Bartholomew Miheso grew up in Kakamega, a rural province in western Kenya where most Quakers live. From an early age, he was deeply attracted to Friends, and in time became an ordained Quaker minister as separately he worked in manufacturing and then the mining industry. He retired after 26 years service in a U.K. owned mining firm, rising to become a sales and marketing manager for international trade.
That job took him all over Africa to meet corporate and political leaders in the emerging continent, he remembers. The experience coupled perfectly with his parallel commitment to Friends. Over time, as he moved with his family to various posts in Kenya, he settled into meetings. In time, he was named presiding clerk of Nakuru Monthly Meeting, and Magada Friends Meeting.
There was service as a representative on the Quaker National Council of Kenya, and the All Africa Conference of Churches in Kenya, and the World Council of Churches, and for six years as representative to Friends World Committee for Consultation.
This experience with Friends also brought him to America, to Philadelphia, to North Carolina Friends at Gilford College, to the College of Mary Washington and elsewhere, as he attended conventions, sometimes as a speaker.
“In practice, though, when you are a charged Quaker minister, you have to have a job,” he continued, explaining that as a pastor his monthly pay was about $2.50. “You work, and raise your family with the money you earn. We were blessed in my house because my wife Ruth Vugutsa operated a nursery school for 18 years as we raised our children. And she was able to get a license to run a stall in the market, where she sold everything from jerry cans to potatoes.”
And as they raised their ten children, Ruth and Bartholomew observed the discipline of helping others in need, whether impoverished Quaker pastors, or people in the community who were in great need or distress, he said. In Kenya, there is no real safety net for widows and orphans, a place where even a little money can help in important ways.
“You could do a lot of good with a little money,” he explained.
When he retired after 26 years at the mining company, there was no on-going pension or retirement system, and no state-supported income security safety net. For his service, the employer gave him a one-time lump sum of about $30,000, which didn’t go far in educating the ten Miheso children and maintained the family tradition of giving, he said.
“Then a blessing came to me,” said Bartholomew. Following his long years of service in Friends and international connections, in 2003 he received a year-long residency fellowship at Pendle Hill Quaker center for study and contemplation near Philadelphia. At the conclusion of his residency, he did not return to Kenya, where political and economic uncertainty loomed. He took up employment as a security guard, and spent two years as a preacher the Church of the Nazarene in Hyattsville, Md. He lived simply and sent money home to Ruth, where she used it to continue giving to those in need.
“At our meeting, and in working at the stall, she would hear stories about need,” Bartholomew remembers. “Very quietly, she would give sums of money, sometimes very small and sometimes bigger, to help our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
“Then I found Adelphi [Friends Meeting],” he continued, “Quakers, and a home.”
Ruth was able to join Bartholomew in 2008, as both settled into the Friends community at Adelphi. Both found employment, and took another step in orchestrating helping the needy in rural Kenya. They enlisted an agent in Kenya to serve as “the angel,” said Bartholomew.
There was risk involved. In rural Kenya, the poverty is immense and the need daunting, he explained. “We only had a little bit of money to give and could not build up the expectations of people.”
At the same time, poverty and ignorance may provoke in some people a mad desire to steal from either the recipients or from our agent in Nagada, “who they would see as a ‘rich’ person supported by ‘rich people’ in America.”
Hold ups, break ins, intimidation, even kidnapping are within the realm of possibilities in such a poor part of the world, he said. “We had to quietly understand who was in need, and quietly give them what we could. We could not tell everyone about this. We could not even let one of the poor people know what we gave to another poor person. Jealousy and envy and anger could follow.”
Over time, Bartholomew was called to share with Adelphi Friends some of the story of his family’s giving in Kenya. At that point, American friends suggested that there may be way forward for Adelphi and other Quakers to participate.
Adelphi provided $3,000 in start-up funds for the group to incorporate as a tax-exempt organization, and to have a web site constructed so that interested Friends might learn about the program and make small donations on-line. Our agent in Kenya was encouraged to carefully plan an expansion of giving commensurate with the new funds.
“But we didn’t know what to call this project,” said Bartholomew. Then it struck him and the committee. The Miheso hometown and home Meeting is a little rural village in Kenya called Magada. “It means cornstalk,” Bartholomew explained. “That’s how we got our name, the Cornstalk Project.”
The Cornstalk Project is organized to help widows or orphans in the Magada region, he said. Recipients include Quakers, but mostly non-Quakers, and all are in great need, he said. To date, money has gone for a new roof for a widow whose home is falling apart, he said. Three orphans tuition costs are being picked up, and numerous small gifts sustain the mostly elderly widows, some of whom have health and mental health issues.
“Way is open,” Bartholomew said. “From when my wife [working] at her stall at the market long ago heard the suffering of others and couldn’t do anything big, only small, to help.”
“Simple and small,” he said. “God’s way.”