“So, how was Kenya?”
Even before I returned, I started to dread answering this question. How do you adequately encapsulate an experience that left you on an inexplicable high, in a way that is meaningful and non-cliche? In the past nearly week since I’ve been back in Chicago, my mind has run endlessly through the different memories from my twelve days in Kenya, bouncing from gratitude to longing to wonder to joy – blobs of feelings that refused to be synthesized.
I know I laughed a lot, laughed really hard and really frequently. Whether it was hanging out in the volunteer house (which felt like a reality TV show) or bouncing around for hours in the safari van (which requires a surprising amount of arm strength), there was always something to laugh about. It ranged from mistaken names (Ibrahim, Hostage) to miscounted lions (ugh); from love-hate bromances (“Kiss!”) to love-love rafikis (Wakanda Forever!); from mercilessly making fun of each other to seamlessly syncing in unexpected circumstances – laughing even when we had to get out of our van in the middle of the Maasai Mara to push it out of the mud. If laughter is medicine for the soul, my soul could probably stock the entire medicine section of the Carrefour that we shopped around together on our first day – the memory of this bizarre adult field trip still makes me want to laugh until “crocodile tears roll down my cheeks, forming the number eleven” (one of many entertaining phrases we read while grading essays at school).
I learned to become comfortable just rolling with things – we established quite early on that there were many details about the program that weren’t clear, from the address of the volunteer house (much to my mother’s chagrin) to our specific placements. But as they say, “Hakuna Matata” – an attitude that I grew quite fond of in my time there, a way of living that forces you to let go of planning and trust that all would be okay. When Ayub, our school director, took out a good chunk of his morning to unexpectedly take Dave to the hospital on our second day volunteering, I marveled at someone so busy being so flexible and generous with his time. Going with the flow kept things exciting: I didn’t know when an NVS staff member would show up to the house to say hi; I didn’t know what time I was technically supposed to be at school every day; I didn’t know what we were expected to teach in music class or even how many students would show up. But each unknown turned into an opportunity to build trust with those around me, having faith that we’d figure things out eventually, and together.
I also had to be honest with myself about my volunteer experience when I realized that I’d really only be teaching music for a total of 3 days (Monday was orientation and Thursday was Bible Study). This was my second foray into voluntourism, and I felt pressured to come out on the other end with a life-altering experience rooted in deep bonds with the community – in this case, with the kids and the teachers at school. As it turned out, I was only at KAG Olympic for a total of 3.5 days (I tagged along to the hospital for half a day). And while I adored the 3-year-old “babies,” their lunch leaders (Steven and Grantu), the 5th grade music class (Daisy, Gloria, and others), and the lovely Olympic staff (thank you for the chapati, chai, and conversations!), realistically, I felt that my short stay limited the depth to which I would bond with the people at school. I hated the fact that leaving on Friday was not as excruciating as other farewells I’ve bid, that there’s even room for doubt whether a piece of my heart was left in Kenya. I’m sad that I didn’t forge the same emotional bonds in Kibera as I have formed through other similar experiences, and this feeling is only compounded by the fleeting nature of the impact of a short-term volunteer.
I recognized discomfort several times – not so much from being in a new country, but from a heightened sense of awareness of my own reactions to what I saw. Walking through the Kibera slum left me with many mixed feelings – it was uncomfortable ‘touring’ the area because, as Ekaitz put it, “It doesn’t feel great to make a spectacle out of someone’s poverty.” And yet – what was the alternative? To ignore the slum’s existence? I felt baffled by the sheer randomness of birth, the luck of the draw that determined what kind of life you’d be born into. It was burning on my mind that we would leave the slum just as easily as we’d entered it, leaving a few bags of maize and some mzungu high-fives that masked the guilt I felt about the gap in our lifestyles. Actually, I wasn’t even technically a ‘mzungu’ – kids shouted, “Chinese! Chinese! Ni-hao!” as they pointed as me. Instinctively, I felt offended, and yet when I reasoned my way through the intent and understanding of a child in a Kenyan slum, it felt silly that I felt even remotely hurt.
I was repeatedly inspired by the stories I heard. People were so willing to share their life stories: stories about rising out of poverty, pursuing education again later in life, caring for sick loved ones at a young age. They shared about the school’s role as a safe haven for children facing traumatic experiences in the slum; school was a place where they had space to play and food to eat. I learned from my fellow volunteers’ experiences working with kids with special needs and teaching children from Spain to Mexico, echoing challenges in education that sounded oddly familiar, hinting at universal barriers that prevent our kids from receiving the best possible educational experiences. We shared with each other about career goals and transitions; about life and love; about loss and grief; about our journeys to pursue our best selves despite the obstacles that might have come our ways. If laughter is medicine for the soul, vulnerability is the sustenance that actually feeds mine, and I’m just as thankful for the walking commute chats, nighttime pillow talks, and under-the-stars conversations as I am for the belly laughs on this trip.
There’s so much more I could write about – the joy I found in making music every day with the students as well as with Dave and Oscar; the cheers from the babies when we showed up with plastic bins of ugali and kale; the majesty of the elephants and giraffes and lions and leopards and all the other animals we saw on safari; the serenity of gazing out at the savannah and feeling the wind blowing through my hair; the awe at watching the sun rise – twice! – and realizing that, despite all that has happened, yet another day had come, and the sun had risen again. Writing in depth about all this would take too much time and do it too little justice.
So, how was Kenya? It was living through all of the above, staying present and mindful in these memories as they were being created. It was exhausting but rejuvenating. It was one of the best trips I’ve had in the past few years. It was wonderful.