Arriving in Oregon from Kenya—his first time in America—just three days before our interview in early July, Jackson Mwanzia looks like any other tourist in Bend. He is sitting at Jackson's Corner, drinking tea, wearing a light baseball hat; rectangular eyeglasses rest on his broad nose.
"I am from Kenya," he announces, standing up to shake my hand, and begins to recount some of the sights he has already seen—like the recent Fourth of July celebrations and the chaotic Freedom Ride.
"Oh, it was great, wonderful," he says amiably and with no hint toward the vast cultural differences between the stark Kenyan countryside where he manages an orphanage for girls and the economic comfort of Bend, where a bicycle easily costs more than the average annual income for a Kenyan, which according to International Monetary Fund is roughly about $1,700, placing it 154 out of 183 as poorest nation in the world.
Now middle-aged, Mwanzia knows that poverty first-hand. Growing up, he was forced to drop out of school at a young age and start what he vaguely describes as "manual work." He explains that he did not have much money, but even so, he wanted to provide support for children in his neighborhood—even if it was small gestures.
"I would buy pencils to give to students," he explains. "Sometimes I would even cut them in half so that I could give pencils to two students."
The generosity soon expanded, and in 2002 he started a modest orphanage in Kibwezi, a small town in eastern Kenya. At first, he housed just two kids.
Three years later, though, a chance meeting between a family from Bend and Mwanzia offered an opportunity for more stability for the orphanage, and a chance for it to expand. At the time, Mwanzia was volunteering as an interpreter at a medical camp where John Castiello Schwechten, a psychotherapist from Bend, was working with his wife and son, who had just graduated from medical school. They were treating a massive number of sick residents from rural Kenya—2,000 patients in four days, says Schwechten. At the end of the tour, Mwanzia handed a letter to Schwechten. It was a frank letter, that stated three months earlier, Mwanzia's wife had died and explained that he ran this orphanage with no money. From there forward, the two men began an international correspondence by letters and emails and, in 2007, a local nonprofit Peace Bridges that Schwechten manages "adopted" the Better Life Orphanage.
Since then, Mwanzia's selfless nature and sincerity have captured the attention and hearts of a small group of supporters in Bend—the self-dubbed "cow girls," a group of clinicians, and another group, "the giving circle," that mostly consists of juvenile corrections officers. On Saturday, Peace Bridges is hosting a fundraiser for the orphanage; Mwanzia will present a talk about his work there.
During our interview, Mwanzia talks about a young woman who joined the program when she was six years old and is now currently attending university in Kenya to become a teacher.
"I'm so proud of her," he proclaims, beaming.
But not every child that the orphanage shelters is a success story. Mwanzia tells me about another girl, Rhonda. She had been raped by her uncle and infected with HIV when she arrived at the orphanage, where she died shortly after. In her memory—and another girl—they started the RoJo Project in 2010, and since have provided more than 100 girls with sanitary supplies that allow them to stay in school during their periods.
"We just want to see these girls have an opportunity to stay in school," Mwanzia explains.
Peace Bridges Fundraiser, with Scott Cossu
5 pm, Saturday July 25
Old Stone Church, 157 NW Franklin Ave.
$38 (includes barbecue dinner and concert)