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Norman the cow is pregnant

All photos by David Lansing.

As you can probably tell, I was kind of smitten with the kids at the Cura orphanage. Pete and I planned on being out there for an hour or two but after three hours, neither one of us was ready to head back to our hotel, despite the fact we hadn’t slept in 36 hours and were running on fumes.

I was curious about what sort of meals the housemothers were able to make for the kids. Moses told me that they pretty much have the same menu every week. Their main meal goes something like this:

Dinner for 50--beans and potatoes.

They have a bean and potato stew once a week (that’s what they were eating when we were there). Twice a week they have a traditional Kikuyu dish called githeri which is a combination of beans and corn with maybe a little chopped cabbage added to it, and on Sundays, when they’re lucky, they get a little piece of meat.

The orphanage is also lucky in that they have a shamba, or small vegetable garden, right next door that is fertilized by Norman. Norman isn’t the gardener but a very pregnant cow (I have no idea why they named a cow Norman) that, since June, also provides the orphanage with milk, saving them about $40 a month. Norman has a very nice livestock shed next to the shamba that was built by volunteers and upstairs from Norman’s digs is a new chicken coop where a hundred or so hens have only recently started to lay eggs.

As a result, the kids at the orphanage now get chapatis with eggs or chicken once a week as well. And, of course, the chicken manure also goes to fertilize the shamba. So this is a pretty damn green orphanage (and maybe the first Slow Food orphanage in the world).

I can’t say that I’m the most philanthropic-oriented person in the world (in fact, I’m probably one of the worst), but watching these bright-eyed kids wolf down their beans and potatoes, I had to ask Moses how much it cost to feed them every day. A $1.76, he said. Not “About two dollars” or “Just a couple of dollars a day,” but one dollar and seventy-six cents. Exactly. When someone tells you that, you know they’ve got their budget figured out to the penny.

The fact of the matter is, Moses told us, the orphanage was built to house 150 kids. But they only have 50 right now because that’s all they can afford to feed and clothe and educate. But if a few more people wanted to sponsor a child to the tune of $52.80 a month, they could take in more orphaned kids. I’m not saying you should think about sponsoring a Cura orphan. I’m not even saying that I will. Not for sure, anyway. I’m just saying that if you’re curious, like I was, and would like more information, you could always check out the Cura Orphanage here.


How to charm children

The boys at the orphanage. Photos by David Lansing.

I just want to show you two pictures I took at the Nairobi orphanage Pete and I visited. The first shot, above, is the first one I took of a group of boys after they’d gotten their mid-day meal of beans and potatoes. The boys aren’t too interested in us. There’s one boy, inside, looking out the window directly at me, but the rest of the boys are disinterested. In fact, it was kind of weird. I mean, I have never been around 50 kids that were so quiet. As Pete and I walked around taking shots, about the only noise was the click of our shutters and the scrape of spoons against the tin plates.

Then Pete does what he always does when he takes photos of people, he started to engage them. He showed the boys his cameras and he started to let them play with the equipment. He’d hand his video camera to one of the boys, show him how it worked, and tell him to go ahead and take some video of his friends.


From that point on, the kids were in love with Pete. And vice versa. He showed them how to use his camera; they showed him the pictures they’d drawn that were pinned above their bunks in the small rooms where they slept with four or five other kids. He asked them their names; they asked him where he was from.

“The U.S.A.,” he’d tell them.

Ah, the U.S.A. “I want very much to go there some day,” said one boy. “Me too,” said another.

Can I take pictures of you and your friends, Pete asked. Yes, of course, they said. Can I take pictures of your rooms, your beds, your shoes? Please, they said, take pictures of what you want.

And so he did. While a mob of children followed him around from room to room.

It was delightful.


Moses and the orphanage

Photos by David Lansing.

Pete McBride, the photographer from National Geographic Traveler, and I arrived at Tribe, our hotel in Nairobi, around noon yesterday. We had just enough time to throw our bags in our rooms and grab a sandwich before meeting the driver who was taking us to the orphanage. This was something Sarah Robarts, who does pr for Tribe, had set up. Sarah, who is originally from Kenya, ran in the Safaricom marathon at Lewa on Saturday (there’s a whole story about running 26 miles in a wildlife conservancy with rhinos and lions and elephants all around but I think that will have to wait for another day) and originally was going to take us out to this Kikuyu orphanage, which is the charity she runs for, but she didn’t get back to Nairobi until yesterday evening, so Pete and I were on our own.

You’d think it would be easy to find an orphanage in Nairobi but this place was out in the country somewhere and our driver got lost a number of times. He’d stop at a fork in the rutted dirt road and look to the left, look to the right, make his decision and we’d travel for maybe a mile or so before he would convince himself he’d gone the wrong way and turn around. This happened three or four times before he finally got around to asking a local or two how to find the orphanage.

Eventually we found it. I don’t know what I was expecting. I mean, if someone told you that you were going to visit an orphanage in Kenya, what would you imagine it would look like? As it turns out, it was a simple rectangular stone structure, built around a courtyard, with two wide blue doors and a sign over them saying ROTARY CURA HOMES. I guess the most interesting thing about it was that there were no children here. At least not when we got there.

The orphanage manager, Moses Machara Kamau.

Three women, hunched over stools, were sitting around a couple of plastic buckets picking out stones from a basket of red beans. One of the women got up and went to look for the manager of the orphanage, Moses Machara Kamau. Could there be a better name for someone running an orphanage than Moses?

Moses asked one of the ladies to make us some tea and then showed us to his office, a very narrow room with a small desk, an ancient sagging couch, and a small table. As Moses poured us Kenya tea, which is more like chai, I asked him where the kids were. Still in class, next door, he said. They would be back for their afternoon meal in fifteen or twenty minutes, which would allow us time to have our tea and chat a bit first.

Moses Machara Kamau is 54 years old. He has a receding hairline, a suggestion of a moustache, and a gap in his lower front teeth, which is pretty typical for many Kenyans who come from small villages where the lower incisors are removed when they are children so that they can be fed through a straw if they get lockjaw. Since so many children here walk around barefoot, particularly in the outlying villages, tetanus (lockjaw) is a real threat.

Moses told us that he has 50 children at the home—24 boys and 26 girls—all between the ages of 4 and 12. Almost all of the children are there because one or both of their parents have died of HIV-Aids.

The home was built in 2004 with funds from all the Nairobi Rotary Clubs and donated to the Cura community. But they weren’t really able to do anything with it until two years later when they got a grant to hire a manager to run the home. This turned out to be Moses who, at the time, was an elder in the church next door and had a career in the civil service. Moses took some classes to learn about running an orphanage and handling 50 kids (he’s married and has six of his own) and took over four years ago.

I asked him if he liked his job.

He smiled, sipped his tea, and said. “Yes, I enjoy the work. It is difficult but it is important and I like the children very much.” After a pause he added, “And, I think, the children like me.”

And just as he said that, the first rush of children, the boys dressed in blue sweaters and gray or blue shorts, the girls in simple blue dresses, flew into the courtyard like swallows.

“Well,” said Moses, standing up. “I think we must go now and feed my little birds.”


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