Looking Back: TNP in the Beginning

By Gale St. John

Six years ago, I met Mary Martin Niepold for the first time.  We found we had a lot in common and made a dinner date to get acquainted.  That dinner was life changing for me.  During the course of it, Mary Martin told me about her desire to help African grandmothers raising AIDs orphans.  She had all the statistics at her fingertips, and she concluded with this statement:  “And you’re going to help me.”

So I made a commitment to this woman I hardly knew to travel with her to Kenya to figure out how we could help our sisters in Africa. Before I knew it, I was on a plane with her, a dream, a few names, substantial fear and a lot of faith.

The next three weeks were filled with ups and downs and each experience was magical.  People who could help us kept appearing — sitting down beside us in airports, meeting us in elevators, driving us around, meeting in school buildings – and trusting that these two American grandmothers – with no funds, no backing, no experience – were sincere and had the capacity to help.   Miraculously the framework of The Nyanya Project was in place when we departed for home.  We had our first two groups of grandmothers: one group ready for job training, the other desiring to establish a sheep owners cooperative.  We had bonded with these women, who were so different from us but still so much the same.  We had  Kenyans with energy and ideas committed to helping coordinate in Africa.  We had a list of contacts who were to prove helpful in various ways in the future.

The experiences we shared on the trip were mind-boggling.  Traipsing through the muddy paths of Kibera, one of the world’s largest slums, we felt exuberant and completely without fear – so committed were we to the nyanyas.  Children who had never seen a white face before called out “How are you?” and giggled wildly when we responded in our limited Swahili. We ate local food and drank tea in homes with no electricity or plumbing.  We planted trees in a remote village and saw a baby being born in a parking lot.  We sang and danced with villagers and made promises to send help.

Our bodies were exhausted but our mood was joyous.  Whatever poverty we saw was ameliorated by the spirit and vitality of the women we met.  Their ability to live with love and spirit in spite of appalling circumstances made us humble.  Our hearts  filled with love for Eunice, the three Marys, Beatrice, Eugene, Julius, and all the other Africans who have now become our lifelong friends.

Looking back, I am thrilled by what has been accomplished since that first trip in July, 2007.  Mary Martin’s dream has been not only been fulfilled  but also has become the dream of hundreds of others.   I have been privileged to be an ongoing part of this most amazing project.  I have made two subsequent trips for TNP – one with my daughter, Kari, and grandson, Gareth, to build a shelter for grandmothers in Tanzania and the other with my sister to visit the Kenya projects and all our African friends.  Each of those trips was very special in its own way.  But I will always remember that first trip as the most profound experience of my lifetime.

Gale St. John (second from right), the first to travel with the founder to launch TNP in 2007, reunites with the original four grandmothers who started the Nyanya Preschool in the Kibera slums of Nairobi. She and her sister visited the grandmothers again in August, 2010.

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