Finding Myself in Africa- Chapter 6

I wake up on my third morning in Kenya to find that my jet lag is finally over. I never believed jet lag was a real thing until I had to sleep nonstop in Africa to switch my sleeping patterns.

After a short lecture from my mom about the importance of eating breakfast I put on my shoes and was out the door. Sorry mom, but you try eating the same thing every day.

It’s amazing how quickly I’m getting tired of the food, it’s only been a few days but with how I feel, you would think it’s been a few weeks. Bread and butter just does not sit well with me today; I hastily drink a mug of hot tea before rushing out the door. I’m not worried about losing weight, in my opinion I could stand to lose a few pounds anyways; so, we’ll call it the Kenyan diet.

I have successfully landed in Kenya during their rainy season, and having been woken up the previous night by a raging storm outside my window, it’s no wonder that I walk the half mile to school in the mud, evasively maneuvering around puddles. Back home I would have worried about ruining my nice sneakers, but out here in the slums I’m almost glad to be walking through mud, watching my sneakers get covered in filth. Walking around in new shoes almost feels like I stand out too much, it’s the same reason I don’t wear the New York Jets hat I brought or my sunglasses that I searched all through Walmart to find. I don’t want to stand out, nothing good can come from looking like a tourist in a poverty-stricken area.

School is just getting in session when I arrive in the pre-unit classroom where the children seem very happy to see me. They wave and run to give me hugs making me feel welcome for the first time since I arrived.

They begin singing and dancing as part of their early morning routine. The songs go something along the lines of, “when I started school I wasn’t very smart. But now, I speak good English, I can write, I have money in my pocket, wisdom in my head and Jesus in my heart. To my teachers and my parents, I salute you!” Then they say the Our Father before class begins.

The kids are so cute. They like being tickled, you’d think no one has ever done that before. They run up to me shouting “teacher Nikki!” and raise their arms so I can tickle them.

Getting a disease or a sickness has infected my thoughts every time I touch a door or even a child. I brought at least fifteen bottles of hand sanitizer with me and am determined not to waste it.

I made the mistake of putting hand sanitizer on around the children and when they smell it and realize it’s coming from my hands they start grabbing and smelling them.

Some of the children begin to grab for me and rub their hands on mine as if to get the smell from me to them, while others rubbed their heads on my hands. To me sanitizer smells like very strong dish soap, but to these kids, you’d think I was wearing the most luxurious expensive perfume.

I still feel out of my element, like an outsider begging to be included. Most of the time I watch and listen, it’s the best way I know to get a feel for the other volunteers and the teachers at the school.

I find myself laughing as Virginia enters the school building after a 4-hour hiatus with braided hair to look like the women in Kenya; at the same time Dantilla (a teacher and principal at Havilla) walks out of her office with a conditioner in her hair to make it soft and straight “like ours.” Mila begins laughing and says “women always want what they don’t have. Virginia wants her hair to be hard like Dantilla and Dantilla wants her hair to be soft like Virginia’s.” I’m learning that no matter the country or the culture we are all inherently the same.

I must admit it is rough living here. Every time I take a shower there are flies and today I had to basically take a sponge bath because the water was too hot and only a small stream of water came out of the faucet; and every time I eat I need to check each bite for bugs. The flies cover everything and are everywhere. TRUTH BE TOLD I AM OFFICIALLY HOMESICK. I have lost my appetite so I am barely eating.

Every day my meals consist of:

BREAKFAST: 2 pieces of bread with butter and 1 cup of tea

TEA TIME: 1 piece of mandazi and 1 cup of tea

LUNCH: 1 banana

TEA TIME: 1 cup of tea

DINNER: 1 plate of Kenyan pilau (spiced rice) or cabbage with ugali

I am amazed that while I am in Kenya I am learning about the German culture and words like dornroshen which means sleeping beauty, something Virginia called me as she teases that I take naps more than anyone she knows.

The conversation shifts and I realize Americans are portrayed in other countries in perhaps an unflattering way as Lydia asks if we really eat smarties candies on our pizza. She saw it in The Princess Diaries movie and tried it because she thought that’s what Americans eat so it must taste good. I should have mentioned that unfortunately Americans think a lot of strange things taste good, like their need to fry everything, including ice cream.

Once school ends, the girls and I make our way onto the dirt covered streets perusing the vendors. People call out to us, “mzungu! Mzungu!” meaning “white girl” in swahili. We are looking for a snack before dinner and there is an array of various items from fries (otherwise known as chips) to samosas and corn. I can’t bring myself to buy anything even though any of it would cost my 10 shillings, the equivalent of 10 cents. Bugs cover all of the food from fruits to fish, but I am starving and I know dinner won’t be filling so I finally settle on some fries that were in a covered container. However, even with how picky I was I still have to pick a fly or two off as I devour my food; and for a woman who HATES bugs, the fact that I still eat the fries is a major achievement.

We don’t realize how lucky we are at home to be able to do the simple things. Like go to the bathroom without having to make sure there isn’t a cockroach in there or buy a vendor dog without worrying there might be bugs on it, or even sit down to dinner at your kitchen table and enjoy a bit of food with no other thought than to just enjoy the taste.

When we all sit down dinner, Barnabas says “grace” in Swahili, and even though I can’t understand I bow my head to pray anyways.

The dinner tonight consists of ugali and cabbage and I look around and am the only one to pick up a fork. I can’t bring myself to eat the way everyone else is, even the other volunteers. They use their hands to pick apart the ugali and scrape up bits of cabbage. I sit and listen, finding it fascinating to hear the different accents surrounding the table as Barnabas and Mila discuss the days’ events in Swahili and Virginia and Lydia talk in German.

Ugali Recipe:

Boil water in a heavy cooking pot

Stir in cornmeal slowly

Reduce heat to medium-low and continue stirring regularly

Smash any lumps with a spoon until the mush pulls away from the sides of the pot and becomes very thick. (about 10 minutes)

Place ugali in a large serving bowl

I sit and listen, finding it fascinating to hear the different accents surrounding the table as Barnabas and Mila discuss the days’ events in Swahili and Virginia and Lydia talk in German.

I become immersed in my own thoughts as I look around the table and reflect on the day’s events and even later as I sit to write in my journal and post my blog for my friends back at home to see.

There is so much we take for granted and it makes me feel guilty. At the end of the day I can leave all this behind if I choose to. The people here don’t have the option to go home. This IS home. And they just make the best of it with a smile on their face.

Later in the evening as I lie awake in bed I feel more homesick than I ever have and I write these words in a diary; the words I didn’t let anyone else hear.

5 November 2015

I’m not going to lie, this is way harder than I thought it would be. I am officially homesick and I have never missed America more. I am tired of eating rice for lunch and dinner and having bread with butter for breakfast every morning. The smell is unbearable and that makes me not want to eat. The flies are everywhere, on my food, on the furniture, on the tables, in the shower and on the toilet.

The kids in the class are cute but the teacher doesn’t give me anything to do, so I just sit there. I thought I would be contributing more. I am going to try to change my flight. Four weeks here is more than enough. But that makes me feel guilty. I can leave and go home to good food, a job, a clean house and my family. The people here have no choice. They can’t run away from it. This is their life.

If you think I sound selfish or am giving up too soon and that I didn’t give Africa enough of a chance, you’re right. But Africa changed me, at the time I didn’t see the big picture and didn’t know how much one place would come to alter my perspectives as drastically as it did.

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