The deep azure of her eyes clung like a halo to her pupil. Her eyes pointed up toward the sky as she spoke each word. “You are welcome. You see, just as the doors were open when you arrived today, they will be open for you always.”
Sister Freda welcomed us for tea this morning. I had heard such great things about her, but nothing to explain the grip she has on those that have come to know her. “You have to meet Sister Freda when you are going to Kitale!” “Cool, why?” I’d ask. “You’ll know. Just meet her.”
When we arrived at her round breakfast table she and her British expat husband, Richard, were hosting two visitors, a man and wife. Graciela has been to Sister Freda’s six times! She has brought her 71-yr-old husband, Ron, with her for the first time. Graciela grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico. She looks at her life as a mission of God. When she shared that she lost her father at age 10, I reached my hand across the table to hers, clasping hers and gave her a knowing nod of the head. She smiled at me as she continued talking. When she lost her father, she and her siblings had to fend for themselves. Scratching at the table she said, “I would dig. Through the trash to find something to keep the hunger away. I was a happy girl. I would play and play and then go find a piece of bread or an orange that had been squeezed, eat that and play some more.” She, her mother, and her siblings eventually crossed the US border on foot, wading through the cold river water up to their chests. “Now go to school!” her mother told her when they arrived. She did and after treating her husbands widow as a physical therapist, she finds herself with us at Sister Freda’s in Kitale. Giving Sister Freda a massage every night to relieve some of the tensions of her everyday.
At the end of her story, Sister Freda, rises from her chair and rests her elbow on her chair. She closes her eyes and lays her hands palm to palm. “There is so much need,” she said. “So we welcome you and we will help you in your mission to stop the fear so many people feel about Africa, to come and see how beautiful our country is.”
She opens her eyes, we all take in a deep breath, and I wipe the tears from my eyes. She returns with a beaded necklace. A single strand with the colors of the Kenyan flag – green, red, black, and white. “These are made by a womens’ group in Kipsongo, a slum here in Kitale. You will meet them.” I thank her and lay my fingertips over the beads like its gold. “Thank you so much, Sister Freda.” Less than an hour of knowing her, I’ve been welcomed, gifted, and cried. This woman is amazing.
After meeting up with Michele and Caroline, both from Seattle, and friends who I volunteered with last year, we picked up some other volunteers from Ukraine and Uzbekistan and we head to a camp for Internally displaced persons affected by the post-election violence. They have no home and land to return to. Kenyan military is on guard at the gates. I ask them what they do there. “We can do nothing but provide security.” When I asked if we could take video, I was told to only take pictures of the “decent” tents at the camp, not the ones fashioned out of potato sack and sticks. “You see, it is an embarrassment,” he says. “For the government.”
After getting a few shots of the camp I realized I was fulfilling one of my life goals – to visit a refugee camp. My purpose was much different than I had imagined it, but the goal is fulfilled nevertheless. We interview Sister Freda, and as we carry on, we encounter a man limping toward us with a makeshift cane. “This man is very eager to speak with you,” she tells me.
Sister Freda helps translate his story. When the “skirmishes” were going on, and explosives were running him off his land, he says his blood pressure went up and he had a stroke. His entire left side is useless, he said. “Even my eye,” he said as he indicated the puss and tears forming. “I’m worrying that I am too old. I am 40-years-old with 6 children. Who is going to toil the land for them? I am worrying I wont be able to provide them with an education.” I asked Sister Freda to ask him what it is that keeps him going, where he gets his hope. “From the higher power,” she says.
When we walk away I thank Sister Freda and she says, “Thank you, I believe you were meant to be here to share these stories.” She calls on a divine power that I’m still having trouble wrapping my mind around, but my heart feels like its been inflated by this woman, the people she’s touched, and the places she has taken me.
We carry on to the man’s tent to meet his family when Graciela approaches him and takes his crippled left hand. She sits him down after I had walked him, step by step holding his waist across the camp of 600 people. “When did he become paralyzed?” she asked. “January”. Her eyes widen as she stretches his fingers in her palm.
“He can be healed. With some exercises, he can regain the use of his hand.” She hurriedly takes out some creams from her bag, massages his arms and whispers, “In Jesus name I pray, in Jesus name I pray.” She gave him some exercises and I asked her, “Why don’t you show his wife how to do it?”
As we walked away, Graciela says to me, “Sometimes you don’t know what you are here for today, and then God shows you.”
After the IDP camp, we head the Sister Freda’s hospital, a wonderful, although incomplete, medical care center, all provided by the kind donations of individuals, churches, and business men and women. It is run by Sister Freda and her small staff of five. Walking with Graciela, she gives us a tour and we arrive at the room of Boaz, a 17-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. He lights up! She tells me that she has only been working with his about 2 weeks, but she has already got him on his feet. “He wants to so bad, but no one knew he could!” Instead of being stuck behind the camera, I immediately got down on the floor when he was seated, surrounded by pillows and hunched over. His eyes pointed up as he drew out a big smile. Instinctively, Graciela and I drew him on his feet, each of us taking a side. Someone took a balloon and set it in front of him. He was kicking, and communicating, grunting, and laughing, and his feet would not stop moving! “Mzuri sana, Boaz!” I said, cheering him on as we drew him down the dimly lit corridor, chasing the balloon in our own makeshift game of soccer. He didn’t want to stop. Two weeks ago, he was a shell. Left at home to suffer in silence. Now he’s got hope, he’s got strength; he’s got his legs! That smile, that laugh. It’s the strength of the human spirit. It’s something I have found nowhere else. The sense of empowerment and the knowledge that some people out there are still willing to fight when hope seems lost.
There is so much more to share, but you have to see it for yourself, you have to feel it. And I’ve realized, when it is your time, you will.