About a month before I left on a trip to Africa with Team World Vision, the fundraising arm of World Vision that raises money through marathons, I received a packet in the mail. Inside was a picture of Isaac, a smiling seven-year-old. He had been assigned to me by World Vision as a sponsored child. The kids on child sponsorship mailings are always beautiful. But were they really just using bright smiles to pull at my heart strings?
According to the marketing materials, for just $35 a month, I could ensure that projects deemed as top priorities by Isaac's community were funded through my donations. Though the dollars wouldn't all go directly to Isaac like some child sponsorship organizations', he would benefit directly once water projects were funded and schools were built. When I travelled to Kenya earlier this year, I got to see for myself what child sponsorship means in real-time.
As we swerved back and forth down the dirt path leading to the Cheptigit Primary School in Kenya on a desperately ragged, gnarled, arid landscape that resembled the surface of the moon, I wondered what it would be like to meet Isaac in person. World Vision had chosen this site so our group could see a "before" example. They would be drilling a borehole the following week, but up to this point, Cheptigit had no clean water, and no improvements to the school or village. The terrain looked uninhabitable, and yet this was the area Isaac and his family called home.
As our vans pulled into the dusty schoolyard, students, teachers, and even the headmaster greeted us with songs. Two small, corrugated tin structures—the school—and two latrines were all that dotted the land.
When the World Vision ADP manager introduced me to Isaac, he shook my hand in the traditional way Kenyan children show respect—with his left hand on his right forearm. We greeted each other shyly. I did not want to overwhelm this seven-year-old, and he was intimidated by my white skin and foreign language. I was probably the first muzunga he had ever met.
He enjoyed the bag of goodies I brought for him—a notepad and pens, a paddle with a ball on a string, a blow-up punching ball, and a bottle of bubbles. His mother, Alana, watched as he tried out each of his new toys. He proudly wrote his name for me in his notebook—with impeccable handwriting. The headmaster gave us a tour of the school. In the Form 2 (second grade) room—Isaac's classroom—a blackboard with one corner broken off hung askew on the exposed stud on the interior tin wall. Dilapidated wooden desks—a bench seat for two attached to a narrow slab of wood for writing—were lined up in rows on the dirt floor.
In the schoolyard, a dusty, dry, sun-scorched expanse, the children entertained us with their playground games. They used a tattered rope for jump roping and tug of war, and they carved a grid into the dirt with a stone for a dancing game. For soccer, they used wadded up paper bound with twine.
As we left the schoolyard, I learned World Vision planned to drill a borehole at the school the week following our visit. I clung to hope knowing once clean water starts to flow, the cycle of poverty can begin to be broken, and a new kind of life will begin—just as it did for the people we met at World Vision's Kombo Kaboon water project.
I also learned that Isaac's ADP manager would personally check in on him and other sponsored children to ensure they receive medical attention, educational assistance, or other care needed to address the issues that caused the community to consider them at-risk and in need of sponsorship in the first place.
Because we know better
There's a road leading away from the Africa Inland Church Camp where I stayed during our visit in Cheptebo, which leads to Bartabwa. At one point, the paved road—the tarmac, as they call it—just ends. From here it's clay and rocks, which turns into a treacherous slip-and-slide when it rains. This is the point where the Kenyan government seems to have said we'll go this far and no further. For all of the talk about Africa becoming an emerging economy, it's hard to see how this can be when people have no way to bring goods to market.
The lack of infrastructure makes me wonder what the government's role is in all of this. Why do people in the U.S. travel 10,000 miles from home to provide what their own country should?
While I don't have a definitive answer, and the answer is most certainly complex—there's a reason Rich Stearns says that solving poverty is rocket science—it surely has something to do with the fact that half the population of Kenya is under 15 years old and has been orphaned because of HIV/AIDS. With no wage earning potential and no parents, these young people are straining Kenya's capacity to deliver adequate social services. Rampant corruption makes it even harder—I'm sure there are many other factors for why Kenya is unable to care for their own.
Right or wrong and whatever these reasons may be, we know what a life with water looks like. We know what it is to go to the kitchen sink and turn on the tap. We know what it is to stand under a hot shower when we're slow to wake up in the morning. We know what it is to walk down a flight of stairs and throw a load of laundry in and go on with the rest of our day. All of these amenities free us up to live the American dream, a dream based on the accrual of stuff that needs to be maintained by constant hard work.
Their hard work, on the other hand, is in pursuit of a dream as basic as getting water pumped into their village. Never mind the kitchen sink.
Anne Weirich, soon to be a five-time Chicago Marathon runner for Team World Vision, says, "The life they live may be normal to them. They may not know any better. But we know better. And because we know better, we ought to be compelled by love to share what we've been given."
World Vision's water projects aren't some abstract scheme. Many of them, like the project that was about to begin in Isaac's village, are merely waiting for funding. They're waiting on people like Anne Weirich . . . and me. I don't love running marathons. But I do love knowing that every mile run and dollar donated was worth it.
Read more about child sponsorship in Christianity Today's June 2013 cover story, "Want to Change the World? Sponsor a Child."