Our love story: John Mwatu Oyoo and his wife Chami Lu Anne Oyoo
Chami is from Indiana in the US. She visited Kenya for the first time in 2011 when she was 17 on a charity mission with her church. After she returned home two weeks later, she could not stop thinking about Kenya, sure that this was where her destiny lay, even though she could not explain why.
“We stayed at a guest house around Yaya (Centre in Nairobi), close to the orphanage our church had assigned us to. We would hold the babies and help feed and clean them. On our last day, we visited Kibera slums courtesy of one of our members who had made numerous trips to Kenya in the past,” she says.
That visit left a lasting impression on her.
“I was yanked out of my little bubble and awoken to a new reality. By then, I’d fallen in love with the culture and the warmth of the Kenyan people I’d met, and on my flight back home, I felt in my gut that I’d to return, but never did I imagine that meant a permanent immigration,” she adds.
Her yearning to return was so pronounced that her elder brother once teased her, saying, “Chami, you keep making reference to Kenya, did you score a boyfriend there on your last trip?”
Two years later, in 2013, she informed her parents that she wanted to return indefinitely. To her surprise, they gave her their blessings.
“I was brought up amongst four brothers, which toughened me up and made me independent [and] which perhaps explains why I packed my bags and decided to move to a foreign country, thousands of miles away, where I barely knew anyone,” she says.
She dropped the bombshell over breakfast.
“I said, ‘Mom, dad, there’s something you need to know, I want to relocate to Kenya.’ They simply looked at each other and smiled, then mom placed her palm over my sweaty fist and said, ‘it’s been a long time coming, we have been waiting.”
She adds: “I’d been prepared for a contest because my three elder brothers had joined university straight from high school and I had shown interest in wanting to become a nurse,” she explains.
For a year before their relocation to Kenya, Chami and her best friend Holly Peters tirelessly fund-raised for the trip from family and friends. As the trip neared, they made accommodation plans with their Kenyan contact, Moses Wafula, whom they had met on their first trip.
Come 2013, they were ready to make the big leap. They bought baby toys and clothes, packed their bags, and after an emotional farewell party thrown by their families, they set out for Kenya.
“I slept through most of the flight while Holly stayed awake watching movies. At 11.30 pm after check out, we spotted our contact Moses at the exit standing next to the white van that would take us to our new home in Olympic, Kibera.”
Moses and his friends, including John, who ran a feeding programme in Kibera, had got the two a place at their married friends’ three-bedroom house, where they lived for a month until they got their own one-bedroom flat in the same area.
The first six months of their stay were dedicated to learning Swahili. With no source of income and fully dependent on the fund-raised money, the two friends had to learn to work with a tight budget.
Their apartment almost always had children coming in and out to play with the toys, which hastened their grasp of Swahili.
Chami and Holly also began helping out with the feeding programme, which would be the beginning of a love story she and John cherish. Says John: “Once a week, my friends and I, who were raised in Kibera, would gather children from the neighbourhood and serve them a meal, but the number of children kept swelling every week and we began to get overwhelmed in terms of money as well as a helping hand.”
It was, therefore, a relief when Chami and Holly joined them on a voluntary basis, and before long, the six of them had formed a formidable team.
“Feeding took place at a community hall in Olympic, close to where we lived. We would wake up around 4am to get the fire started, while the girls would join us at around 6am to help cook,” recalls John.
“The first child would walk into the hall around 9am carrying a plate, and after their meal, we’d engage them in singing and bible lessons. Within months, the children had grown to hundreds, and Holly and I decided to help finance the project,” says Chami.
There was also a shift in age group attendance, with teenagers thronging the hall as well, prompting the group to expand the initiative and start offering guidance and counselling.
This is how Born To Shine, BTS, came about.
At the moment, BTS brings together about 30 teenagers who learn life lessons on Fridays, Bible study on Wednesdays, and prayer sessions every Monday. Once in a while when money allows, the group goes on hikes and camping, which is a good bonding experience for all of them.
I was awed by her patience
Onto the lover story…
“On several occasions, I caught John looking at me in a certain way; I even once caught him absent-mindedly staring at me while I took some girls through a Bible class but I thought nothing of it,” says Chami.
John smiles and says: “I was awed by her patience towards the children and how dedicated she was to this project. I was getting attracted to her.”
A few months later, Chami and Holly decided to move to a bigger house, a two-bedroom apartment, and on this day, their friends, including John, came to help them move. Chami noticed that John was more attentive to her than he usually was, and would not allow her to carry heavy luggage, besides repeatedly asking whether she was fine.
A few days later, as they were going about serving the children at the community hall, a small boy fell and broke a thumb. John and Chami went to his rescue and rushed him to hospital where he had to undergo surgery. The two ended up spending the rest of the day at the hospital’s waiting room waiting for the boy’s guardian to arrive.
“We had no option but to bond. I picked up that John was very keen on current affairs, which I found attractive and still do.”
Says John: “As unexpected as that day was, it turned out to be our first date. Before then, Chami and I had never been alone together. We were always in the presence of other people. Besides her being beautiful, I was won over by how humble and modest she was.”
By the time the boy’s guardian arrived at 5pm, the two had developed a connection which emboldened John to ask Chami out on a date.
“But she wouldn’t agree to a date until I called her parents to seek their permission. She gave me her dad’s number, and out of fear, it took me a week to make that call. Mobile network was poor and our accents were a barrier, but I eventually got his approval to date his daughter,” says John, amused at the memory.
“Our courtship was humble because we directed most of our money to our community project. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful courtship. We took nature walks, went hiking and shared jokes that only the two of us could understand, besides serving our community together,” says Chami.
They also found out that besides their love for serving, both of them were brought up in Christian homes where church was introduced at an early age and encouraged through their younger years. Also, both came from happy homes characterised by a lot of laughter and support from their parents.
In 2014, sure that she was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, John proposed.
“I bought Chami a ring, and on her birthday, I wore an orange, floral shirt (which used to be my lucky shirt until she threw it out after we got married) and took her to a modest Chinese cake shop and proposed. She said ‘yes’.”
Both their parents, John says, were happy about their upcoming marriage, and being the parent nearest them, John’s father took time to counsel them before their wedding in 2015.
In April of that year, on a cold rainy day, the couple held a small church wedding with 30 guests. Unfortunately, Chami’s family was not able to attend, and followed the ceremony via Skype.
“We would have wanted them to be there, but had to make peace with [their absence]. The wedding was beautiful! I especially enjoyed the photo session and the dancing,” she says.
John describes his first visit to Indiana as “very surprising”.
“I expected the usual official treatment in-laws receive in my culture, but was pleasantly surprised by how laid back their culture is. My father-in-law welcomed me with a hug and even let me stay in his home during the duration of our visit.”
They visit Chami’s family once a year for three months. Recently, the couple, who have two daughters, celebrated their fifth anniversary. Their marriage has not been without challenges, especially due to the glaring cultural differences.
“Fish was a recurring subject at the beginning of our marriage because Chami could not bring herself to eat tilapia with the “head staring” at her, as she put it.
“However, where I come from, tilapia is a delicacy eaten whole. We only leave the bones. We feast on everything else,” says John eliciting laughter from Chami, who adds that to date, she cannot bring herself to eat omena, which John loves.
Cook Kenyan foods
Another challenge is Chami’s skin colour, which John says has exposed the couple to some level of bias. Some place her on a pedestal, while many more assume that she has lots of money due to her skin colour.
Chami says that besides these, the other challenges have been easier to navigate with technology, including learning how to cook Kenyan foods.
“I learnt to cook most Kenyan dishes by watching YouTube videos. I especially love cooking chapatis and samosas. I also learnt to care for my daughters’ beautiful curly hair through YouTube. The trick is to minimise shampooing, keeping it moisturised and using certain oils.”
And when travelling on her own, Google Maps has ensured that she gets home every time she visits new places. Over time, she says, they have found a way to navigate the challenges. They currently live in Kajiado North, Kajiado County.
Meanwhile, they continue with their community projects in Kibera. As they carried out their BTS programme, they noticed that there was a gap between the time a teenager left high school and joined college, a gap they decided to fill by forming what they call ‘ex-candidate programme’.
They teach life lessons and skills such as cooking, baking, driving lessons and computer classes, skills they believe will, to a large extent, prepare their young charges for the real world.
In 2016, the couple and their friends officially registered Endless Frontier Foundation.
“Our vision is to reach the youth of Kibera while still young and offer discipleship and leadership skills,” says John, who works full time for the organisation as a director.
The group gets most of its funding from Endless Frontier Foundation-US in form of grants, as well as from individual donors. However, the needs surmount the money they manage to raise, but despite this, they trudge on, determined to make a positive impact on the lives of youth in their community.
Covid-19 has exposed many poor families in the slum to abject poverty, forcing them to divert more money to the feeding programme and food donations.
So far, they have provided food relief to 189 families and are calling upon well-wishers to donate to help feed more families.
At the moment, the initiative feeds over 1,000 children every year and has seen great transformation in the lives of many. For instance, this year, three girls that they support were admitted at Moi Girls High School on sponsorship basis while one boy was admitted at Sunshine Secondary School.
Though 2020 has been the most challenging year for the group’s charitable initiatives, they are hopeful that the future holds better prospects.
Would you want to help?
Send your contribution to:
Endless Frontier Foundation
Diamond Trust Bank
By WANJIRU GACHAU
Source – nation.co.ke