Teenager Isikah Mwee locked himself in his house in Ukambani, Kenya, sobbing deeply. There was no hope, he told himself; despite his excellent test scores and an invitation to join a national boys school, his single mother—already caring for his eight siblings—couldn’t afford the tuition. A farm laborer since kindergarten, Isikah was used to going without food and shoes, but going without an education felt like the ultimate injustice.
“I could not understand why things were the way they were,” he tells Citizen. “I prayed too, even though I was not a believer then.”
Yet God heard Mwee’s cry, and sent what he calls “an angel of hope”: Charles Mully, a wealthy Kenyan businessman who agreed not only to pay Mwee’s tuition, but invited him to live at Mully Children’s Family (MCF)—a nonprofit organization for vulnerable and orphaned children in Kenya—while Mwee completed his education.
“I could not believe my eyes or understand how he had given up everything to rescue the vulnerable and needy children like me,” Mwee says. “I had not met a person with such a kind heart before.”
That’s because Mully knows all too well what it’s like to be hungry, vulnerable, unloved and alone.
Charles Mutua Mully, now 68, was born into poverty in a small village east of Nairobi, the oldest of 10 children. His father was often unemployed, drunk and abusive, especially toward Mully’s mother. As with many rural Kenyans, life was hard, and Mully often went without basic necessities.
One morning when he was 6, Mully woke to find himself completely alone. His parents, desperate for work, had simply left their eldest behind with no forewarning.
“I went to my uncle, who was a drunkard,” Mully says in the Focus on the Family-sponsored documentary about his life coming out for American audiences in October, which is simply called by his last name. “I was so hungry. And my uncle said, ‘No, off you go!’ ˮ Mully had no choice but to beg and steal for the next decade just to stay alive.
The experience hardened young Mully’s heart, so much so that he pondered killing himself. “I came to know the survival of the fittest,” he tells Citizen—and he certainly didn’t feel like the fittest.
All that changed, however, when someone invited the teenager to church. The sermon was on forgiveness of sins, and Mully, though skeptical at first, was touched.
“A new hope was planted in my heart,” he recalls. “My parents rejected me, but it was time to forgive them and be relieved. God gave me greater joy as I received the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior.”
The next morning, with only a primary school education and without a single Kenyan shilling in his pocket, Mully began a dangerous three-day journey into Nairobi, determined to change his life for the better.
“I was walking with no water, no food, nothing,” Mully says. “There was the fear of wild animals.” Yet he pressed on, with “no other choice but to endure, not knowing where to go to spend the night or what to eat. I did not know where my next meal was coming from.”
Miraculously, Mully made it to the Kenyan capital in one piece, but his troubles were far from over. He had no job, education, shelter, family or stability, not to mention steady access to food or proper sanitation.
“I was scared about my future, because without education, where could I have gone?” he asks. “How could I have my own family? How would I feed them?”
He could not imagine then that one day he would provide not only food but a host of other practical needs for what MCF calls “the world’s largest family.”
Climbing the Ladder
Mully may not have had much, but he did have a quick eye. He noticed a wealthy neighborhood and began knocking on doors, asking for work. Eventually, an Indian woman let him in, and Mully began scrubbing floors, washing dishes, cutting two acres of grass by hand and eating the family’s leftovers straight off their plates in the kitchen. He earned about 75 cents a month—yet as he says in the film, “Life became good and better than ever before!”
After six months, his efforts paid off: The woman who hired him was married to a successful businessman, who then hired Mully as a clerk. Mully bought a brand-new shirt for the first time in his life and began climbing the corporate ladder, becoming an assistant manager before moving on to other companies.
When he was 19, Mully met Esther Nthenya at a job site, and the two were married in a traditional Kamba ceremony two years later, in 1970. They eventually had seven children and adopted one of Mully’s younger sisters as well. By then, Mully had proven himself a born businessman, saving enough money to buy a car—the first person from his village to own a vehicle.
With his intense work ethic, Mully’s income kept increasing as the years passed. He started his own taxi company with a single car that grew into a fleet. Then came bus, transport, insurance and real estate companies, all named after him. The former child beggar was now traveling to exotic locations like Hong Kong and America, hanging out with old-money businessmen and living in a mansion with carpets and domestic servants.
“It was 18 hours a day,” Mully says. “Genesis says you will work, you will sweat and nothing will be easy. I tell young people there is nothing free, but you should expect to be working hard.”
Yet how could he tell that to teenage street beggars who constantly asked to “guard” his fancy car for pay? After all, he used to be in their position. Still, he rejected their offer one day in 1989, only to find his car stolen later. The eyes of the angry boys—hungry, destitute and desperate, like he once was—haunted him.
Mully got into another car and drove aimlessly, eventually stopping to question God. Why had his car been stolen, after he had worked so hard to pull himself from poverty? After four hours of prayer, the entrepreneur had his answer: This wasn’t about a stolen car. God wanted him to care for street children, even at the cost of his own reputation and every penny he had earned. It was no longer enough to be the rags-to-riches success story; God was calling Mully to something deeper.
He went home and told his family that he would no longer be a businessman, but a father who brought Nairobi’s street kids into his own home. And Mully did, going out at night to bring in abandoned children while closing down his businesses. As the number of kids grew, so did the gossip from his congregation, until he was asked to leave the church. People told his wife to leave him, while his children—forced to suddenly share their rooms with smelly, rude street urchins—questioned his sanity.
It was, in short, absolute chaos. Street children, unaccustomed to structured family life, ran wild. Space and privacy were nonexistent, so Mully added onto his mansion. When the number of charges reached the the hundreds in 1995, Mully moved them onto his future
reitrement property outside Nairobi.
“We are all created in the image of God,” he explains simply; wealth has nothing to do with it, and neither do other people’s opinions.
The Biggest Family
That first official MCF property (there are six campuses today across Kenya) was arid and barren; water had to come from the local river and was often contaminated. After watching many children fall ill and die from waterborne diseases, Mully cried out to God for help.
In a major, defining miracle, God again showed up, revealing a well just 22.5 feet deep and close to MCF in one of Mully’s dreams. After three days of digging by hand in that exact dream-spot, the older children struck water—something a professional well-digging company with the proper equipment had failed to do.
“That was something!” Mully says. “A great miracle.”
Yet water wasn’t the only thing MCF needed, and Mully didn’t want to just “rescue” anyone; he wanted to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into African society as fully functioning adults, as well as preventing other children from becoming orphaned. To that end, he started academic and trade schools for “his” kids to teach skills like masonry, tailoring, hairdressing, basic engineering, plumbing and carpentry. He also eventually instituted a state-of-the-art agricultural and aquaponics program that has essentially turned the main property’s 500 acres into its own microclimate, growing not only enough produce to feed MCF residents, but also to sell to European markets.
MCF provides housing, health care, education and food for its charges and 1,000 seasonal farm employees and their families. With a full-time organizational staff of 200, including 15 pastors, MCF currently serves 3,100 children from Kenya, South Sudan and Somalia, speaking more than 40 tribal languages besides Swahili and English. Donors and supporters hail from Australia, Canada, Germany, Kenya and the United States, while more than 12,000 children to date have called Mully their surrogate father.
Such logistics—including many children who have experienced trauma like sexual assault, gang-related violence or watching a parent die of AIDS—don’t make for smooth sailing, however. In the early years especially, food stores ran low, children got sick and occasionally returned to their chaotic but familiar lives on the streets. In these and other tough situations, Mully was forced to rely on God rather than his own understanding. “We have to pray, then we have to take a step of faith and follow Him,” says the man whom all MCF kids refer to as Daddy Mully. “Obedience is much better than good offerings.”
This all-or-nothing faith in the heavenly Father translates into an unusual ability to be an earthly father to those who have none. Mwee, who has never met his biological father, says calling Mully “Daddy” means the world to him. “Daddy Mully is a father figure. When I met him and everybody was calling him Dad, I was really surprised I could call him Dad too, and he was OK with it,” Mwee says. “For all those years I had not felt or understood what it was like to call somebody ‘Dad’ … He will remain my dad for eternity.”
Mwee—now 28 and a college-educated product design engineer living in Michigan—isn’t the only one whose life has been changed by Mully’s obedience. Hundreds of his “kids” are currently studying in universities across Africa, Europe and North America, while MCF’s own secondary school received a top ranking among 163 local schools in 2013.
“People need to know that that it doesn’t matter your color or background or if you’re a very poor person,” Mully says. “But to have faith in Christ Jesus—to know that we can reach up because He saves, He empowers. It’s all Him.”
Mully’s actions are so radical that people occasionally question his motives. Police arrested him once on suspicion of child exploitation before his MCF charges marched to the station to demand his release. Oscar-
winning executive producer James Moll brings those and other real-life MCF stories to the big screen with Mully.
Focus on the Family is partnering with MCF and For Good (a Venice, California production company) to release the documentary in select U.S. theaters on October 3, 4 and 5. The movie has already garnered 11 film festival awards.
Yet more important to Mully than any Hollywood accolade is the God-orchestrated reconciliation for both the MCF kids and his own family. Of Mully’s seven biological children, five work directly for MCF, and two are married to MCF graduates. Before his death in 2016, Mully’s father became a practicing Christian, sober and reconciled to Mully’s mother, who lives nearby; his former church body admitted their wrongdoing and welcomed him back after seeing MCF’s success.
“I’ve seen the Lord God bring goodness into my life,” says Mully, now a grandfather of 12.
Yet he has no plans to slow down. He often still works 12- to 14-hour days, not because he has to, but because he loves what he does. “I will always remain in Kenya and continue the mission,” he says.
Thousands, including Isikah Mwee, are very grateful. “I want more people to realize that giving back and helping the needy is a blessing and not a curse,” he says. “Daddy Mully is a living testimony that you can be generous and still be blessed by God, for God is the giver of everything. If all people can be like Daddy Mully, this world would be a much better place.”
Originally published in the September 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.