These stark white tiles feel dead and impersonal compared to the dusty, rocky red earth of Etora. Sitting here on the floor waiting until we can check in feels surreal. I am almost sure that the blue van is going to drive by and pick us up to take us to the orphanage and drop us off to work and play with the kids. But we are already miles away from them. We’ve flown over Lake Victoria and seen giraffes out the window. We have transitioned out of the rural communities and into bustling Nairobi, the scenery is changing but my mind refuses to accept it. Soon we’ll be in the desert of Doha sprinting through the airport to try and catch our next flight with only an hour long connection. And then one last 14 hour flight and we’ll be landing in Philadelphia and it will be Fall. Writing it out doesn’t even make it feel real. My body is processing this transition for me since my mind refuses to accept it. I feel dizzy and have no appetite. The lump in my throat is growing and I feel short of breath. How are we supposed to go back and leave these kids? Reverse culture shock is something we have both done before and it’s hard, really hard. On top of that we are leaving a family and a full life here. It’s taking an incredible amount of willpower to not just miss our flight and go back.
We couldn’t feel more grateful to Samson and his family, to the entire Etora church community, to everyone that helped us get over here way back in August; Charity Works, Kay Alden, the HCIC board, and so many more.
The last days were beautiful. Samson and Jackline had a party for us on Sunday with the whole congregation. They bought cake which said “Have a happy life” and soda and bread and shared it all among the kids and the community. They had us cut the cake together like it was our wedding, which had us in fits of laughter, in turn making Samson and the whole congregation crack up. We sat up at the front of the church at the high table with the ministers. Samson spoke to his congregation in Swahili, as usual he had everyone listening intently, and often breaking into laughter. But this time he was talking about us. Dorothy translated a little of what he said for us and his words were incredibly touching. He wasn’t sharing them in English so we could understand all nice things he was saying about us, he was telling them in Swahili because he just genuinely wanted to share with the congregation how he felt. We continue to be amazed by his kindness and compassion without any need for recognition. The party ended with most of the community members coming up to take photos with us and shaking our hands, thanking us for our work.
The next day was the day we threw a goodbye party for the kids. It was in the church lit by a single kerosene lamp after the sun had set. We wanted to thank them for welcoming us so warmly into their home and school, and who doesn’t love an excuse to have a celebration. Our plan was to give them all the gifts we made them and serve Chapati and meat because it is expensive and they rarely have it. So Kira and I, two vegetarians, decided it was worth it and bought a goat. We met him early on in the day when he was still running around in the backyard, and again, several hours later when he was being poured out of a ladle on to the children’s plates. The meal was complete with over 250 chapati that we helped spend the day making. It was the most wonderful evening. Being able to give back to these kids who have shared and given us so much love felt so right. Some of the kids gave speeches, thanking us and asking us to return. We in turn told them something that we realized weeks ago. We will be back, we don’t know when, but it will happen. And we gave them each a gift. Since they enjoyed learning to draw so much, and several of their lessons were how to draw faces, I drew a portrait of each of them. And they admired the handmade friendship bracelets we both wore on our ankles, so Kira made them each a bracelet with their favorite colors. Watching them pass around flashlights and gather pouring over their gifts touched our hearts in a way that we can not describe. The mutual appreciation and love almost entirely drowned out the looming fact that we were leaving. Just when it was starting to feel difficult to handle, Jackline, Samson, and Dorothy surprised us with another cake that said “Madams Calline and Kira”. They wrapped Kenyan flags around our shoulders Maasai style and once again we cut the cake together, earning a round of applause from the kids when we fed each other the first bite. And then there was dancing. Man oh man, do the Kenyans know how to dance. Dancing should be so much more of a regular occurrence, it is so much fun and such a joyful celebration of life. The Kenyan music gets into your bones, you can’t help but get up and dance. Every single kid, even the more introverted ones were up dancing and smiling so hard their faces looked like they would burst.
We had the party the day before we had to leave so that the High School students would be able to attend. So our final day with the kids was just a regular day playing out in the compound after they finished classes. It felt right. It was our last game of frisbee, the last chance to teach them yoga poses, our last time to lend our phones out to aspiring photographers for hilarious pictures and videos. But we got so caught up in the moment that none of that registered. It wasn’t until we were walking down the driveway towards the most brilliant sunset and climbing onto the back of a motorbike that it hit us. No more playing in the dirt with these kids for hours every day. Back to a life that feels more foreign then the one we’ve made for ourselves here. More adjusting and transitioning. The bigger life becomes, the more experiences you live, and the more people you grow to love makes change harder and time and distance make less sense. Humans instinctively resist change, it’s terrifying and painful. But it is what makes life dynamic and beautiful, forcing us to grow and discover. Lots of the best things in life evolve when we are miles outside our comfort zones. So even though going back home is hard, this change is creating space and perspective for new opportunities both outwardly and inwardly.
There’s a part of me that can’t wait to be invisible on the streets, and be able to enjoy the outdoors without half the neighborhood staring and thinking it’s the best entertainment they’ve had all week. But instead of living these experiences openly and daily we will be carrying them inside and that is going to be a challenge. Our hearts have been broken open and expanded to fit so much love for these people and this life. The entire experience is etched into our bodies and minds.
Thank you for listening-
Cailin and Kira
In 5 days we’ll be flying over that great big ocean and back to the world of grey pavement, pine trees, and hot showers. We’ll exchange the red roads and orange bricks for the brilliant colours of the trees during Fall, and the wandering cows and goats for squirrels and deer.
Time is a funny thing. Cailin and I talk way too much about how long we’ve been here, how short the time is we have left, and how we interpret it all with each passing day. Since we reached our two thirds mark, the weeks have been flying by. Its strange to think back to the majority of the time we’ve been here, when each week seemed to go as slow as could be. It seems a bit unfair that now that we’re completely settled and happy here, time is racing. A week is not enough time. Leaving seems impossible, its incomprehensible that this life we’ve made for ourself in this beautiful, different, challenging place is just going to end. How does everyday end if not with a rainstorm? How do we get from place to place without motorbikes and matatus always passing by? What is it like to pass a schoolyard of children and have no one yell and wave? Life back in North America seems almost as distant and mysterious as this place did when we boarded an airplane 9 weeks ago.
This past week was really incredible. Counting down the days has forced me to really appreciate each one, and every moment has become that much more precious when I remember how few we have left. Friday was my birthday, and everything about it felt so right. Apparently its a Kenyan tradition to dump water on a person if they can’t celebrate their birthday properly, so of course Cailin and Dorothy had to honour that, surprising me when I was outside in front of the apartment building with a huge bucket of freezing cold water. The day was completed with an eventful motorbike ride in a torrential downpour, some clapping games in a dark and damp classroom, and all my favorite Kenyan food for each meal. I was so taken aback by the outpouring of love. I’ve never thought of my birthday as a big deal, but it always does seem to be a really good day. There’s something about taking the opportunity to be aware of how incredible life is, and noticing all the little gestures that can speak volumes. It was a good reminder of how much I have to be grateful for.
Monday was Dorothy’s birthday, and as a present to her we made dinner. She had been asking for us to make “American food” for them for a while, so we tackled the challenge of making grilled cheese, tomato soup, and apple pie. The supermarket in Kisii town surprisingly had everything we needed including apples (which almost had us in tears in the middle of the store). It was a pretty surreal experience. They have never used the oven, all the food they cook just uses the stove and dessert doesn’t exist here. Cailin made an incredible apple pie that was more successful than we ever could have hoped for. We had to light the oven with a match and guess at the temperature, flames shooting out from the top. The whole family was taken aback by the meal. Photos were being taken at every angle and Dorothy could barely believe it. It was nice to give back a little bit. This family has done so much for us. They have welcomed us so warmly into their home, feeding us incredible food, and making sure we always have whatever we need. Dorothy has been our guide, teacher, and best friend and it felt so good to be able to honour her and treat her to something a little bit special.
Spending time with the kids has been simultaneously fulfilling and heart breaking. The fact that we have to leave is always looming over our time together and the more I think about it the more I’m sure it just can’t happen. On Tuesday the weather was beautiful so we all went out behind the school to jump rope and throw the frisbees. It quickly turned into an afternoon of hilarious photos, headstands, and all sorts of games as a few of the kids got their hands on our camera and phones. Its gotten to the point where communication isn’t even a challenge anymore. So much can be communicated with laughter, funny faces, and hand gestures and every day it seems like we all grow so much closer. Cailin started doing headstands, and quickly a whole group of kids had joined in, another group crowded behind the camera taking photos of everything. Everyone started calling Beckham’s name to make sure he didn’t miss out because he has been doing headstands ever since he saw photos of it on her phone weeks ago. He was beyond excited to see a photo of them headstanding together. Even as storm clouds filled the sky and the wind picked up, everyone continued running around. We taught them a few other yoga poses, and everyone joined in, excited to try backbending or tree pose, helping out each other and laughing hysterically, smiles stretched across their faces the entire time. Vanis grabbed my hand to pull me along on a game where everyone runs in a giant circle, avoiding the person in the middle who tries to hit people with a ball (which was actually something heavy all wrapped up in a plastic bag). At another point Annah collected all the jump ropes and asked me to take her back to the office so she could put them away for us. David and Samson were dedicated to taking photos with my phone, taking a picture of a group of us and then running over to show everyone. Shilley was running around, pretending to take photos with his watch. Every time I bought into the joke he would break his straight face and laugh hysterically with a high pitched giggle. When it was finally time for us to leave, they all waved goodbye, giving me high fives and replying to my “see you tomorrow!” I can’t get enough of these kids. Its the simple things, the small gestures, the smiles, the giggles, the hands grabbing mine or pushing me in to play a jump rope game or wrapping around my waist for a picture. Its the funny faces and the excitement of looking at a photo of their friends and the enthusiasm to be around us and around each other. Their happiness and love is contagious. Everyday on the way back to our home in Ogembo, bumping up and down on the seats of the blue van, passing the now familiar sights of matatus, motobikes, people, brick houses and wooden market stalls, I feel still surrounded by the warmth and excitement of our time hanging out with the kids. It’s a feeling of contentment and awe for the world, and Cailin and I often find ourselves talking in circles about how wonderful those few hours were for the rest of the evening and into the night.
This week is the beginning of the lasts. Our last full week, our last trip to Kisii-town, our last Wednesday. Its only going to get harder and time is only going to go faster and the lasts will only start to get more final. The changes ahead seem ominous and challenging, but if we’ve learned anything from this trip it is to let go and let life happen as it will. The only thing we can do is keep looking for the joy and beauty that constantly surrounds us in the smallest and most unlikely of places.
I am pretty sure that I can’t actually leave. If it wasn’t for the fact that my visa is running out this month I might just stay with these kids forever. Their smiles alone are enough reason to fall in love with them. And getting to know each one of them has been the biggest gift. I can’t pinpoint what it is about these kids that makes them so INCREDIBLY lovable. Maybe its the amount of time and care we have put into our work and play with them, maybe it’s the constant compassion and care they have from the people who care for them, maybe it’s their resilience to go through hell and come out the other side strong, loving, and goofy, maybe it’s all of these things. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter, bottom line is they have completely stolen a piece of my heart and I don’t think I’ll ever get it back.
Whenever we aren’t having an art class, or doing some other activity we always bring out the jump ropes and frisbees and go play in the field behind the school. We tried to teach the kids double dutch a few weeks ago, it’s super tricky but some of them totally got the hang of it. Some of the older girls, Sediah, Grace, Halloisah, and Millicent always grab two jump ropes and have gotten pretty good at it. Little Naomi and Eunice are always swinging the rope for one another, they are both very headstrong and often it looks like they are arguing. They are the best of friends though and even after quickly scolding one another they will make a joke and laugh hysterically, arms wrapped around the others shoulders. The ropes are all long for two people to swing and one or more to jump in. But Joyce was holding both handles and swinging it as if it was a normal sized rope, slight confusion on her face each time it didn’t work. Peter is one of the youngest kids at the orphanage and he is constantly trying to keep up with the older boys. He is small and not as good at jumping over the rope, but every time it is his turn the BIGGEST smile breaks across his face and as soon as he messes up he doubles over with laughter. This particular time we brought out the frisbees we had a big circle of kids with three frisbees in circulation. Originally it was me and Kira, Alexander, Hesbon, Beckham, and Shem all throwing the frisbee around to each other. Hesbon had a smile on his face the entire time. He is often more reserved, but sometimes he just comes alive. He wasn’t even super active in the game the whole time, he just had so much fun watching everyone play. If a frisbee went far out of the circle he would run and grab it and hand it off for someone else to throw. Soon Shilley, Justine, Collins, and Patrick joined in. It was so sweet seeing Alexander coaching Justine with proper technique to help him throw the frisbee straight. Then little Eunice, Wilfrieda, Josephine, Brenda and Vanis all started to join in. Everyone was teaching each other the best tricks to throwing the frisbee. Often a wonky throw would hit someone in the knees and everyone would crack up, it was hard to keep track of where all three of the frisbees were. Shilley was really impressed with my one handed catches and he started standing super casually and reaching out his hand trying to not even look in an attempt to catch the frisbee. When he finally caught it with one hand he jumped up and down and did a little dance. Eunice’s laugh sounds like fairy bells and it could be heard all evening as she tried to get the hang of the frisbee. Derrick, Simon, Joash, Patrick, and Edwin are the group of older boys, and they were having so much fun trying to get as many people as possible jumping in the rope at once. Everyone has a different way of playing with the jump ropes, they get so creative.
I miss being a kid and playing hard all afternoon, it has been so much fun to revert to our carefree childhood selves and be able to get to know the kids on this level. There aren’t many better ways to get to know someone then playing in the dirt with the simplest of toys until you are completely beat. The days of watching the red earth explode into dust under each of the jumping feet, and seeing kids running after stray frisbees are coming to an end. I can’t even think about saying goodbye to all of my best buds. But it’s reassuring knowing how well they are taken care of and how much they love Samson, Jackline, and all the people that care for them. Gotta run and get ready to hop on the back of a motorcycle and head to hang with the kids again this afternoon. Kwa Heri!
With every week that passes this feels more and more like our normal life. Time has become a daily mystery. Trying to understand the quickly diminishing amount of time we have left is hard. We can analyze and count down the days in any number of ways, but it doesn’t make it any more real. Part of me feels like this life will go on forever. We have our routines, our schedules, the places we go and the things we do. It just feels like life will be like this forever. But my logical side constantly tells me that time is running out and I need to soak all of this in while I still can.
Every morning Cailin and I wake up in anticipation of what surprises the day will bring (always our fair share), every afternoon we start to guess what dinner will be by the smell (we’ve gotten really good at this), and every night we start to look forward to the tea and fresh fruit that will be on the table for breakfast. Since we have finished so much of our work and the kids at the orphanage are in school we have been spending lots of our mornings at the apartment. There is a sort of a lawn in front of the building that overlooks an incredible view of the community below. Behind the lines of drying laundry and a few beautiful trees with bright orange flowers, the red dirt road winds off into the distance and the tin roofs of the shops and buildings glint in the sunlight. It’s become a perfect place for us to spread out a blanket and spend part of the morning. There’s something wonderful about being fully in this place but with enough distance to avoid the constant stares. The other people in the building have gotten more used to us, although whenever the kids are home from school they gather and surround us, happily watching us read as if it was the most entertaining activity in the world. Its easy to get caught up in the familiarity of our life here, but feeling the sun and the breeze and the fresh air reminds me how incredible it all is.
In the afternoons we go into the school to spend time with the kids when they finish their classes. We play outside or if the 4pm rain storm hits, which it does pretty regularly, we draw inside. We did a scavenger hunt with them one day, reaching back to our camp-going/camp counseler days to think of fun activities. They had never heard of a scavenger hunt before, and it was fun to see them all eagerly running around and working in their teams to collect all the items. Samson energetically joined in and his team came in first, the whole group giggling as Samson led them in singing a song for us, the final task to complete. Another day we sent them outside with paper and colored pencils to draw objects around the compound from real life. They all found places to sit and drew trees and cows and flowers and houses. Joash climbed on top of a woodpile to look into the hut where the dogs are kept so he could draw them. And Hesbon drew Samson and Jackline sitting outside and could not have been more proud to show us the result. These kids are something else. None of them can ever be found without a ready smile. Listening to Samson talk about them and watching him interact with them makes it clear that the support they are getting from the staff at the orphanage is grounded in respect, compassion and love.
A couple of days last week we went in to the school early to sit in on classes. As soon as we walked into the first classroom I found myself reverting back to elementary school me. It was hard to not whisper to Cailin sitting next to me and I got anxious every time a teacher would look my way, nervous they would call on me. Besides struggling with my own desire to misbehave and avoid answering questions, it was so fun to see the kids from the orphanage in a classroom environment. The classes were active and involved. The teachers constantly asked the class if they were understanding and often the full class would respond to the teacher. There was definitely no room to be dozing off. Whenever a question was asked, all hands would shoot up, fingers snapping, the kids calling “teacher teacher!”. Many of the kids from the orphanage seemed to be leading their classes, answering a lot of the questions or helping the teachers gather books and erase the chalkboard. In the first grade classroom, any time a student answered a question correctly on the board the whole class would sing and clap on beat as the student did a little dance in the front of the classroom. Despite the crumbling red brick walls, unfinished rooms, dirt floors and the cramped wooden benches, it was clear that as much active learning was happening there as in the sterilized classrooms filled with posters and craft supplies and books that I spent my elementary school years in.
During our art lessons and games, one of the boys has emerged as an artist and a bit of a troublemaker. Shilley’s mischievous smile is often one of the first we see and he is clearly very well loved among the kids. It’s not unusual to hear his name being called back and forth as his friends laugh at his antics or encourage him to come to join their games. He returned his drawing from our time outside with an incredibly accurate picture of a cow and an impressively detailed car. He needs sponsorship for the upcoming year, and we’ve made him a profile at https://mixonium.com/mx/1964. It's hard to describe these kids and express how incredible each one is in their own way. Spending time with them and building relationships with them has been the biggest gift of this trip, and the idea of being able to spread a bit of the energy and joy of each one is exciting and inspiring.
A big part of this trip for us has been letting go of control. We wrote this blog post for our halfway mark, which was a few days ago. But that day we lost power and we’ve been out for over 48 hours and of course all our electronics died at the most inconvenient time. Classic.
Here is a little random collection of thoughts to commemorate our halfway day:
Yesterday we were sitting in the office and the kids kept walking by and giggling. We were doing our own thing, working on some paperwork when Andy came up and said “they are waiting for you.” We looked up and there stood every single one of the kids, gathered together in a group staring through the office door at us expectantly. We had nothing prepared. But they were so sweet, waiting patiently for us. We got up and asked them all what they wanted to do, they sounded excited about drawing so we taught another impromptu art class that produced adorable drawings of each other. It was so sweet, looking up and seeing all of their expectant faces. We realized that we are no longer exciting to them because we are mzungu’s (white people). But now they are excited to see us because they want to play games and draw and learn what we have to teach them.
We are over halfway done our time here. It’s hard to believe. This week we actually started to stop feeling like visitors. We have become a part of normal daily life for other people as well as them being part of daily life for us.
We are really excited about the time we have left. So much has changed since we got here, our relationship with this place and these people. And we are only halfway, so much more can happen. We’ve already created bonds with all these kids and we have the same amount of time to get to know them that much more. Even in the market place they are getting used to us and staring less. There is still so much potential for our relationship with this place.
Two of the biggest cultural observations we have made about Kenya is that: Time in Africa doesn’t run people, people run time, and North America has huge personal space issues.
Time is irrelevant. Everyone is doing their thing, no matter what, It is normal to pause to sit on the side of the road and chat for an hour, or even when rushing to town in a hurry people will often stop to talk to multiple people. Sometimes we are told to be ready by 6:30 am. When in reality we end up leaving by 8. This is totally fine by me, I run late as a general rule. Give me an extra hour to fall back asleep? no problem, I wasn’t ready anyway. But Kira’s Wyncoll streak is struggling. You tell her to be ready at a certain time, she will be ready exactly at that time.
No one stops for anyone here, at first it seems like people aren’t aware of each other, when in reality it is more a combination of hyper awareness, and they just don’t care if their personal space intersects with everyone else’s. Motorcycles will squeeze past a car and nobody cares because its not offensive for people to get inside your ‘personal space circle.’ That just doesn’t exist. On the Matatu you can’t tell if someone is best friends with the person next to them or if they are complete strangers. Everyone talks and sits on each others laps, they have got their arms around each other, saving space. On public transportation in North America people rarely sit in a middle seat. Often people would rather stand then sit in a seat beside someone.
We have been able to do so much already, we have travelled cross-country through different landscapes and met so many people from different tribes. We have been through the poor parts of town and eaten in little hole in the wall restaurants overlooking busy roundabouts. The amount of work we have gotten done for HCIC feels really satisfying and it feels like we have the perfect amount left. Enough to fill our time and still leave us with time to just enjoy the people we have grown to love.
It is so hard to try to portray these kids. Each of them is a different combination of nerves, love, opinions, and mannerism. We have tried our best to gather up as much as possible to put into paper and picture form for sponsors. It is crazy that some of them don’t have sponsors yet. We have been creating a little online snapshot into each of their lives on a new app/website called mixonium. Each orphan will have a page with a collection of a few pictures, information, and possibly report cards or artwork. This will be available only to the sponsors. For the kids that still need sponsors we have created an public version. For example, here is a little peek into Annah’s life. https://mixonium.com/mx/1736. If you are interested in sponsoring Annah or any of the other kids, visit the HCIC web page helpingchildrenincrisis.com/help/sponsor and you can always check out the HCIC facebook page to find more information and updates URL.
Every night after dinner we crawl into bed and talk about life. Life here, life at home, how messed up life is, how wonderful life is, how different people live life, realizations about life, and how big life is. Our room consists of a bed, a desk that holds our backpacks of clothes, a window, and a 2 by 3 square foot piece of floor where the door swings open. It’s got a transporting quality to it- it’s small, simple, square and whenever we climb under the blue divide of the mosquito net and sit there staring at the night sky it feels like we could be anywhere in the world. Often it feels like we are just in a room at home, when of course in reality we are miles across the blue atlantic in the other hemisphere. It’s weird paying attention to our thoughts and realizing that it is getting harder to picture back home. When we first got here we would daydream about life back home but now more often then not we find our day dreams are about life here.
At the beginning we did not think we were going to adapt. We were sure that each day we would have really low times and feel like falling apart, spilling, and giving up. We knew that we could physically get through each day, but we felt like emotionally it was going to be so difficult, every single day. Now way more often then not we fall asleep excited for the next day, and happy with where we are. And for the first time in a long we don’t feel like racing to the next stage in life. Partially because we just can’t. If you think about the big picture its overwhelming. So it has totally forced us to just be, and to think “I’m here and I just have to do here.” Which is really good, because it makes us appreciate each thing so much more: Each meal, each smile from the kids, each cup of tea, each freezing shower. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
From across the blue divide-
Cailin and Kira
We live here. We have completely settled in. We are finally immersed into this life. It’s strange feeling at home in a country thousands of miles away from our regular lives. Rationally I know how shocking and different daily life is here, but actually living it every day makes everything seem normal. Kira and I were remembering from our past trips that nothing quite hits you fully until you’re home. We are equally excited and nervous for going back. Halfway is coming up. We can barely believe it.
Another Sunday came and went. We went to church which is still so kindly spoken in both English and Swahili. We got to hear all the children singing, and then in true Kenyan fashion aggressively shook many hands. Then, as we were leaving Samson spontaneously announced- “Today, you will have a new driver!” Confused, the normal driver David climbed out of the drivers seat, and my stomach did cartwheels as I realized that he was talking about me. Everyone was laughing; half amused, half in disbelief that I was going to drive the blue van ( it’s more the size of a miniature school bus, although it felt like I was behind the wheel of a semi). Ever since they learned I could drive stick shift, they have been joking about me driving here. It had never been talked about seriously because the idea is so ridiculous. For them: it would be insane because white people never drive here in Kenya. And in these villages, or really anywhere outside of Nairobi, it is extremely rare to even see a women driving. So a white woman from America... never gonna happen. And from my perspective: ...The roads are dirt and rocks, with potholes the size of craters, often at a very intense incline. And they are tiny, barely fitting two cars, often we squeeze by other vehicles with less then two inches of room. And everyone drives fast, and motorcycles, people, cows, and chickens are constantly darting out in front of you. AND the drivers seat is the other side of the car, left hand stick shift, ...on the other side of the road. But no time to think about any of that! Because there I was in the drivers seat, disengaging the emergency break, and pulling out of the orphanage, in the rain. Of course there was no way I was going to pass up this opportunity to expand my international driving repertoire. As we were pulling out of the orphanage we would drive by different kids and they would look up and complete shock would pass across their faces only to be quickly replaced by explosive laughter. I myself could not stop laughing the entire drive home, it was surreal. I kept expecting for the driver to yell from the back seat, telling me to pull over. But he never did. And there I was driving through the town of Ogembo with Kira and Andy in the front seat. And the rest of the family cracking up in the back of the van. We created quite a scene, people normally stare once they see white people, or “mzungus” in the car. This time we left a ripple effect of double takes and shocked faces behind us as the little blue van kicked up dirt and made it’s way up the steep incline home. I got out of the car and I think it took a full five minutes for my brain and my left leg (very out of practice with the clutch) to actually realize what just happened. I didn’t hit any motorcycles, or tip the van or anything! Just when life started to feel normal, something new and crazy was thrown into the mix. Always keeping us on our toes.
The next day was Monday, September 1st. The first day back at school after everyones two week break. Kira and I woke up early, ready to take Gener (Gina), Helga, and Heather to their high school in Narok, 4 hours away. The trip was beautiful. I couldn’t take my eyes off the landscape. About halfway through our trip we started to leave the red earth roads, and lush-tropical-forested-exceptionally-green Rift Valley and enter into the dusty-cactus-populated-savannah of Masai land. Fences were replaced by cacti planted in rows, and circular mud huts with thatch roofs took the place of crumbling concrete houses. What we saw of the Masai tribe was that they are one of the Kenyan tribes that have not strayed very far towards Westernization. They live simply, off the land, herding their cows through the dust to the watering holes, resting underneath the umbrella-like African trees that seem to grow with the knowledge of how necessary shade is to escape the scorching sun. It is incredible how quickly the entire landscape and lifestyle changes within one country. Soon we had made it to the girls school. We passed through security at the gates and the girls all checked themselves in, excitedly greeting the friends they hadn’t seen in weeks. Kira and I followed Samson, Gener, Helga, Heather, and Dorothy into the main building of the school. We stopped quickly to compose ourselves after reading a sign that simply stated in bold font. “Are you lazy? Try a different school.” This was the first of many of the most incredibly blunt and strangely inspiration signs scattered across the campus. We caught up with the family and found ourselves stifling our laughter only to be told to enter the Principals office. Memories of high school flooded my brain and I could tell Kira was experiencing the same thing. After almost five minutes of pushing one another in front and debating who was going to go first, Dorothy bravely led the way and we were herded into the Principals office. All I could think about was the last time I was in the principals office at my high school... Pretty sure I was getting demerits for being late way too many times. Timeliness is not my forte. Even though it has been years since high school, AND we were visiting a school in a different country it, standing there in her office it still felt like we had done something wrong. She was very friendly, and we left, slightly hurried, successfully escaping any punishment we irrationally expected. Dorothy then led us around the campus, she was excited to show us her old stomping ground. She had graduated in excellent standing in 2011 and she was excited to reconnect with some of her favorite teachers. When we were done, one of Dorothy’s old teachers asked me what I had learned. And again with the flashbacks to high school. I felt like I was winging a speech that I had forgotten about and was completely unprepared for. The rusted gears in my brain turned slowly as my mouth was quickly cycling through all the filler words it could remember. Finally I managed to tell him that the inspirational quotes painted on the buildings were the highlight of our tour. He asked what my favorite one was. “A person who hates correction is stupid” was a definite crowd pleaser. But I responded with “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” The irony hurt a little bit.
We then said good-bye to Gener, Helga, and Heather. Getting to know them was so much fun, and we already miss having them around. They are away at school most of the year, so we were so lucky to get as much time with them as we did. A short trip in the blue van brought us to downtown Narok where we did some shopping in the Masai market for traditional African jewelry and art. Tourists will pay almost anything, so as soon as they see the color of our skin they almost double their prices. Dorothy helped us by talking the prices down an incredibly substantial amount. Yet another reason we would be lost without her. The market was buzzing, the colorful beaded belts and ornate headdresses swung gently in the breeze, and the store owners cheerful bantering combined with the hum of the traffic made the market feel alive. Men and women alike worked on beading projects; hands whirring away as they chatted with the other store owners, or tried to catch your attention and draw you into their little shack. Finally, content with our gifts for family and friends back home we climbed in the van to start the four hour return journey. The scenery was just as visually stimulating on the ride home, and other then the fact that the seats are less-then-luxurious, and have a tendency to make you incredibly sore, it was a pleasant trip home through a mesmerizing rain storm.
When we arrived home Nicole ran up to me and asked if we were coming to the school the next day. She said that Joyce was asking where we were all day and that the kids miss us. I told her we missed them too and we’ll be back as soon as we get some other work done. That night I fell asleep so quickly, cozy and content. It was my birthday, and it had been an incredibly wonderful day.
One of the most important jobs we have to complete while here is to help create an exit plan for the children who are graduating/have graduated high school. On Tuesday we went to Kisii-town to visit three of the local colleges to gather information on the vocations offered at the different schools, and get some real numbers on costs to complete the different levels of education. The three schools we visited were: the Gusii Institute of Technology, The E-Smart Technical College, and We were also researching how much it would cost for the students to live in Kisii; food, clothing, and all other living expenses have to be calculated in. We are collecting as much data as possible to help HCIC get a good feel for the full price of college and vocational school to help figure out what we can offer to the graduates. It is pretty confusing because higher level education is done very differently then in America. But the admissions and registrars at each school spoke excellent English and were more then willing to help. It was like applying to college all over again. Actually though. At each school we would arrive, and then sit down with the registrar and somehow during the explanation of why we were there, the language barrier caused a problem and they always ended up thinking that we were the ones interested in applying. And let me tell you, these schools desperately wanted us to come. It probably looks pretty good to have foreigners coming to your school. As funny as it was to pretend to apply to each of these colleges it really helped us to get all the information we needed, and more. At Africa Nazarene University we had to wait for an armored truck from the bank protected by three men with guns to get loaded up before we could leave the parking lot. We had already visited the school, but while we were waiting two men came out and introduced themselves. First Patrick introduced himself to us, he worked in admissions at the college. And then his colleague “Noah, not the one that built the ark” introduced himself as a pastor, chaplain, and professor at the college. They chatted with us about where we were from and were excited that I had heard of their sister school Nazarene University, in America. They were so friendly, asking how we liked Kisii, they then spent the next ten minutes trying to convince us to go to their college and to “come by and say hi whenever we were in town!” We returned home loaded with pamphlets and notes on prices from the three schools, it was a productive day.
That evening I was banned to my room and could hear Kira and Dorothy laughing in the kitchen. Later, I was led blindfolded to the dinner table that was covered with my favorite Kenyan dinner, popcorn, and a “cake” from the market. I stood taking it all in as they sang to me. The candles cast a trembling orange light, lighting up the dark room during the power outage. “I did not want you to think we had forgotten to celebrate your birthday” Dorothy said. She is so sweet and perceptive. She had made popcorn because one day we got it from town and she noticed how much I enjoyed it. I was touched, I had totally enjoyed my actual birthday the day before, and yet she still created a special dinner, wanting to make me feel at home and part of the family.
Being here is a fresh start. This past year has been incredibly tough. Thoughts are shifting and changing. It’s a time of transition. And now I have a new year to fill with adventure. Being human is complicated and heavy. Life is big. People are beautiful. I am so grateful.
I was reminded that the audience for our blog is much larger then I always think it is. This entry was something I wrote and posted on Facebook, and it fits into the purpose of our blog as well, so I thought I would share. I find it really tough putting myself out there, and writing about things important to me and then putting them out into cyberspace where anyone has access, this blog has gained a broad audience. This trip is such a learning experience full of paradigm shifts and realizations about myself and the world. I don't pretend to know better then anyone else, or be an expert in any of the subjects I write about. I am just sharing some of the beautiful and tough things I have been witness to, and some of my own brain manifestations. Take them or leave them or change them as you will, one of the best parts of humanity is that everyone thinks, feels, acts, believes, problem solves, grieves, experiences, and exists differently and we are all here to share with each other. And a little shout out to the lady at the bank, the kids working the cash register at the Vans store, Wawa Joe, the guy at CVS, and all the other random people who asked for the link to the blog that last week when I was running around frantically. Whether or not you ended up reading this, thanks for being excited about our trip, it means a lot, and it's cool how it expands our world even the slightest. (I know I speak for Kira too.) Love to all our friends and family reading as well, it makes home feel a bit closer to know you can hear a bit about this crazy few months. ANYWAY-
First of all, I have learned that I will never be able to take myself seriously while wearing a headlamp, even in a black out in Africa. Secondly, something I've learned about travel and experiencing new cultures is that you can never be fully prepared, and there is always more going on then I know to look for, so it's best to just be open and ready, fully letting go of control and becoming a sponge to the world. That way you see, smell, hear, and feel more, and I'm so grateful for this realization. Kenya itself is a force of nature. From the moment I stepped off the plane onto the dusty red earth, things have worked differently. The weather fluctuates drastically and nothing happens as planned. Everything is more organic, there is an ebb and flow to the market place, a natural momentum to daily life. Time is an illusion, an estimate. Likewise, the people I've met are forces of nature, from the tiny women carrying giant sacks of potatoes on their heads, to the teachers with fervent concern and care for each student. But these kids are the ones teaching me the most, making the world feel more in sync. They have reminded me to get busy living. And made me remember that there's nothing better then feeling thoroughly exhausted after a day of doing something you love. One of the orphans grew up a delinquent street kid, following a path towards a life of crime in order to survive, but he was taken in and has turned his life around completely, just yesterday I watched him graciously receive an award for being the top of his class. It's incredible to witness first hand the power of human connection and how all it takes is just one person to care. Samson and different members of the community here are the sole reason half these kids are even alive. They've shown the uncanny amount of bravery it takes to be selfless, and I am humbled to be witness to it.
Sickness seems almost inevitable in a new country. We're not used to the food, the water, the air. Our immune systems are different and often sickness just happens. We've been incredibly lucky to have made it through the first two weeks without any problems, but on Sunday I woke up with a bad sore throat and by that night felt feverish. On Monday, we took a trip to a doctor in Kisii town to make sure it wasn't anything serious. As usual, I don't know what I was expecting but the clinic we walked into was far from anything I could've imagined. Straight off a small crowded street through a wide open door, across from a tiny shop with "wal mart" painted on the wall, the waiting room consisted of a few ragged benches and hand written signs advertising the availability of just about anything including HIV/Aids tests, typhoid vaccines, and women's clothing for sale. Another door led into a room with a desk and disheveled shelves of medication and around the corner was another desk, a cot, and a table covered in lab equipment.
The doctor, a nice Indian man who has daughters working in America and who Samson seemed to know well, took a malaria test just to be safe, and a women examined it through a microscope right behind me (it was negative). The doctor looked down my throat and decided that it was just a really bad case of strep throat, just as Cailin had diagnosed that morning. He gave me a huge injection (it was sterile, Cailin double checked and watched his every move), followed with antibiotics and painkillers, told me not to get worked up about it more times than I could count, followed every time with "this could be really really bad" then charged 1800 kSh (about $20) for the whole visit and sent us on our way making sure we knew that even if we had no money to come see him if we felt sick again. Especially after spending $200 on a visit to a walk-in clinic in America to have a prescription written the week before I left, I couldn't quite believe the kindness of the doctor and that it only cost $20.
The whole visit was very surreal and I am very grateful for medical professionals, and Cailin who was there to actually do all the thinking and persistent questioning for me when I was just concentrating on bracing myself for feeling like I had knives in my throat every time I swallowed.
The last few days have mostly started to blur together. It's been a lot of restless sleeping and trying to not read all the books we bought in town in one week. Having strep is taking me back to being in middle school when I got it several times. It was always a nice excuse to spend a few days on our couch with all my favourite blankets, a never ending supply of my favourite lemon honey tea, and all my favourite DVDs. Needless to say, this experience has been a bit different from that and home seems very far away. I've been so well taken care of and I'm so grateful for Samson and his family. And even when I can barely talk and can hardly think, Cailin has looked after my every need and kept me sane. There sure are some wonderful people in this world.
Being sick is all the more frustrating when I really want to be working and making it to the orphanage every day and experiencing this place. Today I'm feeling much better, and I know that this will pass and then life can get back on track. I'm glad Cailin has been able to keep up with the work at the orphanage, and we do what we can from home. This trip won't be without it's challenges, and this is just one of them.
“We welcome you to come and sit up here, Madam Kira and Madam Cailin” ...Up where? In front of the whole school? Yep. Groggy and slightly slap happy from lack of sleep we took our honored seats up in front of the entire school for their closing ceremonies. Kenyan schools go all year round with several two week long breaks. Today was the beginning of a break so they had a full school assembly in place of classes. So we had better-then-front-row seating as each teacher read out the three students at the top of their respective classes. The students would humbly walk to the front of the school to receive an award for placing highest on the exams and then the whole school would clap for them in different patterns led by one of their teachers. Then all the teachers stood and gave a short message to the school, each introducing the next teacher, the cycle got to Rev. Samson, the Director of the school. He in turn introduced me, and I had to improv a quick little speech for the kids, and then Kira had to do the same. Africa sure likes to keep you on your toes, whether it’s being stranded for five hours due to a giant rain storm, or having to be prepared to speak to almost 300 students. We are not short for adventures here.
After the assembly I had made it my mission to get to know Annah, one of the girls who still needs a partial sponsorship. I found her and we made our way around the compound, she showed me her classroom and where she likes to sit, then took me to her room in the rented dormitories. She was so friendly and bright, offering up information about herself without any prodding. She grabbed my hand and showed me a crinkled piece of yellow paper. “When you see my sponsor, tell them that I am ninth in my class!” She practically exploded with pride as she shoved her report card towards me. On our way Eunice cheerfully greeted me, and Dolphine and Hyline also fell into step with us, grabbing my arms and hands and smiling as they proudly showed that they remembered my name, even if I still couldn’t quite get all of theirs. We collected about 15 other kids on our walk to Annah’s room. The girls were so excited to show me their beds and tell me who their bunk mate was. The tiny little rooms housed between 2 and 4 bunk beds, each with 2 girls to a bed. Their things were stuffed in tiny cubbyholes, down the sides of the mattresses, and lining the rafters. They have no room for even their small amount of belongings. But the state of the rooms made it apparent that lots of happy, hardworking girls lived there.
The girls all began to test me about their names, memory is not my strong suit, and when I had no idea I would throw out some obscure name and the girls would erupt into contagious sidesplitting laughter and we would all have to catch our breath before I continued with the name test. Suddenly Dorothy appeared “Ohh I’ve finally found you” apparently there was something going on and I was needed back at the offices. She laughed as she explained how searching for me felt exactly like when she had to search for one of the orphans. We arrived at the offices and I stepped into a much more formal meeting then I was expecting. I felt like I was back in high school, showing up to class late, and giving some lame excuse. I apologized as I quickly took the nearest empty seat, “Sorry, I was playing with the orphans and learning their names over at the dorms” I think that is a pretty solid excuse. Should’ve tried that one back in high school. During the meeting Kira and I officially met all the teachers, and then sat through their entire board meeting, ...in Swahili. It was nice though, it gave us the chance to study the charts on the walls and learn about the school day in more detail, and about which teachers taught which grades. Part of our work is to interview each of the teachers about the students performance in class.
The rest of the day was an energetic blur. It all started with us taking photos of the kids, which quickly turned into them taking photos of each other. They loved when we would show them photos of our families or where we lived. They would “ooh and ahh” when I showed them a picture of my living room, smiling and complimenting me on how “smart” and “soft” it looked. My heart was exploding as they all took turns taking my phone and directing a group shot where at least ten kids would be squishing into the photo and hugging me so hard from all directions that I almost fell over. Kira was experiencing the same thing with another group of kids who had just discovered how to take selfies on her phone. From there the kids happily pulled us into the backyard where we played loads of circle games with singing, running, clapping, and dancing. The first game was a name game where once your name was chanted into the song, you were up next to go dance in the middle of the circle. I learned quickly by being one of the first ones pushed into the center of the circle and having to dance on beat with their clapping and singing. They games are so lively, all of them take part. Those that weren’t dancing and clapping were teaching Kira some more competitive form of monkey in the middle. We must’ve learned at least 5 new games this afternoon. And when Kira and I climbed into the blue van, out of the hot sun, the kids weren’t ready to say goodbye. Before we knew it over half the orphanage had squeezed into the little blue van and the temperature rose at least 10 degrees with all the happy, laughing kids packed like sardines against us. Samson chuckled and leaned towards me, “they wanted to go to Ogembo!” he said. We weren’t sure what that meant.. were they coming up to the apartment with us? were they coming to walk around town? Either way the little blue van with almost 50 passengers started up and we were off, bumping along like a clown car towards Ogembo. Once we arrived at the apartment, the kids cascaded out of the van, practically tumbling over each other, unfolding out into the fresh air. We hopped out, and puzzled, watched all the kids squeeze right back into the van. We then realized that they had all squeezed in, JUST to drop the two of us off at home. The van sounded like a cheerful birthday party on wheels as they rolled away, tons of arms waving furiously at us out the windows.
I love it here.