When I stepped out of the plane in Accra, Ghana, the first thing I felt was heat and high humidity. Usually I would describe this sort of weather as unpleasant, but after a couple of mostly cold months in Europe, I gladly welcomed the thick, warm air into my lungs. Twenty-eight of us fumbled off the tarmac and through the airport doors, tired and hoping to make it through the airport uneventfully. Everyone proceeded towards border control except me: I saw a restroom, and, according to my developing country rules, you do not forgo any opportunity to use a real toilet. In the tiny bathroom, there was no toilet paper, the water spurted unevenly out of the faucet, and the hand dryer was broken. I smiled.
Broken things don’t always amuse me. In fact, in my apartment in Switzerland, I sometimes need to remind myself of how silly it is to be annoyed by the sink faucet that won’t stay on or the incessant error message I get when trying to use the dryer. Somehow, though, when I’m in Africa (or at least Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania), everything seems like an adventure. I am more open to novel experiences, but even beyond that, I begin to approach all things as novel.
In Africa, I am hyper-vigilant and intensely intellectually stimulated. I find myself looking for glimpses of culture, politics, globalization in everything. At some point in high school literature classes, I think most students get frustrated with extensive interpretations and conclude that their teacher is overreaching the intended meaning of a text. Well, in Africa, I feel like that English teacher. I am acutely aware that I could be assigning too much meaning to each thing I see, but I enjoy the experience too much to stop thinking about all the choices scattered across the landscape.
When Paul Heilker was with us in Riva earlier this semester, we had a discussion about choices. Paul emphasized that everything, even the seemingly mundane, involves choice. Even if you are not conscious of the reasons, and even if you are not particularly passionate about any of the options, you choose to wear a particular shirt, you choose one word over another, and you choose to buy a certain toothbrush, for instance. This idea of choice was constantly on my mind as I stared out the windows of our bus, breaking my gaze only to discuss something a classmate or I had seen.
My fascination with Africa extends beyond observations. In Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana, usually-simple tasks often turned into opportunities for creativity. During a group reflection, Christina McIntyre, an assistant director in Virginia Tech’s University Honors Program, expressed concern that Western technology-dependent lifestyles have damaged our innate sense of resourcefulness. I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. One of the reasons I enjoy even the most mundane tasks in resource-poor settings is because it offers an excuse to do things in unconventional ways. I might optimize a system for hand-washing my clothing, teach a class with no materials, devise elaborate strategies to protect myself from mosquitos while I sleep, or figure out how to best tie up a flashlight to illuminate a spider-filled latrine. Sure, I could do all these things in America, but in the presence of ample technology and materials and a pressure for time-efficiency, creative approaches are often too cumbersome to feel rewarding.
In addition to those reasons, I love Africa because I am so curious about its people. Earlier this semester, one of my classmates and I had a conversation in which we realized that we both have a deep fascination with learning about other people: how they live, what they’ve done, what they think, and how they feel. We’re interested beyond the superficial, and we’re collectors of stories. I don’t have enough money or time to explore every niche of the world, so interacting with people from different backgrounds helps me to diversify my knowledge. In addition, conversing with Kenyans, Tanzanians, and Ghanaians and collecting their stories has allowed me to vicariously explore African culture in ways that a middle class white American generally cannot.
I am constantly seeking ways to feel so invigorated and curious on my home continent (and here in Europe). I think that camping and travelling to foreign cities, both with as few belongings as possible, are about as close as I have come. The excitement I felt during my brief return to Africa this semester offered confirmation that my search for a comparably stimulating outlet for my curiosity and creativity elsewhere has been unsuccessful. Still, the trip has reminded me of something I am fortunate to feel: a passion for innovation, for discovering the different, and for connecting with people. Africa brings me to life and helps to clarify my purpose, and though I may try to reproduce the effect elsewhere, I think I will always yearn for more opportunities to explore that continent.
In our classes over the last two weeks, Dr. Nikki Giovanni and Dr. Ginney Fowler have been leading us through No Name in the Street and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin and Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood. Throughout the module, we have explored the concept of otherness, considering the experience of being in a minority culture. We ended the unit with the task of writing an essay based on an experience in which you felt like you were a member of the “others.” When I thought about my own experiences with otherness, I primarily considered the differences in culture that can lead to a sense of alienation in a foreign country. One of my concerns about my PGS experience so far is that because we have a constant string of assignments due and I am a somewhat slow writer, I have spent so much time writing that I have not been able to put myself in many situations where I confront “otherness.” Almost all of my time, I have found, is spent working on a computer or bouncing ideas off people in a villa full of Americans. I continue to struggle with what compromises I can make that would enable me to spend more time taking advantage of my study abroad experience.
For my “otherness” essay, I wrote about an experience that was not formally academic, but one in which I was heavily engrossed in local culture. Below is my narrative of a morning in Nairobi during the early days of my trip last summer. My analysis of the experience and other pertinent notes are written in italics.
When I applied for the scholarship that funded my trip to Kenya, the title of my proposal was “A Journey into Alterity.” Alterity is a philosophical term that refers to how people view those who are different as “others.” This can suggest a differentiation of oneself, one’s culture, or one’s perspective. Essentially the construct of alterity is binary; it involves distinction between one thing and everything else. I traveled to Kenya expecting to learn more about people who are often victimized by otherness; as the “others,” they are rarely the subjects of attention or empathy. But what I had not considered in the same depth was what it would be like to be the other.
For the past four hours, I had been trying to stay asleep, stubbornly fighting against the crowing roosters outside my window. Eventually I sit up, though, realizing that I am actually well rested. This is not because I have voluntarily renounced my night owl tendencies, but because in this city, I cannot be out after dark. I glow, I am told, so it is better to stay inside. Weeks later, when I came home late one night, I realized that these warnings were warranted. When I boarded the bus to head back to my apartment, the driver announced my presence to potential customers outside. He collected 60 shillings for each pair of eyes, while I stood anxiously in the aisle and held tightly to my belongings.
I step under the showerhead that is perched in the middle of the narrow bathroom. There is no platform comprising the shower space, no curtain to contain the water; there is only a showerhead and a drain in the corner of the room. During the few mornings since my arrival, I have tried to identify the best strategies for showering in the freezing water. When I am finished, I put in my contacts and then rub sunscreen onto my face. Later in my travels, I visited Western Kenya, and I shared a room with my host’s two adopted daughters. The girls were fascinated with my contact lenses and sunscreen. Why, they wondered, would you put plastic in your eyes and block out the sunshine? I brush my hair into a neat ponytail. Then I dress in a long, dark blue skirt that flows from my waist to my ankles and a white and green striped top, buttoned nearly all the way to my neck. It wouldn’t be my outfit of choice in the States, but when my skin distinguishes me so obviously, I avoid anything that further separates me from everyone else. Although my apparel made me look more respectable, it certainly did not help me blend in. Nothing, I came to realize, allows a white girl to look like she belongs in Nairobi. I pick up my drawstring bag and skeleton key from the nightstand and struggle with the lock as I leave the room. I hear the twenty-something-year-old with whom I share the flat rushing to get ready, apparently knocking over things in his room in an attempt to make it to the law firm in time.
I leave the apartment to head over to the main house in the compound. I have arrived in time to eat with my host mother, who sits at the table and sips a cup of chai. The cook has prepared eggs for breakfast, but as I make my way towards them, her three-year-old son intercepts me. “Dada, dada!” he says. I learned, a few days later, that this is the Swahili word for sister. He did not seem concerned with phenotypic comparison when he decided on our familial relationship. I toss him around in the air until Mama calls the cook to take him. I choose a seat at the table, stir a spoonful of sugar into a cup of chai, and take a cautious sip of the scalding milky liquid. Mama teases me for not adding enough sugar. I try to politely explain my preference, but my words make no difference; she chases an ant out of the sugar bowl, scoops up a heaping spoonful of sugar, and adds it to my cup. Perhaps Mama did this because she wants me to get the true chai experience, or perhaps because she thinks I’m conserving sugar for her sake, but her actions often made me feel as if she did not appreciate differences in preference. When serving myself at dinner, Mama insisted I take larger portions. “Eat like an African girl,” she would say. I drink my tea slowly as I eat the eggs. When Mama suggests I take another cup, I say I am running late. I clear my dishes before she can act on her decision that I would, indeed, have more tea. I say an asante sana to Mama and the cook. I slip on my sturdy sandals on the way out the door and cross the dusty dirt driveway to the solid gate of the compound. I unlock the padlock and duck through the squealing iron door.
As soon as I emerge on the other side, I am hyperaware of my surroundings. Within the compound, Mama’s neighbors are not surprised to see me collecting my clothes from the clothesline or taking pictures of stray cats. But outside, I am unexpected and even further out of place. I check the road to ensure it is clear before I turn my back to lock the door behind me.
I walk onto the main street that heads down towards the office of the organization with which I am working in Dagoretti. The stands that line the road are deserted; the saleswomen are still in the city center, choosing from the produce carted in early in the morning. Three mismatched plastic lawn chairs sit just beyond the curb outside a closed bar. In the chairs sit three men, not much older than I. They are silent, and they are looking at me. And why wouldn’t they have looked at me? I was a novelty. As I walk by, I make eye contact and greet them, hoping to break the palpable tension. Disrupting the assumed distance between me and the locals became a hobby during my time in Kenya. Most Kenyans, I learned, are very expressive, and so greeting someone on the street generally elicited a wide smile. Even if I wasn’t going to convince someone that I was deserving of acceptance here, I intended to amass a collection of smiles.
“Habari,” I say, asking how the men are doing.
The men look at me, then at each other, clearly confused. “Mzuri,” they respond, one quickly after the other, indicating that they’re doing well. The three appear surprised that I know even this one greeting in their language. When I pass them by, they resume their conversation, but a “mzungu” escapes someone’s lips, and I know they’re talking about me. Mzungu is the Swahili word for foreigner. Most people I encountered, though, told me it means white person, pointing to the idea that perhaps my skin color was really what was most noteworthy.
I turn off the main road and start my walk through Dagoretti. Several older men stand outside their tiny iron-sheet-and-wood homes and greet me with the typical“Hello, mzungu!” I respond, greeting them in turn, but I keep moving. I stop at a kiosk I have been habitually patronizing and buy a chocolate bar. I’m not hungry, but I think it’s a good idea to be in regular contact with some of the people on this road. I would like them to recognize me as more than a random mzungu should anything go wrong on the way to the office one day.
As I continue on, I begin to hear shouts and squeals of young children in the distance. The kids haven’t started their classes yet, I realize, and they are playing in the schoolyard up ahead of me. One of the children sees me on the path and begins to call out to me. “Mzungu! Mzungu!” she shouts. Her schoolmates begin to gather at the fence, some abandoning their prior activities, others continuing to jump rope or kick a ball but in a place where they can see me. The schoolyard grows louder, but there is initially a lack of clarity in their collective speech. The students soon organize, though, and begin to chant in unison as they follow me with their eyes.
“How are you? How are you? How are you?” In Kenya, children are primarily taught in English, and this must be the first phrase they learn—every child seems to know it. The students form the chorus. Their inflection is musical; the voices jump down from “how” to “are” and back up for the “you.” The notes are staccato. The children bob their bodies along to the lyrics.
I walk a little nearer to the fence to try to respond to their query concerning my wellbeing, but it makes no difference. I doubt the children know what they are asking, or even if they know that they are asking a question at all. The teachers in Kenya generally speak at least conversational English, so I know the ones standing behind the mass of elementary school kids understand what is happening. The women look on at the situation and laugh sympathetically, and I smile back at them. A couple of the most excited children try to sneak through a break in the fence, but one of the teachers notices and holds them back. The chorus continues behind me as I continue on my way.
Though the word mzungu accurately suggested I was from elsewhere, I wasn’t always appreciative of the term. It highlighted my difference and confirmed that I didn’t belong in this place. And, since the term is based on skin color and place of origin, it seemed that no mzungu could ever be a real person in this community. My identity, my contributions, my interactions would never be my own; they would be, rather, the work of just another mzungu. I had never before been in a racial minority to this extent, and so to have a word shouted at me to draw attention to my appearance made me uncomfortable, at least in the beginning of my time in Kenya.
It actually wasn’t until I started working at a Nairobi orphanage that my individual identity was explicitly recognized and regarded as important. A girl new to the orphanage approached me to ask a question, addressing me as Mzungu. I had been at the orphanage for a few days, and this encounter made me aware that in that period of time, I had been called only by my name. I started to reply, but one of the older boys interrupted. “Her name is Grace, not mzungu,” he said. This one sentence was, for me, a powerful indication of my inclusion in this small orphanage in Kenya. Having a name never meant so much to me until I had lost it on the Nairobi city streets.
A few turns later, I reach the organization’s modest headquarters. The room is small but holds a desk, a few rickety benches, a table, and some shelves where the home care kits and record books are stored. Several of the staff members are running late, so I take a seat on one of the benches and start flipping through my manual to brainstorm for a class I’ll be teaching later in the week.
When the others arrive, they want to catch up on everyone’s goings-on since the end of the last day. No one has much to report, since most everything here happens pole pole, slowly. One ingredient that I found essential if one was to thrive in Kenya was a motto that was difficult for this Jersey girl to accept: don’t fight the pole pole. It became apparent that the unhurried pace is crucial in Kenyan relationships; resisting it pushed me further into the category of “other.” Every home visit, every meeting, every class required an introduction if I were to appear relatable to my audience.
Once we check in with everyone, a couple of the staff members begin speaking in Dholuo. This is the mother tongue of the Kenyan Luos. I know a bit of Swahili, but no Dholuo; I take the use of this less popular language as an indication that I am not meant to hear whatever is being said. Luckily I catch the names Kenyatta and Odinga, and so I realize that the conversation is about either the current president and prime minister or the impending presidential campaign (depending on which Kenyatta is being referenced). The next election is several months away, but many Luos are dissatisfied with the current governmental structure, so tensions are heightening already. Anecdotally, I have gathered that ethnicity is a strong predictor of political support in Kenya, as are, I would assume, the looks of disapproval that I’m witnessing upon mention of one of the candidates in particular. Given this information, I can guess whom the staff is pulling for. It is odd knowing the subject of the conversation and knowing that I am not meant to know. I think the secrecy was derived from the staff members’ fear that I would have judged them unfairly, based on their assumption that I did not have any knowledge of Kenyan politics. In the next couple of months, I exploited opportunities to gather diverse political perspectives, including those of my Kikuyu host family and safari guide and several Luos I encountered in my daily work. As these people confided their views in me, I felt less excluded than I did on this morning, when I was perhaps viewed as too different to be trusted to fairly interpret the conversation.
One of the staff members eventually realizes that I have not been engaged in the conversation for several minutes. He politely reverts back to English and leads into a discussion of the clients we visited on the previous day. Our longest visit yesterday was with Beatrice, an older woman who became a client of the organization a few years ago when her neighbors alerted the field staff that her health was deteriorating. Beatrice lives in a small house up the road, and a visit to her one-room home proved that health is not her only problem. One of the more major problems with which she has recently been contending is her roof. The roof leaks whenever it rains, as I witnessed the previous day—and this is the dry season. The iron sheets that once covered her home have corroded, leaving the burlap lining of the ceiling exposed.
I had thought this conversation in the office was intended as a time for summarizing, but soon I find a message. In the discussion of the roof, a suggestion brews: perhaps I could pay for the roof repairs. It isn’t underhanded, it isn’t aggressive, but the thought is there, lightly sprinkled with mentions of precedent, things other volunteers have done in response to the needs they saw.
I’m not immediately sure how to respond to the suggestion. Perhaps I have brought this request upon myself; maybe I set a personal precedent by giving bus fare to a staff member who wanted to visit her daughter at school. I think for a minute, trying to determine what would be an appropriate response. Beatrice’s need is real, and I admire that the staff is actively pursuing ways to address this need.
I explain that I am a student who could not have afforded this trip without a scholarship, and that my volunteer work here overlaps with my usual work season. Some of the staff members seem genuinely surprised that I am not more financially stable, and they understand my inability to make large financial contributions. I do, nevertheless, say that I will pray and write about Beatrice’s situation and try and see if anyone back at home is interested in sponsoring the repairs. (Within the next couple of weeks, someone indeed read my entry about Beatrice on this very blog, contacted me, and sent money to replace the roof.)
Curious about how the locals perceived me, I asked where people gathered their information about Americans, and learned that it comes largely from the media or previous volunteers. The stereotypes were overwhelmingly positive and portrayed the United States as a place of political transparency, wealth, and peace. Compared to Kenya, I certainly think these things are more plentiful in America. But eyebrows rose when I suggested that America, too, has issues of homelessness and hunger. The fact that I do not have a constant source of income didn’t sit particularly well with the stereotype, either. The financial element differentiated me from the mission groups and middle-aged couples who had volunteered with the organization before. Here was a mzungu who didn’t fit into the familiar “other” category. If not for the sake of truth, I tried to clarify people’s misunderstandings of my homeland because the engendered stereotypes presented a place that was unfamiliar to me. Often, I found that I fit neither Kenyan culture nor my local friends’ expectations for American culture.
Generalizations were prevalent not only towards Americans, but towards other groups as well. In listening to the ways in which many people explained other ethnic groups, other countries, or other religions, I realized exceptions were rarely considered. “The Kikuyu are only concerned with money.” “I don’t like Muslims. Muslins are terrorists.” Aware of these generalities, I tried to elicit several perspectives. When asked for my opinions, I also tried to reduce the generalizations about my own culture by prefacing comments with the disclaimer that I do not speak for all Americans. I was additionally conscientious of my own oversimplifications; I tried to avoid misleading people into the belief that any prevailing perspective I presented is the sole existing view.
Adopting a hybrid of American and Kenyan culture was the only way I could reconcile the need to fit in and to be genuine to my upbringing. There was no way I could have seamlessly integrated into the community; no matter how many times I walked through Dagoretti, I was going to attract attention. In assessing what made me so different, though, what choices promoted my categorization as the “other,” I became more self-aware.
Classification is a powerful strategy for comprehending the inhabitants of the world, not only in a zoology course, but in any setting where diversity resides. So long as we recognize ourselves as members of any group, of impermeable entities with borders (such as ethnicity), “otherness” will persist. This otherness, however, is not inherently dangerous; it is only by a lack of empathy that we endanger those outside our own group. Empathy is sometimes in short supply, but we know it is accessible, and it is certainly enhanced by our contact with those who are most dissimilar from us.
Regardless of our ethnicity, our gender, our religion, and our political leanings, humans are motivated by the same things, by lofty principles and goals but also by food and warmth. While otherness can separate people, the construct is simultaneously a product of the common longing for safety, comfort, and a sense of belonging. My journey into alterity brought me to recognize and appreciate not only the differences among cultures, but the commonalities such as these that weave the collective “others” together.
Good morning! It has been a few months since I’ve been here, and I have to say it’s good to be back with my church family. Unfortunately I will only be here this one Sunday because I have to head down to Virginia tomorrow, but I have been asked to share a bit about my recent travels before I go.
For the past three months I have been volunteering in East Africa on an independent scholarship trip studying the social contributors and consequences of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I began planning the trip about two years ago, so I had plenty of time to identify organizations to work with, make travel arrangements, and watch The Lion King a couple of times to brush up on my Swahili. But although I planned my trip carefully, I knew there was no way to fully prepare for what I would experience.
In order to get a clear perspective on the HIV/AIDS situation, I first wanted to work with an organization that directly served impoverished people infected with HIV. Internet and Facebook searches pointed me to one such group, coincidentally called Grace Community-Based Organization. Now if you’re slightly amused by the name sharing, you have to amplify your amusement tremendously to parallel that of the organization’s director. She concluded nearly every introduction of me with “See? Grace comes to Grace!”
Grace Community primarily provides home-based HIV care. A typical home visit involves psychosocial support, ensuring compliance with HIV medication protocols, and advising clients who experience side effects. Beyond visiting, I facilitated additional projects that were generously funded by friends reading my blog. For instance, I coordinated repairs for one client’s roof and provided training and start-up capital for another client to start a business. In addition, I prepared curriculum and held weekly HIV classes for girls in two middle schools.
After about five weeks with Grace Community, I moved to another part of Nairobi to volunteer with a school and orphanage called Agape Hope Children’s Center. Some of the children were AIDS orphans, and one was HIV-positive himself. Other children were brought to the center mostly because of abuse or negligence. The center was founded and is operated by locals, and because it does not have consistent funding, it is terribly understaffed. As a result, I was involved in just about every aspect of the orphanage’s operation. During school hours, I taught both HIV information and traditional subjects, and after school I wrote reports, managed the center’s online presence, cooked, cleaned, and spent time with the children.
I spent the last few weeks of my trip in Tanzania at a school called Jitihada Support. The school is located just outside of Arusha, a town in the northern part of the country with a particularly high incidence of HIV. Jitihada provides education and food to about 70 students. Its students are brought in following home visits that establish whether the family can afford to pay towards the school’s operations. Because of the endemic poverty, however, the school collects fees from very few students, and thus struggles to meet its operating costs. Most of the students are between the ages of 3 and 9, but a youth class provides a high school education to older students. Many of these youth started school late because education is often undervalued in that part of the world, particularly for women in certain tribes. After my introduction to the school, I decided to work with the youth class. I served as the primary teacher for the students, mostly teaching their regular subjects (except Swahili) while sneaking HIV awareness into the lessons and eventually holding an HIV class.
My experience is certainly unforgettable, not only because of the people I met and the great adventures I had, but because this experience has provided a new lens through which I view a myriad of topics.
One subject that I specifically learned a great deal about is poverty and the strategies by which we seek to alleviate it.
I want to tell you about a family I worked with in Nairobi. Mary and Malaki are HIV-positive and have three children. One of their sons is infected with HIV, because even though mother-to-child transmission is preventable, the couple lacked the necessary information and treatment to prevent the child from being infected at birth. Malaki has a deformed leg, which is particularly problematic in a place like Nairobi with poor roads and sidewalks, and no accommodations for the disabled. In fact, until Grace Community found a wheelchair for the man, he spent his life crawling from one place to the next. To support his family, Malaki rented a tiny workshop near their house and began his career as a “fundi wa viatu”—a shoe repairman. Shoes used to be relatively expensive in Kenya, so if a shoe broke, it was often prohibitively costly for those in the lower socioeconomic class to buy a replacement pair. That’s where the “fundi wa viatu”s come in.
Many organizations, and even some companies, send donated products to places like Kenya. TOMS Shoes is a relevant example for this story. The TOMS Shoes company has garnered a positive reputation for its policy of donating one pair of shoes for each pair of shoes that is purchased. The company is even involved in activism, encouraging people to go barefoot one day a year to empathize with the shoeless impoverished. On the micro scale, this is all good, right? Through the efforts of the TOMS Company and its customers, someone who didn’t have shoes, or maybe had just a shoddy pair of flip-flops, suddenly has a well-padded spring in his step.
But now zoom out. An influx of free shoes likely means that the local second-hand shoe salesman receives less business. And, because shoes are now more readily available, the price of a pair of shoes falls and it becomes more economical to replace than to repair them. This is good for the average consumer, but bad for “fundi was viatu”s like Malaki whose family’s livelihood depends on shoes in need of fixing.
I am certainly not saying this to condemn initiatives such as those of TOMS Shoes. Surely many people do benefit from such programs. Learning about Malaki’s troubles, however, demonstrated to me that there are often unintended negative consequences of good deeds. Accordingly, it is important that when we look to help people, we consider whether a subset of people will be negatively impacted, and that if so, we make the provisions necessary to offset that harm.
In addition, I came to appreciate just how important it is to be flexible when working with people with extensive needs. Although my trip focused on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, some of my daily activities did not explicitly relate to HIV. This concerned me at first, but ultimately I had to change the way I was looking at my experience. As I considered the comprehensive nature of the care the Grace Community staff was giving, I realized why they weren’t concerned with the category under which their acts of service were classified. While they are best-equipped to help people with HIV-related issues, the goal of their organization is to help people—not to help a particular cause. To be most helpful, I think we need to consider overall well-being rather than the condition of one aspect of a person’s life. If a poor person has HIV, that person should receive education, medicine, and psychosocial support. But if a poor person with HIV just broke his leg, we should probably focus first on the leg.
Flexibility is similarly important when providing monetary aid. A lot of donations are sent with volunteers or to organizations to fund specific projects. When the needs are as vast, varied, and especially as fluid as they are in severely impoverished communities, it can be difficult to determine in advance how the money will be most helpful.
When I returned to Nairobi towards the end of my trip, for example, I was impressed with how much construction an outgoing volunteer at Agape was able to accomplish. The volunteer had been received a donation from a friend looking to fund the construction of several new iron-sheet walls within the compound. The place looked much improved, and undoubtedly the person made a great contribution to the future of the facility… but shortly after my arrival, I learned that the children sitting in the shade of their shiny new structures had no water to drink.
As a past participant in several mission trips, I know that this is not a very original observation, but it is one that was strongly affirmed by my experiences in Kenya and Tanzania: the most basic things in life are most appreciated by those who have the least. Among all the lessons I learned in Africa, I think this which is most palpable is probably the most poignant. People who live with the real threat of losing their home, having no food, dying of AIDS—those are the people who most appreciate a roof and four walls, a plate of flavorless East African ugali, and periods of good health. For those who have less, less is required to constitute a blessing. For example, I often take for granted the education that I am receiving, but I think about how grateful my Tanzanian student Benedict is to be in school. Tomorrow I leave to start my final year of college, but tomorrow my Benedict, who like me, is 20 years old, starts his next day as a high school junior.
Throughout the experience, I learned a lot about the culture, the people, and myself, and every day was a new adventure. I showered by bucket; I said “hakuna matata” and “asante sana Yesu” in meaningful, real-life contexts; I was licked by a giraffe; I befriended some fierce Maasai guards on safari who graciously killed the wolf spiders in my tent; I stayed with a family with one power strip of electricity and rare running water because they give everything they earn to support 50 kids who are not biologically their own; and I rode in mini-buses that regularly hopped the medians, refueled with their engines on, and drove on sidewalks (just don’t tell my dad that, because I think he still believes that I took taxis everywhere).
Of everything that stands out from my experience, the thing that stands out most was how incredible it was to help alleviate some very real needs of some very needy people. You know that great feeling you get when you feel like you’ve really helped someone? Well I got to feel like that almost every day for three months.
If you ever have the opportunity to go somewhere completely out of your comfort zone to help others, maybe on a mission trip or another adventure, I hope you’ll do it. But even if you don’t have that opportunity, I hope you will seek out ways to use your talents in the service of others right here. Certainly your support is helpful in the face of abject poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, but plenty of people fewer than 7,000 miles away need your help, too. Whether you’re thinking about how you can volunteer yourself, or are considering supporting another volunteer or an organization, I want to leave you with the words of a woman I met this summer: “Your service to others is a form of worship.”
I have spent the last week at Agape Hope Children’s Center, also in Nairobi, and this is the first chance I’ve had to really sit down and write down how the experience has been so far. I have been extremely busy, because with 400 children (42 of whom board at the orphanage), there is always work to be done! I feel very useful though, especially at the orphanage, and I absolutely adore the children.
I moved into my new home on Monday, and by now I feel like I’m part of Maggie and Oliver’s family. My last placement gave me a lot of time for reflection and adjustment, because I had my own room and was staying with an “older” family (my host mom’s only son was in his mid-twenties), but here, I share a room with the nanny and two of the daughters. It means less quiet, sure, but often quiet is overrated.
Maggie and Oliver are two of the most compassionate, generous people I’ve ever met. They opened Agape Hope Center in 2003 and have since hosted probably a thousand volunteers. At their busiest, they have hosted 14 volunteers at once! The apartment is small is without electricity for all but one outlet, has been mostly without running water since my arrival, and has small roaches that run around at night, but it feels homey and more authentic (some heavy-duty insect spray and a mosquito net help me to cope with the bugs). The climb up to the apartment is a good workout—I think we’re about 5 stories up, but Oliver and Maggie say the benefit is that since we’re closest to heaven, God will hear our prayers first.
I spent my mornings at the school last week proctoring mid-term exams. Admittedly that wasn’t so exciting, but it gave me extra time for observation. I was interested in knowing what the students were learning, so I looked through the exams as I administered them. I was at first surprised to see how specific the questions are, but as I continued I became mostly surprised at how poorly written the exams are. The science exam, for instance, asked which option is a produced in photosynthesis, and the answer was not glucose, even though it was a choice (“oxygen” was marked as correct on the key). I don’t think I would have passed the English exam, because it had a long fill-in-the-blank section that offered multiple appropriate alternatives for each question, and the reading comprehension section contained some questions for which none of the answer choices was suitable. When I graded the exams, I found that most scores were in the range of 30-40%. I blame the test for some of the low scoring, because I doubt that many would do well on these poorly-constructed exams regardless of educational background. But it’s also clear that many of the students were guessing answers, rather than, for instance, choosing consistently between two close choices.
The educational environment is not great. The only thing that is advantageous is the small class size; there are only 9 students in standard 7, though I believe this is one of the smallest classes. The walls are made of iron sheets nailed to wooden framing and the window does not have any glass, so there is no escaping the noise from other classes or from children running around outside. I had to leave the classroom a few times during the exams to request that the younger children stop banging on the iron sheets that comprise the back wall. The students are also without essential school supplies. I’ve gone through my personal supply of pens and pencils trying getting them through exams, because otherwise the children end up wasting time trying to borrow pencils from siblings in other classrooms, trying to find sharperners, or requesting erasers from across the room. At least you can be pretty confident that the supplies you distribute will appear in the child’s hand again the next day, at least with these older students, since they appreciate the value of a pen.
During breaks I got acquainted with the kids in the class I was supervising (standard/grade 7), and they asked me the usual questions: name, country of origin, marital/family status, siblings, and educational background. When I asked about them, I got some pretty interesting fabricated names, ages, and family stories from the boys, but luckily a couple of girls in the class set their stories straight for me. Oh, and Susie, if you’re reading this, one of the boys wants you to come to Kenya so he can date you—I told him I’d pass the message along.
I spent Wednesday and Thursday afternoons at the schools in Dagoretti at which I have been teaching about HIV/AIDS for the past several weeks. The students at one of the schools are especially engaged, and we had a really good conversation about sexual transmission of HIV and the issues that push these girls to become sexually active when they’re young. While we were talking, one girl (one of the 13-year-olds) brought up the topic of trading sex for sanitary napkins. She explained that some men take advantage of the poverty of young girls, offering things like pads in exchange for sexual favors. Some girls, not wanting to skip school or use an unsanitary alternative, will submit to such an arrangement, exposing themselves to the risks of HIV, other STIs, and pregnancy. The girl was asking for advice on whether I thought it possible to take advantage of such an arrangement by accepting the pads but then refusing sex… the specificity with which she discussed the scenario hinted that she had put some serious consideration into the idea. Additionally, I learned that one myth that has circulated around here is that HIV can be cured by having sex with a virgin. When one of the girls shared that, I had to ask her to repeat it to make sure I heard correctly. Initially, when I began teaching here, I was surprised at how young some of the girls placed in the group were given the topics we discuss. But as I have come to learn more about their situations, I have realized that if you don’t equip these girls with information and confidence when they’re young, odds are good that you’ll be too late for prevention.
The orphanage has a lot of needs. The water that is used is stored in a big tank that has to be refilled weekly to keep up with consumption, but one major issue is water treatment. Over the past few months, many children have been sick with illnesses related to the poor water quality. Most medical treatment is also not affordable, and some children have more advanced medical needs than simple check-ups. In addition, the orphanage is in need of more foam mattresses and beds for the children (currently some of the children are sharing beds). The children are fed through a crafty arrangement by which a local company donates string beans that don’t meet the minimum length requirement for their sales. The children eat about half of the donated quantity, and the rest are sold by a woman in the area who then uses the money to buy food like porridge flour, beans, and maize. Still, they tend to eat very similar meals each day that usually consist only of starches and vegetables.
Many of these children come from complicated backgrounds, and are either orphans (some because of AIDS, so some are infected themselves) or vulnerable children (e.g. street children or victims or abuse or negligence). I don’t want to share more information than is appropriate, so I’ll just say that reading through some of the case summaries has been simultaneously enlightening and depressing. As much as is needed at this home, surely this is an improvement for these children. Nevertheless, smiles obscure their sad histories, and they run around the yard chasing balls made of plastic bags, shaking maracas made of sticks and bottle caps, and dancing. The kids get along, well, like siblings do. Every now and then someone gets hit for interrupting a jump rope session or someone throws someone else’s shirt in the mud, but overall their unity is impressive.
My favorite part of the day is right around dinner time, after Maggie and I have finished cooking the massive ugali and veggies, when everyone sits around a fire to eat, while telling jokes, singing, teasing each other, and chasing the multitude of very naïve puppies away from the fire. It’s at this time when the orphanage feels most like a family and when I appreciate just how beautifully optimistic and strong these children are.
I spent my weekend at the orphanage, as I couldn’t think of anywhere I would rather be than with these energetic, unpredictable, and loving kids. The children are raised in the Christian faith, and they have a praise and prayer session on Saturdays and a church service at the orphanage on Sunday mornings. Both are a lot of fun, and I’ll have to remember to take pictures next week. I’ll be leading the worship service next Sunday; I’ll share more on that later.
Tomorrow I’m going to re-vamp the Facebook page for the orphanage and hunt down previous volunteers to engage them in the Center’s online network. I’ll also be showing Oliver how to update the page so that he can keep everyone in the loop and more effectively solicit and follow up with donations online. I’ve written up one report/request for funding since I’ve been here, and I think I’ll be working on another tomorrow, as well as attending a meeting with Maggie and Oliver. It will be another early morning and late night (the beauty of working in a compound is that I can stay at the orphanage until 10pm), but I’m looking forward to it (and being eaten by mosquitoes, which is a good indication that it’s bedtime)!