Learning from Africa

By March 11, 20112011 - Kenya

We wake up at five a.m., stumbling through breakfast and into the vehicles, some of us more conscious than others.  Without really knowing what we were in for, we travel silently to a school to “help put the kids in buses for their day in Nairobi”.  It seems like a nuisance to be doing this on what could have been our only day off, but we’ve already committed to it.  We arrive and are immediately ushered into a room designated for teachers.  As there is nothing else to do while we wait, we pick up the hymnals in front of us, singing songs that most of us haven’t heard since our early childhood.  And then, one by one we wander off, distracted and unable to wait any further.

Kids are congregated in small groups on either side of the path that I walk; some stare at me and giggle when I smile and wave, others hide further behind another’s head.  I stop once I reach two people who are positioned next to the wall.  They introduce themselves as Daniel and Naomi, standard seven students (grade seven).  Daniel talks vibrantly of his school and what life is like for him.  He tells me his favorite subject is science and his favorite colour is blue.

Naomi, with her bright eyes and shy smile, seems to be flattered that I am talking to her.  She teaches Crystal and I a song and laughs when we look at each other in confusion.  In hopes that it will help us learn quicker, I ask Naomi to write down the words.  She takes the pen that she is handed and struggles to control her grip, fumbling with this absent-minded request that I directed at her.  I notice now, for the first time, that her hands are deformed.  Then, also for the first time, I began to really absorb the appearances of the students gathered around me, looking beyond their faces and into their circumstance.  Tattered uniforms are commonplace in the schools we’ve visited so they only add to the façade of the ‘Masaku School for the Physically Disabled’ .  What really hits me though are the wheel-chairs missing tires and the crutches that are covered in tattered rags in an attempt to provide cushioning for the armpits.  Dorms have 50 beds and only one supervisor; classrooms have little room for walking let alone wheeling.

My heart is heavy as I realize what we’ve been told about physical handicaps being seen as a curse on families in Kenya.  Many of the kids here have been sent away by mothers and fathers who are ashamed of their presence; others have been abandoned for good.  What will the future look like for Daniel once he leaves this school and enters into Kenyan society?  How will quiet, beautiful Naomi deal with the social stigma’s attached to her disabilities?

The heaviness of my heart is countered by the joy and love in the air.  Though each kid has a disability of some sort, they do not hesitate in helping one another out.  The general mood seems to hover someplace between joy and contentment.  Naomi tells me that she loves her family there; “it doesn’t matter how broken your body is, able and unable work together like brother and sister”.

There are many things that Kenyan society can improve upon, but I cannot help but notice that there is also so much that the West can learn from Africa.  I am impressed by the companionship displayed in (what seems to me) a difficult situation.  Where one could easily succumb to hardships, these children find only joy in servant-heartedness.  And though my heart seems to weigh twice as much as normal when I think about the broken world that they’ll soon be thrust into, I am lost in the joy that I’ve found in various smiles and the soft but clear melody of Naomi’s voice.

We finally figure out the lyrics of the song and sing it loudly in our large group.  Ananipenda ni wauazima wa milele.  I am told this means ‘Jesus loves me forever’.


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