Kenya: 16-Year-Old Heads Family of Six

Kenya family

Pamela Gilardi, second from left, and CRS major gift officer, Barbara Roth, second from right, meet with the Otieno children in their home in rural Kenya. Photo by Pamela Gilardi

CRS Foundation Board member, Pamela Gilardi, recently traveled with CRS Major Gifts Officer, Barbara Roth, to visit our work in Kenya. They witnessed projects that brought water to nomadic herders and met with several children who lost their parents to HIV. They share with us their visit to a home in rural Kenya run by a 16-year-old boy named Polycarp.

It’s the middle of the afternoon when we arrive at Polycarp’s house. A blanket divides the mud structure into two rooms, one for sleeping and one for daily living. The living area is furnished with three wooden chairs, a bench, and a small table. That’s everything. There’s not a toy in sight.

Polycarp is 16, but looks about 12. He lives with his sister, Idda, and four cousins, Mercy, Simon, Vitalis, and Jenipher, who range in age from 8 to 14. First Polycarp’s parents passed away in 2005, and he and Idda went to live with their uncle, Mercy’s father, but all six children were left on their own when he died earlier this year.

With few options, the orphaned cousins chose to live together. They attend school. They gather firewood on Saturdays and walk six miles to market to sell the wood on Sundays. The money they earn is stretched to buy basic necessities: food, clothing, soap for washing, and medicine when it’s needed. Water must be collected daily in buckets. They rely on the sun for light. Electricity is a luxury that has not reached their village.

Polycarp looks after the group’s wellbeing, while Mercy, the oldest girl at 14, is in charge of the cooking. Each day she prepares a stew of broth, vegetables, and enriched corn soy blend provided by Catholic Relief Services’ partner, Mercy Orphans. She cooks over a wood fire right outside her home. Her only flavoring is a handful of sun-dried minnow-sized fish too small to offer even a morsel of meat.

It’s jarring to see such young children living on their own. You have to ask yourself, who decided that these children live in that house by themselves, and who decided that our children get to live in our comfortable homes in the U.S.? Our children are given the freedom to play and explore, they are hooked up electronically and are learning to drive at Polycarp’s age. It’s hard to imagine a 14 year-old American teenager mothering a family, and yet that is exactly what Mercy must do.

Still they all look healthy. They receive food and medical assistance from Mercy Orphans and CRS. A volunteer visits often, checks on their progress, and sees how they’re faring in school. Even though they have no parents to guide them, Mercy is in the top 10 of her class. They are mature beyond their years. When we asked, “what do you do when you disagree?” Mercy quickly explained, “We talk it out.” They live day to day but they live collectively and they gather strength from it.

Before we leave, we give them a bag of M&Ms. Our travel companion, Father Emilio, opens the bag for them and pours some into each of their palms. They don’t ask for more. They ration themselves. You can tell it is something they want to savor. We’ll never forget how the littlest one, Idda, slowly nibbles on one red M&M. She gently turns it and nips a small piece one section at a time. Whereas our grandchildren would get a bag and tire of the candy before the bag was done, Idda delights in it.

These visits always change you, when you compare the simplicity to the complexity of our different lifestyles. It challenges our purchases. You feel like you shouldn’t have some of the things you have. It challenges our excess and sense of entitlement.

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4 Responses to “Kenya: 16-Year-Old Heads Family of Six”

  1. Arthur Guinness Says:

    how can the photo be by Pamela Gilardi if she is in the photo??

  2. John Lindner Says:

    Camera shutter timer.
    Though perhaps it would be less confusing to say photo courtesy of Pamela Gilardi.

  3. Arthur Guinness Says:

    Yes, that and a tripod would be a possibility. Though more likely she handed the camera to someone to take the shot, no? I assume they were accompanied by CRS Kenya staff.

  4. John Lindner Says:

    You know, it’s been a while since I questioned that before posting and my recollection, though admittedly vague, is that I was somewhat surprised to learn that she is indeed credited with the shot. Like you, I’d tend to think it would be likely that someone else took the photo. Even pro photographers don’t like lugging tripods around in the field. I simply went with the explanation I received. Also like you, I would assume CRS staff were with her. But the information I received named her has the photographer. Since no one on the trip has disputed that, I feel comfortable leaving the credit as it stands.

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