Our African Odyssey: “Home”

Nyumbani, Swahili for “home”, was founded in 1992 by the late Father Angelo D’Agostino, S.J., M.D., a physician, psychiatrist and Jesuit priest, and is the realization of his dream to address the challenges caused by the unprecedented decimation of an entire generation of Kenyans from AIDS. The complex occupies roughly 4 acres of land in the upscale neighborhood (by Kenyan standards) of Karen, named after the author Karen Blixen (Out of Africa). At the time of our visit, Nyumbani housed 93 children who were fiercely protected by a group of Maasai warriors 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.

There were 12 cottages, each named for a Saint, where the children lived as a unit – just as they would have lived at home. The children were different ages, each with their own chores and responsibilities. They did their homework together, ate their meals together and played together. Each cottage has a house-mother or father who provides daily care to the children of that cottage. The complex also included two homes for teenage kids, a convent, classrooms, a volunteer housing unit and an administration building with a common kitchen, laundry facilities, staff offices, a small infirmary, and a state-of-the-art HIV research center and laboratory. The graveyard occupied the back corner of the complex.

We walked row by row through simple grave markers – more akin to a beautiful garden, peaceful and serene. It was explained that there were many more children who had died, but they had a family connection (aunt, cousin, etc.) who buried them in traditional cemeteries. This group of children had no one except Nyumbani. The greatest number of markers were from 1995, but we noticed the markers began to decline until we could see only one child had died in 2003, the year we stood there. Nyumbani’s care and research had made a huge difference in the life of these children with a mission that had evolved from caring for dying children to managing this terrible disease and sustaining life for as many children as possible until a cure could be found.

After a tour of the facility, we were shown to our room in the volunteer housing building. There were two twin beds (in separate rooms), a small bathroom, a propane tank, hot plate, and a cold shower. We set our luggage on the bed in the front room and slept on the other. There wasn’t much sleep the first night, but eventually we learned to turn in unison and subsequently mastered the art of confined space sleeping.

Next, we met the children.

St. Carol was our assigned cottage where we were introduced as the children’s adopted grandparents, but they knew us as “Maci” (their British-style pronunciation of my name eliminated the “r”) and Mike. Although most of them were between 7 and 10 years old, there was an 8-month old baby and an almost-teenager, Anne, who was 12.

Anne and some of the other children at St. Carol cottage.

We stopped by every day when they got home from school and read books or drew pictures with crayons. The boys, especially Michael and Kevin, who were the youngest, sat on my husband’s lap for hours. Anne and Faith were the most curious and were full of questions about our life back in the U.S. Brigit was always in trouble, but she was just as cute as she could be and was usually the one playing hairdresser with my hair…. her styling gel of choice: vaseline.


Ninety-three children…. HIV a part of their everyday life. Every three weeks their blood is drawn to review medication requirements, and every week they were weighed and measured. They were such happy children with some of the best care available in the world. Even still they got sick. Every few days someone seemed to have a bad day. I felt helpless when the 8-month old boy would cry for hours. Anne or Faith would comfort him as best they could, understanding what he must be feeling. As quickly as their torture seemed to arrive it would also pass and we would be relieved to return and find everyone healthy again.


While the kids were at school, we worked in the kitchen washing dishes and counting rice.

Counting rice is a specialized skill not necessarily suited to everyone. One takes a 50-kilo bag of rice and scoops out a large metal plate full. The rice is donated from local farmers raw and still contains small rocks, debris or even chunks of dirt. Our job was to sort through the rice, picking out the rocks, debris or bad pieces. A poor job of counting rice could be detrimental to the tooth, so we took our job quite serious. And, since rice is served at almost every meal, there was always rice to count.

We were busy with our chores when Sister Theresa asked if we would like to work with her in the ghetto the following day.

Kibera, the Nairobi slum

The Nairobi slum, Kibera, is occupied by 1 million people living in a 12 square mile area – no water, very few have electricity (about 20%), no toilets. It was nearing the end of the rainy season which had left the ghetto full of ankle-deep mud and stagnate puddles of water. It is the largest urban slum in Africa with shanties stacked side-by-side, row by row with no more than 42 inches between.

Sister Theresa was wearing mid-knee combat boots and full habit when we met her the next morning for our adventure. Her mission in life is to search out adults who are obviously in full-blown AIDS status and urge them to let her help their children. We crawl under laundry hanging on lines crisscrossing the shanties and hold our breath as we make our way house to house.

Kibera-Slum-Nr_-1The average shack is 12’x12′, built with mud walls, discarded timber, corrugated tin roof and a dirt floor, housing up to 8 people or more. Sometimes our visit with these families would last only a minute while other visits required us to sit down inside for a long chat. It was impossible to identify those people Sister Theresa knew and those she had never met. They were always kind to us and Sister was respectful to them. She had warned us to never accept their offers of food, which they always offered, even though we were sure they barely had enough to feed themselves.

A small pot of surprisingly delicious smelling soup sat on the fire between us and an older couple, quiet spoken but delighted by Sister Theresa’s visit. I sat closest to the inside wall, my husband by the door and Sister in between. While Sister talked with the couple in Swahili, I carefully stole a glance at the wall beside me. It was covered in newspaper and I dared to notice the date: 1983. When we left, Sister Theresa explained to us that this elderly couple was telling her how they are hopeful they will soon be able to leave the ghetto – to move to a real home. They had been there since they had married.

The Nairobi police and fire brigade do not respond to situations inside Kibera, which leave the people of the ghetto to self-correct. It is a brutal, but necessary way of life. We felt eyes watching us endlessly, but Sister was undeterred in her search for the children, spending two days a week in the ghetto and three days at the clinic she has established there, handing out the life-saving medicine that will give these children the opportunity their parents did not receive. The poverty, the plight of these innocent souls is a tale beyond the breadth and depth of language itself.


At the end of the day, we hiked to the Don Bossco Boy’s home, a facility run by the Celation Fathers as a boy’s-only orphanage for children rescued from the ghetto. Father Babu gives us a tour of the facility, introduces us to the charming young men that reside there, and then we sat in his office for tea and cookies. I realized we had met some of the bravest, most honorable, humble people in this world. We sat for some time with Father Babu while he and Sister Theresa talked about their projects… and those cookies tasted wonderful.

A few days later we were talking with the administrator about the best way to help the Nyumbani children when we return home. One would think a donation of clothing would be an effective way to send help. She opened the doorway to a large loft area revealing thousands and thousands of clothes, explaining they had years and years of clothing. Easy is not always the best answer.

Just as we had returned to the kitchen for an afternoon of counting rice, the administrator rushed over to tell us we had a visitor. She was nervous, her voice skeptical. We would soon understand why…..

Our African Odyssey: life and death in the bush.

I sat in the lobby of the bank on a Wednesday morning late 2001. My job was to open a business account using the money from our savings account. The voice in my head wondered if this would eventually be the smartest thing we ever did, or the thing we regretted most.

By January 2002, my husband and I had two business partners, office space, three engineers, a graphic designer, a top-notch server farm and a prototype. We were in business.

TOPUP logoThe product was a back-office system that allowed mobile users to add minutes to their mobile device from a stand-alone terminal using an emerging cellular GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) technology requiring no wireline tether. Customers could buy minutes using cash or a credit card. Since I was in charge of marketing, I named it “TOP-UP.”

My son spent several afternoons in our office doing hundreds of test transactions with a stack of dollar bills we kept in the desk drawer. Someone had the idea to see how long it took him to buy minutes — it took about a minute. Immediately, I put a trademark on the tag line, “Got A Minute?”

GotAMinute Logo

We worked terribly hard and had loads of fun. A few months after our system went live, we were meeting with First Data and Western Union to allow customers to pay their utility bills or send money to anybody anywhere in the world. We were moving fast.TOPUP screen shot

TOP-UP Screen Ads
TOP-UP Screen Ads

One afternoon an email showed up from Coinstar (NASDAQ: CSTR) requesting information about TOP-UP. My heart stopped. Money was running dry and this email was the most wonderful thing in the world at that moment.

Earlier that year we had sold our beautiful downtown condo just in case our savings account proved a bit short. We found a little fishing cottage on the edge of town and spent a week of lunch hours pulling the flocked wallpaper from the walls and cleaning the kitchen cabinets. Coinstar wanted to use our software on their big green, coin-counting machines in grocery stores all over the U.S. and the U.K. We invited them to our little fishing cottage. My husband grilled steaks, I made home-made french fries, and we talked about a partnership. After 60 some odd field trials, they bought our little company lock, stock and barrel. Poof! It was over.

It had been some time since our last vacation so my husband had the idea that we should do something that would allow us to ‘give back’. He arranged for us to work at Nyumbani, an orphanage just outside of Nairobi Kenya that was home to HIV positive children who had lost their parents to AIDS. But first, we would go on safari.

photoThe safari would take us to the Samburu and Shaba game preserves, a 5-hour drive from Nairobi.The roads were horrible. We stopped at small shops along the way, had a flat tire, marveled at the women who carried loaded baskets atop their heads, dodged speeding bullets (pickup trucks loaded with people) and finally made it to the preserve. Our “room” was a tent and the “restaurant” was an open air pavilion. Breakfast was at 5:30am and the first safari of the day at 6:30am.

Ours was a small group: a married couple, two female friends, an 84-year old woman, who we affectionately called “Mama Safari”, her daughter, my husband and myself. Our vehicle was an open Land Rover, which we sometimes wished was not so open.


Animals of every variety walked right by the vehicle, sometimes they stretched out on the hood. The driver took us to the places he knew the animals frequented, parked in the middle of this area where we waited… and waited. Sometimes the animals showed up quickly, and sometimes they took their good, sweet time.eagle

There were so many animals: Grant Gazelle’s, Somali Ostrich, Baboons, the Oryx, Zebra, Water Buffalo, Hippopotamus, Dic Dic, Impala and Gerenuk, Giraffe, Cheetah, Leopard, Rhinosorus, Elephants, Lions, Hawks, Eagles and the greatly protected White Rhino that would fetch $250,000 if trapped by a poacher.

We were invited to the Samburu Warrior village where the men performed a warrior dance: they jump 4-6 feet off the ground. It appeared effortless, but was clearly super-human. The women would sing and bop up and down making their colorful necklaces fly.

The second safari of the day coincided with dinner time in the bush. It wasn’t at all uncommon for the Land Rover to get stuck in mud, but it was a little unnerving when it happened at dinner time. It was already dusk one night when we got stuck, the driver obviously embarrassed and determined to fix the problem on his own in spite of our urging him to call for help. Mama Safari took matters into her own hands, “This is Mama Safari, we’re stuck and you need to come find me….Over.” No one could understand the reply but it wasn’t long before a tractor showed up and pulled us out of the muck. We couldn’t help but wonder how they knew where to find us, but we were glad Mama Safari had the guts to use that radio.


It was at dusk again a few nights later when we saw a line of Hyena and a single Lion. The Lion was tracking a lone Wildebeest while the Hyenas were stalking the Lion. It was a dance of survival as each animal avoided its pursuer until dark. Our driver suggested this would be a good place to start the next morning. In the early morning fog, we could see Jackals and Hyena scattered around a fallen animal. It was the Lion….and it was numbing. To have seen the dance begin and now witness what was left of this beautiful creature – we saw the bush in a new light that day.



cheetaWe sat quietly for breakfast in the early mornings, the coffee black and strong. Dinners were superb with exquisitely prepared Impala and Ostrich. The Maasai would dance and sing until the wee hours. Hot water bottles were placed between the sheets to warm our beds from the chilly nights. I screamed when I crawled into bed the first night. We slept in simple tents by the river with mosquito netting and sometimes in more permanent tents complete wth hot and cold running water. We visited a reforestation ranch and planted an Acacia tree with a Maasai tribe to ensure an ongoing source of food for the growing population of elephants. We practiced basic Swahili and when we couldn’t last one more day without exercise, an armed guard accompanied us outside the electric fences of the compound for a nice long walk. We did not speak of exercise again.

imageA short flight on a small plane had taken us to our final stop in the Maasai Mara, the Great Rift Valley, Amboseli National Park, and at last, back to Nairobi where we spent a lovely evening in a hotel room with real walls, windows and doors… and a proper bathroom. A nice young lady came to our room and used henna to draw a beautiful design free-hand on my hand, wrist and above the outside of my ankles. The first half of the trip was over.

Safari had been good for our souls… healing in a way. There was no technology, no cell phones, no TOP-UP. We didn’t know what to expect at the orphanage, but safari had been more than we could imagine and we were ready for whatever Africa brought next……at least we thought.


The children of Nyumbani
The children of Nyumbani


TOP-UP and Prizm Technology memorabilia still on the web:

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