It was early morning and six-year-old Gift was hungry. She’d gone to sleep on an empty stomach after eating just one piece of bread washed down with a mug of water pumped from the roadside tube well.
Although she’d almost fainted with hunger, she hadn’t forgotten to give her ten-month-old brother two of the three pieces of bread scavenged from a rubbish heap on the streets of Mombasa, Kenya.
Getting up from the cardboard box she had flattened on the floor to use as a mattress, she gently covered her sleeping brother with a tattered sheet they shared, then went to the well to drink some water. She returned to see the boy awake and crying, obviously starving. Gift looked at her painfully thin brother not knowing what to do.
Orphaned after their mother died of Aids a few months earlier and having never met their father, the siblings survived on what little they got from begging on the streets. But there was no food left in their dilapidated hut. The little girl gave the baby some water, but after a few sips, he started crying again.
Gift knew that she had to find some food. Making a rudimentary sling with a piece of cloth, she placed her wailing brother in it then secured it to her back and stepped out on to the road, hoping someone would give them some money to buy food or she’d discover some scraps in the trash heaps.
The boy continued to cry for a few more minutes then stopped. Sure that he was finally asleep, Gift prayed she would find some food urgently before he woke up and started crying again. But it was a fruitless search. Her only consolation was that her little brother was asleep.
Hours passed with no luck. Hungry and too tired to walk on the roads begging, she decided to rest for a while when one of her street friends, a 12-year-old boy, spotted her.
“What’s happened to your little brother?’’
he asked, peering into the sling. “He doesn’t look alright.’’ Worried, she removed the sling and hugged her brother, who flopped like a rag doll in her hands.
“I don’t think he’s alive,’’ her friend told her. Shocked, Gift began to sob uncontrollably. Her baby brother had died, most likely of hunger, and she’d been carrying him around on her back all morning.
Not knowing what to do, the boy contacted Anthony Mulongo, a journalist who had befriended and fed the street children. As soon as Anthony heard about Gift’s brother, he took her into his house and made arrangements to bury the infant.
Anthony then hired a local woman to look after Gift, and a couple of weeks later he enrolled her into a school. That was in 2006 – Gift is now 13 and effectively his daughter.
It was just a few months later, in 2007, that Thomas Keown, a Northern Irish newspaper columnist living in Boston, US, met Anthony while on a visit to Kenya.
“Before I left Boston, a friend of mine had told me about this Kenyan journalist named Anthony and suggested that I should meet him. So the moment I landed in Mombasa I gave him a call,’’ says Thomas, 34.
With typical Kenyan hospitality, Anthony invited him to dinner. “We connected straight away and became instant friends,’’ says Thomas.
Anthony, 40, was born into a well-off Kenyan family and was set to become one of the top journalists in Africa. However, a chance encounter with a group of street children in 2001 changed his life, he told Thomas.
While reporting on stories in the coastal city of Mombasa, Anthony met the children, who used to follow him, fascinated by his video camera. He struck up a rapport with them and got a rare insight into their lives. Many of the children were victims of abusive families who had run away, Anthony told Thomas.
Moved by their heart-rending stories, Anthony decided he had to help them. He fed them, fought for them through his reporting and advocated for them with his network of friends, who were lawyers, doctors and other professionals. He was looking after 34 little girls.
He told Thomas about Gift and how she now had someone to look after her and a school to go to. “I saw her change from a depressed person to one who is positive and full of life,” Anthony said. “That transformation encouraged me to do more and more for these kids.”
Thomas knew as he listened that he wanted to help. “As Anthony talked about Gift’s life and many other children like her in similar situations, I was shocked and saddened,’’ he says. “I was struck by the vision of how, long-term development could be done by raising children like Gift to become adults like Anthony. That would be great.’’
Thomas wanted to help Anthony in some way. So after returning to Boston, he wrote a newspaper column on the subject of sacrifice, using Anthony as an example.
He wrote, “[Anthony] Mulongo was brilliant with TV and print and, had nature taken its intended course, would be one of the top reporters in the country. Talk to him for an hour and you know he would’ve been one of the best on the continent.
“Instead he lives beneath a leaky roof on an acre of land in rural Mtwapa with four cows, a few hens, a vegetable patch, a donkey called George and 34 orphaned girls. Some were abandoned, some thrown away, some saw their parents starve. Some contracted HIV during childbirth and didn’t know it.
All of them needed somebody.’’
The result of the article was unexpected. Readers in Boston, New York and Philadelphia wrote letters asking what they could do to help. Thomas decided to get everyone who had contacted him together so they could think of ways to help. “What came of that meeting was One Home Many Hopes – a charity that evolved into Many Hopes. The idea was to raise funds to help Anthony help other street children,’’ Thomas explains. They began raising funds through charity galas and donations.
Thomas did his reporting job and worked for Many Hopes in his spare time for two years. In the summer of 2009 he was offered his dream job – editing two Irish newspapers in Boston and New York – but something was nagging at him.
“I knew we could do something deeply significant, something more with Many Hopes, but there would be no salary,’’ he says.
He initially felt uneasy dropping everything to go to Africa, but the more he thought about children like Gift who had to beg or steal to stay alive in the face of hunger, violence and disease, the more he knew he could change their lives.
“I realised I needed to start making decisions around the things that were most important to me, so in late 2009 I gave up my job and put all my time and effort into Many Hopes,’’ he says.
Since the first meeting, Many Hopes has started volunteer chapters in Boston, New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, London, Bristol, Belfast and Mourne in Northern Ireland.
“More than 60 per cent of our funds are raised by volunteers, schools and churches around the US and UK raising small amounts of money,” says Thomas. “Lots of little things add up to something truly significant.
“Our biggest campaign is a month-long fund-raising drive every autumn, during which volunteers have their own campaigns across the US and UK. We also receive funds from bodies such as The Hovde Foundation, a US charity that supports needy children,’’ he says.
“We now have four homes in Kenya and each house has 15 girls aged from four to 13. We are also expanding by building a school and a fish farm to generate an income to support us,”
says Thomas. The proposed school will teach 900 pupils, boys and girls, and the hope is that it will raise employers not employees.
“We accept girls younger than six years old into our long-term homes. It becomes their home; they grow up there and can return any time – just as in any loving family home.
“We also have a temporary care facility for children older than six until other suitable care can be found for them,’’ says Thomas.
Recently Many Hopes took in a 12-year-old girl called Adilah, whose mother died from Aids. Adilah and her two sisters, aged six and four, became street children and were arrested by police when they were found loitering on a street corner. They were placed in a cell with 30 adults and no one to protect them. One of the volunteers learnt about the children’s fate and made arrangements to help them. “We advocated for their release and they are now safe and well fed getting an education in one of our homes,’’ says Thomas.
Gift, the inspiration of it all, now dreams of becoming a doctor. “Once I didn’t have a family, but now I have a family and people who take care of us,” she says. “When I become a doctor I’ll be able to help our community. I can build a small clinic where the children can come to get treated.’’
The ultimate goal of Many Hopes is for all the children to make a difference one day. “We want to give them the opportunity to grow and develop like any other child,” says Anthony. “But they are our hope to transform Africa.’’
And the good news is that it is already happening. Four years ago Brendah was one of the girls in Anthony’s care. When Thomas met her she said, “I hope that I can become a lawyer so I can fight for other children’s rights, because someone fought for my rights.’’
Last year Brendah became Many Hopes’ first high-school graduate, and in December she was accepted into university to study law.
“We want to raise a network of children who, even though they have suffered from abuse, exploitation and abandonment, have got an education,” says Thomas.
“They have confidence in their bellies and the network at their fingertips to match the desire to do work that was already in their hearts. In 20 or 30 years they could do things that I could never do.
“It is a long-term vision. But by rescuing, loving and educating children who have suffered the worst in life, Many Hopes is raising a generation of adults who will lead with justice and fairness and will defeat the causes of extreme poverty in Kenya.”
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Making a difference
What: Many Hopes www.manyhopes.org
Where: Mombasa, Kenya
How: Giving children a safe environment to grow up in