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.