Arnold Toynbee, one of the great 20th century historians, said that when we evaluate civilizations or cultures we should look not at how rich and powerful they were, how much land they controlled, what their GNP might have been, or how advanced their arts and technology were.  Rather, we should ask how they cared for the most vulnerable members of their society:  children, the elderly, the sick, the poor.  Going on this basis, most indigenous cultures would probably come out pretty high on the list.  They carefully nurtured and initiated their children into adulthood; elders were respected and cared for; no one was denied health care; and there was relatively little difference in affluence between the lifestyles of the leading families and the ordinary people.

While in Nairobi we went on field trips when the eye clinic ended each day.  Two of these made me think of Toynbee’s remark as they demonstrated how Kenyans are caring for some of their most vulnerable members: orphans.

The first orphanage we visited was for baby elephants.  If young elephants are orphaned, they have very little chance of survival.  A baby elephant is milk-dependent for the first three years of its life, and occasionally may even need its mother’s milk up to age five. In recent years two factors have increased the number of orphaned elephants.  Poachers shoot the mothers for the illegal ivory market.  The years of drought either kill off the mothers or the lack of food and water doesn’t allow them to lactate sufficiently.  The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi has successfully rescued and hand-reared over 85 newborn and very young elephants from 1987 to 2009.  By 2009 36 ex-nursery elephants were fully rehabilitated, reintroduced into the wild, and are now leading normal lives among the wild elephant community.

Elephant development parallels human development.  Elephants have a childhood until age 10; then a definite teenage phase until age 20, when they become young adults who are fully mature by their 30s and 40s.  By age 50 an elephant is elderly.  Elephants live in families, bond with each other, and grieve if one dies or is captured.  They can die from stress, bad diet, polluted air, and foul water just as humans do. And from the intricate ceremony they perform with the bones of a dead relative, observers surmise they have a rather sophisticated and emotional understanding of death. If an elephant stays healthy, it can live into its 70s and 80s.

The orphanage is in the Nairobi National Forest just south of the capital.  We arrived in time for one of the three feeding periods that take place each day.  At the appointed time, a herd of 15 baby elephants came tromping out of the forest with their Handlers, heading for the water hole where very large baby milk bottles with nipples waited for them.  Each elephant is hand-fed a formula that approximates its mother’s milk, after which they roll in the water and mud and cavort with each other, tossing themselves over each other’s backs, clearly having a good time.  Soon they are covered in red mud and very happy.

One of the Handlers pointed out individual elephants and told us a little about them.  Some were only a few weeks old when they were rescued, some were found on the day they were born.  All of them that we watched were under three years old and were clearly enjoying the new family, or herd, in the orphanage.  They also bond with their Handlers who sleep with them at night. A baby elephant would be stressed to sleep alone.  So each elephant has a night stall with straw on the floor, big enough to give it room to lie down and roll over.  At eye level is a platform-bunk with a mattress on it where the Handler sleeps.  Handlers rotate so that no elephant becomes too dependent on one man.  Most of the Handlers are young Kenyan men, although we saw a white woman, also young, wearing the bright green overalls as the men and working along with them. (The overalls are crucial because frisky baby elephants think humans love mud as much as they do.) The Handlers stay with the elephants 24 hours a day.

When they are reintroduced into the wild, they often seek out other “graduates” from the orphanage.  An elephant never forgets, and relationships built up as young elephants can continue into later years.  These relationships help the younger elephants adjust to the wild. Elephants communicate with body language and spoken sounds (some of which are inaudible to humans) which they have to learn from other elephants.  They also have telepathic abilities and can detect seismic sound through their feet.  A young elephant needs to be exposed to older elephants if it is to mature with the right skills and abilities to survive on its own.

There is a saying that an elephant will only thrive if it is happy.

The other orphanage we visited was the Nyumbani Village, a mostly self-sustaining community that serves orphans and elders left behind by the “lost generation” of the HIV pandemic.  The orphanage requires two conditions for accepting a child.  Each child has to have been abandoned, and each must be HIV positive.

Founded by Angelo D’Agostino, a Jesuit priest who died recently, the part of the orphanage we visited began operating in 2006.  It consists of what you might think of as a small village green surrounded by cottages.  Eight to ten children live in each cottage with two older women whom they call “mother.” In time the children live much like other kids in a large extended family, playing and studying with each other, meeting on the green to play games.  All together there were about 100 children under the age of 7 or 8 living in these family-like settings where they receive love, sustenance, healthcare, holistic education, and cultural teachings—the many factors that go into lea toto, which is Swahili for “to raise a child.’

The village is safely enclosed from the outside world, and the children can roam freely on the green where they play games, romp, scream, and run like other kids.  Since medical science has perfected medications for HIV, the ailment has become a manageable disease, much like diabetes.  With the right “cocktail” of medications, a person with HIV can live a long time and lead a rather normal life without developing AIDS.  The children at the orphanage look happy and healthy and are as thrilled to see visitors as children in any orphanage might be.  They tagged along with us, grabbed our hands, eagerly took the candy some of us gave out, climbed up on our laps, and even enticed a couple of us to kick a ball around with them on the grass.

We visited some of the cottages that consist of a kitchen and eating area, a play and study area, and bedrooms for the children and the “mothers.”  As in other orphanages these children will progress to other areas for further education and development, where the staff hopes, as does the staff at the elephant orphanage, that the young will eventually be reintroduced to the outside world, embark on a successful life, and survive. A small area of the grounds, however, was the graveyard where some of the earlier children who were unable to live with HIV are buried.

I didn’t hear anyone actually say this, but it seemed that the working principle at this orphanage is similar to that at the elephant orphanage: a child will only thrive if it is happy. And every 14 seconds a child is orphaned in sub-Saharan Africa.

You can learn more about these orphanages and see photos at their websites.