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Kenya: “What will happen to my children?”

  • 25 May 2017
Participants in the MustarSeed project

At St Aloysius Gonzaga School in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, a remarkable project is flourishing. Young adults living in deep poverty, who have lost parents to HIV/Aids and who face prejudice and discrimination are finding secure and dignified work through the MustardSeed project. Chris O’Hare reflects on the interlocking events that gave MustardSeed its genesis. 

It all started on a day in June 2014.
I’m in the Kibera slum, the largest slum of Africa.
In Nairobi, Nairobi Kenya.
I get four young adults in a room, to talk about why they weren’t getting jobs.
None of them have phones.
“How can you get a job if you don’t have a phone?” I ask myself.
I buy four phones.

No, actually, it started about a 100 years before.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, a virus makes a leap from an ape, most likely a chimpanzee, to a human.
Over decades, that virus will mutate and spread.
Quietly, invisibly, insidiously.
In 1981 it bursts out.
The HIV virus.
AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
This post-antibiotic phenomenon will go on to take the lives of millions, and to decimate numerous countries, and their economies.
It will destroy countless families, leaving millions of orphans.
It will become a defining event of the late 20th century.

“What will happen to my children?” asks a dying woman to Father Terry Charlton.
Maybe it all starts there?
It is 2002.
Father Terry  is holding the dying mother’s hand in her mud hut, in the middle of Kibera.
Jesuit Father Terry and an African colleague decide to start a high school for some of these orphans.
It’s a small start.

Or maybe it all started on September 7th, 1978.
I am 18.
I am a freshman at Harvard.
I am away from home for the first time.
I am nervous, I miss my family, I miss my dog.  I have a headache.
I take two aspirin on an empty stomach.
I wake up and take two more.
I almost bleed to death overnight.
One of the five blood transfusions the next morning contains that same mutated virus that leapt from ape to man, decades before.
Little do I know on that Thursday morning, what a long journey will begin that day.

It’s June 2013, thirty five years later.
I am in Rome.
Against all the odds, I am alive.  I am well.  I even have two small children.
And I am lost, totally lost.
“How can I be so fortunate, when so many millions have not been?” I find myself asking myself, again and again.
It is a spiritual crisis, of sorts.
By now I am one of the longest documented people alive with HIV.
I, and that long journey, have even been anonymously profiled in Stephen Grosz’s global best-selling book The Examined Life.
So I am in Rome, having that coffee with a friend to whom I have reached out.
I have heard of a unique school down in Kenya, called St Aloysius Gonzaga.  Every one of the 280 students have lost their mother or father or both to Aids.
“Maybe I can go down there and tutor math once or twice a year, or something like that,” I say to Father Mike Garanzini, a close friend, also a Jesuit, that afternoon in Rome.
“Chris, these kids don’t need math tutoring, they need jobs,” he says.

Or maybe it’s the convergence, the confluence of all these things, that’s where it all starts

It takes a while.
The best part of a year.
But I go down to visit St. Als, to Father Terry’s high school for Aids orphans, in the Kibera slum, in Nairobi, Nairobi Kenya.

By the end of the first week, I can see why few of these capable young adults are getting jobs.
No one is giving them the skills to get a job.
I buy those phones.
MustardSeed is born.

MustardSeed is an online mentoring programme to give young adults, especially underpriviledged ones, the skills to find a job.
And to keep one.
To make professional connections.
And to re-create a family and system of support for those who have lost their families.
And for anyone else who finds their way to us, regardless of how.

Think Linked In meets
We teach these capable young adults how to do a CV, how to write a cover letter, how to interview, how to comport yourself at work.  We buy them work clothes, give them a stipend to do an internship, or the money to take the bus to work and to buy lunch.
Because if you can’t afford the bus fare to get to work, or have a clean pair of shoes and pressed shirt and trousers, you will never get a job.
And the deal:  You agree to mentor at least two other individuals into a productive, working life.  That is how you pay the programme back.
And it’s working.
Every MustardSeed has moved forward each and every individual who has found herself or himself at its doorstep.

And then there are MustardSeed Mentors, people around the globe who are mentoring:
We have clothing designer Jorge Terra in Brasil, mentoring Dorcas Atieno as she creates her first test clothing line of men and women’s wear.
We have Chris O’Hare in London, mentoring Maurice Olang in his first internship at Bobo Safaris.
We have Juan Garay in Argentina, who is mentoring Philomena Kivuva in her first job, learning Excel, and gently reassuring her of any self-doubt, and who so kindly brought Hexacta to our attention.
Because getting these battered people to believe in themselves again is a crucial element of MustardSeed.
The importance of this cannot be underestimated.

MustardSeed has started small, in one place and at one time.
Now we want to link it through all the Jesuit High Schools in Africa, and in South America.
Then beyond those linked by the Jesuits.
Because MustardSeed in non-denominational.
No one owns it.
It is owned by everyone who participates in it.

Because Fr. Michael was right.

It’s all about jobs.

Jesuit Missions is providing funds to the MustardSeed project, helping passionate young people make their mark on a society that has excluded them. To learn more about MustardSeed visit