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.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Choosing To Be Unaware

We’ve gotten used to consistency – at Neema, we had the same 40 children to bond with 18 hours every day and in Chulaimbo, we could always find Kawika and Daddy in the kitchen to color with. Here, in the hospital, it’s all up in the air and that is something that is very hard to wrap your mind around.

On Monday, Caroline’s IV port was taken out. On Wednesday, she was discharged and taken home. When I told Sarah Ellen this, she said “Oh, that’s too bad. I mean, too good. It’s bad and good.” Caroline was immediately one of my favorites at Sally Test – all you had to do was look in her direction and she would break into an enormous grin. Sarah Ellen’s response was exactly what I had been feeling: I was sad Caroline was leaving, but happy she was able to go.

On Monday, a little boy named Hosea came into the center. He said he would only be in the hospital for one day, so we didn’t make him a permanent nametag and kept in mind that this would be a short friendship. However, on Tuesday, Hosea was back again and he had a nametag this time. Yesterday, Friday, Hosea was discharged. We ended up having five days with him, and loved it – Hosea is so smart and so kind.I keep thinking I’ll miss him and have to remind myself that his absence from Sally Test is good news.

Annie and I were talking about this, when we said “Well, at least Mercy will still be with us.” Mercy is a wonderful little girl, who has huge tumors on the side of her face and neck. We immediately remembered why Mercy wouldn’t be leaving Sally Test anytime soon.
In some ways, you want to be unable to make a connection with these kids, because that means they don’t have to stay in the hospital for a long time. But then you see them light up, and you learn what makes them smile, and part of you doesn’t want them to ever leave Sally Test. Along with this, I’ve discovered that much of me doesn’t want to know why the children are in the hospital at all – this is a time where I think I’d rather be unaware, ignorant.Because really, what does knowing accomplish?

Ward 3 is the cancer ward and every time I look on a child’s name tag and see “WD 3,” I wish it wasn’t there. The other day we found out that Nick, a boy whom everyone at the center loves, has stomach cancer and may not ever leave the hospital. Sure, sometimes it’s good to know – a child with broken limbs must not be roughed around and a cancer patient needs quiet activities on chemo days. But in general, I’d rather see the kid as a kid, not as a patient. When you know a child will die, it changes everything.
So once again we must go with the flow, but this time choosing to be completely unaware of what is really going on. We must grasp any small moment we can to give these children joy, knowing all along we might never see them again, for good or bad reasons.We must block out our knowledge that most of the children in Sally Test won’t live and focus on happiness right here, right now. Because in the end, it won’t be about what sickness they had, it will be about how happy they were before they left.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Old family, new friends, and Christmas cookies

Hi everyone!  I'm so sorry we haven't been blogging as much as we used to.  Just think of everyday that we don't post as a day that was simply too exciting and busy for blogging.  Anyways here are some highlights.

On our last day at Chuilambo we were to be picked up at around 9:00 am.  Of course we planned to leave at around 10.  We had breakfast with Margaret, Winnie, Odaro, and a really funny old lady who likes to randomly dance.  After we'd eaten we got all of our stuff ready by the door.  Mama Margaret packed us some mandazi, chapati, biscuits, and bananas.  She also made us both wrap skirts as a going away present.  We'll miss her.  We had a bit of a photo shoot with a bunch of our friends (Daddy is a little boy who hates wearing pants, Kawika is Odaro's son who was really shy around us until, right before we left, he decided he actually really likes us, Lucy and Fidelle are the most adorable siblings in the world and there were a lot of others).  at around 12 we were still waiting so Odaro decided to start a dance party.  He got a bucket and started drumming and all of the kids circled around him dancing.  After a bit Odaro decided that the party was missing a certain something.  He went over to the nearest palm tree and started hacking off leaves.  He then cut them in half and made real-live hula skirts for myself and all the children.  Callie and the adults just laughed about how excited I was.  We ended up leaving Chuilambo at around 3 in the afternoon.

When we got to the IU house we were in awe of everything.  Showers! Computers! Toilets! People who fluently speak English!  We just ran around trying to fully appreciate the bouncy beds, the mosiquito nets that have hooks on the side, and the wonderful water pressure.  I don't say this to put down Chuilambo in any way.  I loved it there and it really did make us appreciate every little detail more.  Later that day Sarah Ellen handed me a huge amount of Reese's from my family.  I think I might have cried from joy.

Of course the reason that we were most excited to be back in Eldoret was our Neema House family.  Wow, we've missed them.  So the morning after our arrival we hitched a ride with Sarah Ellen to our favorite children's home.  We were happy to see Joshua and Miriam but we didn't linger long before hurrying to see the kids.  They were all playing outside when we walked around the school.  They all started yelliong and then chanting our names, and then sprinting towards us.  Boniface was the first to reach us and he flew on top of me.  After that it was impossible to distinguish children.  I was on the ground under a pile of people and I just kept hugging everyone I could reach.  Best. Moment. Ever.

On Monday we began our work at Sally Test Pediatric Center.  The center is a place where all the kids in the hospital can go to learn, play, and just get out of the wards during the day.  Right now they are working on a project where they make their own businesses.  There is a jewelry making company, a flower shop, a puppet store, as well as a newspaper and a restaurant.  The goal is to teach them about responisbility, problem-solving, as well as how to work well with others.  It's been going fairly well.  The main problem the teachers have been having is the constantly changing group of children.  We never have the same group two days in a row which makes it really hard to do ongoing projects.  Callie and I have just been helping wherever we're needed.  There are so many great kids and I'm really excited to get to know them all better.  We hope to start working on some art projects later this week after we've settled in to the center's routine.  We just really want to focus on making them as happy as possible while they're going through such a painful and trying time. 

Surprisingly, the activity that has been taking up pretty much all of our time when we're not at the center is Christmas cookie baking.  Yes, we started baking Christmas cookies on November 7.  No, it's not because Joe eats thousands of cookies every Christmas.  Every year Sarah Ellen gives a cookie to every child in the wards as well as the children at Neema House and Lewa Children's Home.  That is a TON of cookies.  We've worked for hours for the past three days and we haven't even completed a tenth of the cookies.  It's the icing part that slows us down.  Callie and I tend to get a little carried away.  We made little cookie sumo wrestlers as well as a Picasso cookie, a Pointillism cookie and a Jim Halpert cookie (from The Office).  We stopped at around 9:30 last night.  It's funny because I thought things like carrying bags of coal, and doing laundry, and shelling thousands of peanuts was hard in Chuilambo, but that was all nothing compared to Sarah Ellen's cookie boot camp.  We were actually sore from decorating.  I had no idea that was possible.  Of course it's worth it though.  Every kid loves a Christmas cookie!

I promise we'll right more!  Love and miss everyone!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Combining Homes

Our clothes are sorted into dirty and clean piles (the dirty piles are considerably larger than the clean), the trash bags are bursting, and to most, our room looks like a hurricane has hit (to us, it has never been so organized). The floor is littered with journals, various charging cords, and extremely muddy shoes. Leftover masks from our Halloween celebration poke out underneath sweets and various markers. Under the beds, file folder upon file folder is crammed with children’s art. The beloved Febreze can poises at the read, preparing to refresh our room, and our lives, as it so often does. It’s leaving time, again.
Our lived-in (some might say messy, or perhaps trashed) room reflects our time in Chulaimbo – mud, hand-washed laundry, power bar binges, and a sharp decrease in our sunscreen supply. But it reflects more than that – the third bed, where Winnie sleeps when she frequently spends the night, shows the friendships we’ve made, the colored pencil shavings show the awesome drawing we’ve done with schools, and the sticker wrappers show the fun we’ve had with children we’ve met.
However the significance of our time doesn’t require over-analyzing or forcing meaning out of what, simply, is trash. Our room looks settled, it looks comfortable, it looks as our rooms at home often look. We’ve found comfort here, and I think that’s what is most important. In many ways, we are fully out of our comfort zones, or should be, but we aren’t. Our zone has grown, as cheesy as that sounds, especially with the rhyming.
As we walk down the road, we are greeted in Swahili or Luo, and respond in Swahili or Luo. Slowly, we began using less and less silverware, and now eat solely with our hands. Our knuckles no longer bleed when we do laundry. We cry during the soaps along with all the other women. We walk into a room and shake everyone’s hand without hesitation. We plan for Kenyan time, but have learned how not to waste it. When the electricity goes out, we get out our candles and feel peace in the simplicity that the night becomes.
One night, after an adventurous day in town that involved pouring rain, long bank lines, and bad matatu drivers, the three of us – Winnie, Annie, and I – sat on the bed, eating Kenyan pizza and watching The Office on my ipod. We were wet and tired when our matatu driver dropped us off, much later than we should have been home, a 30-minute walk past our stop. From our intended matatu stop, we had another 30-minute walk home. It had rained for 6 hours that day, and the roads were coated in 6 inches of mud. We walked home, eating one of the pizzas and sliding around in the mud, laughing the whole way. I’m sure we looked ridiculous – two mzungus and a Kenyan coated in mud, chowing down on cold and soggy pizza, and just laughing in the dark. So as we squeezed into the bed with muddy feet, trying to find warmth, I thought to myself “this is what it should be.”
Here we are, again, leaving behind this comfort. Before we left, I contemplated and wrote about the length of this trip – how the longevity would be good because I could go home knowing the culture and feeling the trip was complete. But now, as we say goodbye again, I’m wondering if there really is any right time to say goodbye.
What really needs to happen is a combining of the two homes: we would live in this beautiful scenery, with all of our friends and family, and would cook Noodles and Company over the Kenyan fire. There need to be more mornings of laundry done in buckets while listening to Jesse McCartney. There need to be more afternoons of trick-or-treating in Kenyan accents. There need to be more nights of bad Kenyan transportation and Dwight Schrute.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

what we've been up to

Hello! I’m sorry we haven’t been writing as much as we should but we’ve been doing so much here that by the end of the day we are exhausted. I’ve loved staying in Chuilambo because every day we do something new and meet new people and learn new things. For this blog I’m going to try and cover a lot of time and give some snap shots of what we’ve been up to.

One day we went on home visits with our friend Timothy. We went to three different houses. In one of the houses we saw an old woman. When we visited this same woman in August, she had been to sickly to leave her bed. Now she is able to walk and go outside. She said that the community has been taking such good care of her. I really admire how strong this community is. When someone is sick it becomes everyone’s responsibility. In another one of the homes we met an old man who has lost both of his wives and is raising two children by himself. He is HIV positive and told us about how his kids both help him so much with everything. I loved listening to him talk about how much he loves his children and how close he is with them.

>My birthday was on Tuesday! I am now seventeen. We went into town and I went crazy in the grocery store buying biscuits, chocolate, soda, and ice cream. We also went to the movie theater to celebrate! I loved getting cards from my family as well as Callie, Winnie, and Joseph’s family. I hadn’t been looking forward to my birthday since I’m so far away from my friends and family, but it turned out to be a really great day and it made me appreciate the friends and family that I’ve made here.

On Wednesday we went to a primary school called Nametsa. It is on a mountain which Joseph calls a “speed bump” so that it’s easier for him to convince people to go there. It is literally impossible to get to this school without doing some serious climbing. It was tiring but also fun. We were accompanied by Winnie, Joseph, and the new Deputy Director of Umoja, Linda. When we got to the school we rested, introduced ourselves to the students, and then Callie, Joseph, and I (adventurous trio that we are) decided to climb even farther up the mountain. We clambered over boulders as fast as we could while panting and sweating as one of the Naetsa teachers led the way effortlessly leaping from rock to rock. When we reached the top Joseph had to sit and breathe for about 20 minutes. He said he was watering the plants with his sweat. I cannot imagine making that climb every day to get to and from school without shoes.

We did art with students from Bar Anding’o Primary and Huma Girls Secondary schools. There are so many really talented students. They made some beautiful pictures of what they think shows Kenyan culture. The Huma students are so skilled at drawing that when we showed the pictures to the Deputy Headmistress she said, “Eh! We need to get an art program for these girls!”

>Sometimes kids just show up at Margaret’s house looking to do art. One evening we were having an unexpected drawing session when the power went out. The kids kept working until the daylight was completely gone, but even then they didn’t want to stop drawing. We brought the flashlights onto the porch and Callie and I held them overhead while the kids finished their drawings. It was a good moment.

Today was an especially fun day because it’s Halloween! We decided that Kenyans have been Halloween-deprived for too long and we took it upon ourselves to introduce them to the scary, sugary, really fun day. Margaret thought we were a little bit crazy as she listened to us describing trick-or-treating, costumes, goblins, black cats, jack-o-lanterns, and vampires. We invited all of the children who are sponsored by the Hope Women’s Group to come and have a little Halloween party with us. We made all of them masks that they decorated and tied around their heads with yarn. Callie and Winnie and I went into separate rooms in Margaret’s house and we instructed the kids to knock on the doors and say “Trick-or-treat!” At the first door we gave them silly bands (the rubber bands that are shaped like animals). At the next door they received large stickers with pictures of cute puppies on them, and at the third door they got a piece of candy. They probably thought it was really weird and didn’t really understand why we were doing this, but they got little presents so they’re happy. I thought it was pretty cute.

Of course the kids weren’t the only ones who got to celebrate. Callie, Winnie, Steve (Winnie’s brother), Laura (Winnie’s cousin), Timothy (a member of the local volunteer group), Jacob (Winnie’s uncle), and I dressed up too I put on Winnie's dress, earrings, necklace, shoes, and backpack, as well as a name tag that said “Hi my name is Winnie." Winnie donned glasses, Callie’s orange flower earrings that she always wears, and a Callie outfit. Callie modeled a classic Annie outfit (tie-dye v-neck tucked into a skirt). We even took out her weave yesterday so that her hair would be curly like mine. Steve and Laura switched outfits. Timothy dressed up in one of Margaret’s church dresses and Jacob was a cat. I’d say the day was a success.

We only have five days left here, and I’ve been thinking about what I’ll take from this portion of our trip. Living here is hard work. We do laundry until our backs ache, our hands are pruney, and our knuckles are bruised. We shell peanuts until our thumbs are red and splintered. We walk for miles to visit schools. We carry coal on our backs on the thirty-minute walk from town. We’ve dug trenches for water pipes and we’ve killed weeds with hoes on Margaret’s farm.

Though the work has been hard, it’s also very gratifying and it’s helped me see things a little bit differently. At home I usually only pay attention to negative things: stains on my clothes, problems with our water, or my food getting cold. Here I’ve started to delight in the absence of stains and dirt on my clothes. Just arriving at a school feels like an accomplishment. I smile at the sight of steam rising from the food. It’s a treat to have a whole bowl of peanuts that are ready to be eaten and I savor every drop of water that I drink. When I get so excited about these simple pleasures that I’ve always taken for granted, every normal day starts to seem extraordinary.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Going With It

The thing I’ve learned most from living in Kenya is to “go with the flow.” At some point I realized that it’s best not to fight or try to understand anything, but better to just let it happen. I’ve learned more from just taking things as they come than I would had I stopped to analyze and question things about life in Kenya. A perfect example of this is the funeral we attended on Thursday.
We were told we would be leaving at 9 so, taking Kenyan time into account, we prepared ourselves to be ready by 9:30, expecting to leave at 10. When we went to eat our breakfast, however, we discovered the house was quickly filling with women. Within an hour, at about 9:30, the sitting room and front porch held 40 – 50 women, doing micro-financing. When we asked our host, Margaret, if we were still going to the burial, she said of course and that all these women were coming, too, but first they needed to do micro-financing and then she needed to bath. She said it in such a way that made me start to wonder why I had questioned it in the first place; of course, if, at 9:30 in the morning before a burial you feel you urgently need to do some micro-financing, then you’re going to do it.
At about 11, Margaret came into our room and told us to hurry up, that it was time to go. It was time to go right then, no waiting. So we scrambled into our shoes and ran out the door after her, leaving the 50 women in the house to continue their micro-financing. At home, I wait on my mom a lot. We’re usually about to go somewhere and then she gets a call so I sit around and wait for her to be ready. Then, once she’s ready she always jokingly gets impatient with me, saying “come on Callie, I’ve been waiting.” Margaret reminds me of these times, except she isn’t joking. In Kenya, you have to constantly be ready to go at any second, even if that second is 3 hours after your planned departure.
We got to the homestead and sat under a tent in plastic chairs that had been gathered from every home in the area. “Oh good,” said Margaret, “it’s just starting.” I decided not to wonder about her originally telling us it started at 9:30, since it was now almost 11:30. The coffin was carried out from the house, led by 3 pastors and followed by a group of singing women. Every few seconds, they would put the coffin on the ground and turn around for a few seconds. Then they would pick it back up, walk a few feet, and do the same thing again.
For the next two hours, men and women got up and gave testimonies (eulogies) in Luo, the tribal language of this area. After that was an hour of “preaching the word of God,” as Margaret called it. This gave Annie and I a good 3 hours to zone out and have a break from all thinking. During this time, however, our non-thoughts were interrupted by two mourning women. We had been told before that many try to mourn as loudly as they can, even if they didn’t know the deceased, to get attention. Often families hire mourners for the burials to make them more exciting. The first woman was older and ran into the house with blood-curdling screams. After a few minutes, she quieted down and came out with some other women to sit down. The second woman was in her 20’s and waiting until she was in the middle of the homestead to start wailing and running towards the house. Within 5 feet of the door, she threw herself onto the ground and began rolling around and screaming. Luckily, she got her backpack off first so she was more comfortable down there. Two men came and dragged her, yelling, into the house. She took a little while to stop, but was then brought out, looking and acting perfectly fine. Later I looked over and she was talking and laughing with a group of friends. Funny how those little moments of insane grief just come and go.
When the talking was over, the women started singing and Margaret said it was time to view the body and give offering. I looked up and suddenly the casket was open with the offering plate on the glass, right over the now-exposed body. She said if we were afraid to look, we could just give offering without viewing the body. We asked her how to do this and she said “don’t look.” Hadn’t thought of that.
So we got in line with our offerings and approached the coffin. It was clear that if you wanted your money to make it into the plate, there was no way not to look. Everyone in front of us was blowing kisses and waving to the body. I gave a polite smile as I placed my offering and then tried to look away, thinking he wouldn’t want me staring at him since I’d never actually met him.
When the line ended, they carried the coffin to the grave and began burying it. However instead of joining the crowd watching, Margaret and her BFF, Margaret, rushed us off to the house across the street to eat before the crowd came. They hurried us into a small store room with bunk beds in it and told us to sit. If they weren’t two adorable, gossiping old ladies then I would’ve been concerned that I was going to be killed. They brought in little dishes of food and plates and told us to serve and eat. Margaret the Second said if we didn’t eat more our intestines would growls, which meant they were angry at us for not feeding them more. When we finished eating, we washed our hands and left.
There were so many times that day, including later when we were stuck inside a church that was about 20 feet from home because it was raining so hard, in which I just had to silently laugh and think to myself “I’m living in Kenya, go with it.” I’m not really sure that’d work anywhere else, but in Kenya, it’s a good way to live.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Little Moments

HI! We have been in Chuilambo for about a week now so we’re starting to feel at home. It’s very different than Neema since we aren’t just focusing on one place and one group of kids, but that can make it more exciting too. It is so strange to think that our trip is already half-way over. Looking back at our time in Kenya I’ve noticed that the memories that have stuck with me the most are the small, seemingly unimportant moments that couldn’t have been planned or expected.

We left Neema house almost three weeks ago. Our last day there was also the first day for three new children. Two of these were the smallest babies I’ve ever seen, the third was a little boy named Wellington. He had soft hair, long eye-lashes, and a stomach bloated from hunger. He was accompanied by his father, though he was held by the social worker. We later learned that his father was an alcoholic who had been buying drinks before buying food for his son. When he first arrived at Neema, Wellington was, understandably, a little dazed. He was given food, asked question after question in a language he wasn’t used to while surrounded by staring strangers. He drank porridge sitting next to his new mother and watched his real dad drive away without even saying good-bye.

After he had had porridge, Wellington got his nails cut (he really didn’t like that) and we put him to sleep on my bed. We tried to give him a sucker but he had no idea what to do with it and chucked it across the room before drifting off.

We woke Wellington up about an hour later and were surprised when he let Callie carry him to the changing table. After being cleaned up he went onto the porch to watch his new brothers and sisters get tea. They all asked his name but he was shy around them. He was surrounded by nameless strangers, not knowing that they are the only family he has. After the kids went back to school, we were on the porch with Penina (the house mom), the babies, and the other toddlers who were napping on the rug. Wellington was still sitting in the chair. He wasn’t strong enough to walk, he could only sit and stare at the stickers and silly band that we had put in his lap. I decided to try and talk to him.

I used my limited Swahili vocabulary to start a conversation. I showed him the sticker and told him it was a “kitty”. I asked him to say “kitty” and even Penina was taken aback when he did. Then I showed him how to put the sticker on his shirt. He handed me the rubber band. I said thanks and put it on my wrist. Callie had put a sticker on his arm that said “WOW.” He peeled it off and handed it to me as well. His skin was so weak that when he took off the sticker, the first layer of skin came with it leaving a hexagon mark on his arm. I asked him to say “wow” and he said it. We were all so surprised because he hadn’t been talking at all.

10 minutes later Wellington was sitting on my lap chatting merrily. We were pretending that a rattle was a car and making engine noises as he made it zoom across my arms. I asked him all the Swahili questions I knew: what’s your name? Where’s Annie? Where’s the cat? Where’s the car? I was sad that my new friend had arrived on the day we had to leave, but I was also happy that this sweet little boy was being given a second chance. He had the chance to learn and develop. He had the chance to be taken care of and loved.

Last Wednesday, Wellington passed away. He hadn’t been able to eat and he only stayed at Neema for three days before being moved to the hospital where he died. I can’t help thinking about the what-ifs. What if he had come to Neema one week earlier? What if his dad had had one less drink? We could spend all our energy wallowing in the unfairness of it all and regretting things that we can never change, but that doesn’t help anyone. I think that Wellington should help remind us all that victims of hunger aren’t just statistics. I think that some people believe that if they aren’t able to make a huge difference and save lots of people, then they shouldn’t try at all. But just helping one person actually is making a huge huge difference. Hunger is 100% preventable and I really think that everyone can play an important role in putting an end to it.

So, like I was saying, in this trip (and life in general) it’s the little moments that mean the most. Like doing laundry with a friend, holding a sleeping baby girl on a crowded bus, watching a child smile as they color for the first time, walking down the street singing a favorite song, and teaching a little boy how to say “wow.”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Coming Together of Cells

Death is an interesting thing. It’s something that most fear greatly, and yet it is also something that there’s no getting around. The other day we were driving with our friend Whitney when she got a call. After talking for some time, she hung up and told us that it was her sister’s old boyfriend. Her sister, Bailey, died last year. Whitney and Bailey were very close, as they were only a few years apart and the only girls in the family.
Whitney told us about how they used to sing the Backstreet Boys together when they were cleaning and how they would have dance competitions on the weekends.
Bailey’s boyfriend still calls the family to check in and see how they’re doing, although he refuses to return to their home, where Bailey is buried. For some time after Bailey’s death, her boyfriend would call Whitney just to hear her say “Hello” in a voice almost identical to Bailey’s.
Whitney told us how once, when Bailey and this boyfriend were separated for a short time, Bailey heard “So Sick of Love Songs” by Ne-Yo on their favorite R&B radio station and the two belted the lyrics that Bailey could relate to so well at the time. For some time after Bailey’s death, Whitney couldn’t listen to this song, or that radio station, without crying.
Bailey and her boyfriend dated for 3 years and he had told Whitney that he was going to propose to Bailey on Valentine’s Day. That same Valentine’s Day was the day that Bailey was buried.
Whitney told us how finally, after a few months, her mother turned the radio on to the R&B station. Whitney protested, but her mother said it was time to go back to normal and continue loving R&B. She said Whitney could cry over it one more time, and then she must move on.
Bailey’s funeral was very hard on her boyfriend; he tried to drown himself in the well and had to be held back by relatives and friends. During the burial, he was taken into the city and was only brought back once the body was covered and in the ground. He spent the entire night weeping on her grave.
Whitney told us this and then laughed and sang “So Sick of Love Songs.” We asked her why she was laughing, and she said “I just can’t believe it’s real. It’s just a soap opera to me.” It’s so crazy it can’t be real life. Except it is real life.
A sister of mine gave me a quote to take with me on my trip: “Life is a whim of several billion cells coming together to be you for a while.” Cells came together to be Bailey for a while, loving a boyfriend and singing R&B with a sister, before ending in a soap opera. When you think about it, this quote places a lot of pressure on us: we have this one set of cells, that could become a soap opera at any time, to live the “whim” of life. We have to make these cells mean something, we have to make these cells remembered, whether it is through a kind act or through R&B songs. What is even harder is that we must do this knowing that we too might not get our Valentine’s Day.
But rather than being discouraged by this, I think of Whitney, whose semblance of cells have a kind of resilience that is indescribable. I think of Whitney, who keeps singing Ne-Yo and can laugh about the soap opera of life. I think of Whitney and want my “whim of several billion cells coming together” to be like hers.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Things that you can't learn in just any high school

Hello! Right now we are staying at St. Ignatius Loyola Mawego Girl’s Secondary School (say that 5 times fast) and, so far, it has been a really interesting experience. While we were in Eldoret we were constantly with children. Yes, they were all adorable and I miss them terribly, but we couldn’t communicate with or relate to them as well as we can with these high school girls. Here, we are with girls our age who are really very similar to us. They like to dance and talk about boys. They travel in packs (high school girls can’t even walk to the bathroom alone) and complain about homework. They make fun of each other and like to dress up and pretend to be on a catwalk. All of us are biding our time in high school, thinking up crazy dreams for the future.

Along with the similarities, there are also many differences that have made this exchange interesting. I’ve learned a lot about education in Kenya and some of the problems that the secondary students are facing. The thing that I think would be the most challenging about being a student in Kenya is that you never get to learn in your first language. There are 42 tribes here and each one has its own language. The country’s national language is Swahili and its official language is English. Swahili was created so that people from different tribes can communicate with each other and people use English for very official business as well as in government. In schools they are required to speak only in these two languages, but since neither of these are the students’ “mother-tongue” it’s much harder for them to progress at a fast pace. For example: in literature class they are reading a book called, “The River Between,” which was written by a Kenyan author. Since the book was written in English (the girls’ third language) the students have to concentrate on understanding the words before they can discuss the themes, analyze the characters, and look into other in depth aspects of the book and the writing style. I can’t imagine covering the content in my English classes in my third language. I don’t know how they do it.

Another thing that is very different about the Kenyan education system is the way in which students apply for university. At home colleges look at your grades all throughout high school, your sports, your clubs, your application essays, and recommendation letters from your teachers. It makes it so that we have a lot of chances to prove ourselves and show our strengths. In Kenya, the students’ futures are entirely dependent on the exams they take at the end of their senior year. That would terrify me. Sine their school year is different than ours (students enter a new grade every January) the seniors here are only weeks away from their exams and I’m shocked at how calm they are. I honestly don’t think that I would be able to handle that stress. They have one day to take the exams and they are expected to take them even if they’re sick. The exam can’t be repeated and it is the only thing colleges look at when selecting students. I feel like I would completely fail the exam from stress alone.

Another challenge facing Kenyan students was brought about by the former president. Grace told us that in an effort to raise the number of people who are offered a college education, the president lowered the passing grade from a C+ to a D+. Because of this, people who really had not learned enough and still needed to be taught more thoroughly were going to college and becoming teachers themselves. As you can imagine, this had a negative impact on an entire generation of students. Grace said that she doesn’t know how long it will take to phase out the teachers who were accepted because of this policy or how long it will take to catch-up the students who were taught by these unqualified people.

I have learned a lot about the difficult things about being a student here, but the girls have also shown me the good side of their secondary schooling. They like how they always have access to their teachers (since a large percentage of Kenyan high schools are boarding). They like that since they are in a boarding school they don’t have to worry about the large quantity of household chores that are usually a girl’s responsibility if she lives at home. They say that they are eager to be educated because they want to make it so that in their generation, “A woman’s place is not only in the kitchen."

All the people in this school (from the headmistress to the freshmen) really recognize the problems facing the girls and are constantly looking for ways to advance the students, the school, and the country as a whole. Through these girls, I’ve learned more about staying focused on a goal, I’ve tried learning how to dance (but that didn’t go very well), and I’ve learned never to settle, even if you’ve done well, because there is always an even higher goal to reach for.

Miss you all!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Getting Back in Touch

So if you hadn’t noticed… we’ve been out of touch for a little while. It was a busy last week at Neema and a busy weekend at Kakamega and has been a busy first few days in Mawego. So, I’ll just give you a list of some of the adventures we’ve had lately:
1. About 4 hours before we left Neema on Friday, 3 new children arrived. Two of them are babies from Sally Test whom we had met previously when at the hospital. Samwel is 2 months old, pouts his lips all cutely, and is what I thought was the smallest baby ever. Seth Moses is 1 month old, premature, and actually is the tiniest baby ever. The third child, Wellington, is equally as cute as the mini ones. “Welly” is 3 and a half but, because he was extremely malnourished, could pass as a 2 year old. He is very weak and cannot walk, but he isn’t too weak to smile and giggle. Fortunately Joseph follows Kenyan time very seriously so we got to spend a few extra hours with the newbies, just enough time to teach Welly how to say “wow!”
2. We spent 5 hours in church on Saturday. I now just have to so much respect for K-dog Strongy for his limiting of church services to 1 hour. We arrived at 9:09 AM and left the church at 1:59 PM. However, though there were hours filled with Swahili in which I wished desperately that it wouldn’t be offensive for me to sleep along with the other Kenyan attendants, I found the service very interesting. I may not agree with much of it, and may question the length of their services, but I find their unconditional faith impressive.
3. I got a weave, AKA my usual Sunday afternoon activity. In actuality, I just got my hair braided, but this does involve curly black and red false hair. It took about four hours and there were some moments where I was close to passing out from pain, but I gave Kakamega some good entertainment as many stopped to watch the mzungu getting her hair braided. I did this because my locks have been spoiled by Herbal Essences and shower heads so a place like Mawego, where one must shower from a bucket, is not a friend to my hair. Whilst I have my weave of glory, the whole washing thing will really become a piece of cake, something that I would very much like to eat at this time. Yikes.
4. We learned that the true way to a Kenyan teenager’s heart, especially if she’s a girl named Lucy who lives in Kakamega, is through the words “beat it” heard harmoniously from the lips of dear Michael Jackson, whom Lucy may or may not have pleasures for. Oh my.
5. We moved to Mawego Girls Secondary School on Monday afternoon and in 7 short hours were already taking part in one of the best dance parties of my life. It started out as a getting to know you session, then into an “Annie and Callie watch the girls dance ridiculously well” into an “all of the girls stare at Callie and Annie attempt to dance and laugh at their inability to shake it.” It was actually quite enjoyable… now to come up with the promised “American cultural dance” for Saturday night. Suggestions?
6. We semi-mastered the “squatty potty”; there is no toilet at Mawego, just a pit latrine… AKA a whole in the ground filled with cockroaches. These are the times when I think boys got off easy in life.

We’ve been doing other activities like attempting to teach a typing class, walking to lagoons, and getting marriage proposals on the streets. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to say that we love it here and feel right at home. I once read from someone that each night before they go to bed, they ask themselves if they are proud of who they were that day and if so, they believe that day was good. I’ve been asking myself that question recently and I’m not sure I’d say I’m proud of myself, but I’m happy, and if I’m able to make someone else happy, if even for a moment, then I’m okay with the day. So tell me: will you be proud of who you were today?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hi! Today is our last full day at Neema and, while I’m so sad about leaving the kids, I’m also getting really excited for our next adventure. This week we’ve been very busy with last-minute projects. We’ve been trying to let the kids draw as much as possible and we’ve also been taking as many pictures and videos as we can. We feel bad for taking a lot of the kids’ art home with us so we’re also making pictures for every kid. There’s also the small detail of packing…not sure when we’ll fit that in. Since nothing extremely new and exciting has happened, I’m going to use this blog to introduce you to more of the children I’ve grown to love at Neema.

Tana- This little girl is the cutest thing in the world. She is almost three years old and Miriam’s nickname for her is “cheeky baby. Her nose always crinkles when she smiles and laughs, she likes shouting and growling, and she often bothers the other children and then slowly turns to me wearing the sweetest expression that makes it nearly impossible for me to scold her. She also has a sweet side though. I’ve watched her share toys with the babies and wag her finger at a misbehaving child and shout “bad manners!”

Manna Namma- When we first came to Neema Manna was constantly pushing a small plastic chair all over the house. She would often be found by the doors and in the bedrooms always with her little chair. When we returned from our trip to Makueni we were so excited to see that Manna was still wandering the halls but no longer needed the help of a chair. Of course, this means that she can now explore more places and we can’t use the sound of scraping chair legs to track her down. Yesterday we looked out the window to see Manna taking a stroll outside with one of the other girl’s shoes swinging from her hand. Manna has eyes as big as golf balls and likes to bounce up and down while listening to music. When you hear her laugh and watch her waddle it’s impossible not to love her.

Johnstone- We’ve always liked Johnstone. He’s seven years old and likes drawing and playing football. He was really shy at first and has continued to be fairly quiet and serious throughout our stay. That’s why we were so surprised to discover that quiet little Johnstone is the greatest, craziest dancer ever. One night we brought the ipod into the sitting room to have a group dance party (which was a huge success) and without any encouragement he started whipping out moves that I have never seen before. Pure talent. I’m thinking of bringing him back home with us and entering him in “So you think you can dance. I like that we found him an outlet for letting the bottled up craziness come out.

Lochang’a- Oh, where to start? This child is one of the most entertaining two-year olds I’ve ever met. He’s pretty short. He has thin little eye-brows, a tiny mouth, small eyes, a button nose, and massive cheeks. When my sister was little her nickname was chubby cheeks. I now know that she did not deserve the title. Apart from his amusing looks and funny name, Lochang’a also has a bizarre personality. His dance moves rival those of Johnstone and he is constantly blabbering in Swahili while making grand hand gestures. Once when Callie asked a caretaker what he was talking about she said that he was describing how Callie and him went to the hospital in a train and ate biscuits and soda (this did not actually happen).

Ruth- I have never seen anyone who laughs more than Ruth. All you have to do is look at her and she’ll crack up. We can’t really talk to her much (every time she tries to speak English she ends up laughing instead) but she’s done some really great art. Ruth is 10 years old and a lot of the younger kids look up to her. They are constantly yelling “Rootoo!” I think she often goes off into her own little world. Sometimes during games she just stands in the middle of the field and spins around and kicks the dirt.  When we’re in the house I catch her staring off into space (when she sees me looking she always laughs) and I always wonder what she is thinking about.

Susan- Although she lives at Neema and does everything that every other child here does; Susan actually has two loving parents. Susan’s actual parents are also the house parents to all of the other Neema children. It would have to be really strange and sometimes annoying, to share your parents with 39 other children. They don’t really treat her any different than the rest of the children, though she is seen sitting on Baba’s lap more often than the others. She is a really sweet girl and seems very happy. Even though she’s not as outgoing as a lot of the other kids, she’s always sure to give me a hug and ask when she can dance and do art. Although she doesn’t realize it (she’s only 8 years old) she’s making a really admirable sacrifice by sharing her parents with the kids who didn’t have anyone.

I could write so much about every child but I probably shouldn’t write a 100 page blog. I’ve been thinking about which is worse: staying at home and being blissfully ignorant of the lovable children living so far away or getting to know and love each and every one of them and then having to leave with only memories and lessons that have helped change my outlook on life. I decided that while it is literally painful for me to think about leaving them, I wouldn’t trade the past six weeks for anything.

Love and miss everyone!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Succeeding at Failing

I had a rather scarring church camp experience when I was young and have never been a fan of church camp songs. However today I loved those songs of Jesus, shields, and jungles. After church, all of the kids went out to the playground and field to play before lunch. After a while, all of the kids migrated from the usually-popular playground to the new, cool hang-out spot on the field where Annie was beating the kids in basketball. I have never been one for physical activity, especially that which involves balls and hand-eye coordination. Had they put a ballet bar or a small dance floor in the middle of the field, I may have partaken in the games. However, this was not the case so I walked back towards the playground to see if there were any other low-life children who were anti-exercise like me.
I looked up into the little tree house and there was Margaret, who is about seven, lying in the shade amongst a pile of sweaters, big and small, that had been cast off in the heat of the sun. I climbed the tree house and sat next to little Maggie, who looked up and said “Callie!” as she so often does. “Maggie!” I replied. Maggie was one of the children who accompanied us to Makueni and has become a dear friend to me. Though the language barrier between is pretty large, she only being in Class 1, we always manage to make each other smile.
In Makueni, Annie and I taught the kids “He’s my rock, my sword, my shield” in a desperate attempt to contain the insanity that Annie described in her last blog posting. The kids loved singing along and making the hand gestures with us, especially during the “flubba hubba, flubba hubba, flubba hubba” portion of the song. So, as Maggie crawled onto my lap up in the little tree house, we began to sing “He’s my rock”. It’s a beautiful day today; the sun is shining and there’s a cool breeze that doesn’t blow you over, but is enough to cool you down and make your hair tickle at your neck. We could hear some 30 children laughing and playing in the field nearby.
After about our 5th time through the song, I attempted to start new tunes but Maggie only let me sing a few words before it was back to flubba hubba. Eventually a little boy, Kennedy, climbed into the tree house as well, lying down next to me and falling asleep within minutes. Then Kevin also came and layed down in the shade. So there the four of us were, taking solace and comfort in the shade of the little house, piled on top of one another, listening to Maggie stumble joyously through words about Jesus’ return and lilies of the valley.
In those moments I was utterly grateful for my lack of athletic talent and inability to catch a ball without covering my face in terror. I was grateful for my not-so-lovely church camp experience. I was even grateful that there weren’t little girls in tutus amidst the cows waiting for me to do pirouettes with them.
This is when our plan for this trip fails miserably: our reason for coming was to build relationships and make friends, we never thought about what consequences might come with this. Now that we have all of these wonderful friendships, it’s time for us to leave Neema. It will be a bittersweet goodbye on Friday; painful departures come with loving friendships. Yet I would go through a hundred farewells before giving up what we now have with these kids. As the number of ringworms on us grows (I believe I just discovered another on my wrist), our love for those who initially gave us the worms grows.
I suppose if that’s a failure then I’m alright with not succeeding.

Friday, September 24, 2010


Hi! Sorry that we haven’t posted a blog recently.  We have been on a little adventure. On Friday morning we left Neema accompanied by Joshua, Miriam, a guard, and a caretaker, as well as Boniface, Diana, Margaret, Paul, and Sharron to go to a different area of Kenya called Makueni. Makueni is Joshua and Miriam’s home town. Joshua’s parents live there and they have a couple outreach programs there as well. It is a loooong journey. We woke up at four in the morning (bleh) and arrived at the Mbithi homestead at around two in the afternoon.

Makueni has a different environment as well as a different culture than Eldoret. It is much more rural area and very poor. One of the large reasons for this poverty is the lack of water in the area. It is extremely dry there. The land is covered in sand-like dirt and brittle leafless trees. Most of the people we drove by on the road were hauling jugs of water. Even though it is so dry, the land is also very beautiful. Wherever we were during our stay, we always had a breathtaking view of the mountain range. There were also many bright flowered trees randomly found in the sea of brown. The contrast made them even more stunning.

The first day there we didn’t really do much except play with the kids in the dirt. How can I describe the children during this trip?....CRAZY. I don’t know what it was about Makueni. Maybe it’s something in the air or possibly just the excitement of being in a new place without the rest of the Neema kids that made all five of the children practically explode with energy and excitement. Seriously, they were more like blurs than children. Callie and I took to hiding in our rooms when they were particularly hyper.

The next day we accompanied Joshua and Miriam to check up on their land. They own a fairly large piece of land there and they plan on using it for an exciting project: Neema Makueni. They hope that this new Neema will be larger than the Neema in Eldoret (corresponding to the poverty there vs. that of Eldoret). It’s a fairly large property; about 40 acres. Miriam told us that the climate there makes it possible to produce good fruit year round (that is, if you can find enough water) and she wants to plant many fruit trees to go along with the lemon trees that are already there. The Mbithis would still live at Eldoret’s Neema and hire people to help run the new Neema. I’m not sure how Joshua sleeps at night with all this planning going on in his head. Actually, I’m pretty positive he doesn’t sleep at all. That’s the only way to explain how he gets everything done.

Another reason that the Mbithis come to Makueni is to check on the children they sponsor and their families as well as meet with people who have applied for their help. After inspecting the property, Joshua told us that we would be paying a visit to a very bright little girl named Roslyn who they’ve been sponsoring for some time. The last time Joshua visited this family, he had believed that the girl’s mother was going to die very soon. The mother is infected with AIDS and Roslyn is HIV positive. We were happy to discover that she has improved and will be able to take care of her kids for at least a little bit longer. When we arrived we were greeted by seven children as well as Roslyn who immediately asked if she could recite a poem for us. She began: “Ladies and Gentlemen, The young student who stands before you is called Roslyn. I have prepared a poem for you to listen to so sit back, relax, and please enjoy.” She went on to recite a poem, in perfect English, about the difficulties she has with school. The poem told us of how hard it was to get to school on time because of the distance she had to run. It also described her problems concentrating on an empty stomach. She told us that when her mother couldn’t pay the school fees she was sent home and when she was finally able to return the rest of the class was already four topics ahead. At the end of the poem she discussed how even with an education, her older relatives were still unable to find work and it probably won’t be different for her after she graduates. She performed the piece in a loud clear voice along with motions and hand gestures. Callie and I were surprised and amazed (we had not been expecting that) and we raced back to the van to get the camera and asked her to do it again.

We went on more home visits as the trip went on. Sunday was a sunny day, but not too hot, and Joshua decided that we would walk to visit a family he hadn’t been able to see in a while. It was good to get some exercise and be able to appreciate our surroundings instead of just whooshing by them. Another benefit of walking was that we got to talk to more people. We mostly saw children on the path. Even though Joshua didn’t know the children specifically, he knows pretty much every family in the area and always chatted with the kids for a few minutes. The sense of community and belonging was nice. We could tell that Joshua was ecstatic to be home with his people, in his favored climate, and speaking his own language.

When we arrived at the homestead tons of children, and some teens, gathered to stare at us while Joshua talked to the grandma. The grandmother was very shaky and didn’t look well but she seemed really happy to see Joshua and have someone to listen to her problems. Throughout the weekend Joshua kept reminding us that people really love and appreciate being listened to and knowing that someone cares about them. He said that even when he can’t give anything to help their physical state, he always listens.

Joshua doesn’t continuously support this family because there are so many children and he can’t afford to help all of them. He has, however, provided support for one of the boys who needs special attention. When this boy was six years old he fell out of a tree and landed with a thorn in his ankle. His parents have both died (his guardian is his grandmother) and his family doesn’t believe in the use of modern medicine. Because of this, the puncture became infected and eventually started emitting puss and blood. The infection spread to the rest of the foot and, three years after he had fallen, part of the boy’s ankle bone fell out. When this happened it became too painful for him to walk to school and he was forced to drop out. Now, five years after he initially received the injury, his foot is still painful and infected. His grandmother would take him to the hospital but she is too ill and the visit would be too expensive.

It is difficult to see these things. I feel so overwhelmed by their problems and my inability to do anything. I can’t even listen to them like Joshua! Before we left for Kenya I was talking to my youth minister (Anne!) about the trip and how I feared that Callie and I wouldn’t be able to do much to help the people we saw. She told me that just being present would help. I thought about that conversation on these visits; hopefully it’s true.

Even though I visited these homes, shook the family’s hands, saw their injuries, and was told of their stories, I still don’t know them. I can’t talk to them. I don’t know their quirks and their likes and dislikes. I still can’t really think of them as people because I just know them as faces and stories. I am touched by their stories and appreciate the opportunity to meet them, but It really made me appreciate the relationships I’ve formed at Neema and the reason that Callie and I came back to Kenya in the first place: to really get to know the people and culture. When you get to know the personalities behind the stories; that’s when they feel real and I think we (and maybe the people we meet) get so much more from the experience.

P.S. I was horrified to notice an odd-looking bump on my arm while driving back to Eldoret Yup, I have ringworm. I suppose I shouldn’t have mocked Callie…

P.P.S. Sorry I couldn't post pictures last time. Our internet is a bit fussy. We'll try to get them up eventually

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fungus-y Wormness


So, yesterday, September 14, at 2:47 PM changed just about everything. At 2:47 yesterday, Annie and I went to the main house to steal mandazi, as per usual, when Miriam saw what I believed to be a bug bite on my arm. To my alarm, she quite calmly pronounced that I have ring worm. Then the bread man came and suddenly she disappeared, leaving me to freak myself out and Annie to make fun of me. At 3:08, Miriam showed us a nursing book and medical dictionary, which told us that there is a worm burrowing in my arm and that ring worm is usually only a risk to those who have AIDS. Annie and I were completely unaware that the white spots, now known to us as ring worm, on the children’s heads are highly contagious. Putting this things together, at 3:11 Annie, always the positive comforter, decided that in the past 4 days I managed to not only acquire ring worm, but also AIDS. My freak out level at this point was only slightly less than what it was during my AP Chemistry test. Those who took that dreadful test with me will understand the severity of the freak out that I was having.

At around 3:13 I convinced myself that there were worms crawling throughout my body and that I would probably die, having eaten ugali as my last meal. I sent a text message to Sarah Ellen Mamlin saying something along the lines of “So apparently I got ring worm… what should I do?” Miriam, who was the one who had just told me that I had worms burrowing underneath my skin, was worried that I was too concerned so called us to her house. She proceeded to give us more mandazi which calmed me down immensely. At 8:43 PM, I got a call from the IU pediatrician who told me that ring worm isn’t actually a worm, but merely a fungus. Ring worm, with the proper ointment, will also go away within 7 days. Ringworm is still highly contagious. My freak out level went down to around the level it was at before I had to recite a sonnet in Lineweaver’s class last year. For those who don’t know, that’s still fairly intense. If I remember correctly -- Lineweaver could clarify -- I said approximately one word before I was called in front of the class that day and, after reciting my sonnet, mumbled something about Simon and Garfunkel before quickly returning to the safety of my desk.
However, after a skype conversation with my parents, who were looking up ring worms on the internet, I became reassured that I may live through this ordeal. By 10:09, when my computer died, my freak out level was minimal, probably around the level it was when we found out Annie and I were to cook an authentic American meal for the Mbithi’s on this very Tuesday, September 15. This dinner was postponed at around 3:12 yesterday, when Miriam saw my face post-AIDS diagnosis and decided it would be better for us all if she cooked the pasta that night.

As of 11:54 AM today, I’m now on my medicine and seem to be in the clear from my near-death experience. My ring worms and I have become the best of pals but, because of their fungus-y worm-ness and the like, I will not be sad to see them go. Also, between 4:25, when I got pity mandazi, and 8:43, when the medical official discarded my belief of my imminent death, Annie and I learned how to cross stitch. So not only did I get some new buddies, I also got a new crafty skill to show off on my return home. Overall, I’d say that’s a pretty fulfilling day. Can anyone else say they got two ringworms AND learned how to cross stitch in the same day? I don’t think so.
Love and miss everyone! At this point, after I’ve just shared about my new fungus in great detail, you probably don’t miss me so much. I quite understand… but they really do make great companions if you’d like me to pass you some worms -- just a kind gesture from a wormed girl in Kenya.



P.S. Annie and I are leaving on our trip to Makueni, originally scheduled for the 24th, this Friday morning at 4 AM. The area is one of the poorest in Kenya and where Joshua Mbithi is from. We will be visiting his family and students in the area whom the Mbithi’s support. We won’t be bringing the computer so will be out of touch until Tuesday. We’re really excited for the adventure and I’m sure we’ll have many stories to share when we get back. So, goodbye blog family for a few days… we’ll miss you dearly!

Monday, September 13, 2010

more art!

Week days are usually very busy at Neema House. The children have school then games then study hall and homework. All of this is followed by baths for every child and dinner and then tutoring. Because of all of this we usually do not find time to do longer art projects until the weekends.

On Saturday we were feeling very ambitious and decided to attempt splatter painting with the thirteen oldest children. For those who don’t know, splatter painting is simply the art of flinging paint onto paper. We decided to paint with two children at a time so that each child could have either Callie’s or my full attention. The kids were naturals at the splatter painting. Callie compared them to Jackson Pollock. They loved hitting the paint brushes and watching the colors form splotches and lines across the paper. The younger kids were surprisingly better at it than the older ones because of their unreserved style. By the end of the project each child’s face and hands were almost as colorful as their papers.

As the paintings dried, the children came back to the classroom. We cut each child’s painting into two, three, or four pieces. We then had them choose words (one word for every piece of their painting) from a list that Anne and Stephen had created for us earlier that day. The list was made up of words like imani, umoja,rafiki (faith, unity, friend) and other words that would be meaningful to the kids. They wrote a word on every piece of their painting and then used a note card to write why they chose that word. They all turned out really well!

Yesterday we went to the Mbithi’s church accompanied by ten of the younger children. When we got home we went on a walk with some of the kids. We walked through some corn fields and to their old teacher’s house and we also visited their friends from school. When we got back to the house we started our first group project. We had almost every child (including baby Lydia and five month old Michael) come into our room. We painted one of their hands in the color of their choice. The expressions on the kids’ faces when we started painting were hilarious. I’m pretty sure some of the younger ones thought that we were permanently painting their hands because they started crying until we showed them that it could be wiped off. We placed all of the kids’ hands on the paper and made a peace sign. It looks great, but none of the kids know what it means so they don’t think it’s as cool as we do. To finish it off Stephen painted the word “amani” (peace) on the side.

Overall it was a very successful weekend. The kids are getting so much better at free-draw and I think they are really enjoying the art projects. I’m posting pictures of some of their drawings and paintings. Enjoy!

Miss and love everyone!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Baby Love

Tonight I got a call from Joseph’s family, whom I call my “Kenyan family.” The call, which was to make sure that we were OK and enjoying our life, reminded me again of how at home I feel in Kenya. It is a strange yet wonderful thing to me that I feel so comfortable here, so happy.
Tonight Annie and I were videotaping our thoughts on life at Neema and began discussing the comfort we feel here. We realized that our goal for coming to Kenya, our reason for returning, has already been completed. On Monday (our day off) we returned to Neema from downtown Eldoret to a mob of screaming children, ecstatic that we had returned. Interestingly, it wasn’t the mob we found when we first got to Neema: the kids were no longer screaming “wangeni!” (visitors!), but were screaming our names and instead of our initial hellos to strangers, we were greeting each child by name. It was a wonderful moment realizing how well we know these kids now, and how much we love them all.
We love cheeky Tana for giggling and growling to herself constantly. We love watching her turn a porridge cup upside-down and shake it, trying to make more magically appear. We even love her when she starts hitting other children with sticks because they have tried to share our laps with her.
We love Justus who has possibly the biggest teeth I’ve ever seen on a 3-year-old. We love that he mimics our facial expressions and loves testing just how wide he can possible open his mouth. We love that he likes watching wrestling, and enjoys reenacting the fights even though he’s about 2 ½ feet tall.
We love Bonface, who is so small but can eat so much. We love that despite the huge language barrier we can still make each other laugh. We love that he silently smiles and makes fun of us at dinner when we’re so tired that we start talking nonsense.
We love Agnes, who just laughs and laughs. We love that you can simply look in her direction and she’ll laugh for 5 minutes. We love looking over in the corner of the room and seeing Agnes just laughing to herself.
We love Michael, who usually throws up on us at least once a day. We love that he has long and skinny arms and legs but a massive little potbelly. We love watching the other children take care of him and make him smile. We love his constant happiness.
We love Enock, who was so small when he arrived at Neema. We love that he’s strong and healthy. We love that no matter how far away he is from us, he will run to hug us. We love his giggle when we tickle him and that at the end of the day, he just wants to be cuddled.
We love Boaz, whose diaper is so big that he walks bow-legged. We love that he’s a miniature adult who stays up later than most of the kids and would rather attempt to help with laundry than play. We love that when you tickle him, he smiles and rubs his tummy.
We love Patience, who takes her time warming up to visitors. We love that she smiles when she sees us, instead of screams as she used to. We love that she wants no business with crawling but would rather scoot around everywhere she goes. We love her loud cackle when someone says her name and listening to her sing to herself when you put her to bed.

We love all of them, for having a story, for a having a place at Neema. It’s hard to believe that we’ll be leaving them in 2 ½ weeks. It will be sad to leave them, but we are happy as each individual child has something about them that we will remember. We’ll remember Manna, who tries to drink her bottle upside down and always looks surprised. We’ll remember Brian, whose PJ pants always fall down and who covers his mouth as if in shock whenever he giggles, which happens all the time. We’ll remember Ann, who loves dancing to Abba’s “Dancing Queen” and coming into our room to hit us at 6:50 in the morning.
In a way, I believe these memories are the best way we can support Neema. We’ll share these kids’ stories and unique personality traits when we get home and on this blog so that there is always someone thinking about Ruth dancing, Kennedy tackling us, or Grace’s squeaky voice.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


We are now very well settled at Neema House, it really does feel like a home to us and I can’t believe we only have two and a half weeks left here. The past two days have been interesting because we have been spending the mornings at the AMPATH (American Model Providing Access To Healthcare) clinic with a few of the children who are HIV positive. Living at Neema, I’ve gotten to know all of the kids pretty well. They are all so active and healthy that I rarely think about HIV. It’s hard to remember that a lot of these kids are going to struggle so much because of it for the rest of their lives. The clinic visits aren’t very dramatic. They are made up of three stages. First the kids get weighed, measured, and have their blood pressure taken. Then they are each inspected by the doctors and the caretakers are asked about how the children eat and behave. The third stage of the visit is when the hospital checks to see how regularly the kids have been taking their medicine. The caps of the medicine bottles actually have a device in them that, when plugged into the computer, reports all of the times the bottle was opened. I thought this was pretty cool.

During our stay we are trying to learn as much as we can about the various stories that brought the children to Neema. We’ve already shared some of these, but the one that I am going to tell tonight is probably the most heartbreaking story Neema has to offer. Since it is such a personal story I am understandably going to change the child’s name.

Natalie is a really sweet girl. She laughs often, loves talking, playing, and learning, and the only clues to her having a past different than any other child are the large scars on her legs and the slight limp when she walks. When Natalie was five years old her own aunt attempted to murder her by throwing her down a well. The aunt pulled her up to find that she was alive, but terribly misshaped with a broken back and broken legs. She then proceeded to take Natalie into the house and keep her hidden. She provided no medical care whatsoever and Natalie’s broken bones began to set in the completely wrong way and her wounds became infected. Joshua told us that Natalie would not have survived if the neighbors hadn’t forced entry into the aunt’s house to rescue the child and take her to the hospital. Five-year old Natalie required immediate surgery resulting in the large scars on her legs. She was kept in the hospital for two months. The police never found her aunt or uncle, though the uncle has tried to visit Natalie at Neema two times. With such a terrible past, it’s amazing that Natalie has become such an amicable and normal girl. I’ve been wondering about whether or not she remembers the incident and, if not, how/if Joshua and Miriam plan to tell her. It is questions like these that I’m sure are the hardest part of the Mbithi’s job.

Every child at Neema has a story to tell. Almost all of them are heartbreaking, but each one has a similar happy ending at Neema. “Neema” means grace in Swahili. It is really an appropriate name for a place that provides children who have nowhere else to go with a home, a family, an education, and a future. I’m so happy to be involved in some small way.

Love and miss everyone!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Art Art Art


This weekend was an art-filled two days.  Besides a few simple crafts and a lot of coloring book pages, these were our first big art projects with the kids. On Saturday, we started out with painting for the older kids.  First, the kids put tape and shapes onto the paper. They then painted the paper with many colors. Our only rule for the kids is that there isn't allowed to be any white space on the paper when they are finished.  Once the paint was dry, we peeled off the shapes and tape from the paper to reveal the negative white space. 
After lunch, we did ripped paper collages with the class 1 students.  The kids first colored the entire paper with crayons in different shapes and colors.  Then, to their great astonishment and, eventually, great pleasure, they ripped the paper into little pieces.  They then glued these pieces to a piece of construction paper in a collage.
 On Sunday, we opened up a classroom at the school for the kids to come in and draw. Eight kids were allowed in the room at one time and were given two pieces of paper for the day.  If needed, we gave simple suggestions about what the kids could draw. Once again, our only rule was "no white", or "hapana color white".  At first, the kids all drew tiny pictures with labels like "hat", "girl", and "house".  All of the pictures were the same and it took a lot of work to get them to think outside of what their teachers had told them about how to draw. Eventually though, we got them to fill the entire page and be creative about what they were drawing and how they were drawing it.  It was a very fun day of coloring that made us really excited for what else the kids can do.  We've already gotten more ideas and will probably be pretty busy the next 3-4 weeks we're at Neema. Well, more busy than we already are.  Sleeping will probably stop happening.
We're exhausted, but happy and can't wait for more.

Below are pictures of the kids doing art and the art itself.  If you have any other project ideas, we'd love to hear them! Especially if they're good for doing with toddlers and a massive language barrier!

Ann and Ruth painting
Neema Puzzle: there are 40 pieces - one for each child. Those who could wrote their names and colored their piece.
A free drawing of a family by Ruth
A free drawing of Kennedy and his friends playing football
Nancy with her negative space painting
Stephen's negative space painting
Diana coloring for her ripped paper collage
Ripped paper collage by Margaret
Ann's self-portrait
A free drawing by Ann about what she loves