Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Kenya - How Africa Changed Me

While traveling, it is the revelatory experiences that stick with you the longest. In the big ah-ha moments we become self-aware, shift our perspectives or discover parallels between travel and everyday life. These are the experiences that you did not expect to have, but then never forget as they become part of you.

The day before I left for my solo journey to Kenya my family learned that my mom’s cancer had likely spread to tumors in her spine. We had no other information, and I was distressed with the timing of my departure and this new development. A couple days after my arrival in Kenya I was at an internet cafĂ© when I got the email from her – things had indeed worsened and a tumor was growing in her spine at the base of her neck. She immediately began a heavy course of radiation as she was at risk for paralysis. I was on the other side of the world and overwhelmed with a sense of loneliness and grief. At home we have each other; in Kenya I had no one. I was able to fight back the tears and made it back to the apartment seemingly composed. I crawled in my bunkbed, turned on my iPod and cried myself to sleep in this moment of despair.

The following day was my first at Dorna Rehab Primary School in Kibera slum. The children at Dorna are either orphans by the US definition, meaning no surviving parents, or orphans by the UNICEF definition. meaning one surviving parent. Not only are they orphans, but they have nothing in the literal since of the term, nothing. Living in the squalor of open sewage, no electricity and much of each day with grumbling empty bellies, I met the most bright-eyed, enthusiastic, eager five-year-olds. Children whose faces light up with the simplest pleasure, like a single balloon, a piece of candy or a new song.

I have absolutely no experience teaching students so this was a real stretch for me. I was baffled by how to fill up each day with students who barely spoke English, no classroom supplies and a local teacher who brutally cained the kids for no apparent reason. In my classroom there were 25 students crammed around tables in a room about 10'x10'. To get out from behind the table the kids had to walk not only across the tables, but often times across each other leaving painful kicks in the noggin in their wakes. My curriculum of coloring books, candy bribery and mishmash of songs would have never been approved in the US, but was a hit in this African slum. I have this random propensity for remembering children songs I learned at summer camp and school as a child. So we sang. And sang some more. In fact if you go to Kenya and hear students belting out Old MacDonald and B-I-N-G-O horribly out of key, it’s because I was raising up a classroom of off-tune singers as I am absolutely tone deaf.

The song the kids latched onto more than any other was “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” We sang it repeatedly; by the end of the day He had every animal and person you can imagine “in His hands.” After school I made the 15 minute walk back to central Kibera to meet my roommates, as it was day one we hoped that collectively we could wander out the maze of seemingly identical shanties and intimidating stares and find our apartment. It was on that walk down the railroad tracks, surrounded by roosters and long-jumping over sewage that I had one of these revelatory moments.

I had just spent the day with orphans, who by age five already lost one or both parents. Children who in the midst of extreme poverty and a seemingly hopeless life, experience the purest joy at something as simple as a hug. I began to reflect, was I really just feeling sorry for myself about my mom being sick? My mom, who even now that I’m an adult is in every way a parent and a best friend to me? A mom who cared for me when I was ill, cheers for me even when I fail, and believes in me the way only a mom could. I was suddenly ashamed of myself, feeling very ungrateful for the years I have had with her. Compared to these Kenyan children growing up in this abhorrent slum, I have been so blessed and fortunate. While it is still okay for me to be sad about my mom, it was a major mindshift for me to realize that all things considered, I have much to be grateful. My heart began to break for these kids in my class and I was overcome with contentment and gratitude of my abundant life.

It’s been months since I was spending my days singing off key and teaching the hokie pokie, but I still think about those kids often. I look for their faces on the news during stories of violence in Kibera and wonder if they’re still surviving life the only way they know how. I heard once that you can leave Africa, but Africa doesn’t leave you. On days when I’m feeling particularly sad about my mom, I pause to pray and thank the Lord for all the time he has given me with her and the luxury of having a mother that bountifully provided for me both physically and emotionally. Then I remember, He’s got the whole world in His hands.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Kenya - That Was Close!

It was my second day in Kenya and eager to get my feet wet in this far away land, my new friends and I decided to hire a driver for the day to take us to sites on the outskirts of Nairobi. Little did I know that by the end of the day I would be drenched in Kenya. This capital city really does not have any major sites, but there is a Giraffe Center, baby elephant orphanage and this cultural dance center (where I had hoped to see the African Ant Eater Ritual). We found the driver through the Hilton and he told us he would pick us up out front at 10am. So we were there promptly, not yet understanding what “African time” means. So for about an hour we watched the cars get checked for bombs as they pulled in front of the hotel, and waited for Bob the driver.

Once he picked us up, and totally unapologetic for the tardiness, he proved to be an informative and friendly driver. He even took us to Carnivores for lunch where I had my first sampling of Ostridge balls and crocodile (dining on Zebra has been outlawed in Kenya so we didn’t get to push to the outer limits of the African exotics). And while the giraffe center doesn’t really have anything to do with the story, it is worth pointing out that I did put a piece of giraffe nibble between my lips and this giant giraffe licked it right out of my lips. It was tongue unlike any I had ever experienced. Okay, so back to Bob. After a long day, we headed back into Nairobi where he was going to drop us off at a local Massai market (recognizing it would violate a cardinal tourist rule by buying souvenirs at the beginning of a long trip). It was rush hour, or as they say – jam. The jam seemed to clear up and we started very quickly picking up speed. “Watch out!” screamed Jodi from the backseat! Boom. Too late, we slammed into the truck in front of us. Bob looked over at me in the front passenger seat and says in a typical Kenyan English accent, “Whoah,that was close!” Close? Did he just say close? This word must not have universal meaning, because where I hail from, if you crash in to the car in front of you, and the hood of your car is smoking, that is beyond the threshold of close. We all just sat there, a little shocked at the turn of events. Then the instincts kick in and we quickly discussed which was more likely to result in our demise, staying in a smoking car or getting out of the car and standing on the side of the road in the most dangerous city on the continent, in which case we may as well put some kind of “rob us” target on our heads. So in the car we stayed. Bob swiftly put a orange flag on the road behind us to deter anyone from having a close call with us. In a matter of minutes Bob bribed the driver of the truck into not calling the police and settled the matter. Now if only our car would start…

Traveling in a third-world country is guaranteed to put you in the type of situations that your parents warned you about. Stranger danger, wreckless driving, drugs and thugs. Pretty much the full gamut. To survive, the key is to keep your wits about you and evaluate the situation quickly, then make the best decision you can based on the information you have. It’s not just about surviving, but about turning these experiences into a new adventure. After Bob pushed our smoking car to a place that was reasonably safe (so something along the lines of hanging at the El train tracks at 4am around the most dangerous stops in Chicago) we were able to go on foot. We gave Bob an extra big tip that day; after all, he just gave us a great story.