February 15, 2014
Nyumbani: The Missing Generation
War, disease, and poverty, the triple-headed killer that stalks Africa, rears its head constantly in the regular news that those of us on the sidelines watch. The interaction between these three deadly forces exacerbates the problems. War inevitably leads to disease and poverty. Poverty itself can lead to civil and cross border struggles, and diseases like AIDS leave huge numbers of orphaned and desperately poor children. Charities and appeals have their place and too often there is a “sudden” crisis that in reality has frequently taken years to come to a head that hits the headlines, demanding our attention. The term compassion overload gets thrown about at these times, indicating that the impact of crisis coverage and appeals in generating support from the public is limited. The real work of tackling the devastated lives and communities on the ground goes on in countless projects long after the big news stories get relegated.
One such project is Nyumbani Village. Located about three hours from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, Nyumbani is a man-made village set up specifically to bring together two generations, young children orphaned by AIDS and older bereaved grandparents, in an attempt to improve the lives of both. Sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to be home to 70 percent of global AIDS sufferers and a similar proportion of AIDS-related deaths. Not only does this high morbidity and mortality rate have a direct impact on those families affected, it has a serious effect on local and national schools, workplaces, and economies, as well as placing huge demands on health services. In Nyumbani there are few people aged between 18 and 50, and those are the teachers who work at the two village schools. In a bold experiment, Nyumbani is trying to allow its residents to live full lives without the “missing generation” of parents lost to AIDS, the very people who would have brought up the children and done the work needed to help their households to survive.
The children live with their new parents – the bereaved grandparents – in houses that cluster round the center of the village. Each house has its own water tank and each group of houses has its own vegetable plot, in addition to which the village has its own farm using modern farming methods. The intention is that the residents will be as self-sufficient as possible in food, at least, although there is mutually beneficial trade between Nyumbani and other local villages. Because Nyumbani and its farmland are huge, there used to be a problem with theft of produce. With typical Nyumbani lateral thinking, the solution was found by giving away plots of land to surrounding villages and buying back any surplus. Those neighbors who used to steal now work and protect the land. They have become a human fence and friends to Nyumbani.
Having shelter and enough food and water is a great improvement for these children, but too often the provision of these essentials elsewhere comes in the form of communal living without any kind of normal, stable home environment. Many such orphanages exist in Kenya, often in large, school-like buildings with dormitory sleeping arrangements and more often than not, these are a long way from the children’s home villages. By placing them with the older generation, the children of Nyumbani are able to live near the villages where they were born and be brought up in a traditional environment where cultural and family links can be nurtured. Each grandparent looks after around 10 children, and when the kids are at school, they work in the fields.
Sustainability, lack of reliance on foreign aid, protecting people and culture, Nyumbani is a great model and a wonderful example of how radical thinking can change lives. The only surprise is that it has not been replicated so far.
Image Credit: Nyumbani.org.uk