Malia Witham (left) with teens from Korah, Ethiopia. Some are being sent to boarding school via donations from missionaries.

By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

An 11-day mission trip ended up being a three-week odyssey for a Keizerite and her group.

Malia Witham of Keizer was on a mission trip to Ethiopia and Uganda, with a group called Visiting Orphans. The group sends small groups of missionaries around the world to help orphaned children via reunification with family, sponsoring them or simply playing games with them, maintaining human connection.

In Witham’s case, they were searching for children who are scrapping for survival in an Ethiopian garbage dump and sending them to boarding school. Witham and Cherrie Cornish were supposed to be on the trip for 11 days.

But the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, an Icelandic volcano, changed all of that.

Ash from the volcano’s eruption shut down air traffic across much of Europe, which meant their connecting flight from Amsterdam got cancelled. The ordeal extended their trip by about 10 days.

Malia and husband Shane are no strangers to mission work, having volunteered both in the United States and abroad. She found out about Visiting Orphans through a blog detailing a missionary’s feeding program and adoption of 14 Ugandan children.

“For the last three years probably, I have wanted to go to Uganda,” Malia said. “I didn’t know Ethiopia would be the one that would steal our hearts the most.”

She and Salem resident Cherrie Cornish joined the group of about 14 for the trip. They were initially only to spend two days in Ethiopia, part of it in the Korah garbage dump.

Malia said the dump gets all the garbage from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and largest city, with a population of more than 3.3 million.

Korah is outside of the city, and is the site of a leper hospital built about 75 years ago. People from Korah are often outcasted, finding food in the dump and often literally living in it. “Korah actually means cursed,” Malia said. “From the beginning it was created to be a place where people who were unwanted would go. Most people who live there … get their food and livelihood from the dump.”

Walking through it was “like hiking a mountain of garbage,” and the oil missionaries would put under their noses only made the garbage smell slightly more bearable.

That’s nothing compared to what the children had to do to survive there. Children chase the bulldozers that turn over “fresh” garbage that may have something for them to eat, sell or wear.

“We met one child, in all of the time there, that had two parents,” Malia said. “I look through all the forms … and so many say, ‘Mother has HIV. Mother has leprosy.’”

When it rains on the mud or tarp-walled houses, the children sleep on the floor – regardless of how wet it is.

While they were there, Malia, Cornish and the other missionaries took children out to lunch, played with them, and even taught some English. They held classes for about a week, and maybe 30 people showed up for the first one.

“Three days later we probably had 100 kids,” Malia said.

After seeing their plight, all 14 on the trip made a pledge to sponsor at least one child through boarding school. For about $700 a year, Malia said, the child can be sent to boarding school, have clean uniforms and get four hot meals a day.

“You couldn’t look in their faces and not get them out of there,” Malia said. “The goal is for them to never go back to the dump.”

If nothing else the American dream is that of upward mobility; that we can make something of ourselves if we’re just willing to try. But without help, Malia said these kids won’t ever make it out.

“I think if you are born in Korah, it’s rare to leave,” Malia said. “Your life is always going to be going to the dump and getting food. There’s no way out unless, really, people with money like us come in and provide a way.”

Shane Witham is proud as he can be of his wife’s work. That said – with three children at home – he was ready to have his wife by his side again.

“Twenty-one days is a long time for my kids to be without their mom,” Shane said.