The first half of Charles M. Mully’s life is a rags-to-riches story so dramatic that Horatio Alger wouldn’t have dared to write it even in America, let alone Kenya, where Mully went from homeless street boy to millionaire entrepreneur.
The second half is an even more astonishing riches-to-ragamuffins tale of single-minded zeal for some of the poorest of the poor, with Mully (or Mulli, as his name is also spelled) giving up his business empire to try to rescue as many of Kenya’s homeless orphans as he could pick up and bring home.
Over the last 28 years, more than 12,000 street children have become part of Mully Children’s Family, receiving education and support as well as food, shelter and clothing. Mully Children’s Family has spread beyond Kenya to other African nations and is now operating in the United States.
Mully’s story has been brought to the screen by director Scott Haze, whose well-made, engrossing documentary Mully is playing occasionally in very limited release around the country.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus spoke to Mully by phone recently about his life story, the impact of his ministry on his family life, Christian-Muslim relations in Kenya, Catholicism in Kenya and cultural disconnects between Africa and the West.
In the conversation, as in the movie, Mully’s soft-spoken, slightly halting commentary on his life reveals a forceful, driven man with an uncompromising moral vision and no evident regrets or self-doubts.
I’m amazed, given your origins, that you have been able to accomplish professionally what you did. You were abandoned as a boy by your family while you were sleeping …
At 5 or 6 years old, I was a very poor boy in a poverty-stricken family. My dad was an addict who created violence in my family. After my parents left me, I was in the streets, loitering and begging.
Later, I traveled to Nairobi by foot to look for a job and knocking everywhere. A wealthy family gave me a job. They were Indian; they were Catholic; they used to go to church. They were good. I understand they came to U.S.A. many years ago. I do not know where they are.
I got a good secondhand vehicle, which I converted it to a taxi. In the taxi world, I did well, because the Lord God really blessed my work. After some time, I got into the gas business, the distribution of tires, and then the insurance business and real estate.
And so I became a wealthy man, and I really enjoyed myself and the good life with my family.
We went to church. I was a believer and a leader in the church. In the business arena, I was highly respected because of what I had achieved thus far.
Then you had a kind of moral awakening, and you wanted to do something for children in desperate circumstances like your own. Many people would have chosen to keep working, and perhaps found a charity, but not give up their career and their business life. Why was this was so personal for you that you had to become so directly involved?
God spoke to me through a car which was stolen from me by street boys. I didn’t give them money, even though they asked me to.
And God really put a burden in my heart. I saw children, women and men who were poor and crying, and because of the life they were living. I cried — I saw myself in their faces. And that made me think about my past, and how can I help these children?
And the question was from God, and he responded, “You are the one.” So the Spirit of God convicted me into taking a step of faith and giving everything through obedience to God.
I started this ministry 28 years ago. Now we have been able to witness over 12,000 children who have gone through. Some are doctors, lawyers, engineers, pastors, evangelists, farmers and entrepreneurs.
I’m interested in your perspective on the impact of these choices on your own family. You sent your children to boarding school in order to minister to other children. I get the impression that this was difficult for them at times.
Yah, it was very difficult. My children were traumatized, and also my wife. She couldn’t really understand why I was doing that.
Do you have any regrets about that time in your life? Is there anything that you would do differently if you could?
No, indeed. There was not a different way that I could do it, other than serving them myself, giving my time and going to the streets everywhere across the country and Africa, looking to support those who are oppressed by poverty and sicknesses, and bringing them to our place and to give them education, food, clothing, shelter and then education.
We have a primary school and a secondary school to grade 12. We have also vocational training for some of these young people, especially those who have been molested or involved in prostitution and drugs. When they recover, they know that they have to work, and they remain focused on being good fathers, mothers and future leaders of tomorrow.
Do you feel that you have been a good husband and a good father?
(Laughing) According to me! I feel like I have been the best. According to me, the best father and husband, even though during those days, they never understood. But the moment when they came to realize that these children really needed help, they needed love like any other child, and after I also shared them about my story, they were able now to support me.
So I was really a good father, a good husband and a father to over 12,000 children. And so I am really humbled to be a servant, and a servant means a father.
Do you feel that you now have the complete support of your family for what you do?
Oh, yes; I have complete support in my family. My children, my wife — they love what I do. And the kids we brought up, who have gone to university and colleges — some of them have joined me in this work. So I am receiving good support through my family.
When you go out on the street and you pick up an orphan, what is the most important thing for you to reach that child with?
The children were not loved. They were abused; they have a lack of food, and no one loved them. The police mostly used to arrest them, and they really have never felt love, even from their own parents.
But now, having come to Mully Children’s Family and me, as the father to all of them, they are really very happy. Love is everything. It is above all, and, therefore, with love, you can change a human being, and even animals, when you show love. It is the greatest, as God also gave us love through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Speaking of Jesus — you are a Christian, your ministry is Christian, and Kenya is a mostly Christian country. There is a Muslim minority in Kenya; can you tell me about Christian-Muslim relations, in your experience?
In Kenya, Christians are over 60%. There is a minority of Muslims, but we also have Hindus and other religions. The relationship over the years has been so good, and we have enjoyed working together with the Muslims.
Even in our ministry, there are many Muslims. We are Christians, but we also serve all — Muslims, non-Christians. We have no difference — we don’t reject others; we take all of them.
What about Catholic/Protestant relations?
We have quite a big number of Catholics. The Catholic Church came to Kenya many, many years ago. The Catholics are very strong, very powerful. They are doing a great job, especially with humanitarian assistance to other people, education, health care and, of course, the word of God.
We Protestants work very well [with Catholics] without any differences. They also preach the word of God without favor. They are following the Bible.
That’s great to hear. One of the issues that the film touches on are tribal hostilities, especially after the 2007 election. Can you tell me more about that?
We have over 40 tribes in our country. Some of the leaders are selfish, and they cause hatred. Therefore, differences over the tribes and the culture exist.
During the elections, people want their tribe to catch up in posts in the government. In 2007, there was misunderstanding as well as opposition. One of the big tribes and some other tribes were in conflict, and it created violence.
At Mully Children’s Family, thousands of people came [during the conflict] for security. We were able to serve them by providing school and health care. There were over 11,000 children that we were able to supply with material for writing, books and teachers.
Is there something that we Westerners need to hear about Africa that we don’t know or understand?
Thank you for this question! Of course, there are so many; I cannot do one by one. But the culture is very important for the Western world to understand. Africa is a continent that is fast-growing and moving in education, and [Westerners must] understand how they can approach some issues that are complex.
Often, when the Western world comes to Africa, they intend to bring their own ideologies, philosophies and their ways of doing things. And they force, and this will continue to make Africa not move well in social as well as political development. And so I think the challenge is that they need to have a better approach to the African countries as they go to help.
Are there any particular Western ideologies you’re thinking of?
Like abortion, for example. Some countries, when they give their grants, will tie this to abortion, saying this must be done.
But if there could be dialogue, sit down and ask, “What is that we can do? What is the best that you feel we can do for Africans?” Then they will talk.
So the Western world needs to know more about the culture of Africans and to know “What is the need?” And Africa also must be able to convey exactly what they want. And they agree together, and they move forward, to develop and to make Africa a better continent than it is now.
For information on Mully screenings, see MullyMovie.com.