Eleven years of knotted bureaucratic red tape has finally been untangled. The snarls that kept a Caucasian mother from an African child whose life she saved have smoothed into a strong cord inseparably tying the two.
Wairimu has come home to Utah."It's a dream come true," said Ione Mower, hugging the shy, giggling 12-year-old who playfully buried her face in her foster mother's lap. Surrounding the affectionate twosome in Mower's Bountiful home are delicately sculptured antelope, giraffe and elephants. The woodwork are memorabilia of Kenya, where the distinctly different worlds of the white mother and black orphan were first joined in 1976.
Recruited as part of a Forest Service contract for U.S. AID (Aid to Underdeveloped Countries), James and Ione Mower moved their three American children from their secure, safe life in Jackson Hole, Wyo., to the mysterious depths of the arid east African country. Their two-year assignment, they concluded nervously, would be a "family adventure."
Little did they know that their attachment to the foreign land would be binding.
It all started so innocently.
"We got acquainted with a Baptist mission physician there, and he had a little Somali boy whose legs were atrophied from his mother carrying him all the time," James Mower recalled. The Mowers' interest in helping the child learn to walk was evidence to the physician of their unconditional compassion for the native children treated in his medical clinic. The facility, located in the Matare Valley, a poverty-stricken area of Nairobi, is continually filled to capacity with starving and diseased Kenyans.
But Mower's work frequently took him away from the city and into forest lands in the northeast. He wasn't home when the physician tested the family's good will.
"While I was gone, my wife had a baby," Mower joked. "It was delivered by the mission doctor."
At her doorstep one day appeared the medical specialist with another child in need of help. In his arms was a diminutive girl, who at age 71/2 months, had already hosted some mean companions: starvation, filth, measles and pneumonia. Locked in a fetal position, the 6-pound baby couldn't muster enough strength to move.
Physicians had issued her a death sentence, he said. But they prayed for a miracle.
"Dr. Adams hated to see her die, so he brought her to us," Ione Mower said. "We had her about two days and she was almost gone. The American embassy physician recommended we relieve ourselves of the responsibility."
For the Christian family, that wasn't an option. Hospitalization was.
A letter from the embassy guaranteed the homeless child coveted admittance into the medical facility, while hundreds of other dying people stood in line.
"They soon began calling her the miracle baby in the hospital; they were so shocked that she lived," said Ione Mower, who continued to lovingly nurse the baby after she was released.
"At first I fed her with an eye dropper because she didn't know how to suck on a bottle," she said. Formula was a thin gruel made from a pablum-like cereal bought in the local store.
"And she ate and ate and ate. Every week she put on a month."
But never was Wairimu quite strong enough to return to the cardboard hut her natural mother called "home." Occasional visits left her sickly again.
"The mother was suffering from severe malnutrition and had lost her milk," Ione Mower said. "When mothers there lose their milk, there is no chance for their babies." Three of the African woman's eight children already had starved to death.
"She let this child go out of love. She knew that if she kept her, she would surely die."
Wairimu also became the Mowers' biggest worry as their tour in Africa drew to an end.
"We checked into adoption, but in Kenya there's a law that there is no adoption across color lines - unless there is an unusual circumstance," James Mower said. "They didn't consider this unusual."
Refusing to abandon Wairimu or her future, the disheartened couple began visiting orphanages. Only one was deemed suitable, but it was unavailable to a child whose natural mother was alive.
Fortunately, the Mowers had political pull.
Thanks to the influence of the country's attorney general, a "friend of a friend," Wairimu was admitted at Thomas Barnardo's Home for Children despite a long waiting list.
The distraught American family left Kenya.
"Never have we known such heartbreak," said Ione Mower, tears filling her eyes as she drew the African child close to her side. "No one ever cared for a child more tenderly or loved one more than our family loved her. Leaving Wairimu was like leaving one of our own. There was no difference."
The family's love for the 22-month-old baby didn't diminish with distance or time. Immediately upon returning stateside, they enlisted the help of attorneys in both nations - hoping to beat the system.
Ione Mower, then living in Richfield, even wrote a pleading letter for help to the editor of the Deseret News.
It was Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who answered the newspaper appeal.
Hatch, who has helped unite literally hundreds of adoptive parents with homeless children, enlisted the expertise of his employee Sharon Peck. "Since, she has given us continual support, understanding and kindness," Ione Mower said. She wrote innumerable letters and made many telephone calls overseas to expedite the reunion.
The Mowers never lost hope.
Three times family members traveled abroad to see Wairimu. But each time, they left Kenya without her. What remained was that special "connection" - priceless letters and pictures in scrap books - and the belief they would one day be united.
That day finally came.
The government waived the ban on inter-racial adoptions, but Wairimu's biological mother resisted the move until the new African administrator of the orphanage persuaded the desolate woman to allow the child to go to America for "educational purposes."
"I fell apart," said Ione Mower, remembering her reaction to the long-awaited news. "It was just a dream."
With further assistance from Peck, an educational visa for Wairimu was obtained, and permission was granted to register the child in the Davis School District.
Only days ago, Wairimu arrived home.
According to all accounts, "Elizabeth," as she now prefers to be called, is doing nicely. Despite her dainty stature, she appears capable of weathering any community prejudice that might arise in the predominately white neighborhood.
"If anyone can get along here, she can," James Mower said proudly. "She is probably better adjusted than our three (natural) children. I think they ought to send all kids to that orphanage. They are more polite."
Wairimu was trained to do her own cleaning and washing. She washed out her clothing each night until Mower showed her a modern apparatus - the washing machine.
Wairimu, who speaks with a charming English accent, is quickly becoming Americanized. Hot dogs are her favorite food; Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and Whitney Houston are her heroes.
Not surprisingly, there remain some residual effects of her early years in Africa. She's behind in her schooling. Her eyes don't track properly, which has hindered her reading ability. But a local ophthalmologist has assured the family that Wairimu, who speaks three languages fluently, will catch up.
She may have more difficulty overcoming her shyness. Her usual chatter is tempered around strangers - especially men, who in Kenya view women as second-class citizens.
It's unclear how long Wairimu will be able to stay in the United States, or whether the Mowers, both in their 50s, can ever legally adopt her.
"That would be the best, but right now we will take anything we can get," James Mower said.
What they want most is to give their child a good education and a strong feeling of self-worth, his wife added. "Then should she choose to go back, Kenya is a wonderful place."