Kenya widow opens arms to abandoned child

Agnes Awori already had 11 children to care for
when she decided to take in a newborn baby
left in a plastic bag on a railway track
near her home last year.
She named him Moses.
(Robyn Dixon / Los Angeles Times)

Living in a Nairobi slum, she adds
a newborn found in a plastic bag
to her brood of four children
and seven orphans.
The problem of abandoned infants
is significant in Africa, activists say.

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Agnes Awori is hurrying to the market,
early afternoon.

She sees a cluster of perhaps
two dozen people on the railway track.

Probably the usual thing,
she thinks: someone killed by a train.

The 53-year-old widow, who lives
in the Kibera slum outside Nairobi,
doesn't have time to waste: She has
11 children to support -- four of her own,
the rest her dead sister's.

But she can't resist the twinge
of curiosity tugging her to the tracks.

Turns out it isn't a body,
just a plastic shopping bag.

It's been lying there
at least four hours, someone tells her.

It moves.

"It was a human being," Awori says.

"He was just dumped there,
with his umbilical cord.
He was naked, as he'd just been born."

Awori's heart sings. She will save this baby.

As she gently picks him up and
cuddles him, the women in the crowd
laugh at her. She carries him away,
a stream of ridicule
and laughter pealing in her ears.

"Some said, 'Don't you have work to do?'

Others said, 'You can't leave
your work for that.

You can just sell that child for 10 shillings.'

"I didn't care," she says.

"It hurts my heart to see
a human being thrown away."

She calls the baby Moses.

Child abandonment is disturbingly
common in urban townships
and slums in many cities across Africa.

One of Awori's neighbors rescued
a baby girl from a pit latrine.

Awori says unwanted infants
are often dumped in the river
next to the slum.

Many of the babies don't survive.

There are no statistics on
child abandonment in Kenya
or South Africa: Some infant corpses
are probably never found.

But anecdotal evidence
from charities involved
in child rescue suggests it is common.

"It doesn't happen sometimes.
It happens a lot," says
Tahiyya Hassim of New BeginningZ,
a child rescue charity she set up
eight years ago in Pretoria,
South Africa, after
 a car accident left her
wondering what she had
contributed during her life.

In March 2008, Hassim established
an anonymous drop-off point
in Pretoria called the Wall of Hope
where mothers could
abandon babies without repercussions.

"Before I put the wall, it was a case
of the police phoning me
on a weekly basis, saying,

'We have found another
dead baby in a dustbin or
a park or a toilet,' " Hassim says.

Since then, 17 babies have
been abandoned at the wall.

The number of dead infants found
in the area by police has declined,
says Hassim, who has interviewed
many young women about
why they left children to die.

"They are often so desperate
they don't have any alternative,"
she says.

"A lot of the girls we spoke to
said how horrible the treatment
was that they got from
social workers at state clinics.

The social workers tell them,
'You made the baby, now deal with it.'

"Often girls have been raped
by relatives like brothers or fathers."

She recently created a second
drop-off point, but faces opposition
from the government's Department
of Social Development,
responsible for child welfare,
which told her she was
encouraging women
to abandon their children.

"We are just trying to prevent
children from dying in the street,"
Hassim says.

Sixteen months after she rescued
the baby on the train tracks,
Awori sits in her one-room shack.

She rocks constantly,
Moses dozing peacefully in her arms.

Thirteen people live behind
the red curtain in the doorway
of Awori's shack.

Moses is the youngest.
The oldest child is 15.

The room is divided in two
by a blue drape.

Behind it lies the bed where
the widow sleeps with
the smaller children.

The bigger ones
sleep with her neighbors.

A rusted bicycle frame is
suspended under the roof,
holding a bundle of firewood
for cooking.

In one corner, she has pinned
some cardboard religious
paintings, like a shrine.

A daughter, Elizabeth, cuts
Swiss chard into thin strips
for sale at their vegetable stall.

They have fewer customers
since election violence in
late 2007 and early 2008,
many of their best ones
having moved away.

Awori relies on credit from
shopkeepers to feed the family.

She makes about 200 shillings
(about $2.65) a day and
has accumulated about
10,000 shillings (about $132)
in rent and food debts
in the last two years.
She keeps sinking further into debt.

"I am just praying that
God will open his
own way for me," she says.

Awori says that when
her children get older, she'll
work hard and repay
the shopkeepers and
landlord, in installments.

"I'm happy in my life,"
she says, still rocking Moses.

"I'll bring him up well,
like these other orphans.
Everyone has
their own talents in life."


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Sent from Kigali, Rwanda

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