I travelled to Kenya in July 2013 with a group of my students from Maples Collegiate, a colleague, and a parent of one of the students. The airplane journey to get there was long and arduous, but so worth it! I had an overwhelming sense of “belonging” as soon as I landed at the Nairobi airport. It’s a strange feeling to describe, other than I knew I needed to be in Kenya. The decision to travel across the globe with a group of eager students, who had been studying about Kenya for the previous four years, just seemed like the right thing to do. I was right.
The Nairobi airport did not enhance our preconceptions about the beautiful and romantic Kenya. It was plain, institutional, and uninviting. I’m not sure if I was expecting to see zebras and giraffes right away, but the airport did not convince me that there was a gorgeous country just outside its doors.
It was night when we arrived. The drive to our first stop was uneventful, but we immediately began to feel our unique presence in Kenya. The roads of Nairobi, its buildings, and the homes were different than what we were accustomed to. The city was falling asleep but still buzzing with life. Overall, I think we were too weary from so many hours of travel to comprehend or admire the amazing opportunities that were about to begin for us.
Once we settled in, we spent the first week visiting different schools, hospitals, medical centres, markets, and a safari. However, we eagerly anticipated our visit to Mama Tunza’s Children’s Home – a program supported by K.I.D.S. Initiative. Visiting the centre was a stark reminder of our privileged lives. The children, who had very little in terms of belongings, food, or infrastructure were filled to the brim with joy, giddiness, and excitement! Even though we were across the globe, we learned that children are universal – they are the same no matter where one lives. It was – by far – the highlight of our trip to Kenya. Located in Ngong Kibiko, just outside of Nairobi, the sprawling centre and it’s out-buildings were far from luxurious, but the children had a roof over their heads, food to eat (most of the time), and opportunities to go to school. The students from Maples Collegiate made friends easily. Children from the centre were not shy; they held our hands, ran with us, played with us, braided our hair, gave us hugs, and entertained us with songs, dances, and poems. We did art together and the markers we used to colour pictures on paper eventually found their way onto our clothing. We all left the centre with personal messages from the children written on our t-shirts. I still have mine. I dare not ever wash away the notes of love. “Come back, Momma, and we will eat cake together.” “Don’t forget about me.” “When I become a pilot, I will go on a plane one day and see you.” “I love you.”
When I returned from Kenya, many of my family and friends asked me, “How was your trip?” It occurred to me that I didn’t consider it a “trip” when I returned; it was an experience of a lifetime and a lesson in humility. I found myself using words such as “awesome,” “life-changing,” and “powerful.” I also made many personal changes – giving away the unnecessary abundance of clothing and belongings that are simply too much for one person. I spent more time volunteering with agencies that support the disenfranchised and poor. I educated myself on systemic barriers to living rich, healthy lives for people born into situations beyond their control. It was a journey that can change perceptions and alter one’s beliefs. I left Winnipeg thinking I would change lives. I hadn’t expected that mine would be the one that changed the most.