African odyssey: help for Kenyans, inspiration for Hoosiers Native son leads Columbus church members on a mission that opens eyes as it touches hearts

In Machakos, an impoverished city in Kenya, school supplies are so scarce that children share everything -- even something as small as a pencil.
"You're humbled to see kids breaking a pencil so that another kid can have a pencil," Joshua Kiilu said.

Kiilu, a native of Machakos, relocated to the U.S. more than 20 years ago, but he hasn't forgotten his hometown. In 2007, with the support of North Christian Church in Columbus, Kiilu began making trips from Indiana to Machakos to build an educational center.

Now Kiilu is leading his third mission trip to Machakos, 45 miles southeast of Nairobi, with seven others.

The Columbus residents are using their various skills to help the people of Machakos -- which has a population of about 100,000 -- during their two-week trip, which began June 17.

The group is helping dig a well and overseeing the progress of the educational center.

Residents of Machakos typically walk eight to 10 miles to get to school or church, and Kiilu wants the building to become a community center, putting space for education, career counseling and worship under one roof.

During the past four years, members of North Christian Church have watched the project -- and the people -- grow.

"When we came in 2007, they were just building the foundations," said Sheryl Elston, a doctor from Columbus, who is participating in the trip for the third time. "It was below-ground. Now it's 21/2 stories aboveground."

Elston estimates the church there has grown to 400 members from 150, and the knitting group she started has expanded. A young woman who had been in college when Elston met her is now in medical school; and on this trip, Elston brought her donated medical textbooks from doctors in the Columbus area.

Despite the widespread poverty in Machakos, Kiilu said, the residents contribute whatever they can to help build the center.

"The first trip we took, I wasn't sure that the community believed that we would be able to launch it off," said Kiilu, who lives in Greenwood. "And what's really made me realize that this was going to be a success was how the local people had so much motivation."

Most people are small-scale farmers, and they make a living by selling their products in markets. Residents sell chickens, eggs and produce to raise money.

"By American standards, these people are so impoverished," said Ashley Burton, a surgery tech from Columbus. "They work day to day just to get by. They don't really think about the future, because they can't."

The trip also provides the people of Machakos with basic supplies. Kits full of pencils, erasers, toothbrushes and toothpaste were to be distributed to schoolchildren. The group was to operate a free, four-day medical clinic, where it was to see hundreds of people each day.

The doctors recruit local college students as interpreters. They're prepared to treat certain parasites and skin infections they don't see in the United States.

"It's wonderful because the people are so appreciative," said Katrina McGillivray, a doctor from Columbus. "They come up and hug you when you're first introduced."

The friendliness of the people in Machakos has made an impression on everyone on the trip.

"There's so much poverty, and yet we've had full meals prepared for us," McGillivray said.

Some of the participants also were a little shocked at how far Kenyans walk each day in comparison with Americans, and how fit they are.

"It's a lot of walking," said Marty Winslow, a retired teacher. "But they always seem so happy to see you and willing to greet you."

McGillivray said there's also a big difference in climate between Kenya and Indiana. She was surprised to see Kenyans wearing winter socks in 75-degree weather.

"This is their wintertime," she said. "They think it's cold!"

Although they fell short of their fundraising goal, the trip's participants raised $10,000 with help from Indiana Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery Associates, Franklin Family Dentistry, Enterprise Consulting and Indy Ortho. Kiilu said they'll stretch whatever funds they have, just as Machakos residents make the most of what they've been given.

"You can be a better person with even the little that you have," he said. "That's what we're trying to push with the community