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Lauren’s last post from Ghana: fish have arrived!

The past week has been full of exciting events, but none are as exciting as the fact that THE FISH HAVE ARRIVED!  For those of you who may be new to our blog/website, United Hearts has started a sustainable fish pond project, in order to bring a source of income to our center.  We’ve spent the past two months preparing by digging the ponds, treating them, setting up fencing around them, and now, the fishies are finally here!

Transporting the fish

Their new home

The fish that they’ve been telling me are “mudfish”, are what we would call catfish!  They call them mudfish because they often  live in the bottom of muddy lakes and rivers, so they will be very happy in our ponds :)   For the first two weeks, they eat a special kind of food, and after that, they can eat a more generic brand of fish food.  They are fed 3 times a day, and are kids are having a lot of fun going down to the ponds and visiting their fishy friends.  The Tilapia will be arriving sometime in the next couple weeks, and then both of our ponds will be full of baby fish!

This has been such a great project to work on, it’s only thanks to all of the amazing people who support United Hearts that it is now a reality.  Without the fundraising of Georgia Goonewardene and my brother Wes, we would not have had enough funds to make this project happen.  When I think about all the people who have donated to this project, and what a difference it’s going to make in the lives of our children and staff, it reminds me of how connected we all are.  And it also reminds me of where we’ve been, and how far we’ve come.

Did you know United Hearts started with 5 children sleeping on a common mat?  Pastor Elisha sold pretty much all his possessions – including more than one car – to care for them and buy them food.  None of them went to school, and they had virtually nothing, with no prospects of sustainablility.  That was 5 years ago.

Now, 28 children,  new home, a school, and a sustainable fish pond later, I can’t even believe that that’s where our children started.  Not only do they have a giant new building for a home, but they have more advantages than most of the children in Bawjiase.  Because of all the people that know and love them, they have a future that will be so much brighter than their past.

Tomorrow is my last day in Bawjiase, and considering that I’ve spent 11 months of the past two years here, I’m incredibly sad to leave.  But through my constant traveling between the U.S. and Ghana, I’ve learned that the hardest part is worrying that I’ll forget everything I’ve learned.  When I’m here, I don’t have to worry about remembering what life is like for the people at United Hearts – I live it.  But when I go back to the land of excess, it’s all too easy to slip back into a life that doesn’t reflect what I now know from the time I’ve been here.  This tension – a pretty much constant feeling of “worrying about trying to remember”, is often how I feel once I’m back.  That tension is a huge part of my life, and I am constantly reminding myself of the moments that shape my life here.

Moments like this…

And faces like this…

Because those faces – and those moments – are what keep me going.  They are the reason I do what I do.  And they have completely changed my life.


A new home in the making

The children of the United Hearts Center giving a tour of their new home

We are on the last leg of our trip to Africa and we get to finish it at the United Hearts Children Center in Bawjiase, Ghana where we are building a new orphanage for the children that live here. For the last year, Mama Hope Global Advocates Lauren Wright and Katherine Theus have partnered with Mama Hope to fundraise and build a new orphanage for the children.  Together they have raised $57,000 and construction on the new orphanage is 70% percent complete. Currently United Heart’s, director Pastor Elisha is renting a house where he houses 27 children in two rooms of wall to wall bunk beds.  The lanlord will be evicting Pastor Elisha in December because the children have grown past the capacity of the house so the new orphanage could not have come at a better time.  The new orphanage will have 14 rooms and a separate wing for boys and girls.  It is surrounded by banana trees, coconut trees and corn fields.  It still is missing the tile flooring, plastering, electricity, and painting but still the children show us their future rooms with pride and can hardly wait to move in.
The new building is about a 10 minute walk away from the old orphanage. Last friday we got the grand tour from the children.  Our tour guides were Kweku, Kwasi, Kofi, Darco, Akia, Raelle, Barbara, Agogo and Joe.  They range from ages 3-7 and Pastor Elisha tells me they are all experts on the new building.

Story time at the United Hearts Children Center. I am reading to Barbara while Amy is reading to Irene.

Each afternoon Amy and I go to the orphanage and read the children stories or they read us stories.  Most of the stories are about a group of friends going on a walk that turns into an adventure.  And as we walk through the banana and cocunt tree jungle to get to the orphanage I feel a little like we are in our own children’s book.  We hopped over trails of ants and crossed bridges and climbed little hills.  We were passed by beautiful women with baskets of cocunuts on their heads.  Every few steps the kids would yell “my shoe, my shoe” as their flip flops would fall off.  And the whole time they were picking flowers and handing me them saying “for you” until my bag was full of little yellow and pink buds. The 10 minute walk turned into a 45 minute stroll where everyone would point out “Look, catterpillar, look a giant frog, look, lizard.”

Our stroll to see the new Orphanage

When we got in sight of the new home the kids were all chanting “New home time! New Home Time!”  The girls immediately ran to their rooms and Barbara blocked the would be doorway yelling “No boys allowed!”  A bunch of boys ran around her and started dancing and singing “we are in the girls rooms.” Then the same mayhem was repeated when we went to the boys wing.  The girls would sneak into a boys room and then be escorted out by two little boys on either side like bouncers at a club.  Even though the inside of the building is still just a skeleton of walls and doorways the children went into detail explaining each room, “This is our study where we will have desks and do all our homework.  Here is our dining room where we will have large tables to eat at and here is your room for when you come back to visit us again.”

Nathaniel and Daniel building a car from scrap metal

When we got back outside the children started playing on the construction sight like it was a giant playground.  They were digging in the mountain of sand and collecting found pieces of scrap metal and carefully putting them in their pockets to use later to make toy cars.  We finally headed back to their current home singing “the ants go marching one by one hurrah, hurrah…”  I was carrying Agogo, a 3 year old boy who was through with walking and holding the hand of Kwasi.  Everything was very serene and I had a moment where I realized that once this new home is finished, it will be providing a safe haven and a family to children who have not even been born yet.  And this beautiful home was made possible by the fundraising efforts of two 23year old girls. This is why this project is so special to Mama Hope and it makes us so proud to see its progress.  I took the moment to be amazed at how much people can accomplish once they care enough to do something outside of themselves and that made me smile and be thankful to have a job where I get to work with people who have the courage to make a lasting impact in the world.

Please help us complete the United Hearts Children's Home by Donating below

A big thank you to Katherine Theus, Lauren Wright and all of our donors who have made this building a reality! We are now in the home stretch of construction. We have $28,000 more to raise before December so that these children can move into their new home. Please help by making your very own impact on the lives of these children. Donate here! 

I can now add corn shucking to my resume

The Mama Hope team is now in Kisumu, Kenya. Yesterday we went out to visit the 87 women who work in the Mama Hope garden. I think we surprised them by showing up, because upon arrival they saw us from across the field and thought we were just a bunch of tourists… as we came closer they recognized us and the greetings of smiles and handshakes began. An African handshake is very different from how we greet in the U.S, and the handshake varies depending on the tribe you are visiting. It reminds me of when I was little and had a secret handshake with all my friends in order to enter our secret clubhouse. The main tribe in Kisumu is Luo and their handshake consists of 2 hand twists and 3 different had positions. It takes a couple times to get it down.

The women shucking away

When we got to the garden, half of the 3 acre field of corn had been chopped down and was in piles on the ground. We quickly learned that today was harvesting day. They do not have big machines to harvest crops as we do in the U.S. so everything is done by hand. The men were in the back of the field chopping down the corn stocks with machetes and stacking the stocks into 6ft tall piles. The women were gathered around the piles removing the corn cobs from the stock. The women were certainly excited that they were going to have two more helpers… because in Africa, when you are accepted as part of the group, there was no sitting on the sidelines and watching. They quickly put us to work shucking the corn. Now this in theory sounds easy… you take the corn stock, find the corn, break it off and then you’re done right?… Wrong. Here is how it’s really done. You grab for a stalk on the very top of the pile so it’s not buried and easier to remove. The stalk is bigger than you in height so it is pretty awkward to pull it out of the pile and stand it up without hitting the person next to you. I learned this lesson fast when I hit Pauline, one of the Mama’s next to me, in the head with my stalk. Thankfully she did not have a baby on her back. Then you find the corn cob which is covered in husk. To un-husk the corn you take a nail and cut the top of the husk, this is because the husk is a lot thicker than it looks and it would take forever to split it with just your fingernails. Once you cut a hole in the top of the husk, you begin to peel back the layers like an onion and tear them off one by one. Once you have done this comes the hardest part, getting the corn off the stock. The Mama’s made this look easy, but for me I would twist and pull as hard as I could and eventually it would come off. The Mama’s all got a kick out of this. They were probably thinking to themselves “Little American… why are you so weak?” Apparently doing office work at home in front of a computer has not prepared my arm strength for corn husking. After that day I questioned the renewal of my gym membership, thinking to myself “some good my working out has done.”

The men and their machete's

Corn husking in 90+ degree weather with no shade is not easy. I have to give it to the women for being the hardest workers I have ever seen. They started husking at 7am and by the time we arrived at 11am they were half way done with the field. By 2:00pm the entire 3 acre field (the size of 2 and 1/2 football fields) was harvested and being loaded into a truck to take to the mill. Once at the mill they pick off all the individual kernels of corn with their hands and then put the loose kernels into a machine that mills it into a finely ground flour which they call maize flour. The women use the maize flour to make numerous Kenyan dishes to feed their families and then sell the surplus at market to generate income. There is actually a shortage of maize in Kenya right now, so cost’s are a lot higher then normal which makes it an even more profitable crop. Corn is a staple of a Kenyans diet. The profit made from the garden allows the 87 women who work in the garden to support an average of 6 children, which includes paying school fees so they are able to get an education, an opportunity these women didn’t have when they were young. It is very interesting to hang out with the families because most all the women are uneducated and do not speak English but their children are fluent. So we often ask the children to be our translators. It is wonderful to see this new generation of youth living up to their potential.

The meal we ate for lunch with the women. The brown dish is Ugali which is made from the corn flour and eaten with almost every meal.

The Environmental Club and MJ

The kid’s in Africa are obsessed with Michael Jackson. We took a trip to Maai Mahiu to meet up with our partner organization Comfort The Children International (CTC) and see the progress of their environmental projects. Mama Hope has funded two projects in Maai Mahiu on a plot of land at the Ngeya Primary School. It was so amazing to see how the projects have grown due to the hard work of energetic youngsters in the club.

The Environmental Club

One project is a drip irrigation vegetable garden that grows over 10 different types of vegetables. I have been told that this garden provides daily lunches to Ngeya Primary’s 1,700 students.  I ramble off that fact often but when I saw them all out playing at recess  it really put it into perspective how many children that is. I have never seen so many kids at one time. After recess we met with the 80 students, aged 6-12, in the schools environmental club who plants and manages the garden. They learned how to build drip watering systems, how to plant seedlings, and maintain and harvest this garden. They were so excited to show us their plot! The outgoing students pointed out the particular plans they worked on, telling us about the different types of vegetables and their favorite part of gardening. It was very cute to see how into it they were.
This drip irrigation technique is not only fun for the kids but a very important life skill to learn because in Maai Mahiu, much like most of sub-Saharan Africa, there is very little water and many Kenyans struggle to grow enough food to feed their families due to long periods of drought.  Drip irrigation maximizes limited water supply and allows people to farm all year round, so they no longer need to wait on rainwater. Many of the students have taken these learned techniques home to their families, who now have drip gardens in their own homes. Wohoo!
Mama Hope and the environmental club’s second project is a youth led tree nursery. Another reason it hard to grow crops in Maai Mahiu, besides lack of water, is because of climate change. The director of the Environmental Club is a man named Rocky who is the most soft spoken and innovative Kenyan environmentalist I have ever met. He told us that when he was a boy Maai Mahiu used to be covered with trees and was very lush and fertile. Unfortunately, since then people have cut down around 70% of the trees to use  for firewood and charcoal production. This lack of indigenous trees has affected the climate so much that now over 80% of vegetables have to bought from the neighboring villages. The environmental club’s goal for this tree nursery is to repopulate Maai Mahiu with trees so that when they grow up there will be good climate conditions for themselves and their families to grow food. It was so wonderful to see these young kids taking action to make a better future for their entire community. So far the children have planted over 500 trees in the school compound, and have 3,000 tree seedlings that they will use to repopulate the town with. Their goal is to have planted over 30,000 trees  in the  community within the next couple years. It was so fantastic to hear the childrens’ ambitious goals and how they had such pride about the project.

The kids and their trees!

After the Environmental Club meeting had adjourned… the real fun started! Some of the kids stayed after school to hang out with us. They swarmed around me like a school of fish, and began shouting out different questions for me to answer “Have you acted in movies?” “Do you like Michael Jackson?” “Are you friends with Michelle Obama?”… and the list goes on.
One little boy asked me to sing him a song. As most of my friends will tell you… I am not the best singer, but after asking me 4 more times and giving me the sweetest puppy dog face ever, I caved. In that moment with 20+ kids looking up to me wide eyed in excitement, my mind went blank. I could not think of a single song to sing… and the ones I did think of I blanked on their lyrics. So after many seconds of hesitation I started to sing the first thing that came to mind, “Beat It” by Michael Jackson. In my first week of being in Africa, I was asked if I liked MJ by at least 10 different groups of kids. So I sang, and accompanied it with  my best MJ dance impression. The kids went crazy when I started snapping, popping my knee and spinning around. It was quite a sight to see… but how can you not go all out when singing Beat It.
We finished up the day with some more dancing and playing games. As always, hanging out with the kids is a huge highlight of the trip.

Tie and Dye 4th of July

our witches brew...

As we stood around the boiling stew of purple dye and old table cloths, I laughed to myself and thought, “Wow, this is the most random 4th of July I’ve ever had.”

It all started last Friday when we visited the New Jordans Womens Bank in Isiolo, Kenya. All of them are big mamas with huge smiles and loud laughs. They see us and clap their hands shouting “Karibu tena!” (Welcome back!), kiss us and hug us like we are their children returning home. We are at the Mama Joanina’s house, the biggest mama of the group and my favorite. I remember the first time I met her I thought “Well here is the embodiment of Mama Hope.” She spends her time visiting and comforting the sick and eveything she says is heartfelt or flat out hilarious. We have come to Joanina’s to attend New Jordan’s weekly bank meeting. In 2007 when we first trained these 15 women in community banking, I told them that Mama Hope was founded in honor of my mother who passed away and they all hugged me and said “Well WE are your mothers now!” And believe me they take this role very seriously. Before we are even seated all of them start in with the questions. “Ny-eela, how is the USA? How is your family? Why are you so skinny? Do they not feed you in your home? Why are you not married yet?…etc…”

Meet the New Jordan's Women's Bank

After the initial grilling ends. Everyone gets quiet as Madame President (Geraldine) calls the meeting to order. They each take turns paying their dues to the bank. Each women has her own business due to loans from their New Jordan’s bank. Five years ago they started the bank with 330 Ksh ($5). And over the last year they have saved over 104,000 Ksh ($1,195). They also have used 39,000 KSh ($500) to bring food to people in the communitiy with HIV/AIDS, pay school fees for children who cannot afford it and pay for the transport of sick people to the hospital.

Then Madame President announces proudly, “We have learned to Tie and Dye!” Everyone else nodds with excitement. She tells us that a man came and taught the bank how to tie dye old clothes and make them new again. She also says that, “No one else is doing this and these tie and dye clothes are now in high demand in Isiolo! We want to come together and have a Tie and Dye shop where we could sell our clothing!”  Bryce suggests they should name it “Haight Street” Again everyone nodds excitedly and then they invite us to come tie and dye with them on Monday.

In college, I used to run a summer camp so tie dying is something I have done many times before and I thought I knew what to expect. A couple buckets with colored dye, some old tshirts and rubberbands. I was totally wrong! This was like extreme Tie Dying!

We all sat around with a bunch of old clothes, some twine and a butcher knife. The women started tying the twine around the clothing and we started to mimic them. They laughed at us and told us “No you need to make the twine TIGHT or it won’t work.”

The women showing us how to tie the twine TIGHT

Outside a few women were preparing purple dye in a pot of water being boiled over fire wood. Once the the clothes were ready they were are all submerged into the boiling pot and stirred with a giant stick. The fire was crackling and spitting, threatening to set our skirts on fire. I felt like we were a bunch of witches over our cauldron. Once everything was at a steady purple boil, Hadija looked at her watch and said “Now we wait 45 minutes”.

During the down time Amy and I decided to teach the women how to do the Macarena. They loved it and in return sang us a song and taught us a traditional Kenyan dance. We were all having a great time when the buzzer went off. Everyone then headed outside, pulling their items straight from the boiling hot water with their hands. Then they put fire wood on again and started boiling the water for the blue dye.

Needless to say Tie and Dye is an all day activity. And right around 3:30pm we finally got to see the results of our work and they were really beautiful. Everyone stood around admiring their old material transformed into new bright beautiful sheets, shirts and skirts.

Admiring our work

Look at our purple and blue hands

At the end of the day Mama Joanina came out dressed from head to toe in Tie Dyed clothes dancing around and cracking everyone up. She then took me, Amy and Bryce and gave us each matching tie dyed outfits while all the other Mamas clapped proudly for us like we were their children. Bryce said it felt like camp graduation. Amy and I just could not stop smiling.

Our mamas cheering on our new look

Tie and Dye family portrait

The Ride

The Ride: by Amy Vaninetti




I want to tell you about one of my favorite parts of traveling Africa, most would say that this would be their least favorite, but let me explain why I love it so much….

The locals in Africa travel from town to town via a Matatu because it is the cheapest way to travel. A Matatu is a 1980’s 12 seater van that they use as a travel bus. The seats are very small to where your knees hit the seat in front of you and your shoulders are rubbing up against the person beside you. There is very little ventilation, so on a 90+ degree day this can be quite a sweaty ride. They not only pack it full of people, but they pack it full of peoples stuff; under the seats, by the side panels, in the legroom area, anywhere they can find a free square foot. Very cozy to say the least.

You buy a seat in the van, and if you are the first person to board you get the best seat, but could be waiting 2 hours for 11 more people to hop on board. Once the van is to capacity you begin driving and the whole vehicle starts to rattle and shake. The locals call this an “African massage”. You bounce and shake as you hit the road full of dips and potholes. At first you feel like at any moment the van is just going to spontaneously combust, every steel piece of the vehicle falling apart as you roll out onto the open road. After about 10 min of this, you start to get used to it, and this is when I start to find the fun. Seeing it just like the Indiana Jones ride at Disney Land but without the snakes popping out at you. Instead there are people darting out in the middle of the street, as if they were playing a real life game of Frogger and they are the frog. There are cars swerving to try and pass each other coming inches away from hitting one another. There are no traffic lights, so it is a free for all and everyone is trying to get somewhere fast!

View of the road from inside the Matatu

Yesterday I was in one of these Matatu’s as we drove 5 hours from Nairobi to Isiolo, where Mama Hope’s water projects are located. The conditions above may paint this drive as undesirable, but I just love it! I’m jolting back and fourth in a packed car with a funny old man, a mother with her small baby, and a bunch of middle aged African men, listening to bongo music, with pineapples under my feet, driving past small villages and road side fruit stands…. and then it hits me, this is Africa! This is what I love. The little imperfections, the closeness, and the lifestyle so real and raw and different from my own. Pulling over on the side of the road to hear the driver get out and announce “no brakes”… But never the less after some thumping around under the vehicle we’re back on the road again, driving with our flashers on the remainder of the way. I love it all, from the hawkers who bombard you at rest stops; shoving fruit, sodas and crackers in your face trying to get you to buy their goods… to the beautiful scenery that changes from lush rolling hills of banana trees and forest, to a desert full of shrubby trees and dirt as far as you can see.

My and Nyla's feet on Pineapples

Even though this ride is far from the comfort I get at home, with my butt asleep, my knees aching and hot as a sauna… Somehow I’m at peace; more so than I have ever been in the US. I’m relaxed and ready for every bump and shake this ride has to offer. Because its the ride that puts everything into perspective and in the end, soothes your soul. When everything is out of your control, and nothing is ideal, it is so freeing. This is what the ride is all about. Realizing… This is Africa, and it is beautiful! Some people say we’re insane for driving 5 hours in a Matatu with the locals, instead of chartering our own SUV, but I think they are the crazy ones because they’re missing out on the little experiences that make life so rich. It’s the ride… and I hope you all can take it some day.

The Kaisut desert in Kenya

Kweku’s eyes

In the combined 7 months that I’ve spent with Kweku, this is what I’ve learned.  He is what I would define as “preciously cheeky” meaning he is capable of being a really big brat, but he’s so cute, half the time don’t even care.  Even when I want to smack him on his particularly round behind, he could just smile at me, and I would give him whatever he wanted.  I’m pretty sure he’s aware of this, which is why he continues to laugh and be a little poo whenever anyone is trying to discipline him.  Many volunteers claim Kweku as their “favorite”, and after you meet him, it’s easy to understand why.

Kweku is the smartest of all the kids his age, and will quickly demonstrate his counting skills if asked.  He can count to 100 almost without taking a breath, and every time he sits on my lap, he counts my bracelets multiple times.  He also likes to inform me of how many I have, multiple times.  He has a big belly, and a round booty, and enjoys dancing to ghana music (like most of the kids) and is a better dancer than I’ll ever be.  He can bath and dress himself rather efficiently, especially if he is competing with Kevin as to who will finish bathing and dressing first.  Kweku is  pretty competitive, so he usually wins.  Unfortunately he is also a sore loser, and he pouts and cries when he doesn’t get his way.  But within 10 minutes or so, he’s over it, and goes back to playing.  He recently told me that his best friends were Joe and Kevin, and they have a new fascination with toy cars that Chelsey recently brought for activity time.  They have races (of course) and for some reason, Kweku’s car is always the winning car.  This could be because he likes to give himself a head start, and because of his sneaky intelligent advantage, Joe and Kevin don’t always notice.

This past weekend we went to the beach again, and Kweku sat on my lap in the tro tro on the way there and back.  For some reason this happened the last time we went too, so I’ve had a bit of time to observe his behavior when we leave the orphanage.  While many of the other kids fall asleep on the way home, Kweku stays awake until the last possible moment, till his eyes possibly can’t stay open any longer.  He doesn’t just sit, he looks.  He looks at everything.  He observes everything that passes by, sometimes without blinking for what seems like forever, and takes everything in until his eyes can’t stay open anymore.  As he sat on my lap and I fed him plantain chips, he didn’t stop for one second to look at me or anyone else in the tro tro.  He was looking outside, taking in all his surroundings.

This made me wonder, what else has Kweku seen?  What else have those precious little sneaky eyes observed?  I’ll never know.  What I do know, is that he’s probably seen and felt things that we have never seen and felt, and that we would never wish upon a 5 year old.  And there is no denying that his life has been different than probably any child you know, and his eyes have seen things that you will never have to see.

But I can tell you what Kweku sees now.  He sees 3 meals a day, and his big belly going to bed at night nice and full.  He sees his best friends Kevin and Joe, and 23 other brothers and sisters, who look out for him and act as role models.  He sees toys, clothes, and a safe bed.  He sees school, where he learns more and more everyday.  And he sees a new house, a new house that still isn’t finished, but is on it’s way to being his new home.

And this is all thanks to a pretty great man named Pastor Elisha, some really great orphanage staff, some willing volunteers, and people like you, who have donated to build him a new home.  I’ve said it 100 times, and I’ll say it again: Tell everyone you know about Kweku, and all these beautiful children.  We owe it to them.

Do you know Kweku? Support him. 

~ Lauren Wright

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