January 17, 2014

You Will See Me There [in America] One Day

We were about to start our Epiphany play when Sarah walked in the door of Imara House – a rescue center in Nanyuki, three hours north of Nairobi. Sarah is 17 years old and 7 months pregnant. She bears scars on her face from the repeated beatings she suffered while living with her aunt in Isolo, about an hour north of Nanyuki.

Sarah’s story is similar to that of the 7 other teenage girls at Imara, a safe place for teen mothers and their babies, started by 38-year-old Carol Erickson, an Episcopalian from Minneapolis. Carol lives here and runs the center with her Kenyan colleagues Jayne and Reuben, a married couple who serve both as teachers and role models for a healthy relationship.

We’d spent the day planning our five-act play. While Ngine read aloud from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, I typed out our script on my laptop. Together we wrote, cast, costumed, and performed a 5-act play the evening of Epiphany. The scenes included the Annunciation (Mary was played by Felister, who stuffed a pillow under her blouse, causing much hilarity); the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night (we almost cast Winston Churchill, the sheep, in our play but worried that he might defecate on the floor); the three Kings (Naomi’s "crown" was a Santa hat leftover from Christmas celebrations); the nativity, with the fireplace serving as "manger;" and a final act with the entire cast singing "Joy to the World," which Jayne had taught them several weeks earlier. Ngine played Joseph, wearing an Army fatigue hat and affecting a serious swagger. (Not coincidentally, the British Army has a base in Nanyuki.)

Hard to know what Sarah thought as she crossed the threshold into this strange new world.

Imara is a Christian community and Sarah is Muslim. The Portuguese brought Christianity to Kenya in the 15th century and it spread rapidly through the Colonials. Today more than 47 percent of the population calls itself Christian. Sarah, who was orphaned at 2 months in a town near the Ethiopian border, spent her early years in a Christian orphanage. But she identifies with the tradition of her parents, who were Muslim.

She was referred to Imara through the District hospital. At first, Carol was reluctant to take her in, since the age limit for Imara is 16 and Sarah is 17. But it was hard to reject the referral given the desperate circumstances of this young woman, who had threatened suicide.

Sarah was cruelly treated by her aunt and uncle, then thrown out of the house, where she was forced to fend for herself. She was living in Isolo at the time, and considered prostitution, since she was homeless and starving. But, in her words, “my heart told me I could not do this.”

A man offered her friendship and promised to marry her. But after having sex with Sarah, he left her behind. She became more desperate than before when she learned she was pregnant. Abortion, for her, was out of the question.

“Men are lions, like wild animals,” Sarah told me, with justifiable anger. But she refuses to succumb to rage.

Although her education only extends through primary school, her language skills are good. She stutters badly, though, which, she explains, was not her “God given” situation.

This is a young woman of perseverance and courage. She told me she is happy to have finally found a “family” in Imara, where people will care for her and love her.

“The old Sarah is gone; now I am the new Sarah,” she said.

In speaking of her future, she told me she hopes one day to live in America and run an orphanage to help children like she once was. Her eyes sparkled as she boldly told me:

“You will see me there one day.”