This summer, I traveled with seven other students to Nairobi, Kenya for a three week service trip through ASEC, the African Sisters Education Collaborative. Our group did a lot of preparation in advance for this trip, including completing a course on the culture and history of Kenya, fundraising, researching the service sites available, and learning the similarities and differences between the United States and Kenya. We stayed at the Little Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi compound. The sisters work tirelessly to improve the lives of the poor and the marginalized people of East Africa.
While in Kenya, I provided service at various sites, including a refugee center, a hospital, a home for street boys, and an orphanage for both physically and mentally disabled children. On the weekends we had opportunities to learn more about African culture and history by visiting the Karen Blixen museum, the National Museum of Kenya, Mamba village (a crocodile and ostrich farm), an orphanage for elephants, Uhuru park, and a center for giraffes. We even went on a safari and climbed a volcano, Mount Longonot. We also attended and celebrated the graduation for the HESA sisters at CUEA (Catholic University of East Africa). But, the most rewarding part of the trip were the opportunities to provide service to those truly in need.
The Refugee Center
The first service site I visited was the refugee center, run by Sister Maria. Refugees come to the center and participate in classes to learn
- computer programming
The program helps both men and women become more independent by teaching them a trade in which they can earn a living. The program is all about empowerment. Sr. Maria is very kind, compassionate, and sensitive to the needs of others. After providing an overview of the program, Sr. Maria allowed us to pick and choose which classes we wanted to attend. I chose the cooking and sewing classes. In the classroom, we were paired with a student, usually around our age or younger, to assist in making a meal and a skirt. Given that I had never prepared a full meal or even sewed, this certainly was a challenge beyond my comfort zone. I often needed more assistance than what I was able to provide for the student. Fortunately, the teacher and even the students were very patient in helping me learn some skills such as measurement, operating a sewing machine, and maintaining a straight stitch. In the end, I learned how to make a skirt and that sewing can be very rewarding.
The Mother Teresa Orphanage
At the Mother Teresa orphanage, I helped bathe, dress, feed, and play with children who suffered from either physical or mental disabilities (usually both). It was definitely hard to see them struggle to eat and communicate at first, but once I started interacting with them, it became clear that these children were quite remarkable. One little boy named Daniel really made an impression on me. He was paralyzed from the waist down, with a large bump on his lower back that stuck out. He was found alone on the side of the road, completely abandoned by his parents. He surprised me with his sunny and friendly disposition despite his unfortunate circumstances. Given that Daniel had limited mobility, he remained determined to be as independent as possible. He will remain with me as a source of inspiration to never give up in the face of daily challenges.
St. Martin's Feeding Program
One day, we went to the Kibagare slum and volunteered at the St. Martin’s feeding program for impoverished children. This was, by far, the most eye opening experience of my trip. I always knew that there were many hungry people in Africa. But I had never seen hunger to the degree witnessed in this slum area. The children, some of which were young orphans,walked several miles just to get something to eat. Some of the older orphaned girls assumed a maternal role by transporting infants on their backs and ensuring that they would be fed. We formed an assembly line and fed 1,644 hungry children that day. While handing out milk bags, I noticed some of the children sucking the crumbs off the bottom where it touched the food. When the call came for seconds, all of the children ran as fast as they could for the line, a sight that both broke my heart and left me speechless.
Hospital Maternity Ward
In another service site, a hospital maternity ward, I observed and then assisted in the delivery of two births, one natural and one by C- section surgery. For the natural birth, a young single mother arrived suffering from terrible labor pain. Fortunately, the baby was delivered quickly and mom was soon incredibly happy. She held her baby lovingly and cried tears of joy. It was breathtaking to see a cry of joy rather than a cry of hunger. Later that same day, I had the opportunity to assist in a C- section delivery. I held the mother's hand just a foot away from the surgeons as they explained what they were doing during the surgery. I wiped away mom’s happy tears when she heard her baby's first cry. Witnessing both births was a humbling experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Ukweli Home of Hope
The street boys at the Ukweli Home of Hope were my favorite part of the entire trip. We danced, played, talked, and made lasting friendships with the boys at the Home. Every day at 4pm, we visited with a variety of toys, such as wiffle bats and balls, bubbles, along with candy, The boys always greeted us with enthusiasm and seeing their smiles was the best part of my day. I still keep in contact with a few of them! Now that I am home, I continue to see their warm smiles through FaceTime.
This trip has taught me a lot about myself and my responsibility in the world. One important thing that I learned was that we have the same needs and desires as human beings. We all strive for love and happiness, providing for and protecting our loved ones, working hard for a comfortable livelihood, and also loving God. My experience in Africa taught me that I do not need a lot to be happy. The children, especially the Ukweli boys, were happy in spite of owning next to nothing. They greeted us with a smile, a handshake, and sometimes some porridge if it was snack time. They did not expect anything from us, just our companionship. They were not rich, they did not have toys, some did not even have parents. But they had each other, and for them, that was enough.
Reflecting on the Service Learning Trip
While in Kenya, a few life lessons have remained with me. The first is that money is not everything. In America, we are consumed by a culture that places importance on high paying jobs, cool vacation spots, cosmetic beauty products, cars, restaurants, etc. Our brains are always anticipating the next big thing, and we rarely appreciate the present moment. I realized that most Americans live in a bubble, including myself. Sure, we read articles online about world poverty and watch videos on Facebook, but these actions alone are not enough to inspire change in the world. Our daily actions, the choices we make, and our attitudes towards life will not be impacted in the same way as when we witness poverty firsthand. On this trip, I also learned that even people living in third world countries can be just as oblivious and insensitive to what is going on around them. While driving to the Kibagare slum, we passed through a beautiful, gated development where wealthy families live adjacent to the slum. By continuing to exist in a bubble, we are essentially isolating ourselves from the part of the world that needs to be acknowledged and recognized.
The day before I left, my family kept telling me that I was “such a good person for doing something like this.” That they themselves, could never make such a journey. They worried about my safety. At first, I was flattered but after a while it really started to bother me. I do not think I am different from anyone else for going on a service trip. And if something had actually happened to me, I think my chances of someone taking me in would have been much greater in Kenya compared to what I might experience in an American city. I realize that it is my responsibility to help “pop” the bubble that separates our worlds, and to also encourage those who believe that they are incapable to take a step outside their comfort zone to volunteer and be of service to others! Although I am back home, a piece of me still remains in Kenya. The friends that I have made will forever be a part of me.