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Monday, February 26, 2024

The Crusaders

In 2005, the editors of Time magazine named Bono a “Person of the Year.” The singer of U2 fame wasn’t honored for his music. The one-name celebrity, best known for tunes such as “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and “With or Without You,” had transformed into a one-man crusader of a cause: to lessen the immense strain of poverty, hunger, and disease in Africa.

As much noise as the rock star has made over the struggles of the continent, Susan Gainey stepped off a plane in Kenya and heard nothing. The experience felt too surreal, she says. It was 2008, and the Evansville native stood still after a 20-hour flight on a jumbo airplane. The airport in Kenya’s capitol of Nairobi was abuzz with jets departing and arriving. When she left the airport, Gainey headed toward the countryside and noticed hundreds of people walking, their main mode of transportation, and several roadside stands holding local products.

It wasn’t commerce or Bono that brought Gainey to Kenya, and when she reflects today on the decision to work at a small orphanage in a village on the western edge of Kenya that required a two-month leave of absence from her Indianapolis law firm, a surprising lack of passionate motivation punctuates the discussion. “Not to be cheesy,” Gainey says, “but I’ve always wanted to do it. It was just my schedule allowed for it in 2008.”

A couple of Google searches was all it took for Gainey to find Village Volunteers. Leaders from the Seattle-based nonprofit send volunteers such as Gainey overseas to third-world countries. Those volunteers are the ground forces for change in Africa. Their hands-on approach (bringing water from the well, teaching lessons to schoolchildren, hanging mosquito nets) also requires a big-picture mentality: writing grants or developing profit-producing projects for communities. Gainey had this task: In a Kenyan village, help a school and the Dago Dala Hera Orphange, headed by Patrick Odoyo. Gainey loved the experience, and she has returned a few times to Africa. They worked closely together, fell in love, and made Evansville their home. The couple continues to aid the Kenyan orphanage, and the recession in America means the Odoyos’ work abroad is more vital than ever.

A Kenyan native, Odoyo came from a family of six biological children. His parents adopted three more girls. They instilled in their children a generous spirit and a zeal for higher education.

In a country of 41 million people, 15-30 universities exist. The scarcity of educational options means few — perhaps 50,000 — attend higher education, Odoyo says, and universities seek out students. Applying for college is an American pastime.

School officials from the United States International University wanted Odoyo. So, in 2005, Odoyo got in a matatu (a 20-person van used as public transportation) and traveled six hours along dirt roads to reach Nairobi, the capitol of Kenya. There, in a city of more than 3 million people, he pursued a college education.

In Odoyo’s village, computers were as scarce as the electricity needed to power them. His freshman year was the first time he saw a computer, and Odoyo pegged the devices as opportunities. “I’ve always been a curious person,” says Odoyo. “I never had a computer throughout school, but when I went to the university, I said that’s what I want to do because I had never done that.” Most Kenyans rarely use the Internet. According to the CIA World Factbook, about 4 million, or about 10 percent of the population, do. Odoyo majored in computer science and believed the Internet was the best means to grow support for his village orphanage. Odoyo launched a website, www.dagodalahera.org, to tell the world about his passion.[pagebreak]

The Dago Dala Hera Orphanage existed before Odoyo was ever born. Odoyo isn’t sure who opened the orphanage; it was just there. Like many projects in Kenya, a Westerner arrives, starts a well-meaning endeavor, and returns home exhausted after a few years of charitable work. The residents remain to carry on the task.

The orphanage is a sturdy, one-story facility with no doors or windows, just holes masquerading as architecture. Inside are 18 bunk beds for 36 girls. In Kenyan society, says Odoyo, parents often view boys as the priority. When a man marries a woman, she leaves her family, so parents push for their boys to receive the best education because they financially support the family. Yet, Gainey says, girls are “responsible for doing all the work. They do all the cooking, the cleaning, and even going to get water.” This particular disadvantage means the girls’ dormitory required the most urgency, but this doesn’t mean only girls benefit from the orphanage. During the day, all local children visit the orphanage for a range of necessities: They receive medicine, eat, and peruse the tiny library inside.

Growing up, Odoyo saw those benefits at Dago Dala Hera, which means “a home of love” in Luo, the local language. He knew the orphanage’s charitable activities reached far beyond the structure’s walls and into the village.

Outside those walls is a country hit hard by HIV and AIDS. An estimated 1.5 million people live with HIV, according to Avert, a global charity providing AIDS education, treatment, and care. In 2009, AIDS-related illnesses took the lives of 80,000 people, and this disease is one reason why orphanages are so vital: Thousands of children have lost parents to AIDS.

Their plight was a problem former President George W. Bush committed $15 billion over five years to aid the struggles of an African population battling an epidemic. Global healthcare advocates often consider this funding to be one of Bush’s greatest achievements as president. The praise for his successor, President Barack Obama, lags on this subject, and the same healthcare advocates applauding the last presidency worry that a tumultuous economy has shifted political priorities.

The lack of funding means the Odoyos’ efforts are needed now more than ever. The scope of their work is broad — disease prevention, education, improved living conditions — and after years of work, the couple aims to narrow their help into more attainable goals.

Kick It with Kenya is a prime example. In 2009, the Odoyos hosted the free soccer tournament. More than 500 people arrived to watch local teams compete, but the reason for the athletic spectacle was to encourage visitors to get tested for HIV. The majority of HIV transmissions in Africa come from heterosexual sex, says Odoyo, and yet a stigma about HIV testing (the disease largely was believed to be a curse) prevails in Kenya. Unless Africans know they are infected with HIV, they don’t take precautions to prevent transmission.

So, when 500 people arrived at the soccer tournament — and were tested for a deadly disease that has left an estimated 1,200 orphaned — the Odoyos celebrated, and then they planned the next year’s event. The attendance almost doubled. “I feel it’s a place to bring the young, the old, and the middle-aged together,” says Odoyo, “and share with them what’s going on.”

While Kenya needs help, so does Evansville. Gainey wants to improve the community here as well. “We feel like we have two communities, one here and one in Kenya,” she says. “We try to support both of them.” Gainey, an attorney in Evansville, is a big sister for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ohio Valley. Odoyo, who works for a satellite TV installation company, also coaches rugby (his childhood athletic passion) at the University of Southern Indiana. Together, they speak at local schools about Africa, and the couple recently finished training to become foster parents.

That kind of help here — and in Kenya — comes from people like the Odoyos, not from lead singers.

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