Wednesday, May 27, 2015


I feel in the last two days that I've noticed many striking juxtapositions here in Kenya.  For example, Monday we went on several school visits so that we could see the public primary school system here.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the boys here who are in primary school go off campus for classes because elementary school is nearly free in Kenya (nearly meaning you must pay the equivalent of about $10/year in fees).  The schools are primitive.  There are at least 35-40 students in a classroom and they sit paired on wooden benches in front of wooden desks.  The walls are bare or mostly bare, with peeling paint and stained brown from the constant red dirt dust that swirls around.  Despite this bleak environment compared to American classrooms, the vibrance of the children jumps out at you like their bright blue school uniforms.  They are attentive, respectful of their teachers and visitors, and have very high hopes for high school and college.  In the nursery class, a class of 3-5 year olds, they are learning subtraction already.

The students being introduced and talking to the class about college in the US
Typical classroom in a public primary school
The school yard
Personally, I am always bothered by people who do service that compare their lives to those they are helping, saying how grateful they are for their life or their experiences or their opportunities because look at how bad it is for these people.  This is true and we all should be grateful for the things we've been blessed with, but I almost feel like the outward expression of this shows pity on those being served.  And no one wants pity.  So, I was surprised to have quite a similar conversation with a woman who works here at the school about how seeing where these boys come from makes her appreciate the life that she has.  I don't know why I didn't expect that to be something expressed by someone who lives here, but  I didn't.  Though she didn't express pity per se for the boys, she says that it is life here, but that it gives her perspective.

She shared this with me as we walked back from one of our school visits behind a group of our students.  One of the boys was playing with one of the young students at the primary school, chasing him around through ditches and up and down hills.  The little boy just laughed and laughed and she shared with me this story and how amazed she is at this little boy's happiness.  She says he is always smiling and playing and laughing despite where he comes from.  She says that when she did his home visit she found bleak living conditions.  His mother was HIV positive, weak, and unable to work.  His father was gone and likely had never been a support to the family.  His ten year old brother was positive and addicted to drugs and alcohol.  They had very little in the way of food, clothing or shelter.  He too is HIV positive, but doesn't yet know it.  He takes medicine, but doesn't know why.  He's only six.  Yet despite all of this he is a very happy and smart child who does well in school and seems to thrive socially.  It really is a wonder when you hear a story like that what creates resilience in some and not others.

Yesterday we went on our first round of home visits to the "slums."  Even though that's what they're called here I'm still having a hard time using the word.  When we do home visits the boys have to go with us because the slums are densely populated and there are no street names or addresses (really there are few streets, just footpaths up and down the valley) and so they have to lead you to their home.  One particular home we visited is stuck in my mind.  We walked for a long time down a dirt road before turning off down a footpath between two houses.  The footpath was winding and downhill and we passed small gardens of kale and potato and looming palm trees.  We reached the bottom of the footpath to a nicely manicured path with handmade fence on either side and beyond that neatly lined crops.  To our right was a small river literally just a few dozen feet away whizzing by us.  We turned up a smaller path to the left and were in the midst of what looked to be about four or five homes.  The home we visited belonged to a 25 year old woman with four children under the age of 7.  Both of her sons go to St. Mary's, but her daughter who was maybe six has never been to school because she cannot afford the school fees.  Her sons receive funding through St. Mary's.   Her fourth child is a baby, not much older than Amare and it struck me how similar they were as babies, but what different lives they would lead.   It was a challenge not to be emotional as I identified with her as a mother.  She rents her home, a one room shack that she has creatively divided into two rooms using fabric curtains and logs on the floor to delineate where one room stops and the other starts.  She pays about $5 a month for rent.  There is no electricity or running water.  The roof is made of corrugated tin and the walls are reinforced with large pieces of tree bark.  She only speaks Kikuyu, the local language, and has no formal education.  It was nearly impossible for me to reconcile the deep, deep poverty in which this family lived with the utter beauty of its surroundings.

Slums built on a slope heading into a valley with a small river
Families use this river for drinking water, bathing and washing clothes, and watering crops
Another glimpse of homes
We returned from our visit to the slums hot, sweaty, and exhausted.  We went straight to the lounge to rest before lunch and one of the brothers was already there watching E!  Rich Kids of Beverly Hills happened to be on and I think we all just stared at the television with dropped jaws.  Having come from the slums all morning to see a bunch of rich kids throwing a temper tantrum in a hotel lobby because the staff didn't know who they were when they walked in the front door was just absolutely too overwhelming to process.

Tomorrow we'll head out for another round of home visits.  In the afternoons we play sports with the kids and chat with the older ones before dinner.  After dinner several students go to preps, which is like study hall, to help the children with their homework before bed.  Our days here are relaxed, but full.

Cows grazing on campus.  I make my coffee every morning with milk from these cows!
One of our students guest teaching a religion course.

A friendly game of football with the nursery students 
***The photos of the slums are pulled from a Google search.  We were advised not to bring any valuables with us, so I was unable to take pictures, though after having gone I feel as though these warnings were overly cautious, at least where we were.  The people were poor, for certain, but friendly and welcoming, not at all threatening.  I plan to take some of my own photos on a future visit.***

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