A Little Reflection

by Volunteer Ellie Honan

Tuesday, January 5, 2010
I am fast approaching the two month mark of my return home and have now spent more time in Kenya than that which remains, so I have been thinking a lot about my experiences here and how they have affected me.

It struck me the other day that my journey in Kenya has followed a progression very similar to my time spent on the Apple Valley Swim Team. Both experiences have been the type that are challenging to the point that I often doubt my sanity in pursuing them. Each day is both physically and mentally gruelling, and often times when confronted with small day to day tasks I am overcome by the same panicky dread that used to wash over me as I would watch my swim coach write the next swim set on the board. Washing clothes by hand for example is something to which I have not and will not ever adjust. The cold unwelcoming water of a basin of filthy clothes is eerily similar to that of a swimming pool as I procrastinate the unavoidable pain of the awaiting task.

Things that should be simple and easy always seem to have some complication or twist. Like swimming, chopping vegetables is not something that is in itself painful. But like swimming at race pace without rest for hours on end, chopping vegetables as the sun scorches your nose and hands and poo-covered flies crawl unabashedly up your arms and legs, becomes quite another story.

All of that sounds miserable, I know, so you are probably asking yourself why I stayed with it for so long. The answer to that question lies in the reason I stuck out an entire swim season and joined the team again the following year. For all the daily hardship, I know that I will come out of the experience a stronger and healthier person. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, and I am learning so much about myself and about the world. And for every time I have become discouraged someone has been there to pull me back up and remind me what I am here for. The relationships I have formed here have proven well worth any struggle I have undergone. As with swim season I reached a sort of peace, I can’t say exactly when, with the difficulty of the situation and learned to find humor and appreciation rather than frustration.

The street children in Nakuru town who cluster around me as I walk down the street used to overwhelm me with their clutching hands and strong stench of glue, but I now recognize and differentiate between them and can chat and joke with them as we walk. I have even reached an understanding with the aggressive street vendors. I spent a day selling cookies on the street with some of the boys from the home (much to the amusement of all the Kenyans) and I found myself becoming just as forward and annoying as all the other vendors, pushing costumers who clearly had no interest. I can now commiserate with them over the suckiness of their job, but more importantly I respect them for trying. The strong air of dependency that ravages Africa and produces beggars and thugs leaves me no choice but feel deep respect for even the most annoying salesperson.

The whole issue of dependency and expectancy towards the mzungu is still something I struggle with, but I am learning to take it less personally. On the matatu, a snobby little girl poked my arm and asked as she chomped on bubble gum if I would buy her a cake. I just smiled and said, “why don’t you buy me a cake; you’re the one who just sucked down a lollipop.” She stared at me in confused silence and I returned my attention to the wide horizon where sun rays pierced fiery clouds and a sunset of colossal structures, angelic pink and majestic purple, tumbled into the mountain tops. I will certainly miss the beauty of Kenya and of the African skies.

Appreciating Kenya’s landscape came along with learning how to slow down in general. During my first few months I wanted so badly to be part of the community here, but at the same time as a volunteer I felt the need to be constantly doing something. It took me a long time to see the discrepancy between my two main ambitions. African culture is slow, there is just no way around that. My need to be always moving and accomplishing was getting in the way of my simply being with people. It took me a while to be able to just sit with people and do nothing for hours on end, but that’s what it took to form real relationships with them.

There is one area; however, where Kenyan culture is not slow: the roads. All of the pent up energy that is not spent in daily life bursts forth on the roads like a wild animal loosed from a cage. Matatus (small buses) speed and maneuver through crowded junctures like there’s no tomorrow (which there very well may not be for the overstuffed passengers). It’s strange though that they rush because once they get where they’re going they act as if they have all the time in the world. It’s like a race with no final destination; everyone is just frantic to get somewhere. It makes me wonder about my conception of time and purpose in general. In America we are always in a hurry, always reaching and striving, planning and proceeding. We so rarely remember just to live in the moment and appreciate where we are while we are there.

On another matatu ride, the driver suddenly slowed and looking out the window I saw that a motorbike had been hit by a car. The driver of the motorbike was lying on the road, dead, a river of blood streaming from his head. It was there and then gone so suddenly. There was no build up, no dramatic soundtrack. It scared me that life could end so suddenly and so unceremoniously. It made me want to stop wasting my time trying to get somewhere and just be here because who knows if I will have time to get where I am going. What if I spend my life striving and die before I reap the benefits? How much would that suck?

Of course it is easier said than done to “live in the moment”, but it is something I am learning about and working on. As Kenya’s drought gives way to massive flooding, displacing tens of thousands of residents, I think the whole country is waking up a bit to the irony of life and appreciation. You never know what’s coming in life, but that is especially true in Africa. Looking back over the adventure of the past for months, I get a tingle of excitement and anticipation wondering what the next two months could possibly hold in store. All the same I can’t help looking ahead a bit to the end of that two months when I will be home and see you all again. Keep in touch!

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