Day Two of Visiting: A Third-Year Group and Graduates in Tharaka

The second day of visiting groups (Monday, I think), we visited a third-year group in Tharaka-Nithi county, usually just referred to as Tharaka county.  Reegan came with us, and I videotaped a lot of the presentations.  (I’ll get them posted as soon as I can.)

The road to Tharaka was incredible.  Substantial parts unpaved and very rough.  I sat over the back axle of the van we were in (one of those all-wheel drive safari-type things, although not the stereotypical Land Rover).  That ride was the part of the entire mission trip that was the most physically taxing, and I would not recommend that anyone with back problems sit over the rear axle on a road like that.

When we got to where the group was, we all shook hands with each group member.  It was like two soccer teams shaking hands after a game: missioneers on one side, group members on the other, lines passing each other.  “Jambo, jambo, jambo, …” It was nice, actually.

Then we harvested millet (in the grass family, like wheat, rye, rice and maize (corn), but I think it takes less water than corn does) from the group’s three-acre field.  Millet is used to make a porridge.  I haven’t tasted it, but I’m really curious to.  I wonder if I can find it somewhere in the Triangle, prepared as in Kenya?  We worked for about 20 minutes or so.  The heads of the millet were cut off with a knife (they were sharp), and tossed into waist-high sacks made of some woven, durable plastic (think “plastic burlap”).  Those sacks were heavy, but in pairs, the boys moved them easily.

After that, we sat down for the group meeting and presentations to the visitors.

At the end of the presentations, we introduced ourselves, one by one, to the group, offering our encouragement or expressing how impressed we were at their progress.

At the end of all that, Reegan had a little something to say.  I don’t remember all the details, but the gist of it was surprisingly stern, and made me think of a letter from the apostle Paul.  (“Dear Church, I love you dearly and I thank God for you every day, but there is something you are doing wrong.”)  There are 15,000 orphans in Tharaka county (2.6 million in Kenya, by the way), and only 1500 of them are ZOE orphans.  Reegan told them to think hard about why they deserve to be the one in ten.  He also told them to remember where their good fortune and accomplishments had truly come from: God.  He was almost haranguing them, in a way that Americans would never stand for, but I think he was really exhorting them.  Anyway, my point is: Reegan has real passion for the orphans and he really wants them to both succeed and walk humbly with God.  And it’s not just Reegan.  I asked Carol (our trip leader), and she said leaders in other countries (e.g., Epiphany, in Rwanda) have the same passion.  (I have to say, though: Reegan is just amazing.  You should definitely do what you need to in order to take a trip to Kenya and see him in action, before he gets promoted out of the field.)

After the formal presentations, we had lunch.  The hotel had prepared box lunches for us, probably because they knew we had a long trip ahead of us.  The group provided bananas, bread and soft drinks (did I mention the drink called “Stoney”? Delicious and truly fierce ginger beer), and we shared  out our box lunches.

After that: visiting time.  Several of them spoke English, so we were able to converse.  They usually have questions about America, and one of the ones we fielded was “do you have orphans in America?”  (How would you answer that one, if anything beyond a simple “yes”?)

Erika shared her 7″ tablet with one of them (a bright lad named Joel — literally, he was wearing a brilliant green shirt) and he immediately started swiping around on it, looking at the pictures she had taken (I think that’s what he was doing).  It reminds me of another time we ran into a couple of kids on our street in Maua, one of them a little girl about 3 or 4 years old.  She was cute as a button (I have a picture), and as soon as I let her hold my phone, she immediately started swiping, to look at other pictures.  It’s so strange to see people for whom food is a challenge while technology is not, but I guess that’s the world we live in now.

Then we wandered over to a nearby primary school to use their toilets (squat toilets in outhouses on concrete slabs), while our group loaded up a motorcycle with their giant bags of produce.  A note on these motorcycles: they are called bota-botas, and they are built for carrying cargo or many people (we’ve seen as many as 5 people on one, and Austin, Erika’s father, has seen someone carrying a couch on one).  They have long seats and little running boards.  They are not the stylish bikes you see zooming around Chapel Hill or down I-40, and they are very utilitarian.  Also, none of our children have one, because the cheapest ones (from China) cost 90,000 shillings.  Way out of reach.  The one they had must have been either borrowed or maybe belonged to the mentor.  (Although… it was a third-year group, so maybe somebody had made enough money to buy one, or maybe it belonged to the group.)

The children from the school came out to see us.  White people are a real rarity in the non-touristy parts of Kenya, and children are always particularly fascinated.  They were very, very cute and some of us who are drawn to children had a hard time dealing with the pull of the ZOE kids (who, as heads of families in a third-year group, are in their high teens or low twenties), and the elementary schoolers.

(That, by the way, reminds me: why doesn’t ZOE partner with families whose heads are under 13 years old?  There are several reasons, not all of which I know, but some of them have to do with issues of child labor.  There are international (and Kenyan, probably) definitions and regulations that ZOE will not contravene.  Also, a 12-year-old is not really capable of managing a small business, which is what ZOE emphasizes as a way of becoming independent and empowered.  HOWEVER… it is not uncommon for younger children to be adopted by the group (into a family), and covered in that way.  As you might imagine, our orphan partners are sensitive to the issues of orphans and always willing to help, as much as they can.)

We did not visit any of the businesses of the third-year group, but, during our long trip to their meeting place, we visited SEVERAL ZOE graduates.  It is simply astonishing what these kids can accomplish with just a little help from us.


One kid, Anthony, had learned welding and was in the business of making gates for gated compounds, and metal doors for shops.  There are many, many gated compounds in Kenya.  I think everybody who can puts a wall around their property and a gate in the front wall.  It might be for security, or just custom, I don’t know.  Likewise, many of the shops you’ll see in Kenya have a metal door.  Anthony got his start from ZOE, and now, he has moved his business to another area with more customers because he is able to scale it up, and he has trained other orphans to weld (I think 4 orphans) and left some of them in his old place of business.  He now has a contract to produce doors and computer desks for a local school, and his profit will be 40,000 shillings. He is also planning to marry, but the woman he will marry is still in ZOE, in a second-year group, and he plans to wait until she graduates.  This is because when a ZOE orphan marries, they must leave the group.

Furthermore, he told us the following interesting thing, which I paraphrase: “When I was an orphan, I worked for a local farmer [my inference is that he didn’t get enough money from this farmer, for whatever reason, hence he joined a ZOE working group].  Now that I am better off, I am able to loan money [with interest], and I loan the farmer money, because he is my neighbor [emphasis mine].”


Another graduate, Lucy, has her own barbershop with three assistants (orphans whom she has trained), and she has trained 16 orphans in the past (who now all have their own shops) and is currently training 6 more (three of them not ZOE orphans).  All training, by the way, costs money, and both represents an income source for those graduates who are able to provide it, and serves as a point of commitment for the student of the training.  The skills the ZOE orphans learn are valuable in more than one way.

We missioneers had an interesting discussion at one point (on the road to our safari, as it happens; that turned out to be a good way to process what we’d seen).  How many hairdressers can there be?  Is it possible that ZOE could run out of steam because there are too many hairdressers/carpenters/vendors/welders/seamstresses/whathaveyou?  My feeling is “no”, and here’s why: more than one of our orphans said her dream, after being a hairdresser, was to become a wholesaler, supplying other hairdressers.  There’s always a higher level or a new niche to move your business to.  Also, these business people are growing the economy, raising the wealth of their region.  I think that means they’re also growing the market, so that it can support more vendors of goods and services.

The Barber Whose Name I Didn’t Catch

While we were talking to Lucy and Anthony, another ZOE graduate whose shop was a block away and down a side street heard that we were in town.  Reegan never pre-announces his visits, because he doesn’t want ZOE grads to prepare for him, nor does he want them to be disappointed if the visit doesn’t come off.  This graduate left his business, with a customer in the chair, to come find Reegan and greet him.  It was pretty cool.  This barber was all smiles and looked very healthy.  I have pictures I’ll put up.  We all went back to his barber shop and visited with him, with the customer in the chair.  He and Lucy and Anthony are excellent examples of what ZOE can do for orphans.