The upsides and downsides of being here

I’m sure a lot of my messages in the coming days will be journal entry-types of messages. But I thought I might step back and give my initial thoughts on the pluses and minuses of this visit and this place. Just to keep it real. I’m sure my impressions will change by the end of the trip, but I don’t know in what ways it will change. Here’s a first glance. We’ll start with the not-so-good first:

The minuses: The kids we are working with have very little. Some (and maybe many) of these kids are orphans (AIDS orphans are common in this area), and many of them were destined to lead a life of unemployment and poverty before they came to this school. Even after they are graduated from this school, the unemployment rate in Kenya is 40%, and 50% live below poverty level, according to the CIA website. The Bishop says that the unemployment rate is 57%. The outlook for these kids is grim. It made me sad to see kids with open sores on their hands, blisters on multiple fingers, yellowed eyes, and other medical issues. To spin this in a positive light, though, these kids have WAY more than many kids in Meru, so they have many opportunities to turn it around for themselves. And many do, as is witnessed by the numerous successful people from Meru who are helping us on this trip.

Although our little resort may seem really fancy, there are still a lot of commonplace things that we miss. Our rooms are more like dorms, but without desks or chairs. We have one bedside table, one plastic chair, and ten hangers. The lights brown out at least 10 times every night, sometimes for 10 minutes at a time. We do not drink the water, so we have to brush our teeth with bottled water. Water is a precious commodity, and we have to refill our water bottles every day from a large distilled water jug. There is a constant fear, at least for me, of disease. Every bug bite has the potential of malaria, and every contact with a child has to be followed by hand sanitizer or a thorough hand-washing.

While the attention from the kids, and even adults, is heartwarming and wonderful, it saddens me that everyone is fully aware that we will pop in and out of their lives within two weeks. I know many people here are fully aware that a Westerner can give them things that Kenyans can’t. As a result, some will and are trying to capitalize on our stay here. A very human reaction, I think. Almost the same way that we like to go shopping to take advantage of their low prices. It really benefits everyone, but it’s still a stark highlight on the economic gap between our cultures.

I know that charitable work should be seen as good, but being a part of charitable work is complicated for me, because I know there are many ways of looking at one situation. Being on the receiving end of charity can be a complicated matter as well. Some might not understood why I would be hesitant to give. I guess I’m worried about pushing my standards on someone else. Some people have very little, from my eyes, yet their life is rich in ways I cannot see. Why would I want them to live by my “high” standards, and then lose that richness that I never even noticed? But, at the same time, it would be a crime to ignore someone in need. That is why I am here! I am very interested to see how my view of charitible giving and work changes over the course of my time here.

To lighten the mood, a big minus is the obnoxious rooster that bellows from 3:30am until sunrise every morning. He is the bane of our existance! There is also a cow that chimes in at around 5am.

The pluses: The school where we are teaching is amazing. What they do for these kids is really astounding. The Bishop, Lawi Imathiu, has set up the primary school where we are working with the kids; a secondary school that is much cheaper than most in Kenya; two universities in Meru, built to educate the people of Meru; our housing facility, to house guests who would like to help those in Meru, and also to make profits to fund his projects; and a housing facility in Nairobi for travelers coming to Meru. Through this man’s vision and infectious postivie attitude, he has made it possible for these kids to be surrounded by people, both local and foreign, who want them to succeed. It is truly amazing what this one man has done in his lifetime. It could fill a book.

Definitely our housing facility is a big plus. If you’re reading this page, you’ve probably seen the pictures I’ve posted. It is GORGEOUS. It really feels like some kind of resort. The lady who runs the compound, Marilyn, is an American expatriate who has lived in Kenya since 1988. She is gracious and accomodating, and has a lot of experience housing Westerners. There is a garden in her yard, which is behind our compound, where they grow the vegetables and herbs for our meals. The staff are all extremely respectful and gracious, making our stay as smooth as it can possibly be.

I have always wanted to come to Africa, and this is my big chance to experience this land and culture. I had preconceived notions about what it would be like here, many of which were correct, but now I know better what is like here. There is no way to know everything about this place, but I know WAY more now than I did four days ago.

The kids are extremely excited at our arrival. They clamour for pictures and attention, and many want to know what is going on with us at all times. Some are extremely physically affectionate, and some ask very interesting questions about our life in America. (“Do you know Obama?”) Many have a life and twinkle in their eyes that crosses all cultural boundaries. Interacting with kids in this way is the reason I teach, and seeing their faces smile amidst all of their barren conditions is a constant reminder of why I love to work with kids.

We are seeing new animals all the time. There are random elephant sightings, and there was a new animal tonight. Marilyn thinks it was a genet, according to our guide book. Colobus monkey was the first day, as well as a little rodent that Larry said is somehow magically related to the elephant. Lots of donkey-pulled carts which we are having fun pointing out.

Big plus: Salt-water swimming pool! It is safe to swim there, since the salt level is measured. And I don’t have to be worried about safety since it is in the confines of our enclosed residential area.

The people with whom I am traveling are TOP NOTCH. I am 20 to 40 years junior to everyone that is here, and it is a privilege to be a part of this group. Kenyans aren’t known for their being on-time or sticking to a strict schedule or plan – so our plan changes almost by the minute, sometimes. We have to constantly rearrange our goals and our means to those goals, and everyone is rolling with the punches very well. We are in close quarters in a very foreign situation, so the potential for irritibility would be high with many people. But these people… they are great. Humor is interlaced with seriousness at every turn, and it is an honor to be at their side!

I am here because of the gracious gifts of many of you reading this blog. Thank you to all of you who donated. Every day that I am here, I do not forget that it is because of the kindness of my family, friends, colleagues, and students’ families that I could afford this trip. Thank you!!

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