IN THE NEWS |  Southeast to East Africa

To get yourself to Miwani and the Hadrienne Kathleen Mendonsa Center, you must first get to Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the airport named for the Kenyan founding presidential family.

From there fly to Kisumu, Kenya, the epicenter of the violent Kenyan election crisis of 2007-2008, drive past the noisy village center and the one-room homes, past children who lunge for the vehicle and plead with haunted eyes streaked by spidery veins; notice the crinkly paper sacks clutched in tiny hands and then, understand, the chemicals inside the bags - glue or other inhalants - act as appetite suppressants for the hungry children.

As you get closer to the Ugandan border, past the hand-molded mud huts, soggy rice paddies, and endless rows of sugar cane, you finally, two bumpy hours later, see the small sign: Widow’s Harvest Ministry Kenya, a center for the orphans of Miwani and Kisumu. Look closer at the tropically painted building, and, tucked inside a corner window pane,  find a photo of a young, golden-haired woman with an unforced smile.

The girl's broad smile suggests she passionately loved life.

Written below the photo are words that suggest she also passionately loved people.

“We are to love no matter the recognition we get,” the words in the windowpane say, “We are to go the extra mile to show love.”

It's then, though thousands of miles away from Hadrienne Mendosa's birthplace in Chattanooga, in this village of so many orphans in need of so much love, the girl's words start to hit home.

Hadrienne was just a baby when her father, Andy Mendonsa, began a study of what he calls “widow’s theology”. It was, in part, Hadrienne’s birth that caused Andy to identify with the vulnerable of the Chattanooga community. When Hadrienne was born, the Mendonsas had no medical insurance.

“At the time, Erlanger actually had an indigent maternity ward for non-insured patients,” Andy says. “This experience really opened my eyes for what so many poor people know - nothing else - but this way of life.”

Andy’s empathy for the poor led to his work for Inner City Ministries, and, through that work he saw the needs of local widows.

“I had been working for Inner City Ministries for almost a year when the home repair needs of widows began to get my attention,” Andy says. “I began to ask God two questions, ‘Is there a need for a widow’s ministry, and should I be the one to start the ministry?’”

After uttering that prayer, Andy came across the Bible verse that he says had the answers.

“I read James 1:27, ‘Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep himself unspotted from the world,’” Andy quotes. “I instantly knew that God had answered my question.”

With that conviction, Andy planted the seeds of his work for widows and orphans that would take root first in Chattanooga and break open across the Southeast, then, through tragedy and triumph, blossom in an especially needy corner of the world in Kenya.

It was a disparate group that met in 1987 for Chattanooga’s first Widow’s Harvest lunch at the home of co-founding widow, Ms. Gertrude Gaston.

“Mrs. Gaston was from an old, affluent, white Chattanooga family, as were most, if not all, of the other widows she had invited,” Andy says. “The widows I brought could have easily been maids for the other widows that were there.”

That lunch led to weekly prayer meetings which grew to include an annual “March to the Sea”.

Every year, widows piled in a 15-passenger van and prayed their way from Chattanooga to Savannah, Georgia. As the widows travelled the hot boiled peanut and fresh peach stand-lined roads, they prayed for the needs of nearby widows.

And, they prayed for the needs of widows far away.

Still, despite their faith, none of the widows predicted how far their prayers would travel, from the Southeast to East Africa, to a remote corner of the world where pure religion and a widow’s prayer is sorely needed to fight the corruption that targets especially the husbandless and fatherless.

Women have few rights to property in some parts of Africa.

In many regions, tradition dictates that, when the husband dies, so does the wife’s right to claim any land or home. In-laws will force the widow and her children off of the land and back to her family of origin; but, the family of origin might also reject the widow and her children, leaving her with almost no option for survival. It’s called land grabbing.

In Kenya, land grabbing reaches to the highest seats of power and even the founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, for whom the airport and so many other Kenyan institutions are named, is accused of drawing much of his vast fortune from land grabs.

His son, the now President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 500,000 acres of Kenyan land is estimated by Forbes to make his net worth around $500 million.

The Kenyan Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established by the United Nations to investigate land grabbing and electoral corruption. Dr. Ronald Slye, a professor at Seattle University of Law, was asked to serve on the commission.

“We had hearings specifically for women and that was a very common theme,” says Dr. Slye. “Many women were very frustrated because, partially there is sexism in the family, and then the male would not have even spoken to them about the land.”

After the electoral violence in 2008, the widows and the children left behind often were forced off of their homeland. Some found their way to displacement camps across the border in Uganda.

“We actually went to a refugee camp in Uganda where there were mostly refugees, mostly women, who had fled the border area in 2007,” Dr. Slye recalls.

For many left behind in the border region, there was also another source of refuge: Widow’s Harvest Kenya.

The founder of Widow’s Harvest Kenya, Joshua Atieno, was an orphan who, as a boy, had been taken in by local widows. Surrounded by needs of orphans and widows, Joshua became a minister and came to the US to study micro development. He left behind a wife, Abigael, who was already caring for many orphans from villages around Kisumu.

On a recent Sunday morning, Abigael sits in a widow’s mud house on the Widow’s Harvest complex in Miwani. Echoing from the sanctuary of the complex, widows' Swahili songs call the local villagers and children to church.

Nearby, the men are as exuberant in their form of worship as the women; they are gathered outside slaughtering a cow for the widows’ and orphans’ Sunday lunch.

Back inside the dark hut with Abigael Atieno, a chicken clucks and struts across the living room “furniture’”- empty wooden frames with springs that once held cushions when the furniture was properly used in wealthier Kenyan homes. Abigael sits on one frame and a frail, widow, Sister Mary, the widow who cared for Abigael's husband Joshua, sits on another.

“When I was growing up,” Abigael says, “I had a sort of a vision and I could see in my vision there were children, very many children. I forgot about it when I went to high school, then I met Joshua. The first thing Joshua told me, ‘Do you think you can take care of me and be a mother and a wife to me?’”

When presented with the challenge, Abigael remembered her childhood vision and agreed. From that desire and shared vision, Joshua and Abigael began to invite orphans to live with them in their small home. They provided food and temporary lodging to the growing widow population. 

While studying in the US, Joshua heard about Widow’s Harvest and reached out to Andy Mendonsa to tell him about Kisumu and the widows and orphans left behind.

Soon, the seeds of Widow’s Harvest Kenya were planted and Joshua went back to his work and family in Kenya with the support of the Chattanooga community and Andy Mendonsa.

In retrospect, the alliance seems almost providential.

The violence of the election, violence that would leave behind many more widows and orphans in Miwani, was yet to come.

But, before Kisumu was struck by political turmoil, Andy Mendonsa was struck by personal tragedy.

For a long time, Andy dreaded the sound of a ringing phone.

“Every time the phone rang,” Andy says, “It was awful. Even if I would go to a movie, I would leave my phone on. For a long time I was guarded.”

The first phone call came from a hospital chaplain in Colorado. The chaplain informed Andy that Andy's father had fallen while hiking in the nearby mountains. He died upon arrival at the hospital.

In May of 2005, another phone call came.

“It was like getting the call about my dad six years before,” Andy says. “You know, the world kind of stopped at that moment, as we knew it.”

Andy answered the phone to hear earth-shattering news. Asher,  Andy's son, a 17-year old high school senior with a passion for photography, had fallen four stories while taking photos on the roof of Parkway Towers.

“He broke his neck, his back, had a compound fracture of his right femur and had a traumatic brain injury,” Andy says. “His heart rate was 30 with when the EMTs arrived.”

Asher was left paralyzed from the chest down.

While Asher was still in rehabilitation at Shepherd Rehabilitation Center in Atlanta, in July, the phone rang again.

“There had been a hurricane that caused some tornadoes that night before,” Andy says. "About 6:30 in the morning, we got the call from my mother that the tree had fallen on our house.”

The tree left $150,000 worth of damage to their home.

In August, Andy received another phone call. Andy’s friend, colleague and president of the Widow’s Harvest Board had suddenly died with a heart attack.

A few days after Andy received the news of the board member's death, he and his daughter, Hadrienne, had a poignant conversation.

"‘Dad, am I next?", Andy recalls Hadrienne asking, “And, of course," Andy says,  "I'm like, ‘Hadrienne, no, no.’ I gave her a big hug, and said, ‘Just statistically, that's crazy. That’s impossible.’”

And, in November, the phone rang again.

The voice on the other end of the line asked Andy if he had a daughter named Kathleen. Though that was her middle name, Andy just knew it was their Hadrienne.

Hadrienne and her friends were on their way to see a movie when their vehicle was struck by a car. Her friends suffered severe injuries, but it was Hadrienne who sustained a life threatening traumatic brain injury.

Hadrienne spent the week before her accident with the widows.

“During that week,” Andy says, “ Hadrienne made homemade soup, herself, for over 30 widows. Later, I found out that she went around to every widow that was there and gave them a hug. The widows all said they had never seen her like that. That she just radiated with light. It was the next night that she was in an accident.”

By the time of Hadrienne’s accident, Andy and his family knew all too well the nuances of traumatic brain injuries. The doctors offered little hope for her recovery.

On Sunday, November 20, the Mendonsas made the decision to take Hadrienne off of life support. She died the same day.

Thanksgiving was four days away.

Still living in a hotel room because of the tornado damage to their home, the Mendonsas went through the motions of preparing for funeral services for Hadrienne.

“The day we picked out Hadrienne's tombstone,” Andy remembers, “We had to go pick out a washer and dryer for our house.”

That was the last of the bad phone calls for the Mendonsas, and, one year later, they received some good news: Widow’s Harvest Kenya was dedicating a new building to Hadrienne Mendonsa.

Exactly one year after the month of Hadrienne’s death, and one year before the 2007-2008 election violence that would devastate the region, the widows celebrated the dedication of the Hadrienne Mendonsa Widow's Harvest Center, a church building and school with boarding for local girls.

Andy sent a letter to be read for the occasion.

Just after Hadrienne's death, Andy found a letter from Hadrienne to one of her teachers at Chattanooga Christian School. Andy included her words in the letter sent for the dedication ceremony. Eventually, the widows began to recite Hadrienne’s words from memory as a sort of widows’ creed

“We are to love no matter the recognition we get,” they recite. “We are to go the extra mile to show love.”

The reminder from Hadrienne to love-no matter what-would be important to remember one year later when the election turned neighbor against neighbor,

And a center, ready to receive displaced women and children, would be equally as important to the village.

“Joshua risked life and limb to go into Kisumu to rescue widows whose places were burnt down,” Andy  says. “He went to a morgue where there were a number of beheaded pastors. He carried the bodies back to the wives and the kids.”

A few years after the violence subsided, Andy received more news, good news.

"This morning, the two little children were brought to Hadrienne Widow’s Center,” Joshua wrote. “The widows named the 11-day old girl Hadrienne Mendonsa.”

The now 4-year old Hadrienne Kathleen Mendonsa, like her namesake, has a contagious and unforced smile. And, like her namesake, she radiates light to the widows. 

Widow’s Harvest Chattanooga still holds its weekly meetings and is gathering more local support.

The Mission Chattanooga recently launched an “Adopt-A-Widow” initiative with the ministry. Father Chris Sorensen of The Mission says Andy reminds him not of Job, the long-suffering, much-tried Biblical hero, but another biblical character.

"I think Andy is a John the Baptist type figure in Chattanooga,” Father Sorensen says, “He has given his whole life for this ministry, not because it is a sexy ministry. You know, if you had a whole church full of widows you would not have enough money to keep the lights on.”

Many days Chattanooga’s John the Baptist figure can be found, not in camel’s hair eating locusts and honey as the desert prophet did, but in cargo shorts and sandals, with a silver hoop earring in his ear, sipping coffee at The Camp House,  a coffee house sponsored by The Mission.

Though Andy's schedule now revolves around caring for Asher, he still makes time to share his passion for widows. Others might lose their faith after the trials Andy faced,  but Andy says his was strengthened.

“I kept seeing God showing his incredible love to us,” Andy says, “If you look at blame and let the anger and bitterness grow up, then you miss God in the midst of horrific circumstances.”

Horrific circumstances recently struck again at the heart of Widow’s Harvest. When terrorists attacked the mall in Nairobi, two widows were feared to be among the victims. Widow's Harvest Kenya Founder, Joshua Atieno, wrote to Andy to ask for the prayers of the Chattanooga widows.

“Two of my widows went to Nairobi last week,” Joshua wrote. “Risper Akeyo and Yuanit Kamire are widows that have been so committed to this ministry.”

Joshua finally found Yuanit Kamire who had been wounded at Westgate. He relayed her story in an email to Andy.

“Her whole body was full of blood and she thought she was shot," Joshua wrote, "She continued to lie down for several hours until they were rescued.”

Yuanit was superficially wounded with a bullet. Joshua took her back to Widow's Harvest Kenya for care, but Risper Akeyo still remained missing.

Last Friday, Andy received a text from Joshua saying that he had found Widow Risper Akeyo.

Her body was at the morgue.
With Kenya’s parliament recently voting to withdraw from the International Criminal Court ahead of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s trial for his alleged role in the election violence of 2007-2008, many feel the country will continue to face threat.

Truth and Justice Commissioner, Dr. Slye, says that stability is hard to establish in a country where corruption is overlooked.

“I think that corruption is a major problem in Kenya in delivery of basic services and security," Dr. Slye says, "As seen by what is happening in Kenya right now [the Westgate Mall terrorist attack], and it prevails at the highest level of government. Until that is tackled, I don't see it becoming a more stable place.”

Young Hadrienne Kathleen Mendonsa of Chattanooga dreamed of a stable and peaceful Africa.

Eager to share his passion for the continent, Andy gave a first edition volume of I Dreamed of Africa to Hadrienne. A few weeks after she died, he found the book with a bookmark in chapter 13.

The chapter begins with a quote from Herman Hesse. The words are engraved on Hadrienne’s tombstone.

“These four lines captured where she must have tried to imagine her home must be,” Andy says.

“'Across the sky, the clouds move. Across the fields, the wind. Across the mountains, far away, my home must be.’"

And, far away, the young Kenyan Hadrienne Kathleen Mendonsa runs the wind-whipped sugar cane fields of Miwani, where Hadrienne has a place in Africa, a home at Widow’s Harvest, where she can be.

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Written by: Millicent Smith

An edited version of this story appeared in The Chattanooga Times Free Press: