I had barely opened the door of the taxi when two small arms wrapped themselves around my legs and a smiling face looked up at me and squealed “Jambo!”
“Jambo!” I laughed. “Sasa kijana?” (something like “what’s up kid?”). He replied with another smile, unlatching his arms to put one small hand in mine and lead me to the main event.
The laughter and colors of 30 children chasing balloons, soccer balls and each other greeted my eyes and ears like a festival. After completing our training workshop a month earlier in systemic child counseling and how to effectively manage vulnerable children, we’d brought these kids to the SWAK (Society for Women and AIDS in Kenya) grounds for the first meeting with the counselors.
An outsider would never know that every one of these children grew up in one of the largest and most horrific slums in Africa. Every child had a story. Every one of them had seen more hardship and struggle before the age of five or six than I had seen in 20 years.
“You see that one?” A counselor asked me. “His mother abandoned him three months ago. We don’t know who the father is. And her? She’s HIV positive, and an orphan, and taking care of her three siblings. She’s eight.”
After two hours of the children playing and getting to know each other, and two hours of the counsellors carefully observing the dynamic of the group (who was taking part? Who was sitting by themselves? Who was shy? Loud? Aggressive?) the children were divided by age to begin group counseling sessions. The counsellors, having grown up in Kibera Slum themselves, were unfazed by what we heard. I, on the other hand, was shocked. Stories of neglect, abandonment, abuse, and absolute poverty were reiterated from every child. Traumas and suffering came up again and again. As the counselors build their data base of information for each child, they will be better able to follow up and monitor the children’s emotional, mental and physical progress in the future.
I wiped tears from my eyes as I got back into another cab hours later. The same little boy that had greeted me and stayed by my side all day waved through the window and called “tutaonana tena!” as I pulled away. Literally - “we will meet again.”
What hit me during this project was the truth about my perception of a “normal” childhood. Could I really consider my childhood to be the norm when one billion out of the 2.2 billion children in the world today, nearly half, are living in poverty? I was hardly the norm: I was just a lucky one. I knew what a toilet looked like, and what’s more is that there was not one but three in my house growing up, and they were actually inside my house, and every one had toilet paper and soap. I wondered how, until this point, I had taken for granted the fact that there was nearly a 50% chance I could have grown up sharing a pit latrine with 500 or more other people in the middle of a slum in the third-world.
Luck, chance, and fortune are not earned. There was nothing I did to deserve them but I can’t take for granted that I have had them throughout my life so far. Some people, and in fact most people, haven’t.
With my time in Kenya slowly dwindling, I thought I’d take one last trip across the border to see another piece of East Africa. After an 11 pm departure, a crowded bus, a 9 hour trip and miles of dirt roads, my friend Ross and I crossed the boundary into Uganda and arrived in Jinja just in time to see the sun rise over the River Nile.
Uganda is beautiful. The air is hot and humid, the trees are a lush green and the thick, copper-colored soil is so rich it stains your feet and skin for days. They say that no one is starving in Uganda because the ground gives rise to anything and everything you could wish to grow.
On my first day there I decided to do something that made my stomach knot at the very thought of it. I decided to climb a ladder to 50 meter high platform, kick off my shoes, strap a rope around my ankles, say a prayer and dive head first into the Nile. At the exact moment I thought my face would break the surface of the water, the cord softly pulled back, sent me spinning in mid air, only to drop back towards the water and up again, over and over until finally coming to gentle, dizzy, upside down bob above the river, where I was lowered into a raft and paddled to shore.
Five minutes prior to this I was more scared than I could ever remember being. My legs were shaking as a shuffled, ankles tied, to the edge of the platform, was instructed to let my toes dangle over the rim and found a grip on the bar above my head. Slowly, the rope was released off the platform, until it hung in the air below me, pulling at my ankles with petrifying weight.
They counted down from three. When I dove and was plummeting through the air, the only complete thought I could form was “wow.”
I’ve been told that you should do things in life that scare you. Living in Kenya, I get scared often enough that I don’t have to actively pursue an adrenaline rush, but what a great feeling to forget my shaking legs and pounding heart and jump despite the fear.
Challenges are in every direction, whether it’s looking poverty in the face and understanding the lives it affects, or getting over your own inhibitions. But challenges are lessons as long as we are willing to learn. No matter which direction you travel, greet what you find there.
Programme Coordinator, ROTH HIV/AIDS Prevention Programme
Reach Out to Humanity