Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Alice in NairobiLand

For four weeks starting in mid-June, I volunteered through Workaway with a Kenyan woman in Nairobi named Alice.  She had started a school for impoverished children in a very poor neighborhood a few years ago and has since opened up her family and her home to hoards of volunteers who come to help her teach and run the school (and who occasionally infest her house with bed bugs...).

The month I spent with Alice was a mixture of droll routine and exhausting change.  Living in the outskirts of Nairobi embedded some habits in me that I'm eager to drop.  Habits like walking quickly through the streets clutching my purse, keeping my head up but being careful not to make eye contact with anyone.  Habits like taking note of who's walking behind me and then checking over my shoulder again every few minutes to make sure I'm not being followed.  Habits like not giving out personal information to anyone (my alias is Anne from Canada, if anyone asks about her).  Habits like expecting to only get one thing accomplished on the weekends because traffic and infrastructure in Nairobi is so bad that it takes hours to get nine miles from Alice's house to another side of town.

After teaching from 9 am to 3 pm and then walking home in the dusty heat, our day would usually involve an errand or two, like walking to the nearest mall for the grocery store to buy notebooks or pencils for the kids, or to buy an ice cream bar that we would greedily consume the moment we exited the security checkpoint at the store.  By 4:30 pm when we returned home, we were exhausted, and the bedroom that we slept in only got hotter as the sunlight continued to seep in throughout the late hours of the afternoon.  Working out wasn't an option unless it was done at 6:30 am, and I was always too tired to initiate a card game or to write personal emails.  From 4:30-9 pm, or whenever another huge carb-loaded dinner was ready, volunteers would lay in silence all over the chairs and couches in the cool living room either checking Facebook on their phones or watching the Kardashians on TV, as if someone had wrung us out, doused us with a thick layer of sweat and dust, and carelessly strewn us across the furniture, none of us daring to move where we had been placed or make any noise, lest it drown out the dull hum of the television that no one was paying attention to.  Every day, I had to muster up enough conviction to stand up, march upstairs to the hot bedroom where I could be alone, and start working.

My daily afternoon thought process usually went something like this: I don't want to work.  I just want to sleep.  It's so hot in here.  But I'm so lucky to have this job.  I'm lucky to have an income.  I'm lucky to have this money.  This money that could help so many hungry people.  I have too much money.  I should give it all away.  But how will I know the money will be used well?  But God calls us to give anyway.  What is God calling me to do?  Why am I here?  I don't understand anything.

It was hard.  While the children loved to laugh and scream and run and play at school, in every one of their faces there was a story about only getting one meal a day, or domestic abuse, or not knowing where their parents are, or not having a mattress to sleep on at home.  When talking to my class about Christmas and Jesus's birthday, the ensuing tangent was a lost cause since most of them don't know when their birthdays are.

When volunteers leave, Alice is intentional enough that she gathers all the students and has a sort of ceremony where we all get to say goodbye to each other.  Usually the departing volunteer is the only one to shed tears, but there were three of us leaving on the same day.  We were all crying, including Alice, the other volunteers, Alice's son, and some of the students.  When Ana, another volunteer from Mexico, and I were giving the final hugs to my class as they ran out the door to go home in the afternoon, I watched as she hugged one of the older girls that has had a particularly challenging life.  When Ana released her, the girl turned away, buried her face in her hands, and bawled.  Ana embraced her from behind, her body eclipsing the girl's as they both bent forward and paused for a while.  I just stood there, staring, broken hearted, trying not to cry in front of the kids.  I heard another muffled moan and bent over to hold another girl that had finally succumbed to the tears that she had been battling all afternoon.

These kids don't have much certainty in their lives, and we certainly weren't helping with their attachment issues.  But they do have Alice, and they love her.  Alice who sees a bit of herself in every mother that comes to her for help.  Alice that made a last-minute decision one Friday afternoon to turn the school into an orphanage when she discovered that a few siblings had been deserted by their prostitute mother.  Alice that welcomes each one of us naive volunteers with open arms, instantly making us a part of her family.  Alice, the woman who loves and fears God, and who hopes for the best but prepares for the worst.

This past week on the coast has been a welcome break from the heavy emotions of volunteering and living in Nairobi, especially since it's the first time I've felt like I've been on vacation in the past two months.  I'm still trying to process everything that's happened so far, but I also know that it won't help to dwell and stew over things I don't understand and that I can't fix.  I'm taking everything one day at a time, but I've made it an absolute priority to visit Alice before I leave Kenya when my tourist visa expires in late August.  Who knows when I'll find another soul like hers; I feel honored just to watch her love and work and I hope I can be a fraction of the woman she is one day.


  1. Your posts are so raw rich and beautiful! Sending you so much love - you have more Alice in you than you think!

  2. Thank you my dear; thanks for always being with me on this journey!

  3. The pics on this are wonderful, as are the written "pictures". I'm glad the Kenyans are getting to love on you, and vice versa.

    1. I miss the comfort of you and your home. But I'm so glad I can process through everything with you!