Editor”s note: This is the first of three articles by Karen Overstreet detailing her 17-day visit to Kenya where she worked in an orphanage partially supported by Global Connections, a nonprofit created by the Puckett family of Columbus. Tomorrow: “They swarmed us like bees.”
What began as an afternoon of horseback riding and a glass of wine on the front porch, ended in an invitation to an adventure of a lifetime, a journey that was both joyful and heartbreaking, both life-giving and incredibly draining.
In early February, as Anna and Al Puckett sat with us enjoying a late afternoon sunset, the invitation came.
Anna was telling me about an upcoming trip to Kenya she and a group of women were taking in March. Though I had known about the work of the Mississippi Team in Kenya, I had never felt it was a trip I should take. However, that afternoon, when Anna asked if I would be interested and inexplicably, “my Spirit leapt up within me,” it was clear that I was being issued an invitation from God to take part in an adventure. I accepted … who could refuse?
Over six years ago the Puckett family began looking for a way to honor the memory of their beloved MacMac, mother of Al, Susan, Linda, Merimac and Lucy Puckett. The growing Puckett clan had taken family vacations together annually for many years. At the death of their matriarch, the idea to go on a trip to serve others budded. After considering options in the U.S., a door to Kenya opened, and the family found themselves, passports in hand, in flight over the Atlantic.
Once there they fell in love with the Kenyans they found working on behalf of the children of Kenya. They particularly felt a kinship to an orphanage called the Limuru Children”s Center, south of Nairobi. The relationships the Pucketts made on that trip six years ago have blossomed into a family nonprofit, Global Connections. Their mission is multifaceted, but includes inviting westerners to accompany them to visit Kenya to understand the plight of third-world peoples and to, perhaps, decide to make contributions of time, money or resources.
After scurrying to get immunizations, passports, and the myriad of details one must secure before such an adventure, we were off to Atlanta, Dubai, Nairobi and, finally, our destination of Limuru. Interesting sidebar: While in the airport in Dubai, the call for prayer for Muslims came reverberating over the intercom. It was a beautiful and compelling interruption. In the upper level of the airport terminal I noticed two prayer rooms, one for men, one for women. It occurred to me that we might do well to have prayer rooms ourselves, in place of sports bars that seem to be on every concourse of every American airport.
Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is a bustling city, not so cosmopolitan as many western cities, but with a central park with national buildings with statues of famous Kenyans, especially Jomo Kenyatta, their first president. The roadways are congested with motor bikes, old cars and matatues (privately owned vans with no government inspection or regulations and unlicensed drivers). Enter at your own peril!
The next leg of our journey, our trip to Limuru 30 miles from Nairobi, set the stage for the entire trip. How to describe this … the word poverty only begins to explain what one experiences driving along this main highway. Imagine Highway 82 lined with makeshift booths from Columbus to Starkville. These booths are made of every imaginable material: sticks, recycled plastic bags, redeemed tin from roofs, cardboard, you-name-it. These are the “shops” of the struggling entrepreneurs of Kenya.
The wares of the booths might be everything from five bananas a woman has somehow secured to sell to feed her family, to bicycle repair booths, to old tattered clothes hanging on a line — and all covered in a thick layer of dust. Although there is an endless number of aimlessly wandering would-be customers, shopkeepers sit all day long hoping for one purchase. There are very few stores with real buildings, most of the houses, shops, apartments have lean-to tin roofs, tin siding, recycled wood from wreckage and discarded materials.
The main mode of transportation is walking. Few in these rural areas have the luxury of bikes of any kind and cars are mostly previously owned and driven to distraction, no regulations, mostly bribes accepted as replacement for proper paperwork.
Once we got to Brackenhurst, the compound where we stayed, I fell asleep on my bed fully clothed with my shoes on. I hit the bed in one position and woke up eight hours later in the same position. The trip over was more tiring than I realized.
The Kenyans are the most polite, friendly people. They made me feel as if I were a relative coming back home from weeks away. I know a lot of it is because we are with the Mississippi Team, who have been here many times and have done so much for them, but, still, they made me feel welcome.
An uncertain future
So much to tell, thankfully, I will have an opportunity to share about how this opportunity has changed me, but for now I must tell this story… I rode to the doctor (on the left hand side of the road with Anna driving, Whoa!) to take Gladys who is HIV/AIDS positive. Gladys is the most polite and gentle young lady, eighth grade. To pass the time in the waiting room, I tried to read the phone book in Swahili. When I pronounced a word correctly, she gave me a high five. She would giggle, and I would, too. I was moved by the experience. She is a good student, I am told, and could, maybe, have a future … except.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.