Wednesday, August 15, 2007

My True Calling

Back in Nairobi after safari, we contemplated our next move. We were feeling the draw toward the coast and longed to explore Kenya's beaches. We'd heard Lamu was nice but expensive; Malindi pretty but overrun with Westerners; and Mombasa more developed and touristy. After several trips to a travel agent we'd befriended downtown, we still weren't sure it was the "vacation" we wanted. (Is there such a thing as "vacation" when you're traveling for this long? I think not...but I digress.)

After several meetings in Henry's agency, we'd narrowed it down to several Mombasa beach resorts for an 11-day adventure due to cost and travel considerations. Lamu was proving to be expensive to fly, Zanzibar followed as a close second in this regard, and thus Mombasa became the buzz word. But something wasn't really jiving with me about it.

A few weeks earlier I'd caught wind, thanks to Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum, of a volunteer center named Takatifu Gardens operating in remote western Kenya. The place was run by Quakers who'd built a community center in a small village near Kakamega, and were looking for people to come help them teach English in primary schools. They also did work with a nearby orphanage. The opportunity sounded challenging, low-maintenance, and just what David and I had envisioned for part of our time in Africa. We'd left the States with a goal to put ourselves to good use in countries that needed it most. No one could argue that Kenya was one of those places.

I had emailed Fran, one of the leaders of the center, and started my inquiry before we'd even arrived in the country. Were there a lot of bugs? What was the toilet situation? How would we get there? How much did it cost? What exactly would we be doing with the kids? My questions were lengthy, but Fran proved diplomatic and even downright nice from the get go. I thought this might be the perfect opportunity for us to put ourselves to really good use in a country that desperately needed our help.

As the days wore on, and we grew weary of Nairobi, David could sense the debate running rampant in my head. We would leave Henry's office after another round of discussions on the best poolside offerings and resort packages in Mombasa, and try as I might, I couldn't really embrace the idea of luxuriating on a beach. "I can tell your heart isn't in it, honey," said my astute husband. "You want to go to Takatifu, right?" He'd nailed it on the head, known it all along, but he could see the fear in my eyes. "It's the bus ride that's holding you back, huh?" Yep, I nodded, a big lump in my throat.

Who wouldn't be a bit gun shy after enduring a week plus on Kenya's dusty, bumpy, mostly unpaved roads? We'd been back four days from safari, and my internal organs still hadn't shifted back to their original positions. We'd witnessed countless overloaded matatus (Kenya's decrepit, horribly unsafe version of the minibus) hurtling towards us in attempts to pass big rigs on crowded "highways." We'd swerved to avoid donkeys and any other creatures that wandered along the roadside. We'd been hassled several times by the ever-so-corrupt police at roadside "checkpoints." Driving in Kenya wasn't a fun or relaxing experience, and if it were that traumatic in a private safari minivan, I shuddered to envision what a public bus would be like.

Worry aside, we made the bold choice to ditch the sun and sand and instead brave the way to the countryside to put ourselves to good use for a week. I can tell you now it was the best decision I've ever made, not to mention the most rewarding experience of my life. The bus, despite being over an hour late and arriving nine hours later at our destination, wasn't so bad, but it was downright scary at times. Those crazy drivers can do unimaginable things with a rumbling large vehicle over a lot of red dirt. We were the only Westerners on board. Somehow this endeared us to our Kenyan neighbors; we got a lot of smiles and shared cookies with the kids. We befriended a local who kindly let us use his cell phone to alert Fran and his wife, Kim, of our delayed arrival.

When we arrived in Khayega near the only gas station in town (our pre-established meeting point), it had been raining for the last hour and the sun had sadly set. I can't describe what I felt as the driver pulled up to the side of the road and announced this was our drop-off point. David eeked out a small grin, I grabbed my pack and hoped for the best. We were the only white people amid a see of dark African faces along a remote rural road in even remoter western Kenya. It was pitch black outside. We felt vulnerable, and rightly so. But no sooner had we alit from the bus than Fran and Kim approached with a friendly, "Hello!" and we were whisked off to the safety of the Land Cruiser.

It's now the beginning of October while I write this entry (so far behind!), but the memory of our eight days there in July is so fresh in my mind. Our time in Shinyalu, Kenya, was awesome, life-changing, emotional, rewarding, and a thousand other adjectives I won't list here. Our Takatifu friends are Fran and Kim, a seriously nice and fun Australian couple who run the place; Ulrike, an inquisitive warm German woman; Casey, a funny outgoing dude from Texas; Karl and Rosie, a Kenyan brother and sister with the warmest smiles you've even seen; and Gidi, a Kenyan guy who never made us stop laughing.

These people are awesome, and we truly felt part of a community while we lived there. We shared meals, stories, and games together, and respected each other's quiet times. When we weren't working with the kids, we put ourselves to good use bettering the community center. I started in on weeding, which I loved despite the bugs, while David employed his art school talent to paint both door signs for our rooms and the larger project of the handicapped bathroom. I helped him out with the bathroom when I'd finished my gardening projects, and together, we put on a pretty mean three coats of what we dubbed "African cream" over the course of a few days.

On our second-to-last day there, 21 kids from an orphanage in Kakamega came to Takatifu Gardens for a day of fun. One of the little girls, Lilian, is only four but HIV positive--not uncommon in Africa but tough to swallow. You hear about these kids on Oprah or in the American news, but you don't really grasp the concept of their pain until you look at their faces and see it first-hand. This little angel has suffered so much in such a short time, and I could see it in her eyes as she sat in a chair next to me.

I watched her for a long while, a blank look on her face, until she caught sight of a group of ladies walking down the dirt road near the soccer field where we'd gone to play games (and of course, soccer!). Once the women caught sight of her, you knew something was up. They came running over smiling from ear to ear; one of the women scooped Lilian up in her arms. I asked Elizabeth, the social worker with us, what was going on. She responded that these ladies were all close friends of Lilian's mother before she died of AIDS. They recognized Lilian because she used to live in this village near the soccer field. The tears welled up in my eyes in an instant. You could feel the love pouring out from these women into this little child, and you could feel this little child light up from their hugs and kisses. Familiar faces meant so much.

It wasn't long before I witnessed another moving moment. Lilian's grandmother--poor, uneducated, and unable to care for Lilian--arrived at the soccer field. Lilian's face lit up once again as she was showered by love from a familiar person. I felt my tears coming yet again. To see this woman embrace her grandchild, knowing that she, too, had lost her own child--this child's mother--was heartbreaking and almost more than I could take. How to get through this supposedly happy day without feeling completely miserable and bogged down by the sadness of it all? It's one of the intense challenges Africa posed, and a dilemma I'll never quite understand.
Elizabeth told me that one of the orphanage's goals is to teach existing family members how to care for these children so they can stay with them for several weeks during the year. It's the orphanage's goal to keep these kids connected to whatever family remains whenever possible. For Lilian, it's a difficult task, as caring for an HIV-positive child in rural Africa presents a host of challenges. The grandmother has to be taught to give Lilian her daily meds, and to cook her meals that keep her healthy and won't upset her immune system. Tough to do when you're uneducated and live in a mud hut with no electricity and scant money.

David and I were particularly moved by the story of another boy, 10-year-old Eugene, a street kid who showed up at Takatifu one night homeless and hungry. His father had been arrested for murder, although we hear it was a fight where he hit another man, who fell and hit his head and then died as a result of his injuries. Now Eugene's village and relatives have disowned him; in western Kenya, it's customary to banish from the village the remaining relatives of a murderer. It doesn't matter that you're only 10 with nowhere to go and no one to care for you. Eugene miraculously found Takatifu, who in turn searched out this orphanage where he now lives. That's how Takatifu made the connection to Carmel, the orphanage director, who's really more of an angel than an administrative person. An aboriginal woman in her 70s from Australia, she's a true "everywoman" who's given these kids a new lease.

At the soccer field it was mostly the boys who played ball (David was in heaven, having been away from sports for so long) while the girls jumped rope. I talked forever with Carmel, and boy, did she have stories to tell. We walked back to Takatifu along the village road and got quite a few stares. But after being there all week in rural western Kenya, it didn't bother me anymore. In fact, it felt like we lived and belonged cool!

We fed the kids a huge rice-and-beans-and-greens lunch, which they gobbled down, then most of them watched a movie on Fran's laptop. I went outside after a bit, and most of the girls (ages 4-12) were sitting outside bored in the sun. I went back inside to check with Casey to see if we had any art supplies. When he nodded "yes," I returned to ask the girls if they'd like to draw. The answer was a resounding YES! So I gathered up the scraps of paper I could find and the half-sharpened pencils and dying pens, and they were happy as clams. A few of the boys even joined in.

It was a sight to see, these poor kids sitting on the edge of the planter boxes in the hot African sun, using their knees and hands as bases for holding their paper, barely able to squeak ink out of the pen or pencil but creating images nonetheless. It made me think of all the excess toys and "things" most kids in the U.S. have, and I just got really emotional seeing these poor kids so appreciative of the barest of art supplies. They could teach all of us a lesson about gratitude, believe me.

I became enamored with two sisters, Rosy (7) and Stella (10), whom I was considering adopting were it not for the fact that (a) Adopting kids in Kenya is really tough, as the government is rife with corruption, extorts money from Westerners (it's supposed to cost $6,000 per child but can go as high as $50,000!), and it can take two years to sort out; (b) David would like to start with younger kids and raise them earlier, which I can understand; and (c) We are still traveling for a while, and I'm not sure where I'd stow two small Kenyan children in our backpacks. Ah, such obstacles!

I can't even begin to describe how those eight days has changed me (and us). I was so at peace in that jungle village, even despite having to shower from boiled water in a bucket; dealing with the horrible smell and dirt of pit toilets; and fighting off some bugs at times (although not many). Not to mention that life in rural Africa is, well, downright DIFFERENT!!! In hindsight, these things pale in comparison to what we received in the way of an amazing life-altering experience.

The Kenyan government only recently made primary education free. Prior to that action, most children in rural areas couldn't afford to attend school. Now with it being more accessible, schools are teeming with smiling, inquisitive kids who, for the most part, really want to learn. Sadly you also witness things such as a 15-year-old tall, skinny boy crammed into a class of little eight-year-olds, because he was never able to attend school before then and can't place into a higher class with kids his age.

It's not unusual for schools to have 750-1,200 students, with classes averaging 70 students per teacher. Top that off with the rustic conditions of the classrooms--thatched roofs, rats running around, primitive desks, and limited supplies, and you've got quite a challenge before you. In just three days we helped over 2,500 kids with their English reading...quite an accomplishment! I never tired of hearing little Kenyans read aloud, "A fat man stands to rrrub his rrribs," and smiled every time at the way they rolled their Rs with an African lilt. It was truly music to my ears.

So today, as I sit in an air-conditioned Internet cafe in Bangkok, amid the comforts of a Westernized, southeast Asian society (believe me, after where we've been these last six+ months, Bangkok is a breath of civilized fresh air), I'm reminded of our dear friends in little Shinyalu, who are with me in my heart more often than they probably know.

I miss them, I miss the friendships we made, I miss the kids, I miss being of service, and more than anything, I miss the feeling of pure bliss I experienced in finding my true calling. Save for the six-day silent meditation retreat I did several months after David and I were married, I've never felt more alive and free and in touch with my true self than when I spent those eight great days in western Kenya. Someday I will go back. And maybe we'll even adopt a child...or two...or three...


Melissa Calvano said...

As I read your inspiring tales of self-discovery and service, I must continually remind myself that it is you, Molly & her husband, my friend, and not a work of fiction. Many blessings to you and David for truly affecting a "no-child-left-behind" legacy. I hope to one day be able to serve the underserved as you two have. Be safe and continue your amazing adventure!

Anonymous said...

I have been touched by your experience in Western Kenya. Being a native of the region I know what you felt. God willing one day you will be back to Kenya and adopt a child or two without any worries of corruption etc.

FunkyPunkyG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FunkyPunkyG said...

Hey I know this is an old post, but I found it while searching for pictures of Takatifu Gardens to use on my blog! I was really inspired while I read your account of your time at a place I call one of my "homes" (though I spent only 2 and half months there).

I consider my time at TG as one of the best things I have done in my life. Thanks for sharing your experience.