchen equipment, cleaning, clothing, and towels…we were up around $23,000 when we were finished!

February 2009. Off to Africa but desperately short of funds to finish the job, erupting into Tim Forbes’ wonderful “52 thank you’s!”email to which so many of you responded, sending me off again with enough money to finish off the renos and furnishings..

March 2009. Enter Matt McKissock from Warren, Pennsylvania, who called to rent our family cottage via the internet, so fascinated was he that he flew over to meet me sight unseen a few weeks later to check out for himself the conditions I described during our cottage contract. He came with two friends, for one week. We pushed with all our might to finish the job, moved 27 kids in the night before, and celebrated his arrival with a very grand opening. Matt met Charles and our staff, our local ICA Tanzania agents and government leaders and was blown away by the children, ecstatically racing around their new home, happy now with three meals a day, mosquito nets, running water and a team of 12 wonderful people to care for them. It was heaven. Matt stayed for one week, arriving with 12 duffel bags of everything we’d asked for, had the time of his life and took off with a film he’d made of the kids singing “Twinkle twinkle little star”. He promised nothing, but I sensed something was up!

Surreal. I’d focused on raising money to get the kids off the mud floor, and hadn’t thought for one minute about who was going to pay for basic ongoing needs: food, medical, education, uniforms, shoes, clothing, staffing and maintenance! Matt kept asking about operating costs, but it wasn’t till I got over there that we had the foggiest idea of our yearly budget. Insanity, really. But in retrospect, Matt would never have flown all the way over with such urgency had I appeared to be in control. It wasn’t that I wasn’t in control, I just couldn't focus beyond renovation at that point.

He went home and two weeks later wrote a letter to his family and friends that caused me to burst into tears in the crowded internet cafĂ©. He committed himself and his family to taking over our operating costs of $31,000 for one year, and now, 2 ½ years later, these incredible people are still helping. If you want to read that letter It will make you cry.

With Matt on board, his mom Diana and her friend Jamie came over the next year. Matt brought another friend who teaches linguistics at UBC. I started going over twice a year: October and February…budgets, monitoring, working with the staff and kids and trying to learn Swahili.. Kids in our on-site pre-school went on to primary and now stand in the top ten of each class, year after year. In Feb. 2010 the village leaders brought 15 new kids to us for pre school, by-day, at the beginning crying and too scared to open their mouths, but soon fitting in to the growing Majengo family…

Until December 2010 we were whistling along with 55 kids, our staff happy with yearly bonuses and their own children helped by Majengo with the financing of their schooling. We had it made…

Until last September. I got a call from Charles. The government was about to shut down the corrupt orphanages on the safari route running through town. The director I worked with back in 2007 had been charged with sexually abusing one of the girls en route to Secondary School. She escaped and charged him. He spent a month in jail, was now pending court charges. The government could no longer ignore his behaviour. He’d wracked in thousands of dollars from unsuspecting tourists. They would close him down, IF they could find a safe place for the children. Maybe 20 kids, 30 tops, they said. I called Matt. I'm going on record, he said: "we have no choice. We have to help those kids. We will take them on."

I flew over in October. We organized the rental of two houses behind our main facility. Not an easy feat. Each house was overflowing with tenants who knew a good thing when they saw one. White people desperate for their rooms. We found them better rentals and renovated at our cost, and paid six months rent - the only way they would leave! Finally empty, we rebuilt them, new floors, windows, ceilings, the whole thing all over again, bunk beds, sheets, mattresses, towels….done.

And then we waited. I was worried; the shut down plan was kept secret from directors on the safari route. They were dangerous. Some were worse than others; one was running a pornography ring with the children. At this point we were told there were 5 orphanages slated for shut down. We had no idea how many kids we would be getting. I got shingles and took to bed. Not fun. Jamie flew over and together we waited. There was an election in Tanzania; the government was campaigning. Our two houses were ready; but we were waiting.

Charles arrived with shocking news. The same guy who threw me out for being the whistle blower, the one who was up for rape charges, was dead, thrown out of the back of a pickup which crashed into a lorry and flipped over on top of him. I jumped out of bed and went to his funeral, to see for myself that it was indeed him. 700 people in brilliant sunshine assembled alongside a dirt road with 8 guys in leather jackets and shades crashing through the dust and potholes on motorcycles leading a red pickup carrying a wooden coffin perched askew on back, the tall hand-made cross sticking out one end, sketchy lettering in white paint with his name, birth and death dates. I was the only white. And because of that, the honoured guest., pushed alongside the family behind the coffin threading our way into the courtyard into the house. Without question, it was him. He was the ring leader and now he was gone. In Africa, they say it was the word of God. He couldn’t hurt us or the children anymore.

Tired of waiting, I flew home.

Christmas, December 2010, the government sweeps in and shuts down 5 orphanages on the safari route, dropping 67 kids off to Majengo within a two day period, ages 3 to 14. The kids were freaked, our staff overwhelmed. Half of them off on holidays, with 67 new kids stampeding the kitchen, scared, bewildered and afraid - eating garbage off the street, leaves from the trees. I can’t imagine what our original kids went through either. But it couldn’t be helped.

Some guardians had been told lies about us, showed up the next day in revolt, demanding their children. The police were called in. The government declared Majengo the only officially-recognized orphanage in the district. The cooks figured out how much rice to cook. Over 100 mouths to feed per meal, three times a day. We called the staff every morning: Money wired over, food bought, kids checked for HIV AIDS, malaria, lice…washed and scrubbed.

Majengo now supports 114 children. Age 3 up to 14.

But we said: no more, we are at our limit. And then the police bring in baby Anna, age 1 with the skin-drawn, gaunt and wretched body of a 3 month child, wracked with hunger, with 3 days to live. Our cook Adhija takes her home that night, for now and forever, home to her family with five children of her own, bringing her back by day, the whole orphanage, staff and the children, feeding and carrying that little girl around till she is right again…
How can you say no?

January: Matt and I flew over to see for ourselves. I am expecting mayhem… as we drove up, we find our staff lolling under the shade by the outdoor kitchen, laughing, talking, the kids quiet and safe, tucked into their beds…the afternoon nap. The next day, a meeting with the staff, ICA, government officials - each person telling their stories, chuckling now that the worst is over, the kids have settled in.

These kids are happy - little groups squatting in a circle, playing games in the dirt with stones, or swinging, gyrating with a hoola-hoop or racing across the field playing soccer or just sitting around gossiping together, watching the day unwind, happy, relaxed, finally, safe and at home.

Budget day. New stuff needed, recorded, priced: big pots, 40 new plates, cups, bowls, utensils, cleaning products, uniforms, shoes, Vaseline, rice, maise, new toilets, showers, enlarge the outdoor kitchen, build an outdoor dining area. A huge water tank on a tower. An office. It never ends.

Our budget escalates, from $55,000 to $85,000 a year. And we are managing, or I should say, they are managing, well.

WE fly home, and meet up in Warren, Penn. How to pay for it all. There’s no going back, we all have to help out now. I’ve gotten off easy, with Matt taking over a good lot of the operating costs these last two years, but it’s too much to expect, now. I have to do something that I have been avoiding for six years now, applying for charitable status, creating a board, establishing MAJENGO CANADA.

What a long way we’ve come since we saw those 52 kids on the mud floor… thanks to hundreds of people like yourselves, both on this side, in Sweden and in Africa, cheering this little orphanage to become a substantial, healthy and exciting part of rural life in Mto Wa Mbu, Arusha…

Bravo to us all!! Big thank you!

And the pictures…at the top...of the kids at the beginning..of us all now, and of a local painting with the names of so many of you who have helped, from the beginning....