Song and Celebration
A landmark Habitat build in Kenya brings joy to a fledgling community.
Just four years ago, the large field north of the small town of Maai Mahiu in Kenya’s massive Rift Valley was a deserted area of brush and a few small acacia trees, a place where wild animals roamed.
More recently, dozens of weather-torn tents in the field have served as housing for those in need, but nearly 250 sturdy stone homes also stand in neat rows, protective metal roofs gleaming in the sub-Saharan Africa sun.
Today, passersby hear singing of unbridled joy, the united voices of a strong new Habitat for Humanity community. “We thank you God for the gift of life / And for this day / For the miracles you have been doing,” sing roughly a dozen women in their African language of Kikuyu.
The women sing and dance to welcome a team of volunteers who have traveled halfway around the world from New Jersey’s Paterson Habitat to this new village of Vumilia Eldoret. They sing for what the team is about to help them do: build another Habitat home, a three-room structure of stone and mortar, wood and metal, that marks Habitat’s 500,000th house worldwide.
Until three years ago, the families of Vumilia Eldoret lived in tents with mud floors. They had been forced into a nomadic life after disputed elections sparked tribal violence in late 2007. Their homes and businesses were looted and burned. Some fled for their lives.
Thousands ended up in various camps and began living in tents provided by non-governmental organizations. A group of nearly 350 families eventually combined what money they could muster and with the help of the Kenyan government purchased land near Maai Mahiu. They divided the land into small plots and began a new life in tattered and makeshift tents. Habitat Kenya found them three years ago and began a program to fund and build homes with the entire community.
The Paterson Habitat team — five affiliate board members and two volunteers — has come to hear the Kenyans’ stories. Tales of grief and hardship. Of lost loved ones and disease. Of losing established businesses and worldly possessions in often-violent attacks by former friends and neighbors. For five days, the Paterson team works on the 500,000th home, putting in windows and doors, building wooden trusses for the iron-sheet roof and plastering walls.
The week is “like Christmas,” says 59-year-old Leah Wairimu Ngugi, the Habitat home partner who will live in the house with her two grandchildren, 17-year-old Jane and 15-year-old Joseph. “Since Habitat came here, it has been the happiest moments in my life,” Ngugi says. “I believe Habitat was sent by God. If it were not for them, we wouldn’t have come this far. For sure, God is answering my prayers because he’s opening ways for us to move from tents to houses.”
For three years, Ngugi and her family have lived in a small tent with little protection from rainy weather and scavenging dogs. Jane loves school and dreams of becoming an engineer. She’s looking forward to her new Habitat home because it will give her a proper place to study. The tent leaks and “almost everything gets wet,” she says — her books, school papers, clothes, bedding. Her Habitat home will keep out the rain, she says, “and I can use paraffin to read at night.”
Jane and others in the community — some who already have Habitat homes and some who are still living in tents awaiting homes — flash smiles during the Paterson team’s visit and consistently greet them each workday with song and dance.
The Paterson team, whose affiliate has tithed more than $513,000 over 24 years to Habitat Kenya, talks not only about building individual homes, but about the bigger picture of Habitat involvement. “One of the best things I like about Habitat is that they don’t just build homes, they build communities,” says T.J. Best, a Paterson Habitat board member and Habitat homeowner.
As Habitat has built homes in Vumilia Eldoret, businesses and community support institutions have begun to sprout. There is a nursery school, a shop selling grains and other goods, small eateries, tiny enterprises where local women make and sell beaded jewelry, and a community cooperative that raises and markets chickens and rabbits.
“When we act together as one and look at the needs of the people who are suffering, we can be able to make a change,” says James Waithaka, senior field officer for Habitat Kenya’s eastern branch office. “This community will remain a landmark to the lives of many people who are yet to be born, to the people who experienced what happened and the people who also heard about it, people who have been having us in thought, people who are praying for us, people who have cried together with us.
“They will now be able to see this and believe that together we can make a change.”