From Skidmore to Kenya and back
I drove from Saratoga Springs to New York City to catch a flight leaving JFK International Airport. Destination: Nairobi, Kenya.
Nearly two days later, I stepped into what will likely be one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.
My Life at Skidmore
Since I transferred to Skidmore, I’ve had one amazing experience after another.
But, so far, the one that surprised me the most was a life-changing opportunity in Kenya that Skidmore's Career Development Center introduced me to.
How did I get there? You can read about that here. What was it like? Read that below.
My Life at Skidmore, in Kenya
After a whirlwind trip and a few days to settle in Nairobi, I began my journey to the Rapha Community Center, a children’s home in Nyahururu, a tiny village northwest of Nairobi. Here, I would spend the next month.
Stepping out of a safari vehicle, everything seemed to stop momentarily as I soaked in the startled stares of 45 children.
They watched my every move, trying to figure out what this new “mzungu” (a Kiswahili word for “foreigner”) was all about. It took time to build their trust.
We started with tutoring sessions in the evenings, though it was only a matter of time before the girls begged me for my hairbrush so they could braid my hair. I only obliged them after I knew their homework was finished.
In our time together, I became particularly close with a girl in class seven named Maureen.
Every night, Maureen and I worked on math problems. But we also talked about other things. As she grew to trust me, I learned that listening to the challenges and triumphs of her life was just as important as math.
Maureen told me how her father left the family with no money or support system. I learned about the sacrifices her mother made to give her children happy and healthy lives. I came to know her two brothers, Wilson and Peter. And I came to see how, thanks to the program for which I was volunteering, all three children are receiving an education, safe housing and nutritious food.
But the children weren’t the only people initially wary of my presence. I also had to gain the staff’s trust.
I spent hours with the women in the kitchen peeling and boiling butternut squash, washing and cooking rice and chatting about the challenges Kenyan women face. I learned how to pick peas; weed carrots; and dry, beat, sift and sort beans. I helped to plant kale and cabbage in the greenhouse. I spent hours typing, printing and stapling exams in preparation for the end of the school term. I observed classes and spent time with the teaching staff, sharing stories from America.
Each moment was powerful, for all involved.
Before embarking on this journey, I had no idea what to expect. I was worried about the little things: Will I be able to survive without constant internet access? How greasy will my hair be after a week without washing? What if I get homesick?
But soon enough, I stopped worrying about the small materialistic concerns that so often distract me from what truly matters in life.
While I was in Kenya, I learned how to be a better friend, a better listener and a more supportive person.
I made genuine connections with adults and children different from me because I was forced to put my phone down, look people in the eye and ask, “How was your day? What are you feeling? Tell me your life story!”
Without conveniences and distractions, I was able to finally focus on the substance of life.
From trust comes an outpouring of love
On my last evening at the children’s home, all the girls received “new” shoes. Some had small scuffs or broken laces — they were all shoes that were deemed unusable by folks back at home.
One of the students, Rachel, asked me to record a video of her after she received her new shoes. In the video, she said “Thank you for giving us shoes. May God bless you all. Amen.” She asked me to show it to my family and friends at home so they could know how grateful she was to receive the shoes.
These girls, who have next to nothing, were overflowing with gratitude for one small gift.
Perhaps the more appreciative we are for the belongings we have, the more value we will place on them.
Lessons abounded from my experience in Kenya and some may not come until much later in my life. But what I will remember most was the outpouring of love.
Everyone at the children’s home cares for one another. The adults care for the children and each other and the children know how to support and love each other despite the challenges they have faced. They accepted me, a stranger and a foreigner, as one of their own and treated me equally despite my differences.
I am eternally grateful to Skidmore for giving me the opportunity to travel and work in Kenya. I learned about myself and the world in a way I could not only in a classroom or through a book.
Someday, I look forward to returning to the smiling faces of 45 beautiful children, eager to accept me with open arms.