Dr. Andy Baldwin, Kenya - Michael Chitwood
I'm going to take you all back to Africa for one more important story today. I wrote this on the plane back to New York, but the minute I landed it was all ING NY Marathon for the next 72 hours! So before I wrap these field reports up, I want to make sure I share what was one of the most moving moments of my journey. If all you have today is a minute, take a moment to watch this. If you have a few more, take a moment to read this story.
After spending several days and running a marathon through crowded Nairobi, I was looking forward to getting back to rural Kenya. Don’t get me wrong, Nairobi has its pluses, but I’ve determined I’m more of a farm boy at heart. I was raised in the cornfields of Amish country, Lancaster, PA, you know...
Getting back to rural Kenya also meant getting to see my sponsored child Cosmas again. It had been about 17 months since I had first met Cosmas, then five years old, in the very remote and mountainous area called Bartabwa. What I remembered most clearly about this area was the extremely long, bumpy, and sometimes treacherous ride it took to get there. My coccyx especially remembers. But those who brave the drive are rewarded with one of the most breathtaking views in the world. I’m grateful that although in extreme poverty, my "son" lives in such a beautiful place. When I was introduced to Cosmas last year, he was initially scared to death of me. I think I was the first white person he had ever seen.
As we loaded into the truck this year, I hoped that Cosmas would greet me with a smile. I had a very special soccer ball for him called the "One World Ball." This blue ball cannot deflate; its design ensures that it is constantly inflated without needing a pump. The ball is made out of very durable material that will hold up even with play on rocks or barbed wire.
The genius behind the creation of the ball recognized the power of a simple soccer ball to promote peace and joy in impoverished and war-torn areas of the world. The only problem was that the lifespan of a soccer ball was slim to none after it encountered a rock, and in these areas they do not have air pumps at the ready. He approached the artist Sting to see if he would finance a project to create the ball, and Sting agreed. I carted the inflated ball in my luggage all throughout Kenya the past several weeks, wanting to ensure it found its new home at Cosmas’ school.
This time we drove back to the Rift Valley. With tired legs and eager hearts, the ten of us weathered the five-plus hour drive to our resting spot in the Kerio Valley at the African Inland Church. It was the majority of the group's first time in the Rift Valley and I enjoyed just watching their faces light up as we moved through Kenya’s "Grand Canyon." No matter how many photos you see, nothing can compare to seeing this wonder in person, especially at sunrise or sunset.
Michael Chitwood and I rode side by side in the trunk of one of the Land Cruisers. We had had a blast in this area last year, along with elite marathon runners Josh Cox and Joshua Chelanga. Chitwood had the idea of creating Team World Vision five years ago while on a 100-mile Ironman triathlon training bike ride. He had gone through some recent personal tragedies in losing both his father and his brother. He had hit rock bottom and, as he tells it, “God came to him” on this bike ride and told him to pursue a program whereby athletes could train and do an endurance athletic event and help the poor in Africa.
With this vision, Michael has now established a team internationally that raises close to $3 million dollars annually to provide health care, clean water, education, and security to thousands of children worldwide. Michael is a man of his word, and someone I hold in high esteem. Across his back in tattoo ink he has his mission written boldly: "Help the Poor." As we were bumping along on this dirt road, occasionally hitting our heads hard on the roof, I told him how proud of him I am and fortunate I am to have him as a friend. This guy motivates me.
Today’s journey would take us through a large 250km loop through the Kerio Valley. The first portion travels along the Kerio River to the border of the Bartabwa area where our teammates' sponsored children were located. We would spend the morning there, and then make the dangerous rocky climb to the eastern escarpment to the area of Bartabwa where Cosmas lives and goes to school.
Last year when I visited Bartabwa and met Cosmas for the first time, we received a warm reception with singing from the elders and some ugali and fresh cow’s milk at one of the children’s homes. This is what I expected again from this visit, but upon reaching the initial school, I was blown away. We could hear the children singing from almost a kilometer away. It was beautiful.
"Visitors, you are welcome," we heard in unison to the beat of a drum, and as we turned the corner onto a dirt path we saw a sea of blue uniforms, hundreds of children, hundreds of smiles. It was one of those moments where you had been enduring a tough path to get somewhere and then your senses are overtaken with incredible joy and purity. An overwhelming sense of love and welcome — that’s the only way I can describe it. I’ve never been so relaxed in my life.
The chiefs, the elders, the children, they all greeted us with glee and were even more excited when I rattled off some Kalenjin language to them. Chemge! (Hello!) In usual fashion, there was the Kenyan formality of introducing the leaders of the area and having them each say some words of thanks. The guest book was passed around and our entries made. The sponsored children were called forward and introduced to their sponsors.
It can evoke an odd feeling to be meeting a child for the first time with their guardians, sometimes even their mother and father present, but to this family a sponsor means the difference between a life of hope versus a life comparable to a death sentence. To them, we were the richest people in the world, and a symbol of hope. Yet despite the presence of such wealth, there was absolutely no move towards stealing, or sense of entitlement from these people.
This is a stark contrast to what many of us have experienced at home in the United States or in many other countries riddled with crime. I recall last year bringing Cosmas a doll made of beads and he smiled and played with it for many minutes during our visit, and then at the end of our time together, he handed it back to me, signaling, "This is yours, not mine, thank you for letting me play with it." I remember being shocked at the level of understanding of what is and is not yours.
"That is yours, man!" and I also handed him an American flag which he waved this way and that. At the same time Cosmas’ aunt gave me an intricately handwoven basket full of their stable crop of millet. In the face of having virtually nothing, she went out of her way to give me something from her culture. The last image I have in my mind is of a smiling Cosmas waving an American flag, with dust being blown around him.
All around me, my teammates were meeting their sponsored children for the first time, and showering them with gifts. Cameras snapped away, capturing these moments, these smiles. The students at the school, many of them having sponsors, many of them lacking sponsors, stood by singing, totally supportive of their community brothers' and sisters' good fortune. This meant hope for them that one day too they may have someone sponsor them, for just $35 a month, a drop in the bucket for most, but the difference between being able to fulfill a dream of becoming a doctor, a farmer, to have a life of joy, versus one of constant struggle in poverty.
I felt a tug at my pant leg. Looking down I saw a sweet little girl, probably about three years old, holding onto my trousers, smiling at me. I bent down and she grasped onto my forearm. She petted it, rubbed it, mesmerized by the white skin. "It doesn’t rub off," I said. "It’s skin just like you have." I grabbed some M&Ms out of my pocket and handed her some. She looked at them not knowing what to do. I took some and threw them in my mouth and chewed. "Like that," I said. She hesitantly did the same, and soon the smile grew even wider. Chocolate is very hard to come by in rural Kenya, so it is possible this was the first chocolate this girl had ever had.
Imagine having the taste of chocolate on your palate for the first time. Yum! I grabbed my camera and took a photo of this little girl, and then turned the camera around and showed her a photo of herself. She giggled. Others joined into the fun and soon there was a picture take-and-show session full of laughing children. I pulled out my iPod and let one of the young boys listen to some tunes. He obviously had never experienced this before because as soon as the ear buds were in his ears and music was playing he jumped back in shock. I said it’s okay in Kalenjin and demonstrated a little dance. The children followed suit. It was so much fun!
Even some of the grandmothers of the group joined in. One of my teammates, Greg, had brought a soccer ball for the kids, and soon the hundreds of kids were engaged in a haphazard game of soccer, laughing and running, jockeying for the ball. Soon it was a bunch of big, burly white guys sore from a marathon trying to keep up with the energetic youth.
We wrapped things up with the morning group. It was hard to leave them. The children trailed after our vehicles, running and waving goodbye. I spotted some tears on the cheeks of one of my friends; she was overcome with emotion. To sponsor a child is a blessing, to get to meet them in person is priceless.
Michael warned our crew about the rough terrain it took to get to the next area of Bartabwa, but I don’t think they were quite prepared for the severity and length of the journey. For the next two hours we inched along over boulders and sheer cliffs, getting a core abdominal workout like none other. Upon a stop for some vomits, we heard the crack of thunder ahead of us in the direction we were headed. Just then the sky opened up and rain came down.
When it rains on these dirt roads, it means slip-and-slide terror, and most likely no escape. We were all in Land Cruisers and the drivers got out and switched the wheels to four-wheel drive. We approached an embankment and despite the four-wheel drive began to fishtail and slide into a steep drop-off. I thought we were going to tip over. The wheels spun out, and the driver yelled for us to get out quickly. We all opened our doors and dove for safety into the mud. It was an adventure. With lighter weight on the tires we stood in the rain and mud, trying to push with all of our might to get the Land Cruiser out of the rut. Finally we were able to budge it and save it from going over the cliff. Phew! I’m glad I had my combat boots on.Luckily I would live to see Cosmas again. We descended the muddy road to Cosmas’ school and were greeted by a crowd of kids and elders even bigger than the school group in the morning. They were singing the most beautiful songs. A line of grandmothers (called "GoGos" in Kalenjin) were front and center to present us with wreaths made out of thick grass. They put them around our necks and stated that the rain was God’s way of blessing our visit. They said it was God weeping that we had come. Well, I suppose that’s a positive way of looking at it, I thought. I wonder what they would have said if we had gone over the cliff and not made it.
The elders and chiefs took turns making their welcoming remarks and I scanned the large crowd of children looking for my son Cosmas (I list him as my son on Facebook). When it was MIchael’s turn to speak I asked him if I could make an announcement after him. "Sure thing, bro!" he said. I went forward with the indestructible One World ball and called the school headmaster forward and asked if Cosmas was in the audience.
Proudly, I saw a much older and mature little boy with a great big smile work his way forward through the crowd. “Cosmas!” I screamed! He was smiling! I presented the One World ball to him and announced that the whole school would benefit from the ball. Everyone was very happy. We broke up the group and I followed Cosmas and his brothers and sisters to their home.
Cosmas had run ahead and when I arrived he was at the entrance to his mud hut waving the American flag that I had given him last year. The flag was upside down; undoubtedly it had fallen apart and he reattached it upside down. I chuckled to myself. The USA is upside down in many ways, I thought. If only people back home would take the time to venture to Africa and experience this joy one can bring to someone with so little.
I was so overcome by joy and surprised that Cosmas still had this flag, that I broke down in tears. Cosmas hugged me tight and looked at me with a huge smile. He showed me where he lived, where he slept on the floor, where they went to the bathroom (outside in the dirt). We retraced the several kilometers it took to get the water every day. I had gone with Cosmas last year to get dirty water; however, from the year before further water sanitation projects with World Vision Funding had been put in place, and we were witnessing the results. The entire community followed us down to the water project and again broke out in song and dancing praising God for all the blessings that clean water brings: health, sanitation, disease prevention, education, hope.
Cosmas and I took turns drinking from the spring and throwing the water up in the air to rejoice. Back up the hill we went, Cosmas on my shoulders. We were a team now, Cosmas and I. Cosmas whispered to me, the first words he has said to me. "Labat." I recognized the Kalenjin word for "run." You want to run? I made the running motion. He nodded yes. I smiled. And with that we broke into a full out run up the hill, of course with this young Kalenjin boy barefoot, leaving me in the dust.
That’s my boy, Cosmas. God bless this community!
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