Month: January 2012

Kenya – A Childhood Dream Come True!

I had always dreamed of visiting Kenya from the days of watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  For you younger folk, Wild Kingdom was the premiere nature show on black and white television when I was a kid.

Well, the dream has been realized.  The plane touched down at Nairobi-Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.   I knew we were in for interesting times.  We lucked out and got right through immigration and were the first to get our luggage off the turnstile.   And there was Sammy, our driver and the man with the plan, to pick us up.

I was aware of travel warnings for Nairobi, so I was ultra vigilant.  With a driver picking us up and a safe place to stay, I felt we were in good hands.  As we drove through the streets, I realized that this city was different…  more metropolitan than the other African cities we had visited.  Luxury malls, highways, office buildings.   Don’t get me wrong… there was still the poverty, the dirt side streets and the occasional cow in the middle of the road, but it seemed like a city.

We arrived at our quarters – The HEART Foundation, a wonderful compound housing volunteers and relief workers in the Nairobi area. HEART is an acronym for “Health Education Africa Resource Team”, with a motto of Knowledge = Power = Survival. Their goal is to educate and empower the people of Africa to survive the HIV/AIDS pandemic.   They are doing some amazing work in Kenya.


We stayed there for a day and a half to wait for our host, Don Howard of Rotary International, and also the founder of SCOPE (School Communities Offering Projects that Empower).

While in Nairobi, we were invited to visit Nyumbani, an orphanage for children with HIV.  We had the good fortune of meeting the director, the charismatic and soulful, Sister Mary, who is truly doing God’s work here in Kenya.  Nyumbani is a magical place, so well organized, clean, and obviously run with a lot of love.  The kids greeted us with a song and smiles, and then gave us a tour of the grounds. Then Sister Mary announced she had arranged for the boys and I to visit one of their HIV clinics, this one in the center of Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa.

Yikes, I thought. Kibera? Is it dangerous for the kids?  Can we catch something?  Are there kidnappings?  She assured me that if we were accompanied by the clinic’s social workers, we would be fine.

We took the ride across town that would, once again, change our prospective forever.  The driver said it was better to not bring the camera with us, but that he would stop outside of the slum, for us to take a picture.

As we descended the dusty road, there it was. The famed Kibera slums… so unique, so surreal.  Almost unbelievable, it felt like a backdrop on the lot at 20th Century Fox.  Miles and miles of rusted tin shacks for as far as the eye could see.  A wasteland… a village for those unable to afford better, a haven of need and disease, and sometimes violence.  A township of sewage-seeping creeks flowing through its narrow alleyways.  The stench for a ‘westerner” is unbearable, though the locals seem to take no notice.

We arrived at the HIV clinic to be met by a staff of diligent workers who offered us a soda. They gave us a tour of their small facility in need of repair, it’s sole mission: to save lives. The clinic sees patients, does testing for HIV, administers medication and treatment, and deals with other life-threatening issues such as TB, Malnutrition, Cholera, Typhoid…etc.   I’m in awe of their bravery and commitment.

The director of the clinic asked if we would feel comfortable doing rounds with two of the social workers.  We agreed and began our trek through the alleyways of the “Tin City”.  As we walked down the narrow alleys, children smiled, especially interested in Jackson and Buck.  When I said, “Jambo”, or “Hibari”, they responded with surprise… Wow, this Muzungo (what they call Caucasian people) knows Kiswahili (the Swahili language)!

We arrived at our first location and pushed back a soiled sheet that doubled as a front door.  There, in a dimly lit room roughly the size of a backyard shed, sat six woman in traditional dress, two holding infants.  Jackson, Buck and I were introduced to the family and my “Hibari” seemed to impress them and make them smile, with a response of “Karibu”… meaning “welcome”.

We sat on a shabby sofa and instantly five or six kids appeared with curiosity at the curtained door.  One little girl came in, stared at me in amazement, and then sat on my lap. I felt strangely at ease and part of this life for a moment.  She then proceeded to wet herself.  Normally, I would have stood and commented, but somehow I didn’t feel it appropriate.  Instead, I gently sat her down next to me and made no notice of my wet pant legs.

The next home, down a dank alleyway, housed a quite attractive, thin woman and her child with HIV.  The woman looked tired and we were told she was suffering from TB. I nonchalantly steered Jack and Buck clear of her, not knowing if she was contagious, and, in a panic, went through the checklist of our inoculations in my head. The child, in addition to having HIV, was diagnosed, then and there, with malnutrition.  I asked our social worker how they came to that determination and she showed me the child’s swollen cheeks and an indentation on the top of each of her feet… a telling sign.  The mother was instructed to bring the child to the clinic on Monday, this being Friday.  My pushy American upbringing piped in, “But can’t they see her later today?”, to which our guide smiled knowingly and said that the clinic opens again on Monday.

I put myself in the place of that mom with TB, or the kids with HIV… we are all just one step away from any of these experiences.   Luck of the draw… I could have been born in Kibera… or the slums of Mumbai…  we are all these people.   And this isn’t just flowery exposition; it’s what I feel deeply.  And when I’m there in the middle of it, there is such a strong connection to all of it.

The rest of the day we witnessed similar experiences… checking in on kids and their caretakers.  As my sons and I walked through this daunting world, I thanked God for giving us the opportunity to experience it. We would head back to our accommodation that evening exhausted both physically and emotionally.  Kibera will stay with us a lifetime and I have vowed to return and do what I can to help there.  I applaud Sister Mary, and the like, for all they do, on a daily basis, to make a huge difference.

The next day, we left Nairobi and headed west to the town of Kisii, where we teamed up with SCOPE founder, Don Howard.  I was asked to run an acting workshop for 6 different schools in the area, as they were preparing for a national theater arts competition.   The 3-day workshop was held at a small hotel, (more of a motel, really).  The kids were invited by SCOPE to stay at the inn for the entire workshop (2 nights).  It was the first time that the majority of these kids had slept away from home, let alone spent a night in a hotel.  By our western standards it was quite funky, but by Kisii standards it was first class.  The kids loved it.

The workshop started in its normal tentative manner… the kids shy and staring at the floor, having difficulty sharing their names loud enough for anyone to hear. But as some of you know, God gave me the gift of being a “goof-ball” and the un-canny ability to rile people up… so by the middle of the first day, I had the kids jumping around and having a great time.

After a day of getting acquainted, the next morning, the real work began… writing the beginnings of original works for them to present at the competition.  With such a short time, we weren’t going to be able to write an entire play, but I felt I could at least get them started.





I encouraged the students to pick subjects that excited them.  In Kenya, kids are a bit trained to say what they think the adults want to hear.  Children are definitely seen and not heard in Africa.  So their first suggestions seemed a bit canned. And after I blew the roof off that, we got down to business.  They wanted to write plays about political corruption, and lack of latrines at school, and illegal child labor, and my favorite “Why It’s Important To Have FUN”.  That particular play would include the music of Bob Marley.  Yeehaw!

Each school got together and through improv and throwing ideas around, we came up with some amazing work.  And the best part, the kids were having a blast doing it!  They were the writers; they were the directors, the real artists.   I, with the help of Jackson and Buck, managed to just keep them on track.

The weekend ended with a five-minute performance from each group… each inspiring, each moving.  And these kids!!!  These kids were coming out vocally, having the time of their lives, and performing their heads off.  It’s makes this kind of work so magical and gratifying.   And I don’t care what anyone says, “Art Makes A Huge Freakin’ Difference In The World!!!”

After the weekend, lead by Don and his team, we got to visit each of the schools that had participated in the weekend.  Quite a schedule…  Six schools in 4 days.

Jackson, Buck, and I were able to check out all the different school that the kids were from.  The buildings and classrooms were mostly concrete rooms with no windows and wooden, 3-kids to a wooden desk set ups, with a blackboard that was just painted on the cement wall.

Most of these schools were in desperate need of the basic necessities…   latrines, books, supplies, water, sanitary napkins for the teen girls, and a meals program.  That is were SCOPE comes in.  They are helping each of these schools, (they represent at this point, 42 schools), with self-sustainable projects that will help them meet the needs of their schools.  Projects like building libraries, digging wells and harvesting water off the roofs into large gathering containers, creating gardens, and also planting trees, that in 5 to 6 years they can harvest for timber to sell to fund more projects.  We were able to participate in a tree planting ceremony, which was a lot of fun.   SCOPE’s goal is to have these people, these schools, and these communities, help themselves, and not just rely on gifts and donations.

It was nice to see all our friends from the workshop in their village schools.  They all came up to the Jackson, Buck, and I excited to see us again.  Buck had the honor of handing out new soccer balls to all of the schools…. So basically he was a major Rock Star!

And the students performed their pieces for their entire schools while we were there….  200 to 500 kids to a school.  It really was powerful to experience. Afterwards, Jackson, Buck and I just ran around with the kids all over the schools playing and laughing.

This is living.  This is the real deal.  It’s not a shopping spree at the mall, it’s not a bonus at work, or an Emmy Award, or a cocktail party, or a hot date, or a Hawaiian Vacation, or a day at the spa. And I’m not saying those things don’t sound appealing… Jackson, Buck and I are living in the elements.  It’s “lowest common denominator” stuff.  It’s joy on a level so organic, I find myself wanting to cry a lot.  And to scream to the world, “What’s up, people? Wake up!  It’s time…. Let’s do something!  Let’s do the Dance”…. And then I have to remind myself, that we come to what we come to, when we come to it…. And my experience has me in that mode right now, while others think I’m a bit over zealous.   When you see it first hand, it makes it real.

And then the good-byes to my actors, my friends, my buddies, my partners in art….

Oh wait, one last story…  When the schools were introducing themselves at the beginning of the workshop, there was a rather tall, quite awkward girl who could hardly muster up the sound when it was time to say her name, let alone look up from the floor.  “Ruth”.   Ruth wasn’t all that comfortable in her body, but there was something…. I don’t know, just something unique about her.  Her soul spoke to me.  And I felt led to use her as an example.  I said, “Ruth, you are so beautiful, smart and unique… Do you know that?”  She looked at the floor.  “You know, I’ve worked with a lot of actors in my day, and you have something special…you do.  Something cool… And you have an amazing face”.  She managed a look up at me for a moment.  “I think you are going to go on and do great things in the world.  I mean that.”   I meant it and still do.  And then I said, “Ruth, there’s a lot of power in you.  You have to allow yourself to be heard.  When you speak up, you give people the Gift….  The gift of you…  We get to experience how cool you are…. But when you whisper and look at the floor, you keep it for yourself.”  “Ruth, the world needs the gift that you have to offer…. And it’s not doing much good down there on the floor, so next time you have to speak, dig deep, even if you’re a little scared and come up with the gift. Okay?”

She nodded and we moved on… Throughout the workshop, I keep being drawn to her and always made a point to say what great work she was doing and how cool I thought she was.  Well, I don’t need to finish the story…. (And yes, that’s a picture of Ruth and I!)

When we visited her at her school, she came right up to me with this real sense of herself.  I was floored.  She said in a big, bold voice, “Jambo, J.D., This is my school.”   It’s like something woke up in her.  And maybe I got to be the messenger for that particular “wake-up call”.  All I know is that it meant more to me, than to her.  Damn it, I made some sort of difference in a small village in the mountains of western Kenya and I’m proud of it.

I give my grandmother credit for my Ruth moment.  She used to sit me on her knee when I was little and in the midst of the worst childhood imaginable, she would say, “You are going to go on to do great things in the world.  You are!”    And heck maybe I am…  No, for sure, I am!

After good-byes to our students, our friends from the states, Bo and Ed arrived to meet us here in Kenya. It’s nice to be able to experience some of this first-hand, with people that we love from home.  Plus they adore my sons, and quite frankly, after seven straight months on the road with my sons, it’s nice to get a break…

Before heading back to Nairobi, our driver, Sammy, took us on a game drive through the Masai Mara. Amazing!  We saw lions, giraffes, gazelles, hippos, warthogs, hyenas, and tons of other animals…. And also just the beauty of the Masai Mara of Kenya that stretches from here to eternity.

I’m currently on a plane to South Africa… It’s late.  I’m tired but I’m thankful.  Thankful for my kids, my life, the experiences that we are having, the ability to help others, the friends I have and the new ones we are making along this mystical journey, and all the support that you all have given us and our project.  Okay, I’m sitting here crying in my aisle seat…luckily it’s a night flight and most everyone’s asleep.

And one last thing I have to mention before I post this.  I’m sending all my love to my dear friend, Marc Cittadino, who lost his brother to cancer this week.  We love you, Marc and Jenna and we are hurting for you.

All a reminder to live in the moment, each day, each moment.  More adventures to follow in South Africa.










Posted by JD in Kenya, 17 comments

The Magical Mystery Tour Continues!!!

Our magical mystery tour continues to take us away!!! I guess I can’t expect anyone to really understand the experience we are having.  I’m not sure I understand the impact fully myself.  All I know is that it is deep, spiritual, profound and it has changed the lives of The Lewis Boys.

Since our last blog, we had the Art Festival at Creative Solutions, the school where the boys and I have been working in Mangapwani, Zanzibar.

What a great time!  Jackson and I were in charge of the children’s games.   We filled coke bottles up with sand and had a bean-bag toss to knock them off a pedestal.  We also had jam jars that you had to toss bottle caps into to win prizes.  The kids loved it.

There was amazing local art, performance and dance, face painting and food.  The villagers from all around came from near and far to participate.  

The sense of community was like my memories of summer camp.  Lots of interaction, conversation, laughter, games, food, stories and more.  And then it was late evening and it was over….  Fun was had by all.  We slept well that night under our protective mosquito nets, having eaten our fill and done the dance.


Saying good-bye to my class at Creative Solution was once again excruciating.  I had learned to love each and every one of them.  We were and are a family.  We have shared our life stories with each other, our struggles, our victories, laughed our heads off and, all the while, I did my best to teach them English…. And they in turn, taught me some Swahili.


The warm nights sitting around big wooden tables in open-air huts quizzing my eager pupils on the names of the continents, action verbs, and adjectives will stay in my heart for years to come.  And you know what?  We never finished class on time…ever.   We always ran over and we didn’t want it to end.  Most of them lived miles away and would walk home by foot at 11pm at night.  I would go to bed exhausted but so incredibly satisfied with a renewed sense of purpose.


I took a day off and went into Stone Town.   Mbarouk, our fearless leader, visionary, and man I am happy to call my friend,  took me into to town on the back of his scooter.  It takes about 1 hour…. On dirt roads through some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen.  He introduced me to his mother who lives in the center of Stone Town in a small concrete home… though she and I couldn’t speak each other’s language, we “got each other” and she made me laugh and I adored her.



I managed to get a box shipped home and ran a few errands for the school and then went on an adventure through the narrow alleys of historical Stone Town.

It was a hub for the slave trade back in the day and has an “old world” feel.  Little carts and tiny shops selling spices, fruits, vegetables, art and souvenirs…  All with an ocean breeze and wonderfully kind people smiling and trying to speak English with you.


Jackson misses the ocean…. Jumping off huge rocks into the waves…  He misses his nursery school class that each morning pounced on him… and pulled his hair and hugged on him and made him laugh constantly.

And Buck misses the cats, the chickens, the puppies, collecting bottle caps, getting up early and hanging out with his pal, Mbarouk. He misses Marina, Asha, and Margaret and his pal, Kibopa.


We all miss our friend, Kibopa…the coolest guy.  He is the main English teacher there, and an artist in his own right, from the mainland of Tanzania.  He will be a life-long friend for sure.  He took the time with the boys and I to explain so much of the Tanzanian culture to us.  He had also lived in America so he was familiar with our world as well.  He cooked great french fries from scratch and helped both Jack and Buck with homework.  We had the great pleasure of meeting his daughter Marina, as well.  She came over from the mainland to hang with her dad and us.  She is an amazing artist and a blast to be around.


Also Margaret… the girl with all the joy!   The maker of puppets and a great actress who did a performance at the Art Festival that nearly made me wet my pants.  Thanks for making every day fun and energetic.  We miss you yelling… “J.D….. Jambo… Habari!”.  And Asha and Khamis…. We miss you guys too!

And another honorable mention…. One of my favorite students, Mr. Abdollah.  What an amazing man.  He’s the man who showed up each night most prepared and ready to work.  He invited Jack and I to go visit his Bee Farm.  We donned our bee outfits and visited the hives in the swampy beach forest.  It was remarkable… then a tour of his local school, the beach where he and his family opened fresh coconuts with knives and offered us refreshing coconut milk, and then back to his home where his entire family greeted us with a sit down snack of delicious food laid out traditionally on mats on the floor in their home.  So cool.

Thank you, Mr. Abdollah.  I was so fortunate to spend time with this man who works so hard in his community to make a difference, runs a large family and still had the time and energy to come to English class a few miles away for his house.  You are the best.

Our Zanzibar memories are so embedded  deeply in our hearts.  Talk about “The Love Revolution”.  We couldn’t have been made to feel more welcome.  The good news is Creative Solutions, Mbarouk, Kibopa, Marina, Margaret and the rest…. We will all see each other again, that much I know.  It is most certainly not our last outing to Zanzibar.


After tearful good byes, we headed to the mainland of Tanzania to spend a few days off for Xmas… just the boys and I.  We had originally made a reservation at a hotel on a little island off the coast of Bagamoyo.  Imagine our surprise when we arrived to find that they were overbooked and didn’t honor our reservation.  And just a day before Christmas.  Arghhh…  Shame on the Lazy Lagoon!!

But knowing that the North Pole had an eye on us and feeling certain that we were on “The Nice List”,  we were lead by the North Star to great accommodation at the Traveler’s Lodge on the beach in Bagamoyo.  It ended up being perfect and Santa Claus managed to find us nonetheless.


We went and visited 13th century ruins and walked around Bagamoyo, a little beach village.  The boys and I met up with some of the local artists in the village and they showed Buck and Jack the ropes of Tanzanian wood carving. Very cool!   The Christmas spirit prevailed even though being in a Muslim country, there was little Yule tide décor.


Now we have arrived in Nairobi and have been swept away to Kisii  (western Kenya) where we have joined Don Howard of Rotary International to work with students from 8 different schools in the area.  But that’s the next blog by week’s end.

Also, next week, we are being visited by our dear friends (more like family, really), Uncle Bo and Uncle Ed. They are coming from Charlotte to meet us here in Nairobi and then we will continue on with them to Cape Town, South Africa to continue our work at an HIV orphanage.  Very excited.  It will be nice to see some of our local tribesmen and apparently they are bringing us some “western world” supplies…. like Aleve, Clif Bars, etc.

Know that we are safe, missing the homeland, wishing you all a very happy, healthy New Year and we will see you later in 2012!   Let the spirit of giving be on your list of New Year’s Resolutions….  Help some one near or far…. There’s a world out here who are in  desperate need  of a helping hand.   Let me know if you need suggestions.   I’ve got tons!!!!  Love you all.

Oh!   Watch out for The Parade Magazine next week, they are doing an article on us in their up-coming issue… and check out our interview on NPR.  (We are the 2nd half of the show.)

Thank you for all your support!  The New Year has amazing things in store!  xxjd







Posted by JD in Tanzania, 9 comments