I went on a sponsor tour with Compassion, and we spent our time visiting children's homes.
Playing with kids who taught me how to break dance.
And, of course, hugging lots of children.
One of the first places we visited were the plains of Olontoto outside of Nairobi. It looked for all intents and purposes like the plains of Eastern Colorado but with an occasional mud home. As our bus pulled up, we saw a long line of red and purple and blue bouncing up and down. Mothers and children had come to greet us, singing and dancing. We piled out of the van and were told to great the children by bending over them and placing a hand on their forehead, saying a phrase which I've long since forgotten. It felt oddly paternalistic, but I did as I was told.
We spent the day playing duck, duck, goose and games the children taught us. Then we visited the children's homes. Their families lived on the wide plains as ranchers. It convinced me then, as I have often been convinced again, that if you must be poor, you should be poor in the country. The home I visited had a traditional home built from dung. It was about 5 feet tall inside and only hosted enough room for a bundle of sticks for a bed and a fire pit. Next to the traditional home was their "modern" home, built from corrugated metal.
We met the family's several wives, and one of them gave me a small beaded ring as a gift. The women were slender and dressed in deep blue. Their height seemed oddly accentuated by their long dangling earlobes. They were quiet with us, but kind, and I wondered at these plains that looked so much like my own Colorado plains, but were so very different.
Other days we visited other communities. One day we visited a Child Survival Program (my personal favorite), which helps moms and babies. Walking to the families' homes, we passed several opulent homes with columns and gardens. Just across a hedgerow was a slum with homes seemingly slapped together with planks and pieces found here and there. The messy streets were filled with children wearing donated clothes covered in holes and dirt. Most of us had a hard time not judging those who owned the opulent homes just next to horrible poverty. Then we found out that one of the homes belonged to a member of the church - the church was composed of some wealthy people who were trying to reach out to their poor neighbors through Compassion. It was humbling.
One day, we visited Kibera. Kibera is famous for being the largest slum in the world. We drove our van through the slum to a church. At the church, kids sang and danced for us and we made crowns together. I decorated a crown for a quiet little girl named Lavender and she made one for me. After playing with the children in this oasis, we went to visit the children's homes.
The paths of Kibera are narrow and muddy. You have to duck and leap to traverse the alleys and dodge holes, muck and stray dogs. Kibera is big, so big that the center of it is too dangerous for even the police to go to. We were only on the outskirts, but all I could think is that I wanted to get out. It was dark and oppressive. I hate saying this about anyone's home, as Kibera is filled with wonderful people as well. But that is how I felt at the time.
We had dinner under the stars outside our hotel one night with Leadership Development students, who are Compassion graduates who go to university. My table got to eat with Silas, a senior who was studying communications. He was hilarious and smart and lively, and it was so odd to think of him coming from Mathare Valley, which is like Kibera, but known even more for its violence. (That same young man is now a coworker of mine and the writer and photographer for Compassion Kenya!)
We went to church on Sunday and I got to slip out to sit with the children in Sunday school. The Sunday school buildings were not up to code. They were wood structures stacked, packed and scrunched with children. Peering in, I thought surely there was no more room for me, but I was looking with American eyes and personal space. I was welcomed in with grabbing and pulling arms of children who all wanted a chance to touch the white girl. A group of girls bunched around me as we listened to the message and they stroked my arms and patted my hair. One girl, after unbraiding my hair and feeling it between her fingers looked deep into my eyes and whispered, "like wheat."
My overall impression of Kenya was "karibu" - welcome. We visited so many dark places. But the people I met were the most warm and welcoming of any country I've ever visited. They were the essence of having little but loving much.
to be continued...