My experience at Embu

I’m traveling to Milan, back from Kenya. My experience at Embu was only 20 days, but that reality, so different from mine, has lengthened time and I seem to be back a bit older. Or maybe with some lessons?

I cannot say that it changed my life because I go back to my comforts; the nice house and the good food, the frivolous errands. But I come back with more awareness. The world is not as we, the White, know it, nothing is obvious.

I look at this beautiful Amsterdam airport and it seems to me that my gaze penetrates through the gleaming floors and the untouched walls and reaches the African land and the bare feet that rise in clouds of dust, which sticks to everything, staining it with red.

Now I know, because I have lived it, that there is a humanity that lives as still attached to the umbilical cord of the world. We, on the contrary, float in a fictitious reality that we have built ourselves.



Many told me, what are you going to do in Africa, there is enough to do here, go to the Central Station in Milan, save the ticket money and do more good. But I now feel like I did the right thing by going, because it’s not always all about money.


First of all you cannot understand if you do not know. To get to know, the news is not enough because it gives you emotions only up to a certain point. Then one turns off the TV and goes to dinner. To know one must live personally, truly share the emotions of a situation. In German it is called mitfühlen, meaning “to feel with”.

I now feel that I can better understand these people, even though I do not pretend, from the height of my comfortable life, to fullyunderstand.

Understanding of these people helps not to judge, not to condemn, which has become common with immigration. How does a child, who has never had a mother, know when he grows up, that he should not use violence against women? How does a man, who has never planned his future because of its intrinsic uncertainty, know that if he wants to escape his poverty to Europe, he must first find a job? How can we demand from them order and punctuality, if they have grown up in filth and chaos? They do not even see that the plastic bag should not be part of the landscape.

What fault do they have?

I do not justify, but I understand. If ignorance makes us innocent, knowledge, as ours, makes us responsible. I feel the same responsibility to these people, to whom we have made progress available, as I would giving a Ferrari to a child. It is clear that we are responsible if she gets in an accident.

If each of us went to Embu for a few days, maybe the world would not just point the cameras to Kenya, but would extend a hand, moved by real feelings.



What is concretely done in Embu? When with children, everyone wants to be hugged, receive attention, a candy, a balloon. The women hired by the sisters to look after them, cannot have intimacy with everyone. One feeds babies and coddles them in her arms. Some have problems walking, so for them, to be carried to the swing is an event in their life. Then one stays with the sisters. At the moment, there is an Italian nun, very good, who tells a lot of true and meaningful stories. The presence of volunteers gives them strength, even when they already have so much to do what they do. But it reminds them that they are not alone, that also on the other side of the world there are people who support their mission.

You make small useful jobs, the ones nobody has time to do. I cleaned the children’s playhouse, sewed the mosquito nets, helped with some health documents, I brought a walker to a child who was not standing, accompanied a nun to the hospital, translated a document from Italian to English, sometimes did the shopping, did a drawing class with tempera.

We try to see what improvements could be made by making a report to Maisha to find a project in which to invest.

In short, it takes imagination and a sense of initiative and, I discovered it here, even faith, in God, in providence, in the goodness of man, in destiny, and in one’s own abilities. Faith in something, because, as Sister Letizia says, if the children are still alive, it’s because there’s a plan for them. Surely it is a miracle, whether one believes in God or not.


The orphanage does not even have a fixed income but lives on donations; it keeps 50 children. When I saw them running wild in the yard, the little ones who climb up the gates, fall from the swing, and do not hurt themselves! Two-year-olds who walk around the place alone, enter the kitchen, climb onto the bunk beds; an Italian mother would have died of a heart attack.


Then another important thing is that it shows both grown ups and kids, that the muzungu, the white man, is not superior. We also dirty our hands and clothes, we also eat their insipid polenta and sweat in the sun, we also handle a broom. This is very important because unfortunately there is still a colonial reverence towards us.


At a party at a sister’s house, they dragged me in the middle of the circle and we danced together. They laughed at me, but we should not be offended, Africans always laugh, especially about their misfortunes. I think it’s their way, to deal with difficult situations. We experience stress, our blood pressure rises, they laugh. Because maybe they want to feel good, despite everything. This too we must learn.


Therefore who says to give money and nothing else is a cynic who has not understood what is needed: the personal meeting, the sharing, bringing in the heart. Certainly it has helped me a lot as a person, but this too is not selfishness, because if each of us learned from these experiences, we would all be more mature, and aware, and there would be more peace and mutual help. Of course the money is important, but it is not enough, as it is not enough to have a Ferrari, but not know how to drive it.


I cannot deny being happy, even relieved to be back to civilization. This stop in Amsterdam is completely different from that in Entebbe. We are welcomed by whites, blond policemen with blue eyes. I jokingly told two words in Italian, they almost do not look at my passport, and they let me go through. Instead, Africans are asked more questions, they laugh at an old man who did not understand he had to get in line. They have a nice belt equipped with a gun, handcuffs, torch etc, while at Entebbe black policemen had the machine gun in their hands.


Although until now I have pitied the poverty of the children of Embu, I realize now that I am the poorer. Poor in spirit because I felt the lack of this luxury. I lacked the order, the organization, the shiny floors, the interior furnishings, not broken or damaged, the perfect walls, the screen advertisements. I realized that in reality this luxury is my environment and I feel ashamed. What would Linet say? The girl who had been joyfully amazed to see two old unmatched couches in the guest room?


It comes to my mind the house where Sister Magdalen lived. Made of mud, between dust and forest, where the only entertainment at sunset were moon and stars, and during the day the red powder was heated and cooked by the sun.



We think we are more advanced, better, but in reality we are dependent on our own progress. We need our comfort, to feel secure and keep close our will to live.



One episode in particular impressed me and summarizes in an image of what I’m trying to write in words. One evening I was in the room of small children who were a bit disheartened

because there were so many and I did not have enough arms to cuddle them all; as they would deserve. As soon as I go out, I came across a herd of older children, from 5 to 10 years old, who jumped and beat on the iron benches. Sister had just had a light bulb put on and they were happy because in spite of the evening they could stay in the courtyard without darkness. They started to coordinate and the hits on the bench became a real rhythm; the children danced by swaying their hips, as if they were born with the music in their veins.

In short, we danced wildly for half an hour, before going to dinner. This thanks to a light bulb.


Thank you naked, orphan baby, you go around the world without shoes, you’re happy with a chapati and a piece of torn paper to make tiny balls.


You have shown me the richness of the spirit, of the moment.


With your ready smile you have uncovered the illusion of my daily life and I have been able to grasp, through you, a glimpse of pure life.


Thank you, Embu Children’s Home.

Luciano Zapponi

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.