Mike Wamalwa is a 9-year-old boy whose favorite hobby is reading. He’s one of eight siblings, six living at home in Nairobi, Kenya.
Home is a bit of a misnomer. The family lives on the streets since Mike’s mom died and his father began drinking.
“Begging for food . . . and coming to this program is the only way I eat,” Mike wrote in a biography about himself for Sheltering Wings, a nonprofit organization working with street children in Africa.
“I don’t have a family,” he wrote. “The street is my home and family, but I hate it.”
Mike’s desire is to go back to school, and Tammy Donahue, a 1986 graduate of Union High School, is working to make that happen. She’s trying to raise funds to help him enroll in a boarding school.
Donahue, daughter of the late Patrick and Angela Donahue, formerly of Union, now of Phoenix, Ariz., lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where she does mission work for Sheltering Wings.
Right now, she is back in America, visiting family and friends and also fund-raising to help street children in Nairobi. Experts estimate there are as many as 300,000 children living and working on the streets of Kenya — 60,000 of them in Nairobi alone.
Donahue doesn’t question those numbers, because she has worked firsthand with many of the children, and the stories are heart-breaking.
“They end up on the streets for many reasons, and poverty has a lot to do with it,” Donahue told The Missourian. AIDS and substance abuse are other factors.
“Parents get addicted to alcohol and can’t care for the kids anymore, so the kids just run to the streets to try to make it there,” said Donahue. “There are some parents who just don’t care. There are some (parents) who die and the kids try to go stay with the grandparents, but if they can’t care for them . . . .”
Street children are treated by others like trash, and they feel that way about themselves, said Donahue.
“There’s also a class system and anyone who makes it up, they tend to look down on the others still at the bottom. They call them ‘dirty things.’ ”
A United Nations report by IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks) on Kenya’s street children quoted one 15-year-old boy as saying, “Nobody cares about me, whether I live or not.
“People don’t want to look at me. I’m trash. I don’t want to live on the streets, but I have nobody. My uncle beat me hard when I lived there, and so I ran. Living in the streets is the only way to survive.”
Donahue has five children for whom she is raising funds to place in a boarding school in May. She needs a little over $1,000 to get those five started.
Called to Mission Work
Donahue said it was a call from God that led her to begin working with Sheltering Wings in Africa since 2002.
After graduating from Union High School, she earned a degree in parks and recreation/tourism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and later went back for graduate courses in education.
She’s held a variety of jobs, from working with pharmaceutical companies, working with juvenile offenders for the state of Missouri’s Division of Youth Services (four years) and Special School District in St. Louis (seven years).
Donahue also had been doing a lot of ministry work with inner city children through Church on the Rock in St. Peters when she felt a calling to go to Africa.
“God had really been developing in me a heart for orphans and adoption, but there was one specific time I was coming back from doing some ministry work, I was living in the Central West End at the time, and I was praying, I was just led to pray, and it was really strong, a very powerful experience,” said Donahue. “I knew it was Africa.”
Shortly after that, she met some Kenyans who were living in the St. Louis area, and they started teaching her Swahili. Then she met a Kenyan woman and went to work at her orphanage.
“(The calling) was an intense experience,” said Donahue. “I just felt it . . . and ended up just crying by the end of it.”
Donahue found there was quite a community of Kenyans living in St. Louis, primarily in North County.
“It’s very common for Africans to want to leave there and come to America . . . Poverty is the main reason,” she said.
They likely came to St. Louis for its many universities. Many come here as students on education visas.
“It’s not easy to get a visa to come to the United States. A student visa is a good way to come,” said Donahue.
The calling Donahue felt to Africa has led her to work that she finds fulfilling and rewarding. It als led her to her family.
Donahue went on to adopt one of the children she had met at an orphanage. He was 10 when they met and is around 22 now. He was married a couple of years ago and recently had a daughter, whom he named after Tammy. He lives in Kenya.
Feeding, Teaching, Providing Shelter
Donahue learned about Sheltering Wings through a friend.
The Christian mission organization was founded by Ruth Cox in 1999 after her daughter served in the Peace Corps, said Donahue.
Sheltering Wings began with a small child sponsorship program in Burkina Faso, West Africa, which has grown to include an orphanage, a couple of elementary schools, a technical school and a medical clinic. The child sponsorship program now supports 165 children.
Today Sheltering Wings has ministries in West Africa, Kenya, the Middle East and Brazil.
For about three years, Donahue worked in South Africa. She also worked some in Uganda. Since 2007, however, she has lived in Kenya pretty steadily, coming home to America for a few months at a time.
In Kenya she operates a weekly feeding program for street boys in Kawangware, a slum area on the outskirts of Nairobi.
She also has a puppet/drama team from the same area and teaches in the Mathare slum where she is also initiating a sponsorship program for some of the neediest students at the school. A partnership for a new children’s home in the upcountry town of Sagana is also in the works.
When Donahue teaches, she speaks English, which is an official language of Kenya. Children there start learning it in third grade. Donahue does know quite a bit of Swahili, the native language, but her vocabulary is limited.
She has taught primary grades, classes like social studies and math, but never reading.
“They do need more books for reading,” she said. “They don’t typically do a lot of reading . . . they lack in resources. Books are not something that they have. It’s something we try to get for them.”
In the slums where Donahue has taught, the children don’t have much at all, she said. They live in small mud houses with open sewers running through their sitting room, she said. It’s rough.
Americans would be shocked by it, but Donahue said she’s used to it now.
“People will ask, ‘Does it really look like that?, and I say, ‘Yes!’ ”
The feeding program Donahue leads began last summer, and spurred the start of another project, a shelter.
The children she was feeding were bringing to her other children who were injured and needed medical attention.
The shelter currently houses six boys. Others who were living there have been able to get back with families, said Donahue.
Most of the children are taken care of by NGOs or non-government organizations, Donahue said, noting the number is around 70 percent.
“These kids, honestly, really do break my heart. They make me cry,” she said. “They really do have some heartbreaking stories.”
There isn’t much for the children to do in Nairobi for fun. They do play soccer, but that’s really the only thing they play.
“You see them playing a lot with balls they make out of plastic bags and string. They use what they have,” said Donahue.
Some have played basketball and a few were learning about baseball through a volunteer who was a baseball fan.
Many of the kids, in addition to living on the streets, need to be put in to rehab programs for addictions.
“They get addicted to glue, cheap stuff, they inhale the smell or huff it,” said Donahue. “They call it gum. They buy it in a bottle.”
They also huff airplane fuel, she said. They do some marijuana, but mainly it’s the cheap stuff.
The affect of huffing glue is debilitating.
“It affects the nervous system a lot,” said Donahue. “It destroys the brain and really quickly. I’ve seen boys deteriorate really fast. It’s really sad.
“Kids that I really love who I haven’t seen for a couple of months, I’ll see and they’re just walking around drooling and you can’t even get their attention.”
One boy, Peter, was a particularly sad case.
“He shook so badly, if you would give him food or water, he couldn’t hold it because he shook so badly, and all of the other boys would make fun of him,” said Donahue.
“If you gave him food, and he has to put it on the ground and try to eat from that. He finally got so sick that he wasn’t eating. He would just lay on the ground. So we got him some help. And he got a lot better in rehab. But unfortunately, he did go back to it.”
The children in Nairobi turn to drugs for the same reasons anyone does, said Donahue — to escape their problems.
“They start doing it just to not feel the cold, the hunger, the pain,” she said. “They have some hard stories.”
One boy told her how his parents left him with thieves and drug dealers. He still lives on the street, she said, but he’s gotten easier to deal with.
There are many success stories. For example, Donahue was able to enroll another former street boy in a technical school.
That’s what makes her work so fulfilling, she said. It’s what keeps her going.
“All of our kids, it’s really a process, especially the longer they’ve lived on the streets,” said Donahue.
Does Fear for Her Life
Crime has been high in Nairobi, and Kenya is really unstable right now, said Donahue, noting a branch of Al-Qaeda is at work in the country.
An attack on a mall in Nairobi last year that made national news is one example.
Donahue admits that she does fear for her safety at times. She has been mugged and had her phone and wallet stolen more than once.
“I was thinking that working at Walmart was sounding really good sometimes,” she remarked.
“Last year I had a really hard year. I had people after me. It’s hard there. It’s a tough environment. When there’s so much poverty and people are desperate . . .”
Donahue said she does use public transport in Nairobi, which makes her stand out.
“You almost never see white people doing that. They will try to take advantage of me, so I just speak in Swahili and they know. They’ll say in Swahili, ‘Oh, she already knows,’
“I always say I move like 007 . . . You just have to watch.”
None of it has ever been enough to make Donahue quit her mission work, even the illnesses she’s endured. Those include measles, boils and lots of stomach problems.
The children and people Donahue helps in Nairobi do look out for her and protect her as best they can.
“They tell me they’re watching my back,” she said, with a smile.
To raise funds for her work in Nairobi, Donahue can gives presentations. Friends have also held events.
People can donate online at www.gofundme.com/reach-the-least or checks made to Sheltering Wings with a note that it is for Tammy Donahue’s work can be mailed to Sheltering Wings, P.O. Box 29565, St. Louis, MO 63126.
A You Tube video of Donahue’s experiences in Nairobi can be seen at http://youtu.be/p-BnKn9EKFc.
People can follow her blog at http://barabara2baraka.blogspot.com.
People can reach Donahue by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.