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going-quote1Seven-thousand four-hundred twenty-five miles, seven time zones, two airplanes, one un-air-conditioned van along a rutted dirt road and 20 bone-weary hours… Alysha Oswald ’05 had finally arrived. A s she stood in a maze of shacks made of mud and sticks and rowhomes with corrugated tin roofs on that hot, sticky September day in 2005, she took in the unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells. Her senses heightened as the balmy breeze carried the aromas of the neighborhood to her nose: raw sewage, trash, mud, incense and exotic foods.

A far cry from the comforts of her American upbringing in Saylorsburg, Pa., Oswald was about to embark on a journey as a missionary in her new home, Kibera, Kenya, the largest urban slum in East Africa. With an estimated population of more than one million people, Kibera is approximately the size of Central Park in New York.

Admittedly out of her comfort zone, Oswald adapted quickly to life in Africa: from the smells to the new foods—which she now loves—to ministering to orphaned children. It was an unforgettable experience and one she missed once she returned to the States after her initial nine months of work was completed.

Oswald’s calling to become a missionary began during her senior year at Albright, as she was finishing her religious studies and psychology degree. She applied for a position with Adventures in Missions, and although Africa was not her first choice locale, it was “the place I was always supposed to go,” she said. “I always felt like a misfit in America. I was kind of like an outsider… But when I got to Kenya I felt like this is the place I’m to be.”

Oswald travelled to Kenya several times in the years following her first mission in Kibera, believing more strongly each day that Africa was where she belonged. Feeling a pull to focus her work on special needs and disabled children, she spent time learning about disabilities in Africa and visiting existing ministries there.

“Special education in Kenya is slowly progressing,” Oswald said, “but it is behind in its thinking and strategies for these children.” For instance, she said, if a child is born disabled, it is customary for the father to leave the family. A special needs child is considered a curse, and she/he is often hidden away in the home. With her sights set on helping to encourage, empower and assist the parents, caregivers, teachers and children so they can lead full and meaningful lives, Oswald started The SKY Mission in 2009. “SKY” is a Swahili acronym meaning “Entrusted to Jesus, Empowered by Jesus,” and the mission itself falls under the umbrella organization Commission to Every Nation.

In Lakeview, a slum of Nakuru, Kenya, with a name that paradoxically conjures the image of an idealistic, suburban subdivision, Oswald works with Malaika Disabled and Caregivers, a group of 50 families. It was started by two Kenyan women with special needs relatives. These women believed that if they could discover where the handicapped were in the community, they could start a support group and change the stigma. The initial group of 22 members has more than doubled in two years and has been instrumental in bringing out from hiding the families with disabled children.

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“All the moms were having difficulty understanding their children, accepting the fact they had special needs, and were confused even where to begin and how to help,” Oswald said. “Through building relationships and home visits, I am able to see moms who once were downhearted and discouraged, who now have this positive attitude toward their children and recognize the great gift they have in caring for them.”

Mama Sharon, 26, and 6-year-old Sharon, are one of “Auntie Alysha’s” families. Sharon was born with Down syndrome. After her birth, the father deserted the family, so in order to provide for her daughter and herself, Mama Sharon started washing clothes and cleaning houses in Nakuru, about two miles away from home. She would leave her special needs child home alone in their small mud and stick shack for hours at a time.

“When I started visiting Mama Sharon and Sharon, I spent time listening to their story and struggles and provided suggestions on how to help Sharon to communicate, behave, feed herself and move independently,” Oswald said. “I’ve seen a change in the six months that I’ve been connected with this family. Mama Sharon’s attitude about her daughter has gone from a feeling of burden to seeing the beauty and ability of her little girl.”

When Oswald met Mama Sharon for the first time, the young mother was withdrawn. Today, “she is friendly and engaging and ready to advocate and help her child in any way possible,” Oswald said. “Mama Sharon felt things were hopeless, but now she knows that she has someone who understands and wants to help her. She is spending more time working with Sharon to improve her communication, sociability, independence and gross motor skills. Recently, she even mentioned that she wants Sharon to go to school. This is a huge improvement from the beginning when Mama Sharon only wanted to keep Sharon in the house.”

As Oswald continues to heed her calling, she also plans to make Kenya her permanent home with fiancé Sam Omundi, the assistant director of a private children’s home for orphaned and abandoned babies.”I always struggled with how scheduled life in America is and how every action required you to plan ahead. When I got to Africa, I saw a simple way of life that focused on relationships, traditions, community. I think it connected with my spirit on a deeper level that gave me the ability to invest and connect rather quickly,” Oswald said.

“I never truly felt comfortable in America like I do in Kenya. To me, that slum became a place of great beauty and also my home. To this day, when I return there…it feels like home.”

For more information about Alysha Oswald’s mission work, visit www.cten.org/alyshaoswald/.

Author’s note: As a mother myself, when Oswald relayed her heartwarming story to me, I couldn’t help but wonder how Oswald’s own mom felt about her daughter’s endeavors half way around the world…

“After I was in Kenya for about a year, my mom and stepdad got into doing some mission work as well in Guatemala and Honduras,” said Oswald. “They are supportive, but I believe they still struggle with the idea of having their daughter committed to serving in another country for the rest of her life. It took some time for them to get to where they are today, but they saw the love and passion that I have for this country, for the Kenyan people, and for the special needs/disabled population, that they gave me their blessing to follow my heart and do what I was made to do.”

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