As it will be no surprise to those who know me, I’ve fallen behind on my blog. The week has been emotionally rich and incredibly fulfilling. After the birth on Tuesday, Wednesday was spent with Craig, Robin, Karen, and Barasa at the Lea Toto children’s center in the morning and shopping for paint at the city center in the afternoon. Of interest there was the fact that Karen’s passport would have been stolen, had not Robin grabbed the backpack strap of the would-be thief and demanded that he give back the stuff. It surely must be one of the few times in Kenyan history in which a Nairobi pickpocket has actually attained his objective only to thwarted by a scrappy little white women.
Thursday brought wonderful song and dance from the women’s HIV support group that meets at Ray of Hope every week. They performed traditional African songs including one in which the groups leader rolled around on the ground with dramatic urgency while her fellow performers surrounded here in aid. We later learned that the dance was meant to symbolize the importance of community in African culture and to show that when an individual falls, the community at large will come to their aid. This performance was then followed by a drama about one of the ways in which HIV is spread. Hendrica stole the show as the lusty housekeeper, ready and willing to lay down with father and son, passing the virus to each, and killing both in the end. After lunch Katie, Mark, and I began to paint one of the room’s in the clinic with Gideon but were quickly redirected when it was time to go on some home visits to those of the children. The whole thing was quite a scene, Katie, Craig, Mark, and I walking down the street each holding than hand of at least two children, while much of the community gave their greeting as we passed. Other school children were especially curious and would follow us around laughing and yelling only to be told by our children that they “had bad manners.” The day was great.
Friday was spent painting. In the early morning it was Mark, Gideon, the two Brian’s from the school, and myself, and in the afternoon it was Gideon, Karen, Emily, and I. It was great to be able to leave a tangible mark at the clinic and especially nice to be able to brighten up the delivery room that had impacted me so much earlier in the week with a nice new coat of paint. Later in the afternoon I was able to watch Nathaniel, the same nursing student who performed the delivery, perform a circumcision on a five-month-old boy. It was longer and looked more painful than I seem to remember.
Later our entire team was treated to an amazing dinner that was purchased by contributions from each staff member of the Ray of Hope. The goat was delicious! After dinner we went to a bar, but Karen, Katie, Mark, and I were the only ones with enough energy to go in. It turned out to be a very special night. Everyone from the ROH team was there dancing and the music was great. Just one man on the drums and another on the guitar, but the rhythms were smooth and tight and the dancing came easy. We smiled a lot that night. Emily said it had been years since she’d last danced. I will say, however, that I’ve never felt whiter dancing sober at a bar in Kenya. I’ve also hardly ever felt better.
Finally, Saturday was spent taking the children on a field trip to the Nairobi National Museum and to a downtown park for sodas, power bars, and play. The children love taking photos with the digital camera and for much of the day I didn’t know where my camera was or who had it. When I did get it back, I’d found that they’d taken some very special photos. At the park, everything went according to plan accept the smattering of bees, hell bent on Fanta and Coke. It was fun to watch the children screech and run and laugh for cover as they clutched their sodas tightly in one hand and the power bars tightly in the other. The teachers Evelyn and Alfred really stood out that day and my respect and admiration for all they have done and all they continue to do was deepened greatly. Finally before we got back on the bus to go back, they presented us with traditional African shirts for the men, a skirt for Katie and lovely belt for Robin.
Back at Ray of Hope, we began to burn a disc of pictures and videos we had taken throughout the week for Solomon and the staff and we gave the soccer balls and hula hoops we’d bought in town to the kids. Predictably joyous mayhem ensued. And then it was time to say goodbye. And I cried. A lot. All I really remember is Hendrica taking my hand, telling me it would be alright, and then Emily taking my head in her hand and pulling me to her chest when it got really bad. It’s not too often that you feel that much love. It made me miss my mom and feel sad for all the children in Kawangware who don’t have a mom or a family of their own. There were a lot of tears, a lot of sadness, and some pain. But it felt good to be in the midst of a loving and supportive community. Then we hugged the kids one last time and they left. A closing meeting followed where each person, from both Glide and Ray of Hope, talked about the week and how we felt about each other. We shared love and mutual respect and were all of the mind that this was just the beginning and not the end. I am certainly excited to see what the future will bring.
Today, we said goodbye to the Learning Centre children and the Ray of Hope staff, but not before taking the children to the Nairobi National Museum in the morning and to a local park in the afternoon.
Working with children has always been a calling for me; as far back as my own childhood years, I remember telling people that I wanted to help children in need. Our week at the Learning Centre solidified this resolve, though I’m not sure it needed any more cementing.
The Nairobi National Museum is beautiful – spacious, with beautifully designed exhibits and a well-told history of Kenya. As we walked into an exhibit of large-as-life wild animal replicas, one of the Learning Centre girls, about eight years old, clung to my side. She steered me as close to the exhibit as she was willing to go, guiding me away from the large, predatory animals displayed out in the open, and toward the smaller ones encased in glass.
I was relieved to witness her childlike innocence, to know that her daily exposure to live cows, goats, and infestation in her living space – to say nothing of the crime and substance abuse that plagues the slum in which she lives – haven’t hardened her, such that she would scoff at an exhibit of fake animals. Her fear enhanced my hope that all is not lost for her, even though she faces insufferable conditions every day.
After only a week of time spent with the Learning Centre children and the Ray of Hope staff, the seemingly inordinate grief accompanying our goodbyes was real. I knew what I was losing, and though my commitment to the Ray of Hope will have me returning to Nairobi more than once, this awareness did little to ease the pain of letting go.
Tomorrow, we will visit a church in a neighboring slum, returning the next day to visit the same building, which will be transformed into a school. As I say goodbye to Kawangware, I welcome the opportunity to serve another community in need.