Gift Keeps Giving

A boy living in the slums of Nairobi becomes one of Kenya's foremost plastic suregons

First published MindFood

A small boy lives with his mother and sister in squalor and extreme poverty.  Their home is a rusting corrugated iron shack in a neighbourhood of tightly-packed hundreds of thousands, with garbage piled on dirt walkways, and sewage running in open drains. 

The boy's name is Joseph Wanjeri. The place is Nairobi’s Kangemi slums. And this was forty years ago.

Today Joseph is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon. He specialises in  trauma patients, focussing on burn victims.  Currently head of the Plastic Surgery Unit, he has been at the forefront in establishing a department of plastic and reconstructive surgery in the Kenyatta National Hospital. He also lectures in the Department of Surgery at the University of Nairobi, ensuring a supply of surgeons in a part of the world where plastic surgery is still in its infancy.  As a volunteer, he operates on children with cleft lips and palettes for Operation Smile.

How did Joseph transition from slum child to surgeon?

Joseph Wanjeri, 57, is  an elegant, gentle person who speaks with precise and carefully selected words. What is most striking is his curiosity. He wants to understand everything. There is nothing about his demeanour that hints at his past. But his long list of achievements he credits to eighty-five-year-old Aucklander, Lucy Lamb.

“I was a very poor boy from the slums of Nairobi. We were living a wretched life. It was very difficult,” Joseph says. 

His solo mother struggled to eke out a living by cleaning houses. She sent her children to primary school, but the cost of twenty Kenyan shillings (about 30 cents) a term was a great challenge and she was forced to take a loan from the school. Secondary school was inconceivable. But then, life for Joseph took a dramatic turn.

Prompted by the death of her first-born child through cancer, the loss of which she still feels keenly more than fifty years later, Lucy Lamb was motivated to help children. It seemed her way of grieving. 

“Losing Jenny had a part to play in all of this,” she says. 

Mother of five, Lucy is a quietly spoken, intensely compassionate woman. She is the champion of the underdog. She considers herself ordinary, and perhaps this is where her power lies. She demonstrates that the ordinary can be extraordinary. She goes about her life quietly, giving time and money, without making demands from others. Being thanked is neither expected or required. Which is why a visit forty years later came as a surprise. 

In addition to adopting a child from an orphanage in Hong Kong, she and her husband elected to pay for the schooling of a boy in Africa. That boy was Joseph Wanjeri. Over the next six years the Lambs financed his secondary education at a boarding school for poor boys - the Starehe Boys Centre in Kenya. For Joseph, it changed the trajectory of his life.  It gave him the chance that thousands of others did not get. And he grabbed it. He nurtured it and it grew. But he never took it for granted. 

Sending Joseph off for an education was not easy for his mother. “My mother dropped me off at the gate and that was the first and last time she came to the school.”  Conditions were so bad in the slums, that Joseph was permitted to stay on at the school during the holidays. 

He did not abandon his mother or family. By then, his mother had three more children whose fathers were unknown.  As Joseph's  career took shape and his income improved, he married, had two children and began to support not only his own but his extended family. He built a house for his mother, away from the slums on a 2-acre block, and employed a farm hand to assist her. He took care of his sister's orphaned son, after she and her husband died from HIV. And he sponsored his two half brothers into university and jobs.  The third died of cancer and Joseph now supports the widow and her two sons. 

Last month an email arrived from Joseph. He planned to visit New Zealand. 

“Perhaps we should let Joseph know,” said Lucy, “that an imposter has commandeered  his email.” 

They had kept in touch on and off but there were years where little was heard. Surely this was a hoax?

A short while later, Joseph Wanjeri boarded a plane.  “I always thought, one day I’ll go and see her. Mum (Lucy) had been very generous to me.  It got to the point where I thought I can afford the air ticket and I decided,  I’m going to see her,” Joseph says. 

Lucy Lamb downplays her involvement.

“Gosh”, she laughs. “We barely noticed it,” she says, referring to the financial contributions she and her husband had made. 

Not according to Joseph.

“Those dollars from New Zealand have had a far-reaching effect. They gave me a life, and by doing so changed the lives of my family, that of my many patients I have treated and many other people I assist in other ways”.

Holding up a piece of cardboard with his name and a photo of him at age 16, Lucy met Joseph for the first time at the airport. There was an immediate bond.

For a week, Joseph was enfolded into Lucy’s family: staying at her home for the four days he was in the country, meeting her children, sharing meals and stories and seeing the sights of Auckland.

“Mum, I honestly cannot remember when or if I have experienced love and emotions as I did in Auckland last week,” Joseph would write in a later email.  “I was treated like a son, a brother.”  

In Joseph’s world, Lucy afforded him a chance to succeed,  to become the person he wanted to be. In Lucy’s world, each of us is the catalyst for a child to transition from the slums to a better life, a life that offers choice and has the potential for good. Not just life changing. World changing.