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June 2019
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2011-08 Accident of birth

a column written by James for the Sligo Weekender

Ever since reading the inspired Lesson in perspective delivered by Malik (Editors Comment  Weekender  July 19th), my mind has been mulling overtime on the notions of perspective, and accident of birth. When Lucy (the 3 million-year-old hominid) was unearthed in Ethiopia, suddenly it dawned on us all that we all came from Africa. Homo Sapiens emerged and spread outwards from the African Rift Valley around 50,000 years ago. So, surely it is fair to say that there is only one human race? Are we not all branches of the one family tree? Tell that to Norwegian Anders Breivik, the malevolent Christian-extremist murderer.

It is by accident of birth that I was born into a Sligo family with two loving parents, receiving a good education, and a fair shot at life. It is an equal accident of birth that Malik, and all his new pals (through no fault of their own), were born into a life of neglect, distrust, sadness, hunger, poverty, psychological distress, stigmatisation, and into a childhood where they were forced to age rapidly  to survive. For those following his story, Malik has had successful reconstructive surgery, and is now leading a happy normal life at Cheryls.

When Maeve Coghlan and I made the decision to bring our two sponsor-kids and their House Mother over from Nairobi on a trip of a lifetime, the decision was not taken lightly, and was entirely funded at our own expense. The trip was to help publicise and fundraise for Cheryls Childrens Home and Sligos Kenya Build by having the Kenyans speak at church services, on radio, and to press.
It was also to be a holiday they would never forget.

These kids are labelled AIDS Orphans, despite being 100% healthy themselves, but I believe they deserve to enjoy a childhood like any other child, and to store away happy memories of that childhood for later. A journal was kept in order to relay every detail of their trip to their orphanage friends, thus motivating themselves and their friends to work harder in order to achieve their goals, and in so doing break that cycle. AIDS Orphans are inevitably viewed as victims, but through empowerment they can move on to enjoy lives of purpose and dignity.

Aside from a handful of racist episodes, where it was clear our signature Céad Míle Fáilte was absent, Joseph, Kevin and Mary were welcomed with open arms. Sadly still a few ignorant Irish, including Dublin Airport Immigration, have chosen to forget that we Irish were an ethnic minority for centuries abroad.

On the first morning, as the two boys watched their washing spin around the Zanussi, I realised again how much we take for granted. Thanks to Kenya Build, Cheryls Childrens Home is a well-fitted permanent structure, and yet such comforts as heating, hot water, electric showers, duvets, fridges, cookers, and much more, appeared a novelty. Irish Church services are three hours shorter than Kenyan Church services, and much more sedate - we dont shout and scream as much. Ireland has street lighting, and our roads are far superior. Ireland is in recession - or is it really? At Streedagh and Lissadell I watched all three enjoy the space, the freedom, the sand, the sea, and the sun! (Three Kenyans returned home with the misconception that Ireland is warm and sunny).

As Mary the House Mum neared the majestic summit of Queen Maeves Grave, she appeared blissfully absorbed in her thoughts - geographically distanced, but emotionally tethered to the daily pressures of Nairobis slumlife.

As I overheard Joseph practice for church, in his second language  English, he stumbled on his words, sobbing. While these children are loved, cared for and educated, like every child they need emotional support. Joseph is used to recounting his story about his Mum dying of AIDS when he was four months old, never knowing his Dad, and his grandmother beating him severely. But the bit that always trips him up is My grandmother didnt like me, and I dont know why.

In the words of Richard Dawkins, After sleeping through a hundred million years we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colours, bountiful with life. Within decades we will close our eyes again. Isnt it a noble and enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work out understanding the universe and how we came to wake up in it?. Surely all members of our huge global family who have woken up on the same potentially wonderful planet deserve a fair shot at life?

Sincere thanks to the Weekender, Margaret at Ocean FM, Daryl Ewing, Yeats Country Hotel, Daviss, Drumcliff Tearooms, Connacht Gold, Gerry Moran, Woodville Farm, and everyone else for helping give three Kenyans a memorable trip and a storehouse of memories.