The following year, with the help of lawyer C. Thomas Swaim of Boston law firm Holland & Knight LLP, she founded Orphan Wisdom Inc. The organization now supports the Homa Bay Children’s Home in Homa Bay, Kenya, a home that serves over 1,000 orphans — 30 living in the orphanage, 120 in its nursery, 640 in its school, and over 400 in the community at large.
“Our goal is to be able to expand and support organizations elsewhere,” says Siwo-Okundi.
But the expenses at the orphanage are escalating due to recent
violence and food shortages, and she must raise $20,000 this year to
support Orphan Wisdom’s current charges. A small portion of the funds
will go toward establishing an endowment for the organization. Its
projected 2009 budget is $60,000, with a 10 percent increase projected
during the next five years.
Ministry in action
At McCall Middle School, a dozen miles outside of Boston in Winchester, Mass., Siwo-Okundi sings a Kenyan song as she walks down the aisle of the school’s auditorium before making her way onto the stage. She’s about to give a presentation on Kenyan orphans to a room full of seventh graders, part of her fundraising mission for Orphan Wisdom.
She tells the seventh graders that people have misconceptions about Africans, recalling some of the questions she was asked after moving to Ohio.
“Where do you keep your elephant when you come to the States?” she says, before telling the McCall assembly that the first time she saw a wild animal was actually at the Cincinnati Zoo.
She tells them she shaves her head because she likes the style, which is common in Kenya and part of the school uniform there. Besides, she says, it makes it easier to treat ringworm, a problem similar to head lice in the U.S.
“One of the things [the students] say about her is that she really defies the stereotypes that they had in their mind,” says Erika Guckenberger, a geography teacher at McCall. “That is one of the topics that we spend a lot of time on — stereotypes that Americans have about Africa. They kind of expect her to have this strong accent and to be different than what she is.”
“For us, going to school is a big deal,” Siwo-Okundi tells the seventh graders. But for many Kenyan children, it is hard because they have responsibilities before and after school.
The McCall students listen attentively as Siwo-Okundi tells stories of African children sharing books, pencils, everything; doing homework by the light of a kerosene lantern because there is no electricity; going to school just to have lunch. And she talks about the importance of good grades in taking the next step up the educational ladder.
“You have to do very well in your testing. If you want to go to high school, you have to test very well in junior high,” she says. “Some high schools only take students with A’s.”
Siwo-Okundi says that the Kenyan orphans need donations to enjoy educational opportunities like the ones the McCall kids have — $300 is enough to support a girl, including her education, for a year.
As her presentation continues, she reminds the students how fortunate they are to have the education and resources they do, and encourages them to keep working hard.
“Even if you do not end up going to university, maybe there is something out there that you really are passionate about that you can do,” she tells them.
The response Siwo-Okundi gets from the auditorium is the same as it is from the pulpit.
“The students love her; they consistently say that she is the best speaker that they had,” says Guckenberger.
Siwo-Okundi is fluent in three languages — she speaks Luo, her mother tongue, as well as accent-free English and French.
But amid the whirlwind of praise and distinctions, the petite Siwo-Okundi — with her shaved head, blue jeans, red blouse and three-inch red stilettos — maintains a firm, simple statement of purpose.
“I am a minister,” she says. “I am a preacher.”