There is no way of knowing who passes through our hills and valleys on any given day. We’ve all experienced that brief euphoria of seeing a celebrity in our midst—not the bold-faced names who are our neighbors, but rather people like George Clooney, who was spotted one day eating lunch at the West Street Grill in Litchfield.
Our restaurants, markets, and hotels are frequently lit up by the renowned, the famous and the notorious. Less obvious are the remarkable people who visit more invisibly, without celebrity but bearing magic just the same. Those people whom you meet, and in an instant they instant inspire you and even change your life; those people who elevate you, and us, by their mere presence.
Evalyn Wakhusama is one of those people.
Early this month, she graced our shores—and I do mean grace—from the remote village of Nambale, Kenya, via Nairobi, where she is an Episcopalian minister. Evalyn’s ties to Litchfield County go back to the early 2000s. After pursuing her master’s at the Yale Divinity School, she returned home with what she called, “the burden in my heart” to bring her Connecticut community together with that of her impoverished hometown and country. Nambale is close to the Ugandan border, and it lies along the infamous truck routes which have helped make AIDS a transnational epidemic in Africa, causing an estimated local infection rate of 30 percent—almost five times the already-astronomical Kenyan average.
Indignant about the poverty and disease that was laying waste to communities like hers, and armed with compassion that the privilege of her own distance afforded her, Evalyn started a nonprofit called WIKS—Women’s Initiative for Knowledge and Survival. Implicit in the organization’s moniker is the link between education and opportunity. She was the ultimate case-in-point. Growing up on a family farm, her mother was a domestic worker and her father worked as a printer in Nairobi.
Early on, her parents taught her that education was the only way out of poverty. “The most simple life is tolerable as long as children go to school,” she said. “Because then anything is possible.”
What began with small-scale feeding programs in her Nairobi parish became a large-scale mission to build a school in Nambale. Soon she teamed up with former divinity school colleagues in Bethany, which eventually led her to Martine Noletti of Southbury and Pieper Dittus of Woodbury, who started their own nonprofit, The Cornerstone Project (www.cornerstoneproject.org), dedicated to supporting what is now the Nambale Magnet School.
The groups received further support from Washington architect Peter Talbot, who is bringing his expertise to bear on the green and sustainable aspects of the subsequent phases of construction, all of which employ local workers in Nambale. The school, a fully functioning boarding facility largely for children left orphaned by AIDS, opened its doors to 45 students, from kindergarten to third grade, in 2008.
The school not only provides education, safety, and all manner of hope, but offers employment and a shot at self-sufficiency for local teachers, builders, farmers, etc. A collateral benefit is that the school has raised the stock of this damaged and neglected corner of Kenya, and effectively put it on the map.
The school’s needs are not nearly met, and naturally it all requires money: for a cistern, a solar-powered water pump and for the next phase of construction for the middle school. But this is all in a day’s work for Evalyn, whose passion, clarity of purpose, and effortless ability to get results can serve to light a match under even the least inspired among us.
Because here’s the thing. An earthquake destroys Haiti, and most of us, unless we can set broken limbs, wring our hands helplessly. Yes, we send money, but so many of us feel the urge and even the need to contribute in bigger, more concrete ways.
But at this point in the world’s history, there is need everywhere, and constantly.There was great need in Haiti before the complex emergency that unfolded in the wake of the disaster. When tragedy strikes we become more attuned both to the dehumanizing effects of extreme poverty and to our own privilege. That prods us to mobilize because we feel the urgency.
The reason Evalyn Wakhusama made such an impression during her latest twice-yearly visit to Litchfield County is because this sense of urgency is—and always has been— the engine of her life. “We must reach the unreached, who far outnumber the reached,” she said over coffee one recent morning at Martine Noletti’s home in Southbury. Words to live by—crisis or no crisis.
Marcia DeSanctis lives in Bethlehem.