I’m currently typing this to you in a candlelit room – not the romantic kind, the electricity keeps cutting out.
I’m in Njiru, a slum located an hour from Nairobi, Kenya in East Africa (don’t bother searching where on Google Maps, you won’t find it).
I’m about to tell you the beginning of my journey with Community Progressive Focus Centre, an orphanage/school headed by a woman named Sally. Referred through a friend, I’ve finally taken the leap in volunteering to feed my curiosity on what it’s really like to live in poverty and help with what I can.
As well as my belief that you can learn a lot about a travel destination through volunteering and spending time with locals, perhaps one of my Instagram followers explains my motive better: “How beautiful is it that you also inspire travel of self.”
I arrived at the airport to meet Sally, a petite 50-year-old African community leader with a short red afro, a wide smile and profound eyes – also “Mum” to over 20 orphans.
Instantly connecting on the dusty, congested cab ride over reggae music, we talked non-stop about local daily life, Kenya’s different tribes and the third-world country’s economic situation while passing colourful shantytowns fronted with young men chilling on the back of trucks and women with babies wrapped to their backs. We almost hit a speeding matatu, a pimped out party bus blasting hip-hop music (it’s actually their public bus).
“And we’re here…,” Sally said, as we took a sharp turn where one of many signs pointing into town read “Church Gospels, Oasis of Peace and Celebration Centre”. By now, it felt like we were 4WDing, as I held on tight and elevated to see where I’ll be dedicating the next few weeks of my life. And already, all dark, inquisitive eyes stamped on tired faces were on me.
My friend had warned me of the dangers and risks of this side of Kenya before I left Australia and at one point even advised me to cancel the trek: “Don’t be alarmed by the toxic fumes from burnt rubbish – just cover your face, never visit the neighbouring town – people walk around there carrying guns, you might come across someone getting stoned to death because they got caught stealing, there’ll be kids openly using drugs on the side of the street, everyone’s going to think you’re a millionaire – which you are, to them anyway – and will harass you for money, oh and um, dress waaaaaay down.”
“Cool…” I responded, trying to keep a straight face.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be in good hands. I’m sure your previous solo travels have taught you well.” he said.
Oh God, I’m actually doing this, I thought.
I’ve experienced slums in Asia but this town, predominantly a jumbled labyrinth of incomplete one-storey stone houses and tacky shops on dirt tracks, is different. “Friend’s Hotel” is handwritten on a piece of cardboard sign for what is actually a shack the size of a small car with one bed. The local cinema is the size of a bedroom where 40 people cram in a sweaty mess to watch a tiny screen, a place I later learn is where teens go to do naughty things. Women in headscarves sit at their steps staring at passersby or sell overly ripe bananas hanging from mostly empty market stalls; men keep busy pulling carts stacked with wooden boards or iron sheets. Everyone else is walking, no one’s rushing, small kids (easily outnumbering adults) are loitering everywhere playing with rubber tyres or plastic bottles, and goats and donkeys roam freely amongst piles of rubbish.
The sun was setting and Njiru, a place away from everything, on that breezy, balmy afternoon surprisingly felt peaceful through silence.
“Sally, you must witness the most beautiful starry nights here,” I said, in awe of the clear, lavender sky.
“Oh, the most,” she responded and smiled.
But the undercurrent of disorder and pain was palpable.
Opening the school metal gate, kids in shaggy wear stopped their tracks in the main grounds surrounded by wood scraps and cement sand to examine the new myzungu (white person) at the entrance. I introduced myself to the shy 3-13 year olds who greeted me with incredible grace. In their baby voices, they responded “I’m fine” after I said “hello!” (thinking I asked “how are you?”) but it was too cute for me to correct them – not just yet anyway.
The orphanage/school itself is built from cemented stone walls with cage-like rails as windows on a small block of land. Classrooms look like dark cells with worn-out furniture where chalkboards are wiped down by small pieces of cardboard. There’s a kitchen shed with no electricity, some donated rainwater tanks, an empty cow pen, bathrooms used for showering and washing clothes, and a couple of bedrooms for the orphans.
“So six kids sleep here?” I asked, entering one room.
“No, 13. It’s two-three children per bunk bed,” said Sally.
These kids have come from complicated, horrific backgrounds. One three-year old boy was always drunk because his father fed him alcohol to stop crying, one girl has no idea who her parents are and was pregnant at 10 years of age, another’s parents have been murdered – and this isn’t the worst of it. It’s painful to watch because even if you try to counsel them and ask how they feel, they’re unable to articulate their sadness because they’re just kids. But you can see emptiness in their eyes.
“No matter what I do, these kids come first. I promised to God they will never go to sleep hungry. I can’t eat until I know they’ve eaten,” said Sally, as three-year-old Mike curls up next to her.
“It all comes down to how sensitive they are to what they’ve been through. Some are easier to take care of but others need a lot of attention and patience.” We can probably say the same about adults.
I received some brownie points for joining in a game of Throw-Scrunched-Up-Plastic-Bag.
My heart also softened when Mike finally warmed up to me. He’d stand – all one metre of him – up close against my back as we watched other kids perform dance routines and acrobatic moves or play soccer. For these small moments, I saw something special: children just being children, without any weight of the past. And boy, they are a dream to watch when they constantly create new hilarious ways to entertain themselves.
“I’ve got some crazy kids,” she laughed, lightheartedly. “I guess they create their own world and so long as they’re smiling, I know I’m doing something right.” It’s a beautiful world but an unfair one. Beautiful because they make the most of what they have, an unfair one because they didn’t receive tenderly parental love from the get-go that everyone deserves.
On weekends, these disciplined tiny humans lovingly help the teachers clean the school, wash their donated clothes or learn about agricultural activities in a greenhouse that grows vegetables – a sustainable project recently brought to fruition with the help of a previous volunteer.
“They need to learn to be strong, independent individuals. No one is going to clean up after your mess – do it yourself. I need them to remain busy. Get creative – what can you do with yourself? Build something, change something, just do something… The worst thing to have is an idle mind – that’s when silly thoughts appear.”
Sally dreams of introducing vocational courses like hair-dressing and other arts and craft work to allow these kids to see the bigger picture. I can barely make sense of one boy’s creative writing but this doesn’t dishearten Sally because she sees his big personality. “It’s okay, he might not be good with books but maybe someday he can be a comedian or an actor,” she envisioned, while we watched him from across the grounds pulling goofy faces at other kids.
“The next Eddie Murphy! That’d be a great story. An orphan from an African slum makes it big in Hollywood,” I suggested, with a wink.
Sally laughed but was quick to assertively respond, “nothing is impossible.”
“Sally, I think it’s a beautiful thing that you see them as individuals and allow them to shine on their own by tapping into their interests and honing in on their strengths.”
“Well, we gotta see the light. I tell them all the time: don’t worry about yesterday, today might not even be that great, but tomorrow will be better. Just do the best you can.”
I’ve held back tears a few times (and let go once), but Sally has held back more when speaking with me. You would think it’d phase this fallen angel less to hear yet another awful story when taking in a new child but it still hits her every time. “When there’s a kid out there, right outside my door crying for help even when I have my hands full, how can I say ‘no’?”
I suddenly saw that if it wasn’t for Sally’s dedication in providing guidance, protection and love to these children, then they’d be out on the street developing ignorance, eventually having severe mental disorders and/or turn to crime in desperate times. These kids will then grow up having kids of their own who also don’t know any better. I also suddenly felt grateful of my parents who didn’t just leave me aside thinking I’ll just figure it all out by myself.
Have you ever wondered why the universe was so kind to you and me – sitting with our laptop or phone reading/writing this right now – and not so much to others?
Ignorance is bliss but I’ve chosen to care, even though it’s the more painful path. I’ve come here thinking this would just be an issue around lack of food and water but that barely scratches the surface of the root of the problem. I’m now aware of a vicious cycle of disorder and corruption for generations to come, to happen to people who were just unfortunate to be born on the other side of the world.
There’s a lot to take in but I’m comforted to know Sally is by my side the entire way (also literally – she won’t allow me to walk around alone) while residing in her humble abode, eating homemade local food and learning a thing or two about African culture. They even bought the Kenyan version of Weetbix to make me feel right at home.
Next week, I look forward to sharing Part 2 with you – an important piece where I will unveil some valuable life lessons learned during this eye-opening experience. In the meantime, have you seen my original Life Mantras Learned Through Volunteering on Instagram? If so, I hope you’re enjoying them.
And as always, thanks for taking the time to read my words. Don’t forget to subscribe – it’s the best way for you to stay updated and for us to connect.
Light and love,
What was your overseas volunteer experience like? Planning on travelling soon to make a difference? Tell me about it, write me a comment below.
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Tales of Ardour shares honest volunteerism experiences. As always before heading overseas, make sure you visit the official Australian government website Smart Traveller for the latest health and safety updates, as well as entry requirements.
Community Progressive Focus Centre is an organisation that believes in the importance of generating local solutions to any prevailing problem or circumstance for sustainable community development. Its mission is to strengthen partnerships for early childhood development and education within the Njiru community in Nairobi, Kenya.
Would you like to help Sally? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.