At home, it happens rarely. But in Kenya, it happens a whole lot more.
The reasons ? Simple enough. There isn’t enough food to go round. There’s little medical care to speak of. Just about everyone has to battle with malaria, and malnutrition. Sickness and diarrhoea from unclean water dispatch thousands more, every year.
But that’s only the surface of the problem. Because there’s a huge medical problem in Africa. AIDS. It’s killing millions here.
Not officially, since few families dare acknowledge AIDS as the cause of death. The Kenyan government still won’t freely recognise the problem – because that would mean admitting failure, of a kind. But practically, AIDS is creating thousands of new orphans here, every single day.
In the North, we have retroviral drugs. They can’t cure the disease, but they can arrest its development. HIV is not the death sentence that once it was.
But in Africa, millions can’t afford aspirin, or penicillin. There’s no money. No health insurance. How can they buy outrageously expensive AIDS medicines ?
They can’t, and so the sick must die. You could argue about the reasons, and our complicity in it, but the reality would remain unchanged. A country of thirtyfour million people, where ten million will be dead inside a decade. That’s shocking.
Unhelped, orphans face a bleak future. Relatives and friends will do the best they can, as anywhere, but when there’s not enough to feed your own kids, it’s desperately hard to take on more. So boys are doomed to a life of sickness and starvation, whilst girls face survival through prostitution.
* * * * *
A new orphanage has opened, near the hotel. We take a few old toys and clothes we’ve brought here with us. It’s no effort – just an hour or two of our holiday.
That’s nothing, compared to the resolve it took to plan and build this orphanage. The decision to sell up a house in England, to abandon a comfortable life, and give that life to Africa. To fight bureaucracy, and prejudice, and corruption, and face deportation for speaking out and doing something along the way.
That’s commitment and courage on an unlikely scale, and despite the evidence in front of us now, it’s hard to believe that’s how this place was built. Not through any gifts of government, or Oxfam, or UNICEF, or a church, or any organisation at all, in fact. But through one woman’s wildest dream.
It can only make you humble, when you see just how much a person can achieve. Because no matter how hard I work, or how honestly I strive in business, I’ll never save a life. Let alone forty at a time.
And yet, pathetic as it is, this short visit of ours might make a tiny difference. Today will shade our kids’ lives in another light in future. That’s guaranteed, since these few hours will leave an impression on us all. For ever.
Not because of the conditions here, or the poverty, or even the emotional suffering that these children face. Because, in many ways, these are the lucky ones. For all of the terrible loss they’ve suffered, these kids will want for nothing now. They’ll have food to eat, and dinner on the table. They’ll get schooling. They’ll be loved, and cared for, and sleep safe in their beds at night.
But the simple fact is that in ten years’ time, these children smiling now beside me will nearly all be dead.
In the North, we know how to prevent AIDS from being passed on at birth. And here, they don’t. Because it’s still an unspoken, shameful problem. Because there’s little education. Because there’s no money or resources or will to treat it. These kids were born to sick parents – and so they die.
You’re right, of course, to tell me that perspectives on most things are bound to look different in this orphanage from how they ever do at home. You’d be right to say that all of this will seem more safely distant once I’m back in England. That’s true enough.
You’ll point out, too, that maybe Africa is her own worst enemy, with so much corruption, warfare and bureaucracy, just doomed to bring her down.
But I’ll dare you to look in these children’s eyes today, and tell me that they deserve their fate. Or that we should tolerate this, any longer. Not when we all have the power and wealth and freedom as individuals to make a difference.
It doesn’t take much. A few cents and pence a week, from the thousands of pounds and dollars we earn. That would help.
It would help far more if only we could stand back and look more closely at this world which lies around us. If we opened our eyes, then this could never happen.
We’d never accept it at home. But in East Africa, the cradle of our species – the place where human life began – life is ending here, in these faces all around me.
It can’t go on. And yet it surely will, until we stop it.