First Week

This is literally the view from the backyard. That's our cow. I have yet to name her.


I am just starting this  I’m going to post what I’ve already written, so dates are backed up…

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Well this has been a whirlwind week. I arrived last Thursday evening after about 15 hours of travel time; I was picked up at the airport in Nairobi by Franny, the daughter of one of our co-founders (Rahab) and our driver for the school, Wombogo.  I was to spend the first night in Nairobi at Franny and Rahab’s house, and would be brought to the orphanage about an hour and a half away in the morning. Needless to say, it was an interesting first night. I was in a bit of a daze, or shock maybe, when I was picked up, and I still count myself lucky that nothing bad happened to me (although, in retrospect, I was quite safe, just paranoid). We loaded up into what can only be compared to a 15-passenger van, although half of the seats were removed, along with the seatbelts, and the car had most definitely seen better days. I realized why it (and, frankly, most cars in Kenya) looked the way it did shortly after.  We were lined up in the parking lot of the airport to pay our fare, and Wombogo backed the van up, promptly smashing into the car behind us.  He then proceeded to continue driving as if nothing had happened, regardless of the angry horn that the driver of the injured car was leaning on. Of course, I broke out into a cold sweat, certain that at any moment, someone would approach our car, see the shaking little white girl with her bags stacked around her, and machete us to death (a stereotype, I know, but don’t judge me, I had been up for nearly 48 hours with only a few hours of restless airplane sleep to my credit, gotten picked up in the middle of the night by 3 strangers in a foreign airport that looked exactly how you would imagine and was nearly turned away at the passport checkpoint by some angry man who told me I had the wrong visa). Words were exchanged with either a policeman, or a passenger of the car, I couldn’t tell, but Wombogo just kept driving.

With that encounter to reassure me, we began our drive to Rahab’s house in Nairobi.  I was initially struck by a crippling fear that we were going to crash head first into oncoming traffic; I am not used to driving on the left side of the road, and in the absence of streetlights, stoplights, stop signs, or lines on the road, one can imagine how scary oncoming traffic looks when it’s on the side you’re used to driving on. Those of you from Connecticut, imagine driving through Hartford’s North End; those of you from Boston, I would think an appropriate comparison would be driving through the worst part of Dorchester in the pitch black. The main road was littered with little bodegas and shops crowded with people, groups of people gathered on corners and an insane amount of people loitering on the left side of the road, as if they were hitchhiking (I later learned that these people were waiting for a bus, for which there are no routed stops, rather, it just pulls over when people wave their hands for it; at the time, I was certain we would be carjacked by any number of these people). The roads are not paved and are ridiculously uneven, so we switched between driving at excessively fast speeds and slowing down to a crawl to go over a pothole or speed bump.  Pedestrians are bolder than they are in Boston – they cross at their own risk, and it’s literally only a matter of chance (or a testament to Wombogo’s skills as a driver) that we didn’t bowl 4 or 5 of them over on our drive. About an hour later we arrived at Rahab’s house just outside of Nairobi in a middle class development, indicated by the gate and the guard who checked on us when we arrived, which eased my mind at least slightly.  It was quite a long and uncomfortable night under my mosquito net in the 80+ degree weather, but, thanks to my sister’s sleep aids, I was able to sleep through the night, which, coupled with my naps on the plane, helped me to avoid any jet lag.

I was fortunate when I arrived, as all volunteers and staff who are currently here at Flying Kites were also staying at Rahab’s house in Nairobi; another volunteer left bright and early Friday morning, so they had all come down to the city for the night to see her off with a farewell dinner.  When I woke up in the morning, I was able to meet everyone I will be with for the next few weeks, including two of the founders of Flying Kites, who come to visit every few months (one of whom is my age, the other is a few years older).  It was quite reassuring to wake up to British and American accents in the morning.

We began the day with a trip to a couple orphanages on the outskirts of Nairobi; first, a government run one, followed by a privately run one.  At the government funded orphanage, they at least had separate rooms for beds and classrooms, with a nice courtyard in the middle for playing an eating.  After a 20 minute walk through barren roads, with red sand as far as the eye can see, we arrived at a small, privately run orphanage.  To look at this place, I would have never guessed there were over 50 children living, sleeping, eating and being schooled within the walls. However, when we walked into the narrow hallway which had 3 or 4 rooms off of either side, we realized just how cramped this place was.  Children ran haphazardly about, coming within inches of the wood stove that sat at the front door and served as both a source of heat (which was unnecessary in the oppressive heat of the day) and a means of cooking.  Children were divided by age among the 4 “classrooms” which were each no bigger than a medium sized American bathroom.  The second the 6 of us walked in, we were assailed by dirty, barefoot, exquisitely beautiful children clinging to our legs, reaching to be picked up and holding their hands out to shake (shaking hands is the universal greeting, and is done by both children and adults – I have shaken more hands here in a week than I probably have my entire life!). Peeking into one of the classrooms, we could see mattresses piled along one wall, which would be spread out on the floor at night.  There were 3 or 4 German girls who were taking a year off between high school and college to teach here, a task which none of us could fathom in the 80 degree heat and cramped, destitute quarters. We were stunned at the energy and cheerfulness stemming from the children, despite their parent-less pasts, or pasts filled with abusive parents.  I spent some time with the older girls in their room, who asked me about America, and told me that they loved Obama, and did I vote for him? My heart, however, was captured by Eugene, a fat little 2 year old who would not stop running long enough for you to shake his hand, unless you snatched him up from between your legs and held him, at which point  he would smush your cheeks together and say “I love you.”  After 30 minutes in this cramped hallway, we had all had enough. It was literally too much to bear to see these children and to know that this was their home and feel utterly helpless to do anything about it.

None of this is to say that they weren’t well cared for or well looked after; they were, to the extent that they can be.  Their “father,” a friend of Toby and Leila’s (two co-founders), gives the children whatever he can, and they have come to call him dad.  He was telling us a story about how a group of policemen were checking up on the orphanage, seeking death certificates for the parents, and questioning how the children came ot be there.  One of the boys called Luswetie (the head of the orphanage) “dad” and a policeman yelled at the boy, saying “he is not your father, why do you call him that?” The boy responded something along the lines of, “he gives us food, he gives us beds, he helps us with our homework and loves us. He is my dad.” Apparently that shut the policemen up – at least that time. This particular orphanage used to have a different location, but a gang saw the white people going in and out to visit (Flying Kites volunteers are often taken here upon arrival, so that they can compare the levels of care), and assumed they were rich. They held up the orphanage and took everything of value, save the children. They are still recovering. 

With that experience fresh in all of our minds, we set off for Njambini, the village which Flying Kites Kinangop Children’s Center (FKKCC) is located.  One and a half hours, 2,000 feet and a 15 degree drop later, we pulled up at the center.  I feel as if I have stepped onto the set of the Sound of Music . The mountains are just in the distance, there are various tropical and exotic birds flying around and the cows and sheep are grazing peacefully. The hills are, literally, alive. 

Now most of you know, I am not exactly a ‘kid person.” However, the children I have met here, while similar to American children in many ways, are so very different. They are not spoiled, they do not want for many things and they are so unconditionally accepting and loving.  For them, every day is a gift and every concession is a treat. When the class I am overseeing finished with their exams yesterday, I had a small piece of Toblerone chocolate for each of them (incidentally, all 9 children in Class 3 are from the village, not from our Center). One of them unwrapped it and immediately exclaimed (in a whisper), “IT”S CHOCOLATE!!!!” They began to peek under the wrapping of each of theirs, and realized they all had been given chocolate. They quickly gathered outside of the room and whispered to each other, “did you get chocolate too?” They were behaving as if I had made a mistake, giving them all chocolate, and they had to run away before I realized what I had done and asked for it back. It’s very hard to not fall in love with these children within minutes of meeting them. Love, especially to the orphans, is one of the biggest gifts you can give, and it costs nothing. 

Incidentally though, I did learn yesterday that for $1000, you can feed, clothe, house and educate one of the orphans at FKKCC. For $16,000 each child will be taken care of for the entire year, and additional funds will be able to go towards improving and expanding the center.  As a matter of fact, Flying Kites is set to begin construction on it’s school in a matter of weeks, which is exciting, because I will be here to watch the transformation.  Once the school has been built, and the planned dormitories and teacher apartments have been built, the annual cost per orphan will rise to $2000, but so will the quality of their care. I am so excited that I will be here for this watershed time for the Flying Kites, as they will be getting much closer to achieving their ultimate vision for the center.

As far as the day to day life here goes, it’s actually quite manageable.  Because there is no electricity, my day tends to run on cycle with the sun. Our generator turns on from 7-9pm, so that the children can watch a movie, we can charge our electronics and get ready for bed before we are in total darkness again. Last night, I was in bed by 8pm; there is really no reason to stay up late if there is no late-night TV to watch, no drinking to do and no internet to surf, not to mention I have been dragged in 50 different directions by 50 balls of energy for 12 hours (the village children are here from about 8am-4 or 5pm). I don’t even need to set an alarm in the morning because by 6:30am I’ve already had 10 hours of sleep and I wake feeling refreshed and rested.  The bathroom is quite like any American bathroom, except when we flush the toilet, the tank does not refill the way it should, and we have to fill a bucket to pour into the tank so that we may flush again.  Showering, although to call it showering is misleading, is another experience altogether.  There IS a showerhead in the bathroom (no stall, just in between the sink and the toilet), however the water heater is a water heater in name only. If you want to wash, you must ask the matrons (the cooks/housekeepers) for a bucket of scalding water, dilute it with cold water, and use a smaller container to pour over your hair and body.  Just today I took my 3rd shower since arriving in Kenya – it’s amazing how quickly your standards for cleanliness drop, especially when everyone is in the same boat.

The food, however, is a different story altogether. 2 hardboiled eggs for breakfast, countless cups of tea throughout the day and lentils, rice and some form of potatoes for lunch and dinner. Literally, the same meal twice a day, no variety. When we stopped at the supermarket (similar to a Dunnes, to my Ireland friends) in Nairobi on our way to FKKCC last week, I didn’t understand why everyone was so intent on stocking up on sauces and dressings. Now I get it. The sauce you use on each dish is the only variety you have in your meals, steak sauce on lentils for lunch is an entirely different meal than hot sauce on lentils for dinner. The other day, a fellow volunteer and I decided to take matters into our own hands and cook dinner. We went down to the butcher (via motorcycle taxi which costs about 50 cents per ride – we’re going to pitch in $$ some Saturday afternoon and learn to ride ourselves) and literally watched the butcher cut our supper from the hunk of meat suspended from the ceiling.  It’s amazing that I, a former vegetarian, enjoyed this task, and while the meat was quite tough (better to be well done than under done here), it was quite good, and a nice change from the mundane.

Since I will be here for so long, I am going to get to do a little more than teach, which is exciting. Sarah, the Country Director, who is a young lawyer from the states (probably 27-28) arrived in October for a full year, so the two of us are going to work on some long term projects.  I am going to coordinate with study abroad programs in colleges in Nairobi to work on getting some volunteers for the center, and running some fundraisers. We are also working on completely restructuring the school here; for Kenya, the school year ends at the end of November, so the exams they are taking this week will help us reassess the literacy and education level of the students (especially those that come from the village, as they tend to be much further behind than our children), and redistribute classes according to capabilities, rather than age.  I’m excited that I will get some non-profit management experience in addition to my volunteering time here; it should bode well for my resume.

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2 Responses to First Week

  1. GJ says:

    Hannah,this is a miracle I am on the computer for the first time in years . My first question is are you the only blond with long hair in residence at this time? It sounds like the children like it. I have been looking at your blog and learning what you have been up to over the last weeks. Merry christmas and a Happy New Year since I may not make it back to this again. GJ

  2. Kenneth Martin says:

    Dear Hannah in Africa,

    I will be in Nairobi with Fadhili Community from mid Sep to Dec 2010. I found your blog as a resource to begin my preparation for the trip. Thank you for your narritive. They are much more eye-openning than any published literature I’ve read so far. I’ve read bits of your later blogs, and just recently gave myself the assignment to read all of your post from past to present. I won’t ask that you respond to any comments I may make, since I know your free time is limited. I think all that I can handle for now is contained within your essays. Once again, thank you for finding the time to document your adventure. Because of you I started my own blog for the same reason.

    Sincerely, Ken
    Baltimore, Md

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