When first author July Boit and her husband, Titus, read their children bedtime stories, the most popular being the old standards — “mostly Disney classics” like treasure island† Mary Poppinsand Cinderella-in which children, orphans or taken from their parents, have to make their way to a happy ending in an uncertain world.
This is because it reflects the real-life situation of many children in rural Kenya, where the death rate from AIDS and sickle cell anemia is high. And that’s the story of Juli and Titus’s adopted children, as told in her memoirs, From beyond the sky†
“There are so many people who have walked this journey with us… So many people were just part of our story,” says Boit, who calls from California, where she and Titus spend two months a year. For the rest, they live in a rural African village where Boit oversees the international non-profit organization The Living Room and directs Kimbilio (“refuge” in Kenyan Swahili), a health clinic and hospice that cares for many severely underprivileged patients.
After years of working nights as a family nurse in an AIDS ward in Los Angeles, Boit, a member of LA’s Christian Assembly Church, moved to Kenya where she had first visited on behalf of a friend during their nursing school days:
In those villages, I listened and learned every day from remarkable Kenyan leaders who cared about the suffering of their people. I saw the reality of AIDS in the context of a village setting. There, disturbing statistics took on new meaning for me. Numbers became young people with names and stories. All whose lives mattered.
In 2004, in his mid-twenties, boit went to Kenya, with a view to a temporary stay with an AIDS medical mission. But she decided she could do her most important work intimately at the village level, and after four years of practicing and becoming part of community life, she established the first clinic in Kipkaren.
“Where we live in the region is quite rural,” says Boit. “We don’t have paved roads. Electricity has just come in, in recent years. There is not much running water.” The nearest town – with supermarkets and other amenities – is Eldoret, an hour’s drive away.
Juli met and married Titus, a Kenyan man who lived a few miles from Kipkaren. In 2016, just after they welcomed their first child, Ella, the event took place that would push Boit to the extreme of adoption bureaucracy, international medicine, and the torments of a parent.
A local woman had died in her home in a premature delivery (the father had died months earlier in a traffic accident). The fragile baby was taken to Kimbilio. After deliberation, Juli and Titus decided to adopt the boy named Ryan – as well as the youngest three of his seven siblings – Geoffrey, Alice and Sharon. Ryan, Geoffrey and Alice suffered from chronic ailments, which were eventually diagnosed as sickle cell anemia.
Too often sickle cell syndrome is a death sentence in Africa. “In the US, about 100,000 people are affected,” Boit says. It is a genetically inherited condition in which blood cells formed in an unusual crescent shape tend to pool throughout the circulation, creating a spectrum of conditions. Few Africans have survived into childhood, and a poor understanding of the condition has created cultural stigmas.
Even in the developed world, she says, sickle cell can often be overlooked or rejected. “I think it’s a misunderstood disease. You absolutely cannot see the people who hold out until their pain becomes too much. And they finally go to the hospital, and their pain tolerance is so much higher. They are often disbelieved or sent home with a misdiagnosis… By the time they go to the emergency room for pain relief, many of them have used up all their resources.”
Boit says: “Until recently, I think, the focus of the World Health Organization and most of the money and work in Africa has been on communicable diseases – AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria… A lot of work has been done in the last 10 years. [on] cancer. Only [recently] the emphasis has shifted to sickle cell.”
As an afflicted newborn, Ryan’s existence was particularly tenuous. “In our national situation there are no large, luxury hospitals,” says Boit. The family flew nearly 10,000 miles to Los Angeles for risky bone marrow transplant procedures at UCLA’s pediatric department. What was intended to be a few weeks’ stay turned into a month-long stay, filled with postoperative complications, recovery, setbacks, and the help and love of a network of friends, strangers, and fellow churchgoers.
Eventually Boit felt the need to write it down. “I would actually wake up early in the morning, like five o’clock…before my kids woke up, and sit in a corner chair and try to process what was going on.” She said she wanted to make a record for the kids to understand what happened after they got older. But over time, the material coalesced into a full manuscript, and she thought about publishing.
“I was really touched by the book When breath becomes air (2016) by Paul Kalinithi, a doctor who died of cancer.” She also quoted to be mortal (2014) by Atul Gawande for being able to communicate concepts of care in terms related to the broader human experience.
She found her publisher, Morgan James, through a cooperating editor From beyond the sky in shape. Of the book, Kirkus Reviews says, “Boit maintains a glowingly optimistic, comradely tone…She consistently links her memories to broader insights about love and about her own personal Christian faith.”
Sale of From beyond the sky will benefit The Living Room and the Kimbilio Hospice. One final detail in the layout by Morgan James is noteworthy. At the end of the book, readers will find a facsimile of an old-fashioned library card, “From the heart of Kenya”. They are invited to fill it in with their names and locations and pass the book on to another reader.
It will show how far the book itself travels – ideally perhaps a copy of the pancontinental journey the author and her family took from Kenya to the United States.
And wherever it goes, the book takes the modern story of a group of orphans, like those in the Disney classics, in search of a happy ending.
Boit says, “I find it magical in storytelling.”
Charles Cassidy Jr. is an Ohio-based author, critic, and endless admirer of Dr. Albert Schweitzer.