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  • If I didn’t have writing to do, I’d be pacing the floors.

    I have never been so overjoyed and so humbled-discouraged at the same time. Unlike the discouragement, though, the joy is not abounding. My heart feels weighted and heavy—sunken—yet, hopeful, after all we saw today and all we came to know. It’s easy to smile, in the moment, when there are so many beautiful, smiling, vibrant faces staring back at you—looking at you for hope and guidance and learning—but then, you think on it. Sleep on it. And you realize everything is far from okay.

    We had our first day at the Joy Beginners School in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, today. I've never been so excited for the first day of school in my entire life! The conditions surrounding the school are quite poor, but all the children are vibrant and beautiful and so happy to learn. Approximately 234 children are enrolled, but the school holidays have just finished, and because many children come from far away places, they are still trickling in. The term officially started this past Tuesday. Some, unfortunately, will not be able to afford the trip back to the school and will miss this term. Today, there were about 100 children attending, and according to Veronica, the headmistress, who is overflowing with beauty and kindness, many students show up as early as 6am, even though school doesn't start until 8am. School ends around 6 or 7pm, but many students sneak back into the school at night to sleep, often spending the night on the floor or atop desks. Veronica has created such a safe haven for the children here that they don’t want to leave.

    The school is made entirely of shanties, and Veronica has somehow taken outdated textbooks and very little space and turned what began as 1 shanty for 23 children into a school plot of 11 shanties for 234 children. She is quite remarkable, and it’s impossible not to smile and be inspired just sitting next to her. Gender roles are still quite prevalent here, and we have met our first cultural barriers. Veronica has single-handedly built this school, and yet, men still try to tell her how to run it on no merit.

    There are no working toilets for the children, and the school can only afford to give them all a half-cup full of porridge twice a day. For many children, this is the only food they receive daily because their families cannot afford to provide them with an evening meal. For some, their uniforms are falling off of them from being so worn out. There is only 1 textbook for every 9 children. Many of the teachers also live in the same slums, so after working 14+ hour days, they come home to nothing, and somehow have to scrape together food and keep house before starting back to work at 6am. There is little or no electricity, and there are probably over 300 children in the slums and the surrounding areas that want to attend this school, but cannot because the school cannot afford to take on more children, nor is there the space to do it. What concerns Veronica most is that she has to send the children out of the school at night, but many are orphans or the children of prostitutes, and they have nowhere to go. They literally wait outside the school until it opens the next morning. Veronica wants to build dormitories for them, and I think that is the best option, too.

    During our first meeting at the apartment yesterday, Bwana David says this school is just a drop of water in an ocean of salt, and that it will not change the world. He said I cannot change the world. I have heard this countless times, and it drives me raging-mad because it is usually said by people (Americans), often elite professors, who do not know me very well and do nothing themselves, even for their next door neighbor. I take it incredibly personally, and it took everything I had to keep a poker face while he continued. He quickly clarified: the school will not change the world, but to each child the school feeds, teaches, and houses, the world is changed—even saved—for that child. To me, that’s changing the world, even if it’s one child or one village at a time, but I do understand his perspective. We are not trying to build Rome through this school, nor could we, but to these children, and the millions in Kenya who still have no access to education, there are many worlds to be changed.

    Our first moments in the school are a blur. Perhaps, because it’s located in the heart of the slums, and there was much to see and think about and process while passing orphaned children and tin housing threatening to collapse on the way there. After passing through a rust-red, sheet-metal door, which was closed and locked behind us, the colors and vibrancy of the school came shining through like a beam of light. The laughter and happiness of the children penetrate everything, even the air that not twenty yards away, was thick with cooking smoke and fermenting porridge the local men take to get drunk. During a brief meeting with our guides, Veronica, and a few teachers from the school, we all talked about our respective intentions here, and then we were whisked away to watch the morning’s congregation of children.

    As I stood before the approximately 100 children that sang and danced during the school assembly, I saw the tiniest little girl of them all emerge from the belly of the uniform swaying motion of dancing and swinging made by the children. I, for some reason, was already walking to the exact spot in which she emerged and she grabbed my outstretched hand. We looked at each other and smiled and stood off to the side while we watched the older and much bigger children finish singing and give their recitations.

    I looked off into the distance, relishing the haven of safety and opportunity this school provided to all the children and teachers here, myself, included. The urban slums are situated all around the school—almost in coliseum fashion. Although the slums are ironically rural-looking, the misty remnants of jungle push back across this large plot of shanties, as if trying to re-claim it, and remind us all of the un-colonized and un-exploited land it used to be. About a century ago, this stretch of land was a large shamba (farm). The red roads pierce through the banks of the shanties and wind through thin remaining patches of dense vegetation. Once a mecca for centuries of trade, and later, the center for celebration of Kenya’s independence, the open land of the shamba has disappeared into what is now known as the Kangemi slums. AIDS/HIV runs rampant, men roam the streets drunk from the fermented porridge openly cooked and sold on the streets (the men begin taking it as soon as 8am), and many children wander around, cast out by their mothers who need their one-room shanties free to use for prostitution, in order to support the household.

    Some of the children are orphans, and many women much younger than myself were pregnant, with a baby or two already bouncing on their backs or their hips. The burden of feeding and caring (and schooling, if finances allow) the children falls on the shoulders of these women. They have nothing to get by with, and yet, somehow, they do. I’ve heard several men disapprovingly comment on local women’s business initiatives, calling them “exploitative,” and for a second, they had me convinced. But then I saw the slum women washing baby clothes in dirty water, going hungry so they can offer something to their children, and left to maintain the entire shanty household while their husbands get drunk, and I was angry. I was mad. Every woman I know knows that maddening feeling when the occasional American man instinctually and decidedly insinuates we are less or somehow better-and-solely-suited for domestic tasks. However, this situation was far from a first-world domestic argument over who should wash the dishes or a pop-sci-political discussion on “Mr. Mom” or how men face coping challenges when their wives make equal or more money than they do. Here the gender discrimination and lack of respect is so blatantly off, and it all comes with dire consequences. Here in the slums, men’s responsibility (in the form of children, economic contribution, and protection over their household) is completely, lazily, and unapologetically pressed upon the women, with no economic power or control given to them to properly take care of it all. These women are forced to do it with nothing but a tin roof, unclean water, and a dirt floor.

    I would like to point out that this does not exist in all of Kenya. Not 10 miles away, Nairobi is booming like any developed international capital and women live and work as equals to men. They are also deeply involved in politics, even legally capable of serving (and have thusly served) as beloved prime ministers. I’ve heard several men here talk about their financial and personal duties in protecting and caring for their elderly mothers and aunts. It is our male hosts who have personally introduced me to this school and have gone to great lengths to ensure my mom and I are safe, protected, and happy. To these men, Bwana David and Bwana Boniface, I am in the utmost dept and exceedingly appreciative. They are making my dream possible, and they are fully supportive, encouraging, and protective of Veronica, her school children, and her endeavors. The slums here are quite literally another world, as they are anywhere, and while their problems need to be addressed, as I am doing here, I would not want anyone to get the wrong idea of Kenya. First, because, as I have mentioned before, Kenya feels akin to my home, and second, I am still learning Kenya, but I have not known a people more welcoming or kind or optimistic than Kenyans, nor have I come across such beautiful landscapes and ancient ecosystems.

    As the teachers in the school introduced themselves during the assembly, I felt a tiny tickle on my hand the tiny girl held. I looked down and saw her take her free hand to trace my blue and purple veins, which were visible through my starkingly white skin, from my knuckles to my wrist. She looked to her own hand for the same lines, found and traced them, and then smiled at our similarities. I smiled back. She delicately touched my bracelets and my skirts, and then pressed in closer to me.

    I had an eerily similar “hand-matching” experience during my first time in Africa. On the chimpanzee reserve in Zambia, during feeding time, I had mistakenly diverted my attention to a group of school children passing through, and lost track of where my hand and arm were in relation to one of the “bachelor” chimps that was kept locked up in a cell for killing an elderly couple that had raised him, abused him, and held him captive in a cage. In my hand, was a hard rock fruit I had intended to throw to him before my mind had wandered, and instead of taking the rock fruit, he took my hand into his cell instead and tossed the rock fruit out of it. I turned to him, and could do nothing but helplessly and pleadingly stare him in the eyes, silently asking he return my hand still attached to my arm and shoulder. He looked at me softly, and I remembered being surprised at his reaction, for who would have blamed him for seeking revenge, right then and there, on the species that had managed to mistreat him and then subsequently lock him up for life for acting like the wild chimpanzee he was? All potentially gory realities aside, I wouldn’t have blamed him for what could have and probably should have happened.

    The bachelor moved very slowly, seemingly so as not to startle me. Even still, I’m not sure I even managed to breath. He gently opened my hand and then traced the lines of my palm. I could see him study those lines carefully, and I watched his eyes struggle to focus on them in the low, dark light of his cold, lonely cell. He then proceeded to look for the lines on his palm and then matched his hand to mine. We just sort of stood there and looked at each other, connected with our eyes and through our palms. Vanity kicked in for a second, and I remember thinking that, for once, my big, rough, veined farm hands didn’t look so big and rugged next to a chimp’s. For the first time, my hands looked like girl hands to me. Maybe I smiled, because I saw the chimp’s eyes twinkle and he broke our palmed bond gently by pulling my hand away from is, held it for a moment again, as if to settle me down, and then gently, and maybe even a little sadly, pushed it back to me, unscathed, through the bars again.

    Without getting incredibly philosophical, this sweet little girl’s gentle and immediate acceptance of me and her delicate, graceful quest to find our similarities through our hands showed me how connected we really are. Just like that giant bachelor did, in addition to quite literally and single-handedly humbling me, holding not just my hand but my life in the balance, without really meaning to. He was just curious and looking for some connection between him and me, only to find we were, indeed, very connected. Not to also sound cliché, or just plain corny, but “The Lion King” was pretty right on: there’s a circle of life, and it moves us all. The bachelor’s curiosity taught me I could be as connected to Africa as I wanted to be, and there I was today, back in Africa, and now the self-proclaimed protector of a newfound beautiful tiny sister who had taken the initiative to match herself up to me through our hands. Later in the day, I’d later learn how profound this instant connection between us truly was.

    Suddenly, it was my turn to speak and introduce myself to these children at Joy Beginners. Had there been a moment longer to think or prepare, the lump in my throat would have grown too large to speak. I was as nervous and unsure as I have ever been in my life, and I didn’t know what to say. What do you say to the 100 beautiful smiling faces of these young ones? How are they even managing to smile, when, after an hour of touring the shanties they were born in and watching their fathers lay around drunk while the elite men talk about the village women needing economic suppression, I’ve personally managed to lose all faith in humanity, specifically in adults, as I’ve never lost it before?

    Either my Swahili is excellent or terrible because whatever I said in greeting made the children laugh. Besides that, I don’t remember a thing. I think I said I hoped they’d teach me just as much as I hoped to teach them. I hope I remembered to say how happy I was to be meet them and how long I’d been waiting to be there. I do remember, for a split second, trying to figure out how I’d leave them in a couple weeks time, and knowing for every second spent apart and back in the developed world, I would not rest until I was back with them and with some plan or means or idea to truly help them.

    It was a whirlwind of bustling excitement as the children returned to their respective classrooms. I got lots of high-five’s as they passed me, each smile just as beautiful as the next. I guess the men had more they wanted to say to Veronica about me and about what they wanted me at the school for, so we all sat down again, back on the red dirt bank of the school to discuss further. “PhD” came up a lot, and I felt embarrassed. For several reasons. First, many of these women teachers have managed to earn teaching certificates despite forced marriages, forced children, and extreme poverty. They are beautiful and smart and speak 7+ African languages, plus English. They have built a school out of nothing. Here I am, almost in my third-year, and none of the 78947+ hours of privileged school time and effort and all-nighters and access to pages and pages of primary studies have prepared me for one second of this. I can identify the main challenges surrounding the school, but even if I had all the funding in the world, I’m not sure I’d know where to start. And I know all the things to look out for, like corrupt government interference, for example, and western investment and education expert yahoos who will come in and try to base everything off of an American school model.

    I know to involve as many locals as possible and try to create sustainability by initiating and stimulating the local economy in every possible way. Before we even stepped foot in the school, I immediately disagreed with the way so many large foreign missions insist on bringing in supplies from the developed world. Everything we'd need to build and expand this school is right here, which helps to stimulate the local economy and create a strategic dependency and link to the success and accessibility of education. I think this would be beneficial here. The markets have fresh food and schools supplies at a fraction of the cost they could be gotten from the States, not including the customs fees and high chance of theft from corrupt government officials.

    I also know how many children do not have access to school in Africa: over 100 million. I know the continent’s literacy rate: less than 50%. But what about these children right here, right now? How many of them will be orphans in a year because their parents are dying from HIV/AIDS? What will happen to them, then? How many children have no place to sleep tonight? Do they have a safe place to do their homework? Are these young girls protected from the men that roam the streets at night? How can I keep them in school, if they’re forced to marry early or if their families need them to stay behind to help earn an income?

    I’ve always known my role in global health would not be statistics oriented, but instead, individual-oriented, and yet, here are 100 children staring me in the face. They represent 0.0001% of the children who have a right to education in Africa but cannot access it because the funding and the resources don’t exist. Even the 100 children here at this school do not have enough food to eat or enough books to read. They want me to teach math and science for grades 4-8 here. I frantically tried to remember if I remembered decimals and fractions and algebra. What if they’re learning physics this week in science class? I’m terrible in physics. I’ll hope for chemistry. I can do chemistry. It’s never too early to teach kids organic chemistry, right? I can probably handle the CRE classes (Christian Religion Education), although, a recent run-in with Michigan church politics involving Africa and my subsequent outspokenness on the matter got me labeled as a heathen and simultaneously kicked out of church, so that may also make me unsuitable even for that class.

    The little girl who held my hand at the assembly suddenly came out of nowhere as I stood on that red bank, lost in thought, while the voices of Veronica, Joseph (a teacher), my mom, and one of our guides continued to discuss (you can, quite literally, see the picture of this moment on the title page of this blog). I took her hand and looked at her as I hopelessly tried to sort all this out.

    “MZUNGU!” A booming voice from behind me made me jump.

    “Samahani?! What?” I asked, seeing it was Bwana David.

    “MZUNGU!” he said, again, pointing to the little girl. And then to me.

    I was confused. “Mzungu” means “white man” (or in my case, “white woman”), and this little girl did not look mzungu to me, at least, not compared to my pale skin.

    “Yes, Jenifa, look closer,” he said. “Look around you.”

    I did as he said, and I will admit, compared to this little girl, all of the other children did have much darker skin, but I was still confused.

    “She is your ancestor. That’s why you’ve been drawn to each other. It’s a magic that exists.”

    “Oh?” I said, feeling a Disney-movie warmth creep back into my blood. If I was somehow related to this little girl, maybe the world was alright.

    “Yes, that is the draw you feel to each other. Your common ancestors are bringing you back together. I saw it.”

    “Magic of the ancestors!” I said, smiling, and finding the Nairobi air fresh and sweet again. “I love it.”

    But the story wasn’t over.

    “…Her skin is light because her father was mzungu. Her mother, a prostitute. She will never know her father. He was a tourist, or even a volunteer in the slums, and he saw a beautiful woman, and this is what happens. We don’t talk about this to the children. We want them all to see each other and be known as equals. But the teachers know. We know. So we can help them. So that we can know where they come from and what they are up against.”

    I watched the little girl play with her friends. How tiny she was, but you could see her smiling dimples and glowing energy from a mile away.

    “What’s her name?” I asked, still watching her.

    “Marion,” he answered, simply. “And she lives with her grandmother.”

    For the hour or so it’s taken me to write this out and gather my thoughts, I’ve found a bit of peace, but I’m inclined to pace the floors all over again thinking of Marion. Is SHE safe tonight? Does SHE have enough food to eat? There are 99+ more children I met today of which to ask the same questions.

    Regardless, my work is cut out for me, and I guess that’s what I’ve come for. I have more languages to learn and a dissertation to re-design. In a week’s time, my mom and I are scheduled to head into the bush to see a Masai school. I thought that’s what I’d be starting up for my dissertation: another rural school among a Masai village. But as Bwana David tried to tell me before, Joy Beginners is special. Veronica is a pioneer. I feel a responsibility to cut out the middleman and be the middlewoman and do everything in my power to make sure she stays IN charge, no matter the funding or the foreign powers/investors/people that pass through. Veronica needs help to keep her school running, but I won’t know what help she needs until I have a chance to ask her, without the men around. And then I won’t know what to do about it, until I get to know the community, the ecology, and the environment better. Thank goodness I got all my schoolwork done ahead of time because it’s all useless at the moment. A week ago, my biggest problem was finishing a 20+ page paper on public health informatics (innovative computer systems) and tomorrow, my biggest problem will be coherently teaching algebra with no books, no electricity, and no Wikipedia, for computers are the farthest need nor of any use in the immediate future. Mother Kitchen (the head cook who makes breakfast and lunch for the children) has said she’ll teach me to prepare ugali tomorrow, known as “stiff porridge.” For some reason, this has provided me immense comfort.

    Learning to make ugali is like “Africa 101.” It’s a staple food here, and one I had only heard and read about from my Swahili professor. It was the first real Swahili word I learned, and I cannot quite express the amusement and anticipation I felt in finally being able to taste it yesterday. When we stopped at a market to pick up food for the next several days, I insisted on picking up the maize flower required to make it. The only other ingredient is water. But by the time we returned to the apartment, I was too hungry and too anxious to wait around for it to cook, and our wonderful and beautiful host, Sheila Bensons, knew of a local African Pub we could eat at. Much to my delight and relief, there was ugali, right on the menu. It tastes like nothing, as I had been warned, but it was the tastiest meal I’ve ever eaten. I even ate the leftovers for breakfast this morning, along with some sugar cane (because I could).

    Anyway, ugali has been eaten by Africans since before anyone I’ve talked to can remember and learning to make it from native Africans, somehow, feels like I’m starting somewhere with the school. It may prove irrelevant to this school project—a project which I suspect will and has already begun to consume all parts of me and my immediate future. And rightfully so. This school is where a real need exists and where real work can be done. This is where lives and worlds can be changed and already have, all because of Veronica, and that’s what I’ve wanted to be a part of for as long as I can remember. I am so grateful for this opportunity and to everyone who has guided me to it.

    The motto of Joy Beginner’s School is, “Together we excel.” Well, I’m counting myself as one of them. And tomorrow, between my little contribution of ugali and algebra, my mom’s help, and the immense 24-7 contributions of food and time and unconditional love, dedication, and lessons from the 11 other teachers and Veronica, the mighty headmistress and my new hero, we’ll be one step further ahead, with our futures a little brighter. We’ll all be there, together, by the end of tomorrow’s school day.

    Wish us luck.
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