Alexis Wukich Rotary Service Trip to Kenya- Hekima Place- Blog


Follow Pittsburgh Rotarian Alexis Wukich this summer as she travels to Kenya to serve as a volunteer and representative of the Rotary Club of Pittsburgh at Hekima Place.

Hekima Place is a home in Kenya for girls orphaned primarily by HIV/AIDS. The name “Hekima” was chosen for its Kiswahili meaning: Wisdom. Founded in 2005 by Pittsburgh native Kate Fletcher, the home opened with just 10 girls but has grown to 60 members of the Hekima Place family. 

Day 1
It is hard to believe we have been in Kenya for 24 hours.  We arrived last evening around 9:20 pm.  We didn't get our visas until 10:40.  Fortunately our bags were waiting for us as was our driver from Hekima Place.  We got to Hekima Place a little after midnight.  The city streets of Nairobi seemed so quiet at night, but it was nothing compared to the quiet out here in the hills.  

Kate kindly stayed up to welcome us and showed us to the "Karibu House," where volunteers stay during their visit.  We have lots of room - up to 17 could actually stay here.  It is identical to the three residences were the girls live with  their "mums" who act as total caretakers of the girls. We have a large common area and a kitchen with appliances!  

After 22 hours of travel, Joe and I were pretty quick to call it an evening.  Kate advised that we take our first day easy because we would be exhausted.  I thought she was being over-cautious, but boy was she right.  This morning ans afternoon I was struggling with jet lag that even my Starbucks Via couldn't cure!  I went back to bed while my awesome travel buddy, Joe, went to explore (his jet lag set in while we were in a cab later that day when he fell asleep mid-sentence).

Once I finally got moving, Joe and I toured the grounds and met some of the "mums" and "uncles."  The operation they have here is truly amazing!  The uncles take care of the grounds, the animals and security.  There are goats, cows, chickens (and chicks) and rabbits. They harvest corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and beans.  They collect rain water from the roofs.  Whatever resources they collect, grow or raise, they use and if the don't use it, they sell it.

After meeting and greeting, Joe and I headed to Karen to do some shopping.  The drive through the small towns and markets was eye-opening.  We had passed these towns, Ngong and Kiserian, on our way from the airport, but it was dark and there was almost no activity.  Late afternoon was a different story!  Thousands of people milling about, merchants, markets, goats and donkeys.  I should have been taking pictures, but I was so awestruck and busy giving myself eyestrain.  

In Karen, we bought lots of groceries and a modem so we can get Internet (and I could update all of you!!).   We got back to late to have dinner with the girls, so fortunately we picked up some KFC carry out.

After our lovely home cooked meal, Joe and I settled in to watch "Half the Sky," a documentary about the struggles and abuses of women and girls worldwide.  A timely pick given that Joe and I had the pleasure of meeting Hekima's newest guest, a beautiful ten year old girl named Yvonne who was rescued from Nairobi hospital after being enslaved and then repeatedly sexually and physically abused.  Her attack was so brutal she was in the hospital more than a week.  Rather than cower or hide, the first thing she did when we met was smile ear to ear and give me a HUGE bear hug.  I can't even express in words the feeling.  I don't think I ever can.  Sophia, who works in the office said to me, "Of course Mum (Kate) took her in.  She is a baby who was a slave and who was raped.  She has no parents.  She has no where to go, so she comes here."

Posted by Alexis Wukich at 1:12 PM 

Day 2
This morning we has the opportunity to go to the Good Hope School.  The school goes from ages 4-5 in baby and nursery classes to 8th grade.  The student body is made up of the elementary-aged students from Hekima Place, children from the Good Hope Orphanage and local children.  The school is just 2 kilometers away but the road is quite hilly and in very bad shape.  The girls go by bus every morning and afternoon.  

The school system in Kenya works on a trimester schedule with one month long breaks in April, August and December.  Since it is the end of their second term the students were talking their exams.  We started our morning in the teacher's lounge with morning prayer and a ministry on forgiveness provided by the head teacher.  Next we were off to help out in the classroom.  Joe proctored the 6th grade social studies test and I gave some of the nursery students their exam.  

The nursery students were quite intrigued by Joe and I.  Kyla, a young girl was fascinated with my blue eyes and pointy nose.  My hair, earrings and bangle also got a lot of attention!

After exams, we broke for tea at the Orphanage.  We had an amazing chai tea while the little ones had porridge.  After tea, the children had time to play outside while we got to take a look at the "conservation classroom" and their pet tortoises.  Beginning in first grade, all students at Good Hope learn about conservation as part of their curriculum.  Partly in an effort to preserve the 91% of Kenya that has game roaming on its land a d partly to teach the students from more rural areas how to be more effective in cultivating sanitary and prosperous lives.  As an aside, did you know the ivory trade is still a huge problem in Kenya?  Every day, 5 elephants are slaughtered for their ivory.

After learning about Good Hope's green education, we got to enjoy a special school assembly that was prepared for some special visitors.  As special as we were (I am sure), these guests were BIG TIME: visitors from the World Bank.  The show was amazing with singing, dancing, percussion, poetry and dramatic performances.

As we headed back to Hekima, the children went out to play a little football while the staff and teachers looked on.  These kids all seem happy and well adjusted!  It's amazing to know that half the student body comes from either the Good Hope Orphanage or Hekima Place.  The other half live with their biological family - some in places where there is no running water.  If you didn't know it, you wouldn't realize it because when you look around you just see a bunch of well-mannered kids enjoying their time at school, albeit some with tattered and torn uniforms, mismatched socks and tights, shoes that are flopping off their feet or clothes that are two sizes too small.  

Posted by Alexis Wukich at 6:30 AM 



Day 6
Today was the dreariest day yet!  If you told me it was cold enough to snow, I would have believed you!  The kids just threw on layer after layer to stay warm.  At 10:30 we congregated in the dining room which has been rearranged for Mass with Father Jim, a Jesuit priest from Wisconsin.  The girls and Kate were happy to see him since he has been away in Uganda building a boys high school.  The girls were active participants in Mass from the very beginning.  The older girls are getting very excited because next weekend they will be confirmed!  The girls who did not attend Mass, attended church down the road at a church called Deliverance.

After church and lunch it was time to have some fun outdoors, even though it was COLD!!!  The football (soccer) team stayed at Hekima Place for practice and the rest of us went for about a 1 km walk to the Rift Valley.  Yes, the same Rift Valley that developed ten million years ago and spans from the Middle East and ends in Mozambique and where humans are thought to have first appeared (google it if you don't believe me!).  It was beautiful!!!!

We hiked two parts of the rift and then it was time to return to Hekima Place where we watched the girls finish up playing soccer.  In the 2 hours we were out, the girls managed to drain the battery on both my iPhone and camera!  I'm sure they will be interesting to go through once we get home!  While Joe spent time with the girls in the Red House teaching them card tricks, I came back to Karibu House and hid under 2 blankets.

Then the dinner bells rang and it was off to dinner and then Bible Study.  We had a tough exercise that requires us to make a list of 5 things (10 for adults) that were important to us, and then had to cross off each one and see what we were left with.  The Bible Studies are run by the "uncles" or men who work here at Hekima Place.  Kate started this in an effort to ensure that the girls had some experience with interacting with males, given their female dominated world.  Afterwards, it was time for a typical Sunday evening.  The girls were putting out their uniforms and freshly polished shoes in order to get ready for school on Monday.  

Posted by Alexis Wukich at 11:25 PM 

Day 5
IIt's pretty hard to stare at a blank screen and try and write something half as exciting as yesterday - especially when yesterday involved a safari!  That said, today was a relatively low-key day.  We woke up to more gray weather!  Since we arrived we have been plagued with cool weather.  Lows in the mid 40s and highs in the mid 60s.  It's especially chilly with the wind up here on the hill at the Hekima Place compound.


Because of the chill, the girls spent the morning inside and completing their chores.  I used that time to write all my postcards to my wonderful supporters from the "go fund me" campaign.  I got a little sad writing cards, because I wouldn't be sending one to Gaggy.  She would love all my stories and pictures from this trip.  I started to get a little teary-eyed and then realized she wouldn't want me to be upset, but she would want me to send her's to her favorite correspondence buddy, my cousin Olivia.  So that's what I did!

We spent the afternoon playing outside: soccer, cards and the playground.  

I did score points by bringing nail polish for pedicures!  Doesn't matter where in the world you are, girls love painted toes!  Some did alternating colors, some layered color with sparkles, some did a combination of both!  It was a fun way to spend some time together!  While the girls painted and listened to an R-Kelly CD or Nairobi's KISS radio station, I "took the corn off" of what seemed like a million ears of corn (it was probably 15).  

The most special part of the day came when it was time for dinner.  Every Saturday, that week's birthdays are celebrated.  This week we had Faith's birthday.  

After we ate a delicious and dinner of cabbage, mashed potatoes and chicken (remember those coops I mentioned in an earlier posts?  They are definitely a few chickens lighter), it was time to celebrate.  One of the older girls served as MC and invited a representative from each house to recite a birthday wish for Faith.  All the girls spoke of how much they wished for a wonderful year and life, how much they loved her and how much they prayed for her.  Next her Mum (from the blue house) her a happy birthday and spoke of all the improvements and progress she had made and her love for Faith.  The Head Mom then followed with praise about what a hard and good worker Faith was, and her beauty inside and out.  Then baby Bridget got up to say happy birthday, which was just adorable from a three year old.  After each person went to the front of the room to give their wish, they hugged the birthday girl.  As the visitors, we were asked to give our wishes too.  The choral group came and led in the singing of several songs and finally "Mum Kate" spoke about the blessing that Faith is, and her love for her.  The cake came out next, candles were blown out, and a small present was opened!

It was a special thing to be part of.  Not only was it interesting to see a birthday celebrated in another country, but it was inspiring to see how a birthday was celebrated at Hekima Place.  Every room you enter at Hekima is filled with love, you can just feel it.  What was different with the birthday celebration, was that you couldn't just feel the love, you could hear each person express it: from baby Bridget to founder "Mum Kate."  What a wonderful way to build a confident young woman.  Given the circumstances these young women come from, building them up seems like an impossible task, but I know that there is hope when there are people so eager and willing to share their love and pride for these girls so openly and directly.  I know that tonight, Faith will go to bed knowing she is loved,  important to, and celebrated by many people.  

On a less insightful note, the cake was delicious: like a pound cake with frosting and a side of ice cream!


Posted by Alexis Wukich at 9:53 AM 

Day 4 - SAFARI ������
Safari day is here!  We left Karibu House at 5:30 this morning.  We were dragging, so on the way we stopped for coffee.  The shop wasn't open until 7am, but somehow charmer-Joe appeared with ice lattes!  We arrived at Nairobi State Park right after it opened, and there was still a line for admittance.  Once inside, we knew it was worth the wait (and the insanely early wake-up time).  The first animals we saw were baboons - it was obviously going to be an amazing day!

We saw ostriches, antelopes, lions, giraffes, black rhinos, wart hogs, zebras and more (I would have to look through all my photos to remember them all).

After our safari, we headed to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust where twenty-six baby orphan elephants are being raised to be returned to the wild!  They were amazing!  The smallest was four months old and was wearing a blanket to keep warm!  These elephants have been orphaned mostly due to poaching for ivory and conflict with humans.  It's really worth learning about:

We had a lovely lunch date at Talisman in front of their beautiful organic garden.

Next stop, the Giraffe Center where you can hand feed a giraffe!  Daisy was the giraffe on deck eating pellets from young and old patrons alike.  Usually, the giraffes will eat a pellet right out of your mouth, but apparently Daisy is a biter and everyone was discouraged from trying to "kiss the giraffe."

Finally, after our full day of animal adventures, Joe and I dragged ourselves to a local market where original Masaii arts and crafts are sold.  We bought tons of souvenirs and then dragged our tires selves home for the evening.  We wanted to make sure our weekend was wide open to spend time with the girls here at Hekima, so we made sure we packed our schedule today!  

P.S. Obviously I have a bazillion more pictures to share but I will have to wait to get back to the US where I'm not uploading on a 2G network, high up in the hills.

Posted by Alexis Wukich at 4:40 AM 

Day 3
Kate suggested we sleep in this morning since we returned home late from Rotary last night.  We obliged and slept in and had a relaxing morning.  Today we helped out with the "babies" while all of the Hekima Place staff was at their monthly staff development meeting from 8am to 4pm.

There are four babies here at Hekima that are too young for school.  Two are eighteen months and two are three.  Since Yvonne isn't enrolled in school she spent the morning with us too!

We did some coloring and reading and a little learning too.  Yvonne also discovered my digital camera and had a blast with it!  I think she took a couple hundred pictures today of everything from the walls to close ups of everyone!

Around 3 pm when the three year olds went down for their naps, Joe and I headed back to Karibu House for some lunch.  I made a fried egg sandwich with eggs from the Hekima chickens that are cooped right here!  After our yummy meal, I channeled my inner three year old and enjoyed some nap time.  Joe and I both seemed to get hit with a little jet lag today.

We spent the evening hanging outside with the girls.  Joe played football (soccer) while I was on playground duty.   We were all called for dinner and Joe and I enjoyed our first Hekima dinner with the mums and the girls.  After dinner we hung out at the blue house for a little bit and then headed back to Karibu once again.  We have an exciting tour tomorrow (can't reveal the details too early, want you to keep reading!) and we have to leave at 5:30 am!  So we're going to enjoy a Tusker, watch a DVD and hit the sack!

Posted by Alexis Wukich at 5:58 PM 

Day 2 Part 2
This evening we traveled with Kate to Karen to purchase textbooks for students in grade 4.  After we got the necessary books, we stopped by the vet's office.  Recently, Hekima Place acquired two German Shepard puppies to assist the night guards in protecting the compound.  The pups are Nicky and GiGi.  Poor Nicky was bitten by a tick and has developed tick fever.  He's spending the night at the animal hospital with an enlarged spleen and a high fever.   

After leaving the vet's office, we headed over to Karen Country Club for our 7pm Rotary meeting.  It occurred to me that at the very same moment my Brother and Sister Rotarians in Pittsburgh were also meeting.  

I was so proud to represent the Rotary Club of Pittsburgh at this meeting.  I couldn't have picked a better meeting to attend.  The speakers were from several California districts who developed and have executed a program "Kenya Smiles," which provides Kenyan students with dental education and supplies.  As amazing and exemplary of the Rotary spirit as this program is, I was even more touched by a five minute presentation from two Oberlin students: Ty and Peterson.  Ty is a US native and Peterson was born and raised in a rural slum of Kenya.  Pete, who is pursuing a degree in neurobiology, worked his way through the Kenyan school system and ultimately was accepted to Oberlin.  The only thing keeping Pete from pursuing his education in the US was his inability to pay for the plane ticket.  The Rotary Club of Karen sponsored him and sent him to the US.  Once at school, he decided to give back and developed "Kenya Reads."  In one year his program has built two libraries on his old neighborhood and has started providing uniforms and sanitary pads to students so they don't miss school for not being in uniform, or for girls who must miss a week of school when menstruating.  As if that's not enough, when he was in high school, he wrote a biology essay book that was published and is now used in Kenyan high schools!  Needless to say, I made Pete and Ty promise to come visit is on Pittsburgh - I mean, seriously, it's just across the border!  I happily purchased two uniforms and sanitary pads for girls in need for $40 USD.

The meeting closed with the exchange of flags from six clubs.  I proudly shared our flag and accepted the Karen Club's.  There was a great energy at the club, including two prospective members with seventeen meetings between them, and six Rotaract students from two Universities.

Another great day for Rotary, regardless of where in the world you are meeting! 

Posted by Alexis Wukich at 1:39 PM