Valley Journal
Valley Journal

Labor of love: Local man connects with Kenyan children

The distance from Ronan to near Matuu, Kenya is a 30-hour flight and miles across the countryside, but culturally it’s a world away.

Jack Stivers, Montana State University extension agent for Lake County, first went to Kenya last year. 

“(Africa) has always attracted me,” Stivers said.

Stivers said he decided it was time to make the trip, “since time gets away from me,” and started doing research last year to find something to do while he visited Africa. Youth needs, including orphanages, were abundant; so Stivers went to an established orphanage on the west coast of Nairobi. There he met Meshack Itumo, a social worker employed by the orphanage. Itumo, an orphan himself, had found a sponsor so he could get an education, and now he works hard to help children.   

Because of Itumo’s background, he understood the need for more orphanages, and asked Stivers if he’d be interested in starting an orphanage near Matuu.

Stivers said “yes.”

Orphans are common in Kenya because of “you name it — AIDS, abandonment, death from malnutrition, safety issues,” Stivers said.

Also, he said the average age of Kenyans is 39.

“Life is hard (for them),” he added. 

Accidents occur that would never happen in the United States, Stivers said. There are no services such as garbage, water and sewer, or public education.

“They don’t have a lot of the conveniences, luxuries and comforts we do,” Stivers said.

Itumo and Stivers want the orphanage they are building to be sustainable, so Stivers bought five acres in Kenya. Adults and children worked together to plant mango, papaya, banana, and avocado trees and pigeon peas.

They bought their seed stock from area people making a living by sprouting seeds, including avocado.

Utilizing a teaching network in Kenya, Stivers and Itumo found a 24-year-old Kenyan woman, a graduate of Nairobi University, to serve as the headmaster at their orphanage and teach the children. 

Since there is no public education, if a family or a child can’t pay to be educated, he or she will grow up illiterate.

Before the orphanage, the orphans lived in a sort of dormitory in the town, but with no adult supervision. “You can imagine what happens to the 14 and 15 year-old girls,” Stivers said.

With some help from the orphans, Itumo and Stivers finished one building to house children, “but we’ve got a long way to go.” 

Eventually they hope to house 100 children. The buildings are constructed of mud bricks, made by hand with a box-shaped mold. They pack the mold with mud, dump it out to dry in the sun, and make another brick. 

Dirt is plentiful, but the toughest thing to get is water. Locals haul their water, with cattle pulling the carts. The same cattle also provide milk. Stivers said people raise goats for milk as well.

To solve their water issue, Itumo and Stivers hired a local worker, for $1.50 a day, to dig a well by hand for the orphanage. He struck water at 60 feet, but it was salty, so he continued digging. In the meantime, they pay for water for the orphanage. 

The Kenyans look up to Americans “in a big way,” Stivers said. Since the orphanage is in a very rural area, many of the Kenyan orphans have never seen a white person before. Stivers, tall with blond hair and blue eyes, was a novelty. Kids crawled all over him, he said, adding that the people are very welcoming.

Stivers smiles when he thinks about the children — Joyce, who is such a hard worker, has a desire to excel, and is competitive and joyous; and other kids with a shy smile.

“What I foresee in the future is an established orphanage: two buildings with 100 beds each, sustainable on its own from the farmland and income from (a) chicken operation,” Stivers said, adding that the educated children will be contributors to Kenyan society.   

Needs are many, including clothes. When he packed for this summer’s trip to Kenya, Stivers stuffed as much youth clothing as he could get in his duffle, “as much as the airline will let me carry.” T-shirts and pants, boys and girls clothes, it doesn’t matter. The kids will wear whatever is available. 

Everyone, girls and boys alike, get their heads shaved to avoid lice. 

Stivers said sometimes mature women wear their hair fixed up and usually covered, but the adult men and children all have shaved heads. 

The children have no hygiene items available, such as soap, toothpaste, shampoo, etc. 

Stivers is collecting shoes, which have to be new according to Kenyan law, but he really wants to make sure the orphans get a multi-vitamin and calcium.

Stivers just got back from Kenya, where they harvested corn, peas, onions, potatoes and tomatoes, most being stored for the summer months, when it’s too hot to grow things. While the food is good, there is never enough and protein is not readily available. 

Stivers said he’s not appealing to people in the Ronan and Polson area for money, but he’d like to talk to folks who have done work in third world countries who have contacts with or might know of organizations he could contact for supplies or funding — people who know how to avoid the possible corruption that can occur if donations are mishandled.  

Stivers plans to return to Kenya this year, maybe at Christmas time.



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