I was chosen to travel with three other people, one of my religion teachers, a nun, and one other student, to Nairobi, Kenya the summer of 2000. The trip happened to be the summer before my senior year of high school. Which unbeknownst to me the end of an era in my life and the beginning of a new chapter.
I went to Kenya to volunteer in two unique school programs for children living in the slums of the city. As a school extra-curricular group we had been doing various fundraising and supply collections, in order to help support these two separate groups. As a result of our collective efforts, we accomplished our goal, and two students were chosen to visit these sights. I, somehow, ended up being one of the two students chosen.
After preparing and traveling for what felt like forever, we arrived in Kenya. I was exposed to cultural and economic differences, that I will never forget. We were graciously given a place to sleep and eat; a convent. The sisters in charge of the convent, as well as, the programs were affiliated with the Catholic order of sisters that also ran my private high school.
The convent was a two-story, cement building. It was very simple with a lot of common areas. The bathroom, kitchen, and dining/ living room were all shared, as well as my bedroom. The rooms although sparsely furnished, and had grey linoleum throughout, were comfortable and safe. During my stay, we only had electricity 8 out 24 hours a day, and no hot water So cold showers and candles quickly became the norm. Electricity at all and indoor plumbing were luxuries, not available to the average person at all. Among the numerous gifts I no longer took for granted: were air quality, and road maintenance. The air was so thick with charcoal (used for cooking and heating), that when you blew your nose or spit after brushing your teeth you mucus was a dark grey color. Road conditions were deplorable; unpaved roads, with potholes so large an entire car, could fit in them. Were situations that had to be dealt with constantly.
I do not want anyone to get the wrong impression, I still never regret a moment that I was honored to have in Kenya. The people I met were among the best people I have met to date. The wildlife and animals pretty much go without saying. Avocado trees in your backyard, poinsettia trees and giraffes kissing your face, are common privileges Kenyans have. The peace, open and clean air just outside the city, was truly magical. 19 years later if you asked me to describe my image of heaven the countryside of Kenya would be what comes to mind.
My brief stay was, to be split between the two schools. One created for typical children around 10-13yrs, and one for disabled children from birth-18yrs. Public school does not exist in Nairobi. Education of any kind was paid by the individual family. Most likely, if a family was able to send one their children to school it was the oldest, healthiest male. So limited free school, we helped to provide, was predominantly made up of typical girls, who otherwise would not have received an education.
As for the other program, gender did not play such a large role in the student body identity. Culturally if a child was born to a family with any kind of disability. Regardless if the disability is intellectual or mobility related, disability is seen as a bad omen or curse on one’s family. As a result, often these children are left in corner of heir family home, sometimes in their own filth and with little to no food, ignored and basically left to die. This is not due to means but when a family has limited resources, it is natural to invest in those members deemed most likely to survive and be able to, as a result, give back.
I will never forget my first day working in that particular program. I sat on a backless plain wooden bench, located against one of the far walls. I watched my fellow travelers sit on the floor and immediately start helping feed the children. From my seat on the sidelines I watched mother after mother, deposit these nonverbal, motionless children into the open arms of their teachers. I remember quite vividly one of these mothers, unwrap the large piece of material knotted in the front of her, to release her baby just as so many mothers had before her. When the cloth was removed on the floor lay a body of a middle schooler about 12 or 13yr. He was making really loud grunting noises, drooling, and his limbs were bent at four ridge angles were they had once been tied to his mothers back. For one of the very few times in my life, I was speechless. I sat watching, listening, and inwardly screaming at myself. What the hell was I doing? Here I was this little Catholic white girl, halfway across the world, with creatures who were trying to be passed off as school children.
As I sat there open-mouthed, a teacher dropped one of these lumps in my lap. Well, now I had to act cool and prove to everyone around me I could hold my own. I unwrapped my package and stared into a pair of big beautiful brown eyes. My bundle turned out to be an 18month old little boy, who was one the most beautiful and peaceful baby I have ever seen. He was a perfect rag doll. His body was completely limp and reminded me of a wet noodle, and he did not make a sound. A couple of days later, I dreamt smuggled that same baby home with me. I went on during my time there learning and helping do some basic physical and occupational therapy with many of the children enrolled there.
I wish I could say that my trip/ experience made disabilities more beautiful to look at. Body fluids are just as gross to me. Sometimes people do things involuntarily with their bodies that are unusual and that really does make it hard not to stare or be scared of the unknown.
I am thankful for my eye-opening experience. Just over a year after that trip, I myself was diagnosed with a rare progressive neuromuscular disease. All of a sudden the world became very small for me. Those kids who once felt alien to me were now my allies in the able-bodied world, I was told I would slowly lose control of my muscles, my voice would become harder and harder to understand and chocking on my own drool would become an issue. Now call it what you will, but to me, I went on that trip for a reason. God, fate whatever dropped disability in my unsuspecting lap and forced me to deal with it. Just at the point in my life where I needed that knowledge and courage.