Kenyans have a word that sums up their culture: “ubuntu.” It means “I am because we are.” It is a belief that only by helping each other is everyone capable of living and thriving.
This belief is what inspired one Manhattan High School senior to organize a group of friends to travel to Kenya this summer as part of a volunteer program to help the Kenyan people sustainably live better lives. The group, sponsored by the non-profit organization Comfort the Children International is called Garden of HOPE, which stands for health, opportunity, promise and engagement.
Andre Middendorf, 17, of Manhattan said he first traveled with his mother, Jan, to Maai Mahiu, Kenya, through Comfort the Children when he was 15.
Andre said he was overwhelmed by the experience, but in a good way. He said he was amazed by how Africa not only looks different, but also “smells” different.
“What I envisioned Africa being is pretty much what it is only more real,” he said. “Especially the smell; the whole country has a different smell, which is really weird, but I kind of like it.”
The charity brings together volunteers from all over the United States to travel to Kenya to give aid by providing “resources that create sustainable change. Instead of simply giving aid and money to those in need, we build relationships and programs that empower residents to help themselves,” according to the website.
On that first trip, Andre and his mother helped build a greenhouse for the community, Andre said. While he was there, he befriended Zane Wilmon, executive director of the organization, and through that friendship, agreed to bring a group of young people together to return to Kenya his senior year in high school.
That commitment has become a reality. This summer Andre has brought together a group of six youths and three adult program leaders, including his mother, to travel to Kenya to start a community garden in Maai Mahiu, where the organization is based. The town of Maai Mahiu is in the Rift Valley, about an hour’s drive north of Nairobi.
Among the group are two other MHS students, Naomi McClendon and Logan Sutton.
“As we are a group of strong young teenagers, we fit the bill, and agreed to travel to Kenya and help create the garden,” Andre said.
McClendon said she was brought in on the project while working with Andre in an amnesty club at school, but the school did not want to be involved with the trip because of liability concerns. So she joined Andre in his quest to return to Kenya to grow the “ubuntu” garden, which will be a community garden with the vegetables grown being supplied to the community center located in Maai Mahiu.
McClendon said she also wants to videotape the project and create a film of the experience to share when she returns. She said this is her first trip out of the country, and she is excited not only to experience a different culture, but also to help others and form new friendships half-way around the world.
Sutton was brought on with McClendon from the group at school. McClendon said the group started out larger, but fell apart after the school pulled out its support, leaving “a core group of people who were really dedicated to the trip.”
The six youths raised money not only to go to Kenya, but also to buy seeds for the community garden. Jan said their goal is $40,000, and they are more than halfway there. She said they have raised $23,600, but more is needed.
On Friday, the group will host a benefit concert at the Manhattan Arts Center. A local band, The Thundering Cats, will perform from 7 to 9 p.m. The group will also sell items made by the women of Maai Mahiu. All the proceeds will go to the group’s fundraising goal.
They also have a Facebook page where people can make donations.
The entire group will be in Kenya from June 15 to June 28, but Andre said he is going to stay the entire summer rather than returning with the rest of the group. Andre, McClendon and Sutton will be graduating on Sunday. Andre said he plans to return in the fall to attend University of Kansas. McClendon said she plans to attend the University of Arizona.