Saturday, February 26, 2011

I learned...

I learned how to just go with it.
I learned that nothing, not anything, can prepare you for a child's death.
I learned how to make friends who I can't talk to.
I learned that Ritz crackers are the key to getting a baby's handprints.
I learned how important it is to feel understood.
I learned to value the simplest of traditions.
I learned about sharing things, stories, and homes.
I learned that sometimes it is the quiet moments tthat mean the most.
I learned what it feels like to be a divided person.
I learned that children drinking porridge is possibly the cutest thing ever.
I learned how to make little nice things into big deals.
I learned how to say goodnight to a Kenyan child.
I learned what it feels like to feel totally comfotable in another culture.
I learned that it's all about finding happy moments.
I learned that I have the ggreat privilege of being treated fairly as a girl.
I learned that family doesn't have to mean having two paretns.
I learned that saying no can be a good thing.
I learned what it feels like to be a minority.
I learned how to do laundry with my hands.
I learned how to bargain.
I learned how to respect other's beliefs and culture while still holding on to my own.
I learned about not giving up.
I learned what hard work means.
I learned that knowing one's name is a powerful thing.
I learned how to get on the back of a piki-piki in a skirt.
I learned that some moments, both good and bad, are so painful that they seem impossibly real.
I learned that we all should be less focused on Africa's struggles, and more focused on their unmatched resilience.
I learned that it might not be about the grades you make, but about how much you loe your education.
I learned how to make little nice things into big deals.
I learned that I am both a tiny and large portion of this world.
I learned how to appreciate the things I worked for, like clean laundry or charcoal to cook with.
I learned how it feels to be treated differently because of my gender and race.
I learned about the importance of education.
I learned about seeing situations and beliefs from different viewpoints.
I learned about turning trash into opportunity.
I learned about sticking to promises.
I learned how to make ugali.
I learned about feeling guilty for something you had no control over.
I learned that sometimes it's best not to look at the big picture.
I learned how to open a soda at Nakumatt.
I learned that it is possible to get annoyed with cute, African babies.
I learned what it means to be a role model.
I learned about working hard and accomplishing little.
I learned that reall small actions can mean much more than I expected.
I learned how lucky I am to have my sister.
I learned how to say "I'm going to beat you" in Swahili.
I learned that a child dancing just might be the greatest sight in the world.
I learned how to do the Kenyan handshake.
I learnd how to take out a weave.
I learned that sick children are not to be feared, but are to be loved.
I learned how to give impromptu speeches and introductions.
I learned that it's not crazy to have family on both sides of thew rold.
I learned how to plan for Kenyan time, but also how not to waste it.
I learned that dance parties are the universal key to happiness.
I learned how to be open to new friends, new cultures, and new experiences.
I learned how others view the U.S. and how I view it myself.
I learned that sometimes the best thing you can do for a child is to simply hold them in your arms.
I learned that it's important not to forget faces; remembering somone is the highest compliment.
I learned how to sneakily and polietly avoid eating enough food to feed a small country at every meal.
I learned about what makes a family.
I learnd that a child's death isn't about how I handle it, but solely about the child.
I learnd that pure happiness can be found anywhere -- in a dance hall, on a muddy road, in a shady tree house.
I learned that the most heroic people are those who keep children from feeling alone.
I learnd about feeling guilty for something you had no control over.
I learned about what it means to give up your life to help others.
I learned that really small actions can mean much more than I expected.
I learned that I am both a tiny and large portion of this world.
I learned what it feels like to be helpless.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Last year as I was leaving, I worried a lot about not processing: not processing what I had seen, not processing what I had experienced. However, this time, it’s the leaving that I’m not processing. The goodbyes have been said, our luggage has been weighed and tagged, and it still doesn’t seem real. Here I sit in the Nairobi airport, and it doesn’t feel real. Not only does the departure not feel real, our trip in general seems unreal, like a dream.
The concept of going home is a blur and, frankly, so is much of our trip at this point. However, what I do know, at this very moment before I rush to my plane and fly away, is that it’s just about happiness. Everything, really, is about happiness. This may not be universal – for some it’s about money, for others it’s about possessions or food. For me, it’s about happiness. Life is about happiness. I believed this before I left, that it’s about finding what makes you happy.
What Kenya has taught me, though, is that it isn’t about your own self-happiness, but it’s about making others happy at the same time. Because what meaning does your life really have if you never made anyone happy? This doesn’t have to be by way of a gift or action but, possibly, by simply being happy yourself. It’s the itty-bitty tiny moments, the small movements of life that seem monotonous or inconsequential, that create this happiness.
So, amidst this jumbling of words and sentences, is what I’ll come home with. My thoughts will most-likely become more confusing after 30 hours of flying, and the realization that our trip is complete. Somewhere, in the heart of all this processing, is happiness. That’s what counts, I think.
Off we go. Thank you for reading our random thoughts and for your continued support. See you in the snow!

Friday, November 26, 2010


As this trip is coming to a close I cannot believe all of the amazing experiences I’ve had. There have been countless moments that are so good, they almost hurt because I know that they have to end and the memory or retelling of them will never be as meaningful. These are the moments that I wish I could seal in a jar and save to live again, and again, and again. This may be a depressing way to look at happiness, but if we always avoided good things because of their inevitable end, we wouldn’t have much of a life. It seems to me that for every happy moment we have to hurt a little bit, but what we gain is definitely worth it.

I know that Callie’s last entry was mostly about Nick, but I just want to reinforce just how amazing it was to see him doing better. When he was first out of surgery I couldn’t see him without crying. I spent the late hours of the nights making him a card and brainstorming any possible way that we could make him a little happier. After seeing him on Wednesday I slept like a rock. I really can’t express what an amazing kid he is or just how much a tiny smile from him means to everyone who loves him.

Another one of my moments was watching Charles watch Peter Pan. Charles is another one of the kids who has been really down and is so hard to please. One day after Sally Test had closed, we saw him hanging around outside the center’s door. We had to grab a few things inside so we told him to come in with us so we could talk. He doesn’t speak much English so I had Michael translate for us. I asked him question after question trying to find just one thing that he enjoyed. Finally we discovered that Charles likes to watch movies. So, for our last week at Sally Test we set up a couple movie watching sessions for Charles. After the Sally Test day was over, we had Charles and any other kid who was staying in the nearby wards stick around to watch Peter Pan. Normally, I really enjoy watching this movie. However this time I couldn’t take my eyes off of Charles’s face. He laughed at the dog wearing a maid’s hat and when Shmeed mistakenly shaved the backside of a bird instead of Captain Hook’s face.  The children all murmured “Eh! Eh!” when the pirates shot at the lost boys, the crocodile chased Hook, and the beautiful mermaids splashed in the water.

Today we arrived at Chuilambo Secondary School for the first day of the Annual Event. The event is put on to celebrate another successful school year, to bring the Umoja family together, and. Most importantly, have fun. I am really excited to be back largely because I get to spend more time with Winnie! I was so excited to see her and realize that even after a month apart, nothing has changed. The day was filled with great speeches and wonderful performances that ranged from dancing to imitations of President Obama. Of course everyone believed that the highlight of the day was Mama Ellen’s closing speech. One of the head teachers announced that “it was to bring tears of joy to the students’ eyes.” She talked about family and how all of us have strong bonds with people we may never get the chance to meet. This made me think about the crazy twist of fate that has let us love people half way around the world and have brothers, sisters, and parents who don’t even speak the same language as us. At the end of the speech Winnie turned to me and said, “Yes, I guess you look like a sister to me.”

After saying good bye to all the people to whom I’ve become so close, I’ve been looking back over my trip and I am so, so thankful. I’m thankful for sunsets over Lake Victoria, "The Sound of Music," colorful hippos, mother and son photo shoots, singing songs in a different language, the smell of rain, birthday cards, delicious malts with funky flavors, pots of tissue paper flowers, long-distance phone calls, roasted corn, butterfly kisses, waving hands, Thanksgiving food babies, sleeping soundly, Peter Pan, and family members who look nothing alike. For me, there couldn’t be a more appropriate place to celebrate this holiday. I’ve never felt so thankful in my life; not so much because of what I have in comparison to the people I’ve met, but because of what I’ve had with them.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sitting Up

There are no leaves on the ground, and it's hotter than an Indiana July outside -- weather-wise, it's far from Thanksgiving. However, there is still an air of thankfulness in the air which makes tomorrow's feast seem much more realistic. 

May I just start by saying: I've never been happier to see a child sitting up than I was today. 

Being in Kenya has, inevitably, made me ever so thankful for what I have waiting for me in Indianapolis. Being in Kenya for four months has, unexpectedly, made me ever so thankful for what I am soon to leave in Kenya.  I am thankful for the ability to walk to each day's destinations.  I am thankful for children's homes that accept children, no matter who they are. I am thankful for ginger soda.  I am thankful for colored pencils.  I am thankful for red dirt. I am thankful for one-way streets that change directions and usually have traffic moving in both directions. I am thankful for banana trees and fresh pineapple. I am thankful for mosquito nets. I am thankful for broken Swahili. I am thankful for market days. I am thankful for paper beads. I am thankful for tea every morning. I am thankful for ugali, sort of.  I am thankful for stickers and coloring books. I am thankful for dance parties. I am thankful for "Jambo" and "Amosi." I am thankful for candle light. I am thankful for talking with your eyebrows. I am thankful for body builders who deliver ice cream to the ICU. I am thankful for Pokemon bedspreads. I am thankful for laundry buckets.  I am thankful for Italian restaurants, with logos that are yin-yang's with the words "bon appetit!", that serve Indian food. I am thankful for Spanish soap operas. I am thankful for wheelchairs. I am thankful for the smallest of smiles on a child's face.

We've had a hard few days. Really, it's been a hard few weeks.  Each of our rotations has tested and challenged us in different ways but Sally Test has been the most emotionally trying. One can never truly adjust to the simple sight of the pediatric wards, and the pain that is felt there is impossible.  Annie and I react to and process things differently, but we've both felt it -- death isn't something you can get "used to" over night.
So on Sunday when we first visited Nick in the ICU, as Annie described in her previous entry, we were challenged.  Annie's right: these parents are amazing. I've known Nick for 2 and a half weeks and already, standing there next to his bed that was surrounded by tubes and machines, I was ready to give anything to switch places with him so that he didn't have to feel that pain.  We've been visiting him every day since then, trying to hold our composure while doing anything we can to give this boy strength and happiness. 
Today, we were heading to the ICU when we ran into Mama Nick, who told us that he had been moved to the HDU (high dependency unit). Not being doctors, we took this to be bad news, thinking that being highly dependent meant breathing machines and feeding tubes.  Turns out we were completely off and oh, how happy I was to be wrong.  We walked in and there was Nick, sitting up in bed, flipping through a book and listening to music.  I'm not a crier, so it's significant that I was close to crying the first time we went to the ICU.  I was even closer to crying today. Most of the tubes were gone, he was breathing without help, and we even managed to get a few smiles out of him at the mention of bringing him candy and finding him future American girlfriends.  It's important to remember that he still isn't in the clear, that he had a fist-sized tumor on his heart. But still, he was sitting up.

Ever since then, a list has been forming in my head of every thing about Kenya that I am thankful for. So, most importantly, I am thankful for children who can sit up.

Monday, November 22, 2010


I'm pretty sure all of the blogs that Callie and I have written have been about kids.  Of course I could talk about these children forever, but I also want to mention the truly amazing parents we've met on this trip.

First of all, the Neema parents.  Penina is the house mom at Neema and Phillip is the dad.  They are both amazing with the kids.  I love watching Penina with the babies because, even when they're in the worst mood, she can always make them smile just by saying their names.  Even the two month old smiles when he sees his mom coming.  When she sings they all start dancing.  Manna wiggles her butt and Patience bobs her head up and down like guys in rap music videos.  She has pet names for all of them and she always loved seeing the kids' art.  Phillip is no less impressive.  When he comes home from town all of the kids sprint outside (in their pajamas with no shoes) to meet him.  Sometimes he puts about 8 of them on his bike (the bikes here have seats on the back) and slowly wheels them around the yard.  He's quiet and reserved but, while the rest of us have to yell and spank kids, it only takes one word from him to make a child behave.  They all want to please him so badly.  I can't imagine how hard it must be for them to give equal attention to forty kids while still making them all feel special.  It must feel terrible to not even know all of your kids' birthdays because there are just too many to memorize.  It's a huge responsibility to raise that many children, but after getting to know all of the Neema family, I can whole-heartedly say that they're doing an amazing job.

Most of the other parents who we've really gotten to know have been at the hospital.  Usually while I'm in Sally Test I'm completely focused on the kids, but last week as I was leaving the center I saw a woman sobbing and screaming and repeatedly collapsing on the ground as nurses and other onlookers tried to hold her up and calm her.  I watched, with the rest of the hospital as they started pulling her away from the building while she wailed.  At first I didn't know what had happened.  Was she from the mental ward? Could she not pay the hospital bill?  I later learned that she was a mother, and had just learned her child had died.

After that I started taking more and more notice of the parents of the kids I love so much.  I've gotten to be good friends with Mama Britney (most adults are addressed like that: Mama or Baba followed by one of their kid's names).  Her daughter is the cutest little girl and if I already love her after just 3 weeks, I can only imagine her mom's love.  I often go to pick Britney up from the ward and a couple of times I was too early and I had to wait as Britney's medicine was given to her through her IV port.  When she sees the nurses coming she automatically starts crying and scooting back on her bed.  Her mom has to calm her and tell her five year-old daughter that she needs to be tough.

Nick is another really great kid.  He's 14 years old and everyone he meets likes him automatically.  We recently found out that his condition is far more severe than he had let on and he had to have surgery to remove a fist-sized tumor on Saturday.  When we went to see him he had tubes all over him and a breathing mask lying right next to his face, just in case.  He was all swollen and could barely talk.  He told us that it had hurt much more than he thought it would.  His mom isn't allowed to stay in the post-op ward with him.

I think it's amazing how strong these parents are.  I can't even visit Nick without crying but he's counting on his mom to be brave for both of them.  She's always smiling and every worker in the hospital knows her and loves talking with her.  Britney had her surgery a couple weeks ago and we see improvement day by day.  It must be awful to have a sick child, but amazing to see your child get better.  Having a child in the hospital might even be harder for the parents than it is for the kids.  While it's painful for the children, the parents have to watch the people they care most for hurting.  They're unable to do much, but they're all desperate to take all their child's pain for themselves.

While I'm on the topic of parents: Callie's are here!  We're so happy to see them and I can't wait to see mine in just 9 days!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Over the past two days, I have had two moments that were literally painful to experience -- one because it was just so good, and one because it was just that sad.

On our first day at Sally Test, a little girl, about 2, came into the center with her grandmother. She had just received chemotherapy, could barely walk, and showed no expression. For the next three days, her grandmother continued to bring her in but the little girl showed no improvement. It was heartbreaking to watch as her grandmother tried desperately to have the little girl play, pushing her limply on the swings and continually throwing balls that were not caught. On Friday, I held her for a few hours, as she silently wept in pain. However on Monday, she was back in the center and looking much better -- we even got a smile out of her as we pushed her on the swings. And then on Tuesday, she came into the center as a whole new girl. She was all-smiles and participated throughout the day. Every afternoon before the kids go back to the wards, we sing songs as a group. When the music came on, I turned to the little girl and said "Cheza!" She promptly stood up and, for the next 5 minutes, wiggled her hips and danced around in front of everyone. She had the biggest smile on her face and as I watched her, I could hardly believe it was the same little girl whom we were all sure would die.

A few days ago, a little boy, about 3, came into the center and went straight to the easel to paint. He has retinoblastoma, cancer in the eye, which causes is eye to be extremely enlarged and infected. He is conscious of the condition, and refuses to play with the other kids or have his picture taken. However, the first few days we were with him, this didn't stop him from running and playing. He was energetic and quick to laugh. We kept in mind, as best we could, that the prognosis is very bad. But his personality made us forget, so it was a shock when we saw him today. We went to ward 3, the oncology ward, to bring the kids into the center. We found the little boy in the nurse's arms looking very sick, and very sad. We found out that he had gotten chemotherapy last night and has been unable to keep food down since. His eye has grown more painful for him, and the chemotherapy isn't working. I held him in my arms for most of the day, as he drifted in and out of sleep and sadness. As I sat there, I suddenly realized that I was watching his breathing, afraid that if I looked away it would stop.

That's all I'll say. I feel as if any analyzing or trying to sum-up my thoughts would take away from the moments, so that's all.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Why these kids are so amazing

Often times when we talk about working in a hospital people's first thought is "That must be so depressing." It's true that it can be really hard. I have moments when all I can think about is the future these kids might never see. However, working in a hospital has also allowed us to learn about taking advantage of every moment, never giving up, and bravely facing problems.

Mercy is a little girl who I have become good friends with in the past week. She has a large tumor covering one side of her neck and part of her face. When I first met her, she was shy and self-conscious. She turned her head when I had a camera to try and hide the tumor. She didn't talk much and didn't like making eye contact. Now, just one week later, she seems like a different girl. She hugs me instead of shaking my hand, we make menus and place mats for our little restaurant, and we dance down the pathways singing the few Swahili songs I've managed to learn. I've taught her games and she's done my hair. I walk her back to her ward at the end of the day, but she comes back and waits until we leave. She smiles face-forward when I pull out my camera and she looks absolutely beautiful.

Charles is a cancer patient. He's about 10 or 11 years old and has been in the hospital for a very long time. His dad is gone and his mom is severely mentally challenged. Charles has undergone chemotherapy and, though it's probable he will have to return, he has been told that he can leave the hospital as soon as the bill has been paid. With no parents to support him, Charles relies on his uncle, who lives in Uganda for support. He talks to his uncle on the phone and is reassured that the uncle is trying very hard to raise the money for the bill and will come to get him as soon as he can. With this hope Charles wakes up early every morning, puts on normal clothes instead of hospital scrubs, and goes to the gate to wait for someone to take him home. He returns to the gate every afternoon, searching for a familiar face. Yes, it may seem sad or even silly for this boy to wait every day just to be disappointed again and again. But I think that the hope that Charles holds onto that someone will eventually come is what gets him through the day and motivates him not to give up.

Today I made a new friend. His name is Abraham. I'm not exactly sure what's wrong with him, but it is very difficult for him to walk. The nurses want him to stay in the wheelchair. His unsteady hobbling makes them nervous, but Abraham refuses to sit and watch the other children play. When I first saw him this morning he was attempting to wheel himself over the mulch to get to the swing set. I grabbed the back of his chair and started to turn him. Thinking I was taking him away he started to protest, but stopped when he saw that I was simply turning him onto a smoother route to the swings. I helped him onto the swing and started pushing. Motivated by this activity, Abraham started walking around the playground; climbing things and going down the slides. I don't know how painful or difficult it was for him to walk around (it definitely did not look easy) but he had a blast doing things just like a normal kid. I'm sure that he wouldn't have been able to play like that without the help of the hospital and I'm excited to watch as Abraham gets even better.

I'm so in awe of all of these kids. They know what they're facing and are still able to laugh and play. They are often in pain and they continue to try their hardest and play like nothing is wrong. They know that they might never leave the hospital but they are still curious about the world around them and continue to learn life skills. I admire them so much and am so glad that I've had the opportunity to get to know them.