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June 2019
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2007-06 Joseph Harry

In 2001, Joseph Harrys parents died from AIDS. Joseph was not even 2 years old.


Thankfully uninfected by the killer virus, Joseph was put into the erratic care of his frail grandmother who became increasingly frustrated with her new-found maternal status, struggling to come up with the monthly rent for her unsympathetic landlord.


The vulnerable toddler was left outside to fend for himself - day and night  fed irregularly, beaten regularly. Joseph wandered aimlessly by Kiberas open sewers which had been formed from mud, paper, plastic and human excrement. By day, other abandoned children kept Joseph company. These children, through no fault of their own, had found themselves in the most horrendous hopeless situation imaginable.


By night, Joseph waited until his grandmother was snoring, crept inside the family mud-house, and curled up on the damp floor to await daylight and the ensuing kick which would hurl the little boy out onto the bumpy bustling paths, in order to repeat his cruelly tedious daily cycle. When the rains came, the muddy stinking streets became infected swirling sewers. But Joseph was just one of thousands of Kiberas forgotten homeless hopeless AIDS orphans.


Over the years, Josephs neighbour had been watching, growing more and more disturbed by the lack of love and affection demonstrated by the little lads ailing grandmother. The Good Samaritan nextdoor approached a man called Samuel Sambuli in Cheryls Childrens Home who immediately showed the first compassion the by now severely traumatised and physically scarred 4 year-old had been shown in his extended two years as an orphan on this hostile earth. Though the orphanage was constantly in financial difficulty, and in urgent need of upgrading, Joseph had at last found his first home, a safe and secure environment, where he received regular food, education, spiritual guidance and most of all unconditional love.


No matter how hard I try to relate to you the story of my first humanitarian trip to Africa, I will never succeed in painting the truest picture. I can try of course, but the best solution is for every single person from this supposedly civilised world to go and experience it for themselves first-hand. We have all watched those horrific news bulletins showing Africas weakest souls. We shook our heads in disbelief, but continued on with our daily lives.


On my first visit to Kibera, the group I was with was given an armed police escort, as the crime rate is understandably high. This gut-wrenching attack on all of the senses has simply got to be experienced up close in order for the gravity of the situation to really hit home. The sight of almost two million unfortunates crammed into home-made huts of mud and galvanised sheeting in Africas largest slum, the rancid vomit-inducing stench of open sewers and slippery brown paths composed of waste, the taste in the air of disease and rotting butchers meat in open butchers windows, the touch of orphans hands as they try to shake your hands, and their ad nauseum repetition of "Ow-ar-yoo?" ("How are you?") echoing in your mind like a recurring nightmare days after you have been forced to ignore these thousands of repetitious cries for help.


I have just returned from Kenya, where I was part of a team of volunteers (eight from Sligo, two from Roscommon and one from Donegal), employed to firstly fundraise and then upgrade the beyond basic conditions at Cheryls Childrens Home in Dagoretti, Nairobi, not far from the Kibera slum. Living accommodation for the girls, and classrooms for all, was our construction goal for the week. I was horrified when I first witnessed the dire conditions these newly-happy children had found themselves in. Its amazing how love can make anything seem safe and secure. The visitors toilet is a hole in the ground, surrounded by galvanised sheeting. Hundreds of flies monitor your ablutions from makeshift tin walls. I was only ever brave enough to pee, and when I did, a swarm of flies flew at me from out of the stained stinking hole. I shuddered from head to toe every time I saw a rat running in or out from the temporary boys dormitory. An open drain carried waste, to nowhere, passing through the childrens playground, and past our lunch on the open fire.


And yet, Cheryls children are prospering  they have health, happiness, hope and love. Many have already progressed to third-level studies, nursing and other worthy vocations. These children of Kibera are uninfected, well-behaved, well-disciplined, smiling and appreciative of the tiniest things. The littlest of Cheryls children just want to be picked up and hugged. I never heard one cry or complain the whole week. They have lost their parents, their role models, and simply crave love, affection and security, and a fair shot at life.


When I had my first official meeting with Joseph Harry, my new sponsor-son was visibly overwhelmed by this strange gesture from an Irish man he barely knew, perhaps overwhelmed by yet more love from a fellow human being, as his faith in humanity continued to strengthen. Several of my fellow builders also adopted sponsor-kids.


Many more orphans await your calls!

The following day as a I helped lay a path in front of the new classrooms, Joseph left his class eight times within two hours, supposedly to spend a penny, but more likely to check me out. When I caught him staring at me, I received a huge thumbs-up from this grateful little innocent, accompanied by a wide toothy heart-stopping smile.


Every afternoon, by way of a reminder of the horrors beyond Cheryls gates, a delivery of firewood arrived. Almost fifty kilos of hand-picked firewood, strapped to the bent back of a crippled HIV-infected grandmother, who had walked more than five miles in this position, for which she was paid the equivalent of 40 cent, and a slug of water.


In Ireland, we spend more on a cappuccino than the poorer Kenyans spend on their entire families in a day. The average wage of our hotel staff in Nairobi (I use the term hotel very loosely indeed) was a euro a day.


Yes, I am angry, angry at the world, at the ever-widening divide between rich and poor. I am angry that less than a mile from the orphanage you can buy plasma-screen TVs or designer suits in a posh Shopping Mall. But of course this is not only the story in Kenya, but everywhere. How can this still be happening in the 21 st century? I am angry at the man who told me Charity begins at home. These are innocent children, more forgotten children of the world. They get little or no help from their own country, and they deserve our help. I am angry that Kenya, like other African nations, is a forgotten nation, perhaps because it has no natural resources worth fighting for. Massacres and murders happen in Kenya all the time which rarely make international news. And how many are honesly aware of the two million inhabitants of the Kibera slum?


I am however eternally grateful to every single person, young and old, who gave generously to this worthwhile ongoing project  Thank you all sincerely.

I am also grateful to Aaron, Bobby, Brian, Caroline, Christy, Martina, Michael, Padraig, Val, Mike, David, Samuel Sambuli (a living saint), Feminis and all the wonderful staff at Cheryls Childrens Home, and most of all to Basil Love for allowing me to be a part of this humbling experience, this overdose of reality, helping to give these beautiful children a second chance at life.


I simply cant not go back. I am going back. At the moment, I plan to return every year for as long as is physically possible, if only to prove to Joseph that humans can be trusted.


As tears streamed down my sunburned cheeks for the fifth time that week, Joseph appeared confused as he waved goodbye to me, dressed in his new bright red outfit, his brand-new shiny black shoes, and the Canada baseball cap I had been sporting all week. His smile is ingrained in my memory forever. So too is his T-shirt slogan  "Hakuna Matata"  "No Worries!".


See photos from James trip in our picture gallery.