Lord’s Mountain Orphanage: Giving Birth in Zambia

Barbara Noe Kennedy

 

My husband and I got married relatively late in life. We were pushing, cough cough, 50, after all. Clearly, we were not going to have kids. And that’s the one thing that made us wonder, and even a little sad. Why hadn’t we met earlier? We would have made great parents. During marriage counseling, our pastor, Alisa Lasater-Wailoo, blew up that concept.

 

“Think about birthing as a broader concept,” she said. “Beyond the notion of a nuclear family.”

 

And that is how we ended up at Lord’s Mountain Orphanage in the little town of Zambezi, in the far northwestern corner of Zambia. We tossed around many ideas, throwing the proverbial spaghetti on the wall to see what stuck. I had never been to Africa; and an orphanage that nurtured children who had lost their parents to HIV seemed the perfect fit.

 

Honestly, I was terrified the first time we visited, in August 2015. I had visions of malaria-bearing mosquito swarms, venomous pythons lurking in the jungle, and skulking lions. It took two days to get there, including a 14-hour flight to Addis Ababa, a 4-hour flight to Lusaka, a 14-hour bus ride on pothole-filled roads to a regional town, and another 7-hour bus ride on a somewhat better road. I was exhausted when we arrived at the orphanage, promising myself this was my first and last visit there. This wasn’t the answer, after all.

 

 

And yet, it’s amazing how life gets in the way of the best-laid plans. The second we showed up at the orphanage complex, a group of the cutest kids surrounded us, dressed in their best clothes, and sang us a welcome song. Heavenly notes wrapped us in love. Smiling faces that I would get to know as little Henry, endearing Kafunya, sweet Precious, rambunctious Abraham, crafty Wisdom, smart brothers Obren and Oliver. They were beautiful, each and every one of them, and I felt a rayon of warmth penetrate my soul.

 

Over the next few weeks, we taught the kids baseball, held English and math classes, helped with homework, walked down to the Zambezi River (watching for crocodiles), and took a field trip to a terrifying swinging bridge at Chiningi. And I tell you, those kids have nothing close to material wealth. They dress in hand-me-downs. They eat meager meals that fill their stomachs but nowhere near provide the well-balanced nutrition children need: nshima (a thick maize porridge), little fishies, boiled greens. And yet, those children exude so much joy. They love holding our hands and chatting and joking and just having fun. They embraced us with all their hearts, and called us Mum and Dad.

 

And David and I felt something. We felt relationships blooming. With the kids, but also with the heads of the orphanage, Pastor Bernard Lumene and his wife, Betty. The couple founded Lord’s Mountain Orphanage (LMO) about 15 years ago. They had come from Congo as missionaries and felt compelled to help displaced children in this out-of-the-way corner of the world. They built two dorms on a hillside, a kitchen with a dining area (that’s also used as a study hall/hanging out area/etc.), and a library. A church, a mission house, a reception hall, and their residence complete the complex.   

 

Betty and Bernard both gave up a comfortable life in Congo to serve these children. They live on the edge, oftentimes worrying they don’t have the funds to pay for the kids’ tuition, or for their rice and beans, or for school uniforms. And yet, somehow, it always works out.

 

David and I have returned to LMO three times, and we’re headed there twice this year. During our visits, we have seen what an amazing job Bernard and Betty are doing to raise those kids. But we’ve also seen what is lacking, especially in the realm of education. The teachers at the local schools do the best with what they have, but they don’t have sufficient educational materials to do their jobs. They teach from one textbook or notes, which they read aloud or write portions on the chalkboard, and the children are obliged to take notes from which to study. If the kids miss a class, or even miss a few sentences, they don’t have any way to go back to research it or look it up. They have no internet.

 

And here’s where miracles can happen. Through a contact David and I made at the Library of Congress, we were introduced to Libraries Without Borders. This is an international organization that strives to put information into the hands of those who are most vulnerable. Their vision is to build sustainable digital libraries, and their executive director, Allister Chang, took us under his wing to help us build a digital library in Zambezi.

 

Through the extraordinary technology of a palm-size Raspberry Pi and tablets, we have been able to transport thousands of books and videos (mostly Khan Academy and Wikipedia) to Zambezi, where we are working with the orphanage as well as two local high schools to develop an electronic library program that can supplement the teachers’ teaching plans, as well as help kids study better.

 

And it doesn’t stop there. Another concern is that, once the children hit 12th grade and take their final exams, they are obliged to move out of the orphanage. It’s time for them to make a place for themselves in the world, and to allow more children to move in. If the graduates pass five out of seven of their final exams (and have the financing), they can go onto higher education. Through stateside donations, we have managed to send two young men to college to date, Brudas and Hanel.

 

But if the kids don’t pass at least five exams (and, honestly, I doubt I would have passed the math or science portions without my father’s dedicated private tutorials every evening in high school), their path to higher education is lost. They need to find something else to do with their lives. And in this remote corner of rural Africa, there’s not much else to do.

 

 

And that’s where this electronic library is playing a role as well. Through a small grant offered by the Women’s Methodist Organization, we have been able to hire four graduates to work as managers and curators of that electronic library. They send us weekly reports and keep it moving when we’re not there.

 

We have big dreams for our kids, the largest of which is to build a technology center there in town. It would provide internet access for the general public, a place to use the electronic library, as well as job opportunities (there’s one young graduate, for example, who makes delicious scones; I would love to see her selling them at the internet café that would definitely have to be part of the technology center). All in good time.

 

In the meantime, I look back at everything that has happened over the past few years and shake my head. Pastor Alisa was absolutely right. Birthing doesn’t have to be solely about the nuclear family. David and I have become part of a loving family on the other side of the planet. Thanks to Facebook Messenger, which is free for them to use, we communicate with Bernard and some of the older kids on a daily basis. The kids are always in our thoughts. We can’t wait to see them on our next trip. All 35 of them. I mean 37. I mean, wow, the number keeps growing! 

 

To donate to Lord’s Mountain Orphange, click here.

 

Author Bio:

 

Barbara Noe Kennedy worked as an editor at the National Geographic Book Division for more than 20 years. She has written four books, and her writings have also been published in National Geographic, The Daily Telegraph, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

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