Helping build an orphanage in Kenya for children of AIDS victims has brought together an array of Central Ohioans in a 15-year effort involving fundraisers, travel and lots of music.

More than 8,000 miles separate Columbus from Nairobi, Kenya, but an orphanage on the outskirts of that city is clustered with signs and plaques bearing names that would be equally at home in Central Ohio. These testify to a range of supporting Columbus-area Rotary clubs, churches, musical and medical groups and businesses. The African orphanage, and the village that surrounds it, exist on land that until 14 years ago was undeveloped; today, it houses 60 children left parentless by AIDS in a part of the world where they might otherwise be shunned. And it all started with a chance meeting in an elevator at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in 1998.

One of the two men in that elevator was Terry Davis, who became a pediatric cardiac surgeon after the death of his second child from a heart malady at five weeks of age. Davis has performed 5,000 heart surgeries on children and infants during a 35-year surgical career. His passion and skill have taken him to pediatric medical missions in El Salvador, Peru and Kenya. He has served as associate and assistant chief medical officer at Children’s, as well as the hospital’s acting chief medical officer.

The second man was John Nganga, at that time the hospital’s resident chaplain. Nganga is a native of Kenya and an Anglican priest who came to the U.S. to obtain his doctorate at United Theological Seminary in Dayton. After four years at Children’s, Nganga was well aware of Davis, and knew that the man had a heart for kids around the world. Nganga saw the elevator convergence as something more than mere coincidence, and he wasn’t about to miss his chance.

For a decade, Nganga had been carrying an image in his mind that he says was “torturing” him. It was of a young woman he’d seen dying in the ravages of AIDS in an isolated corner of a hospital in Kenya, alone in the midst of many. Nganga knew that her village likely looked upon her with fear and even judgment. When he came to the U.S. the following year, he focused his doctoral studies on “non-judgmental pastoral care.” It is a phrase that Nganga says captures his approach to his ministry with AIDS victims—and, specifically, children orphaned by the disease. “When I saw the hopelessness in the eyes of those orphans, and the desperation of the grandmothers,” he says, “I made a covenant with God to be available to these children at whatever the cost so that the children could have a future.”

The priest and the doctor continued their conversation after stepping off the elevator. Nganga described his hopes for an orphanage in Kenya for children left parentless by AIDS, to be called Rafiki (“friend” in Swahili). He told Davis he had just taken out a personal loan at the hospital credit union to fund the project. “Seed money! Well done, John,” Davis replied, then told him to get back in touch when he returned from Kenya with a plan.

It would be six years.

A Growing Crisis

When Nganga returned to his homeland in 1998, Kenya was in the midst of an AIDS epidemic that placed it among the six worst-hit nations in the world. Ten years earlier, when he left to study in the U.S., Kenya was reporting 3,000 HIV cases and the government was in denial about the problem. But by 1998 the disease had reached 10 percent of the entire population. Most tragic to Nganga was the growing number of orphans. They would increase to 3 million over the next 15 years, more than 10 percent of the under-15 population—half of them due to AIDS. The huge numbers were breaking down the traditional African extended family system, leaving orphaned children with no choice other than the streets.

Nganga and Davis were only loosely in touch during those six years. Davis was away doing mission work in Peru in 2002 when Nganga returned to Columbus for a six-month stint as an associate pastor at Clintonville’s Overbrook Presbyterian Church. But in 2004, Davis began redeeming his promise to Nganga by visiting the Kenyan site (the first of 21 visits he has made to date), where he was excited by the spirit and hope he saw in the children. “The main thing is the kids,” he says. “They’re bright, they’re excited, they’re curious, they have great self-worth, they’ve got a faith, they’ve got a family—which is Rafiki.” The visit kindled a passion for the project that Davis began sharing within his Central Ohio communities, making presentations to fellow members of the Columbus Rotary Club and the First Community Church, as well as to colleagues at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

A Shared Passion

Perhaps the project’s greatest turning point was a presentation Davis made to the Short North Rotary Club (called, at the time, the Capitol Square Rotary Club). His slideshow and talk ignited a fire in the club’s members, especially its service chair, Kirk Horn. Horn would pour his next—and, as it turned out, his last—10 years of life into every aspect of the Rafiki work. That night, Horn came home, according to his wife, Zonia, “gung ho to go.” As incoming club president (2005-2006), he began organizing a trip to Rafiki that also would involve other members.

Full disclosure: I knew Horn throughout his life in our close family friendship with his parents and sister Aly. As a child, he pulsated with energy and, unlike most people, maintained that zest into adulthood while becoming a top salesman for Logicalis and a devoted Rotarian. There was always a part of the 8-year-old in him that revealed itself when something new caught his eye, and so it was with Rafiki. Kirk died of cancer in 2016 at the age of 45. But his enthusiasm and energy for the project had already engaged an extraordinary array of business leaders, musicians, churchgoers and members of the medical community, enough to build a momentum that would continue to enlarge the circle.

Getting Started

But first, they had to dig a well.

During the years following the elevator meeting, Nganga had opened his orphanage in a rented building on the outskirts of Nairobi. But the building was crowded, and he began to feel the necessity of moving the children out into the countryside, away from a place where AIDS victims often confronted deep-seated fears.

The congregation at Overbrook Presbyterian had raised the funds for Nganga to purchase a 1.5-acre rural plot. But in order to get government permission to build there, he had to establish a reliable supply of potable water—no easy task. A satisfactory well would cost $60,000, and that would only produce the permission slip for the large building task to follow.

Here in Columbus, the well became a rallying point, providing a concrete goal that would galvanize local groups. The spirit was especially lively among the area’s Rotary Clubs. Gary Vaughan, an early member of the Short North club and a current district Rotary governor, says that half of the 59 Rotary clubs in the district contributed to the Rafiki mission in some way. Vaughan went with Horn to Kenya for the ground-breaking ceremony for the well in late 2005. Over the past decade and a half, estimates Eston Kihara, a Westerville resident and friend of Nganga who kept track of fundraising efforts, Central Ohioans have contributed about $1 million to the orphanage through their churches, Rotary clubs and other local groups.

Many who got involved locally describe a sense of personal growth through their long-term participation in the Rafiki project. “I didn’t connect with the kids right away in 2005,” says Rachael Mazur, CEO of DASCO Home Medical Equipment and the Short North Rotary Club’s current president, about her first visit to the orphanage. “I felt like a person who was gawking more than helping. But it was interesting because on the next visit [in 2012], after I’d become a mom, I was super connected with the kids. I think that was just part of my development.”

Making Music

In late 2006, the Columbus-Rafiki connection took on a musical accompaniment that lasts to this day, an element that led to the creation of two new Columbus musical traditions with strong Rafiki connections, as well as music education programs in both Columbus and Kenya.

The first musical element was the founding of the band Grassinine, which got its start in 2006 with a tongue-in-cheek name, a group of middle-aged players with high-powered day jobs, a backyard jam session and an opening performance staged on a pontoon boat cruising on the Scioto with guitars, banjo, spoons for percussion, and a gutbucket (or washtub) one-stringed bass. A passing kayaker smoking a cigar was so struck by the audience-less boat on that maiden voyage that he turned his craft around and followed them all the way up their river route.

Even before the band was formed, several members had been to Rafiki: bass player Terry Davis and his son Jamie, who sang and played guitar, mandolin player Lee Bass, and Donatos executive (now president and CEO) Tom Krouse, also as a lead singer and guitarist—not to mention backup vocalist and percussionist Kirk Horn. That first pontoon excursion on the Scioto would make a stop at the riverside home of Donatos founder Jim Grote and his wife Christina, who immediately joined the band as washboard player. It wouldn’t be long before the Grotes, too, would make a visit to the orphanage in Kenya.

Krouse calls Grassinine’s formation “an organic happening.” Since then, the band has played dozens of venues with an eclectic style of music they describe as “mountain rock.” In addition to local pubs, Grassinine has played for audiences at Red, White and Boom, Comfest and Rhythm on the River, among others. Yet early on, members agreed that generosity would anchor the band, giving joy to audiences and material help to people and groups in need. Krouse, who writes and speaks about the application of musical concepts in the world of business, sees something similar when music teams up with philanthropy. It adds to the fun of giving. Says Krouse, “Giving comes back to us in the form of joy.”

A lot of that giving has been focused on Rafiki. Grassinine has given benefit performances for countless causes, but Rafiki is one of its most-favored recipients.

The second musical connection is an annual concert series Horn imported to Columbus after a stint working in Nashville, where the concept originated. Music in the Round Columbus is a local songwriters’ showcase that doubles as a fundraiser for Rafiki. Specifically, Horn’s goal for the series was to fund a music program for the children of Rafiki.

That initiative drew in Columbus musician Jesse Henry, frontman of the Spikedrivers. When Henry learned of the initiative as one of the featured artists for a 2011 Music in the Round benefit, he rushed to sign up for an upcoming 2012 trip to Kenya to kick off the music program, using his honorarium from the evening as a down payment on his airline ticket. When he and fellow Columbus musician Eric Nassau arrived at the orphanage with guitars—their own and quite a few others—the children swarmed them in an overflow of excitement.

The visit became a three-day rolling concert of continuous singing and playing, including a performance by the Upendo Choir from Tanzania. That three-day experience, Henry says, inspired in him a vision of linking Kenya and Columbus through music and its appeal to children. “I want to connect kids to the deep power of music around the world,” he says.

Horn shared that vision, and in 2015—late in the game for Horn, who was diagnosed with a cancer-driven brain tumor in 2014 that would take him from Zonia and young son Elijah in 2016—he described to Krouse and his wife, Jane Grote Abell, chair of the Donatos board, a literal dream of connecting the Rafiki initiative to a music program for children in the Columbus area. Abell loved the idea and suggested tying it to Boys and Girls Clubs in Columbus, starting with the Reeb Avenue Center that she had founded along with Tanny Crane of the Crane Group.

Henry recruited other musicians and launched a program of twice-a-week, two-hour instrumental music lessons for kids at the Reeb Avenue and Milo-Grogan Boys and Girls Clubs. Some two dozen kids are currently enrolled, with plans to expand both that number and sites involved. Today, the program is supported by a donor-advised fund at the Columbus Foundation, the Kirk Horn Music Fund, overseen by parents Bob and Jenny Horn. “Kirk knew the joy of life,” says Abell, “and he certainly brought a lot of joy to other people. I think he taught us how to live well.”

Keeping It Going

Rafiki today has expanded to become almost a village. Sixty children live in the orphanage, a figure expected to swell to 75 in January of 2020. Additionally, some 100 children from neighboring villages come on the grounds as students at the Terry Davis Academy—strong evidence of Nganga’s effectiveness in overcoming attitudes about AIDS as local parents now pay to send their children into what was once forbidden company.

Nganga speaks eloquently about the Kenyans who helped him envision and anchor the Rafiki orphanage concept in the earliest years, including the leaders of the parent Emmanuel Anglican Church in Kibiciku, as well as his friend Eston Kihara. Kihara took on a leadership role on Rafiki’s American board during a three-year period when Nganga was battling cancer.

One of the things Rotary leaders Vaughan and Mazur especially appreciate about the Rafiki work is that it has become a sustainable legacy in the lives of these children. Through enterprises like the Terry Davis Academy and an onsite farm that produces food for the children, they point out, Rafiki perpetuates itself.

Sustainability has also marked the Columbus side of the venture. The digging of the well and the transplanting of the orphanage could have been a nice break point for the Columbus Rafiki supporters, a neatly preserved memory. But the spirit of the project kept its supporters coming back, doing more and giving more, their energy rippling outward into the Columbus community and into the lives of children halfway around the world.