“A fat-cheeked baby smiled from his place on a folded blanket. He wore a red knit beanie and at least three layers of clothing. His mother taught arithmetic in a quiet, confident voice to a group of about 30 preschool children. They crowded together in ramshackle wooden desks.
One little girl with short-cropped hair answered a question correctly and stood up to dance while receiving the praise of her classmates in a song:
‘Well done, well done! Try again another day, a very good girl!’
I was there to observe this classroom in Bungoma, Kenya as the Kenyan Programs Director for the nonprofit Christian Relief Fund. My work at that moment was to witness the education of the preschool-aged children, but my eyes lingered on the baby. He was a part of the class, accepted by the children and content in his own place on a mat on the ground. In this school, the teacher kept her baby with her each day. If he fussed, she smiled at him and crooned a few words before resuming her lesson. During breaks, she breastfed.
My schoolteacher back in Texas certainly never dandled a baby on her hip as she taught. A teacher might be paid to handle other people’s children, but her own were relegated to daycare. And yet, in this Kenyan classroom, the children accepted their infant classmate without reservation and simply continued to learn; a few tenderly brushed their hands across his curls before leaving the room for recess.
For over six years I have worked with the Kenyan programs at Christian Relief Fund. I was a college intern before that and a wide-eyed volunteer when I was still in high school. The mission of CRF has always resonated with me: to provide for children holistically, largely through child sponsorship. I sponsored my first child when I was in the 9th grade. I offered up a portion of my allowance to my parents if we could help send a child to school. Her name is Lavin. I met her in person for the first time two years later when I was 16 and she was 12. I saw her through the end of her education, and we still keep in touch.
I love CRF. I love the opportunity to work as a bridge-maker, to help sponsors become advocates for individual children who thrive when their voices are amplified. Education changes everything for a child.
From 15 years of age, I was determined that I would work for CRF. I kept a singular focus on my goal through college, going on no more than a handful of dates. I worried a romantic relationship would blur my mission. I was uncertain if I would ever meet someone who understood why I cared so much about this work, but I assumed that, like a jigsaw puzzle, if I did find someone, he would fit into my life in a way that wouldn’t break apart my dreams.
In 2015 I took the job I always wanted: the director over the Kenyan programs of CRF. I advocated for the needs of vulnerable children, but I also tried to be a sponge, to listen and learn from anyone I tried to help. While I do get to travel as part of my work, much of it is less glamorous and from a desk: communicating with people through a nine-hour time difference, working through lists of thousands of children’s names, and constantly learning about the quirks of intercultural communication.
One glaringly hot day in 2015 in the Nyalenda slum, I met a 4 year old girl named Eunice whose brown eyes were aged by long-term malnutrition. Her mother was barely 19 and white-haired, weighing less than 70 pounds, and in the end stages of HIV/AIDS. Extended family had rejected them due to the stigma surrounding the virus, and so Eunice, her mother, and her great-grandmother survived on a single grocery bag of beans and maize each month provided by the CRF-supported AIDS clinic in the area. I was staggered by this story and personally sponsored Eunice to go to school. ‘Caroline,’ I told her mother, ‘I promise your daughter will have an education. I promise you she will not have to go hungry anymore.’ I worked with Caroline so she could be ready to start a business selling chips in the market after she grew stronger. Caroline gained weight and began walking again. New hope quirked in her half-smile. Eunice thrived as her mother recovered.
And then, suddenly, Caroline died.
Two weeks later I flew to Kisumu. Eunice stood waiting for me at the airport. She held a paper sign that said, ‘Karibu, Emily.’ She spent the next two nights in my hotel room, sleeping in a bed for the first time in her life, and I worked with local directors to figure out the best place for her to live. As a cultural sign of respect, someone addressed me that week as Mama Eunice.
Kenya has strict international adoption laws. I will never be Eunice’s mother. She is under the custody of both the Ringroad Orphan’s Day School and that of her elderly, sassy great-grandmother. But I love Eunice and hope to be a part of her life forever. And soon after this, in part thanks to Eunice, I made the first connection with my future husband.
We met on a dating app, which I never thought would work. One of my photos was of myself and Eunice; she was tied to my back with a Kenyan leso. ‘Is that your sister?’ was the first question Lance asked me. I was tickled by the suggestion.
‘As a matter of fact, we aren’t related,’ I teased him, although of course he was wondering if she had been adopted. When I explained that Eunice lives in Kenya, Lance told me he went to high school in Kijabe. This brought me pause. My dating history, although brief, was marked by first dates with people who were absolutely disinterested in traveling internationally… or who were awkwardly ‘inspired’ by my work but had no true desire to visit or to learn. Someone on an obscure dating app claiming to have lived there was a new conversation.
It turned out he was telling the truth. Lance grew up in East Africa with his family, mainly in Tanzania, but he spent a portion of his high school years at a boarding school in the Rift Valley of Kenya. His parents still live in East Africa and work as missionaries there.
Our romance was a whirlwind. We met in February and were married in August, 2017. In 2018 we traveled to East Africa together for a month. Lance visited Kenya with me and got to see the CRF schools and meet the people I so love – and I traveled to Tanzania with him to stay at his family home and learn more about the country that raised him up. That puzzle piece I never was sure I would find fit perfectly into my life’s dreams.
Fast-forward to 2021 and we have two beautiful children only 15 months apart. Avia is my almost 2 year old ball of sunshine and fire. Malachi is easy-going and quiet-natured. Between two pregnancies wrought with hyperemesis gravidarum and a worldwide pandemic, my international travel has paused, but my passions have not changed.
Parenting two babies is a different kind of adventure from the ones I have known previously. I have ridden in a groaning matatu as it strained up the side of a steep mountain, uncertain if I would make it back down in one piece… but it’s an entirely different kind of challenge to navigate explosive toddler emotions and finicky eaters.
Kindness and patience in the way I parent are important to me. I have learned this from my friends in Kenya, who like to say, ‘Americans have watches, but Africans have time.’ There are mornings I want to lift my slow-moving toddler over my shoulder and carry her squalling out the back door because we have things to do and places to go. But things will move slowly no matter how much of my rush, so I might as well smile and enjoy this time. After all, who knows how many mornings of baby chatter and color-sorting wooden rings on the floor we have left?
Patience means showing kindness to babies on their best days and their worst days and their in-between days. It looks like pausing my schedule to sit on the floor with Avia when she’s figuring out big feelings. Or by reading a book for the thousandth time when I would prefer to finish the dishes. Patience looks like allowing my daughter to loop her arm through the laundry basket handle and drag it slowly along with me. ‘Thank you for helping me,’ I tell her, even though the trip takes twice as long this way.
Like the teacher I met years ago who kept her baby with her in her classroom as she taught, I have tried to bring inclusivity and flexibility into my balance of work and parenting. Part of the time I work from home, often with one baby strapped to my chest and the other working on puzzles on the floor. They are not a hindrance to my productivity. They are used to my daily work. Avia pauses her play and points to the photos of sponsored children on my computer screen. ‘Baby,’ she says about each child. ‘Hi, baby.’
One day, Lance and I will bring our children internationally with us so they can see the places we cherish. We want them to visit their grandparents’ home in East Africa, leaving their mark of handprints and giggles. But until that day comes, we Facetime their Bibi and Babu and learn together at home. Malachi clutches stuffed animals made by Kenyan artisans from colorful kitenge cloth. Avia has a wooden peg doll in traditional clothing. Every day, we wave goodbye to a small statue of an African woman that sits in our entryway. She carries a bundle on her head and a baby is wrapped to her back – a symbol of strength and the beauty in motherhood. ‘Mothers everywhere are beautiful and strong,’ I tell Avia.
There is only so much a baby can really learn about a different place across the world. The best way I try to cultivate that passion in my children is to teach the broader lessons I have also gained from my travels to Kenya. Warmth and hospitality to everyone we meet. A love for wildlife. Steady patience when things take a long time.
We sponsored two children the same age as Avia and Malachi who they will meet one day. Our kids will grow up with, what I hope will be, a better understanding of their own privilege and the significance of creating a voice for vulnerable children. While I always want to emphasize that there is so much more in East Africa than poverty, there is poverty there. There is a need for support. With my work at CRF, I try to bring hope to children who have had many of their choices taken from them.
My children won the global lottery when it comes to privilege. They have both parents who love them. They work in a playroom filled with toys and puzzles. They will have unlimited access to education when they are older. With that privilege will come responsibility. I hope to show them that they need to stand up for the rights of people rendered voiceless, in East Africa and also in the United States where we live.
For now, our international travel is limited. I continue to mother two babies, doing my best like we all are to cultivate kindness and compassion in my children.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Emily Bell from Amarillo, Texas. You can follow her journey on Instagram and sponsor a child here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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