Bruce Garrity did his Christmas shopping early this year.
On the list were 45 mattresses, eight mattress covers and enough jeans, belts, shirts, underwear, sweaters and more to stock a clothing store’s shelves.
All were happily received by children at an orphanage in Kenya where he was a teaching volunteer for 10 weeks this fall.
“I felt like Santa Claus. The last two weeks I stopped teaching and I just bought clothes for the boys,” says this Charlottetown man, whose friends and family, as well as a woman from the United States, came forward financially to help him fulfil that extensive wish list.
Volunteering in Africa has been on Garrity’s mind for the past decade.
In the 1960s, he was in the United States Peace Corps in India teaching and working with farmers. It was an experience he always wanted to revisit.
With his 26-year career with Tourism P.E.I. wrapped up in 2002, this former Charlottetown city councillor put out the word that he was in search of a volunteer placement.
With help from Ted Grant, president of the P.E.I.-based Mikinduri Children of Hope Foundation, which is a charitable organization that supports projects in Kenya, he found his niche at the Children’s Village in Nchiru, a small community 12 kilometres away from the urban sprawl of Meru Town.
The village includes two orphanages, the St. Clare Girls’ Centre and the St. Francis Boys’ Home. Both facilities, which are under the direction of Fr. Francis Riwa, are home to a total of 600 boys and girls.
Garrity arrived in Nairobi on Sept. 23 and was greeted by Grant, who helped him to acclimatize for a day in the village of Mikinduri before he set off to the boys orphanage.
“My goal was to go to teach English and to see if I could help in an orphanage,” Garrity says of his intended mission.
“I didn’t even know what that meant in a way . . . and it turned out it just grew. Like Fr. Riwa said, ‘You come and you’ll find your niche.’”
The boys are mostly former street children, and the girls are there mainly because their families cannot afford to keep them.
“(Due to different funding sources) the girls were better cared for; they had better clothing, a better school, better computers, better food, better facilities, everything. The boys just didn’t quite have it as good as they did. As a matter of fact they were raggedy and they were hungry,” says Garrity, who stayed in a room adjacent to the boys’ dorms.
Each morning he was greeted with the sound of their early rising at 4:30 a.m. when they, their teachers and Riwa would greet the day with a three-kilometre run.
“The noise — it was like Sherwood school at recess because there would be 300 boys yelling and playing at 4:30 in the morning,” he smiles.
The boys then headed off to their classrooms at 5:30 a.m.: at 6 a.m. the bell would ring for them to study while teachers watched. They ate breakfast at 7 a.m. and at 8 a.m. classes began. Bedtime was typically 9 p.m.
Many times Garrity would go to class to teach the boys and they’d be out working in the fields.
“They were hoeing the fields or manually fixing the sewer lines. They did their physical share to take care of their food, their education and their clothing, which is not a bad idea, but they worked a lot,” Garrity says.
There was a shortage of bread for the boys while Garrity was there.
The bread typically costs seven cents per loaf, but to keep up with the need for 350 loaves per day translates into more than $700 a month.
The boys were resourceful in finding other food sources, such as termites, which a group of third graders enthusiastically asked Garrity to try one day.
“It’s said there’s a lot of protein in the bugs and there probably is. They said, ‘Would you like one, Mr. Bruce?’ and they said sometimes to fry them. I didn’t quite work up the guts. They were eating them, by the way, because they were hungry, not because they were a source of protein — when there was no bread,” he says.
Fortunately funding came through at the end of October, so there was bread on the table for all again.
Funds have now been secured to provide food for the boys at the orphanage for the next year, which will allow time to study how more produce and livestock might be grown to sustain them.
Midway through his time in Kenya, Garrity put out an email to about 70 of his friends, asking if they would be willing An Africa to help purchase clothes for the boys.
The response, with a large donation from a Michigan woman, was to the overwhelming tune of $4,500, which he promptly transformed into a clothing package that included jeans, belts, shirts, underwear, sweaters and T-shirts.
One boy around the age of seven or eight was given a pair of jeans that were obviously way too big for his tiny body.
When they tried to get him to return them in exchange for a more suitable size it was a no-go.
“He wouldn’t give them up. He just held on to them,” Garrity remembers.
“I said, ‘Give me the jeans back’ and he wouldn’t let go . . . . He wanted to make sure that he got the other jeans (before he was willing to give the first ones up). They want their share because they know that they’re not going to get a second chance . . . . These kids have absolutely nothing except the clothes on their back.”
Being the only white person within a 10-kilometre radius in an area where few Caucasians — Canadians in particular — visit, Garrity stood out like a tall, white-haired and very pale pied piper.
“I got used to being different. When you’re walking in the village everybody is looking at you because there were no white people where we were — none,” he says.
“So I just said, ‘OK that’s part of it’ and it opened doors for me. I did get things done quicker.”
He also stood out due to his consistent choice in clothing.
“These teachers would get dressed up (in classy, freshly ironed clothing), and I was kind of sloppy — because I found it warm beyond belief — with shorts, T-shirt and sandals, every day for 70 days, except for one (day) I put jeans on and the whole place collapsed (clapping and waving) because they knew I didn’t dress up,” he laughs.
The students’ English was very good, so Garrity set his sights on helping them improve their pronunciation and to teach them about Canada and things they had not experienced like ice hockey and in-home heating systems.
Some of the more interesting questions posed to him by his inquisitive students were “How many wives can a Canadian husband have?” and “Is Canada part of United States?”
There were lots of outings as well, including five safaris — sometimes with the teachers from the school — and a field trip with some of the students near the end of his stay.
And at the end, there was not one but two send-off celebrations for him as he wrapped up his final days in Africa two weeks ago.
“I just fell in love with the people. They were just super people,” says Garrity, who documented his Kenyan experiences on his weblog, My Way. “I felt accepted, which is very good.”
AT A GLANCE
-As a result of Bruce Garrity’s time spent at the Children’s Village’s in Nchiru, Kenya, and identifying the needs there, the Mikinduri Children of Hope Foundation has now put into place for 2013 an Agricultural Development Program to work with the orphanages’ director, Fr. Francis Riwa, and another American organization to make the orphanages self-sustaining in growing the food as fast as possible.
- This plan includes leasing or purchasing land and hiring a qualified agricultural project director to grow the food, and raise the goats, that will supply enough food to feed the children.
- For more information or to donate, visit www.mikinduri.com or by calling Bruce Garrity at 892-4532 or Ted Grant 566-2976, or Paul Connolly at 566-1119.
- One hundred per cent of all donations will go directly into this orphanage project.