They came because they’d read a story.
In November 2007, a group of Bostonians converged at the Irish Immigration Center in downtown Boston, the workplace of Irish-born opinion columnist Thomas Keown. Some came because they’d been inspired by Keown’s article entitled “Give a Little Bit” which had appeared in the Metro two months prior. Others came because they’d received an email from Keown with the subject heading, “Our very own Irish Potato is starting a nonprofit.” Both the article and the email told the story of Anthony Mulongo, an up-and-coming Kenyan journalist whose life was forever changed by a girl named Gift.
As a teenager, Mulongo was chosen by the Kenyan government as one of the eighteen brightest students in the country to be enrolled in an intensive journalism school. He began a successful career as a reporter for national television and newspapers. Like all Kenyans, Mulongo saw street children frequently, but he never felt moved to do anything to ease the plight of these poor children whom most believed to be pests, until he met Gift and witnessed her story.
Six-year-old Gift was skeletal, her stomach protruding from starvation and malnutrition. Dirty and exhausted, she was carrying her infant brother on her back. Her mother had died of AIDS, so Gift had no choice but to dig through the trash to try to scrounge up food for her baby brother and herself. When Mulongo met Gift, he lifted her little brother off her back, only to find that he had died at some point in their journey. Gift had no idea until that moment.
This was a critical moment for Mulongo. He knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t do something to help. The choice he made changed the course of his life—as well as the lives of Keown and the others in the Irish Immigration Center. He decided to adopt Gift and raise and educate her as he would his own daughter. Additionally, he gave up his career as a national journalist and instead wrote advocacy pieces about street children.
When Keown visited Kenya on vacation in the summer of 2007, his plan was to spend time on the beach, see exotic animals, and drink cheap beer. But his friend Dave, who had done some pro bono legal work in Kenya, suggested that he look up Mulongo. Using quarters and a pay phone, Keown called Mulongo and the two men made plans to meet for lunch.
Keown got on a train from Nairobi to coastal Mombasa, the city closest to where Mulongo lived. When the train arrived in Mombasa, Keown was overpowered by the stench of rotting filth. He looked out the window and saw street children just like Gift who were digging and pawing through a mountain of trash, scavenging for something to eat.
When Keown found out that Mulongo was doing something practical to help children like those he had witnessed on the train to Mombasa, they connected instantly. Over a meal of bony chicken and watery soup, Mulongo told Keown how he had adopted Gift and, by this point, over 30 other street children as well. He and all the children lived in a small, three-bedroom house with a tin roof called “Mudzini Kwetu,” which means “our home.” Each of the girls living there had chosen her favorite color of paint and tattooed the house with her painted handprints, marking it as her own. The house’s walls were covered with bright yellow, red, and blue handprints, as high as the girls could reach. Mulongo’s goal was for these children to feel that they were part of a family and that the little tin house was where they belonged.
Keown went with Mulongo to see Mudzini Kwetu for himself. He met Gift, who was now 13 years old and acted as an older sister to the 33 girls and one boy who were living in Mudzini Kwetu. As the first child to be adopted by Mulongo, Gift was happy and healthy—living proof that a loving family and a good home can heal even the deepest scars.
But some of the other children, who had recently been rescued, were still physically and emotionally wounded, such as the three sisters who, for privacy, are known as K., A., and R. Like Gift, they had to forage for food after their mother died of AIDS; K. was 12 years old, A. was six, and R. was just a year old. After six months of living on the street and fighting for survival every day, they were discovered by the police. But the police didn’t help these girls; they turned them over to the authorities and they were sent to juvenile prison just for living on the streets. When Mulongo heard about the sisters’ plight, he and a pro bono lawyer fought to get them released into his care. They had to fight especially hard to get K. released because she was considered destructive and dangerous. When Keown met her, she was indeed bitter, angry, and mistrustful, as much from her months in prison as from her time on the street. The youngest sister, R., was still bony and malnourished.
The seven-month-old twins, Agnes and Macharia, were two other newly rescued street children. Agnes and her brother Macharia, the only boy living in Mudzini Kwetu, were found by the police starving and screaming in the slums of the nearby town Mtwapa. Residents of Mtwapa said the infants had been there for three days. Unlike the officers who stumbled upon K., A., and R., these officers knew about Anthony’s home for street children and brought the twins directly to him. Shortly thereafter, they found the twins’ mother, drunk on cheap liquor. “Save the girl if you want,” she said, “but throw the boy in the dustbin. He’s not going to survive anyway.” While at Mudzini Kwetu, Keown held Macharia in his arms; six weeks later, despite receiving the best care and medical treatment available, the little boy died.
Though these children came to Mulongo broken and abused, he believes that they will be the seeds of change that will break the cycle of poverty and injustice in Kenya. As a network of educated Kenyans who grow up together, they will enter industry and government, asking themselves and each other, “How do we make life better for children who are living on the streets like we were at their age? How do we build schools, provide clean water, and create good homes for them? How do we change the systems of injustice that contributed to their lack of resources, put some of them in jail, and made others live as sex slaves?”
Mulongo’s vision resonated with Keown. Up until that point, Keown had spent much of his adult life feeling cynical about large charitable organizations whose efforts didn’t seem to produce any tangible results. Sitting in Harvard Square with his friends, he had had many conversations over $3 coffees or $6 beers, discussing how there must be better uses for their beverage money but not knowing where to give it so that it would make a real impact. But Keown saw the difference that Mulongo was making. He was providing a home, a family, and an education for children who had suffered abandonment, starvation, disease, physical and sexual abuse, imprisonment, and neglect. And more than that, he was proposing a plan to equip these children to confront the country’s systemic injustices.
When Keown returned to America after his Kenya vacation, he continued to be inspired by Mulongo’s decision to devote his life to helping street children. He wrote his next Metro article about how everyone should follow Mulongo’s example and give up a little of themselves to make a positive impact on others’ lives. “Mulongo sacrificed everything,” he wrote, “but if we all give a little, no one has to give it all.”