Your Bad Day Means Nothing ~ Finding Yourself in Africa

Hi everyone! Please check out my new article posted on Global Glam Magazine!

You can find it here:

http://www.globalglam.com/kibera-slums-africa/

Please comment and I hope you enjoy!

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Finding Myself in Africa- Chapter 12

Finally, some semblance of normalcy today. The rooster gave it a break this morning, hopefully he made himself hoarse and lost his voice yesterday.

We have a variation at school today, we only have to do arts and crafts until around 11 a.m. At that time we are asked to take the kids outside to practice for graduation. Five kids are chosen from each class to do the catwalk and the children walk up and down the “runway” and strike a pose while the other students clap and chant their name. It’s adorable to see them act like any other child I’ve interacted with, they have fun and put a little sass into their routine. It’s touching to know that not much changes between cultures; sure we speak different languages and look different, but when you get down to the core, we are all inherently the same.

While we are practicing for their graduation, kids from the area stop to watch. Their clothes are in poor condition. One girls’ stockings are so visibly old that her toes are no longer covered and holes are scattered throughout revealing her skinny legs. All of the children are dirty, their clothes tattered and torn, they sit and watch us and I can’t help but wonder if they look upon our students with envy. They don’t appear to have much other than the clothes on their back and an old basketball they kick around as a soccer ball.

There is an old abandoned, beat up car that sits in the side alley next to the school where we are practicing for graduation. I look behind me and the kids that previously were watching us are now climbing on the car, using it as their own personal jungle gym. It is incredibly sad to watch these kids get so much enjoyment from an old abandoned care because they have nothing else.

I’m losing weight drastically here and it’s no wonder why. At lunch time the other teachers are getting worried because I won’t eat more than a banana. I don’t have the heart to tell them that it’s because I’m squeamish about flies in my food, I feel like that might offend them. They constantly ask if I’m okay or tell me to eat or ask if I’m hungry. I figure the best answer is I’m not very hungry, I just like bananas for lunch.

I’ve been here a little over a week now and when I get home it’s time to do laundry and oh, is it an experience! There are no washing machines her, everything is by hand. I really give the people down here credit, my back is killing my back is killing me by the time I’m done from squatting hunched over a small plastic basin.

The process is time consuming, everything takes a little longer down here. Lydia and Virginia were kind enough to show me the process and laughed when I gave them an incredulous look at the effort it takes. We have to fill one basin with cold water and pour detergent mix in before mixing it around in the water. We put a few items in and scrub them and then put them in another basin to rinse off the soap and then hang them on a clothesline to dry. The problem is it’s the rainy season and I’m just praying that my clothes dry before the overcast sky decides to let the rain fall.

So now I wait until my clothes dry, and let me just say, I am NOT pleased about my undergarments being out there for the world to see.

Tonight is bible study for the family and since I’m trying to be engaging more, I sat at the table to work on my blog, however, it is near impossible to sit in a room and not hear what they are saying.

Near the end, Barnabas begins talking about our sins and says to not become a drunkard. He says (and I’m paraphrasing) that “those who partake in drinking will die young, go to hell, and your soul will belong to the devil.” So, bad news for all of you out there who enjoy a good drink, you will live a short life and go to hell apparently.

Every night after writing my blog in my journal I go to bed with my phone and type the blog up on my phone. It is usually a two-hour process in all but tonight I am hindered by an unexpected guest in my room. I am walking toward my bunkbed when something small crawls out from my mattress. It looks kind of like a stinkbug, it takes me a minute to realize it is actually a cockroach when Rose walks in. I begin hyperventilating and yell at her “what is that!?” She starts laughing, grabs it with her hand, throws it to the ground and stomps on it with her bare foot. Laughing, she says “It’s just a cockroach.” I respond with “Oh is that all!?” I miss home, I did NOT sign up for that, on second thought, I guess I kind of did.

Finding Myself in Africa- Chapter 11

It’s my 8th day in this poverty-stricken country and the power has now been out for the past two days. Even the slightest drizzle of rain causes the WiFi to shut down and the power to go out. It poured all night and it was so loud that even my ear plugs couldn’t keep out the sound. It doesn’t help that I was in bed by 8:30 p.m. like some old woman.

After a fitful night’s sleep I wake up to the rooster directly outside of my window. He must have been angry about the weather because he is LOUD and instead of going off every 15 minutes, it is more like every 2. I strongly am considering finding a gun and putting the annoying bird out of his misery.

After getting to school and setting up shop (we are still making letters and pictures for the kids) I finally have realized where the terrible stench in the courtyard is coming from. I’ve been smelling it for a few days and didn’t realize the toilet the kids use is in the courtyard, right next to where we’ve been working. Although, I use the term “toilet” loosely. It is a small area about the size of a broom closet. There is a wooden door that only locks from the outside and I have seen several children go in to use the toilet at the same time.

How is that possible, you might ask? Well, the toilet is not a conventional toilet; it is a hole in the ground outlined with a plastic rim. A couple times a day a teacher or a group of students dump a bucket of water down the hole, for what purpose I have no idea. All I know is I have to sit in the room right next to it and smell it for 7 hours a day.

I do feel bad for the children, not only do they have to use a substandard toilet, the food we feed them is hardly nutritional. They eat the same food every single day without complaint. We feed them tea and bread in the morning and for lunch they get a small portion of white rice with watered down beans and cabbage. They actually put extra cups of water in the beans to make it a soup-like substance so there is more to go around.

On the side, they get a small slice of banana or watermelon but when I am finished serving the food there is always some pieces left. Carefully I take the tray to the baby class first but the children swarm around me. They all want the extra food I have to offer. Their hands are in front of my face and I raise the tray high above their heads for fear of them knocking it down. They yell “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” hoping I will hear them and put a morsel of food in their tiny, outstretched hand. The little kids tug on my shirt to get my attention since they are not tall enough for me to see them.

I can’t imagine being so young and having to fight for food because I’m not sure when my next meal will be. The best part though, is these kids have such high hopes for the future. When you ask them what they want to be when they grow up you don’t hear the things you’d expect of a 7-year-old. When I was little we said we wanted to be a ballerina or a champion figure skater or professional baseball player. These kids tell you that they want to be a pilot or a lawyer, a doctor or a pastor; proof that they are reaching for a brighter future.

After getting back to the house the power was out again so I decided to take another nap. I know, I acknowledged already that I nap too much out here. Half an hour later I’m waking up to Lydia at my door telling me the water is back on and I can take a shower.

Due to the power being out I haven’t been able to shower for a couple days and between you and me, I’m starting to smell like my roommate. So I jumped (literally) at the opportunity. I launch myself out of bed and run to the shower, just as it starts to rain again. Even though I really want to soak under the water, two things prevent me from doing so, the small trickle of water coming out of the spout and the fact that I am afraid the rain will cause the water to shut off while I have soap in my hair.

It’s amazing how one day can make any sort of difference in how I feel here. I’m beginning to get more comfortable, instead of hiding out in my room all night, I hang out in the living room with the family. Instead of writing my blog in bed, I sit at the table and write. It’s a very interesting scene with Lydia and Virginia on my right talking in German, and Mila, Rose and Joseph on my left speaking in Swahili. I’m beginning to think I’m not cultured enough. Every country in the world makes their people learn several languages. In America, most of us only know one. I’d like to become more cultured. There are so many opportunities available to us, why not take them?

Chapter 9- Finding Myself in Africa

It’s hard to believe that one week ago, today, I was leaving the States to come live a life I knew nothing about. I’m learning a lot and trying to keep an open mind. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but this life here is nothing like what I expected.

It’s so quiet this morning since Rose isn’t here waking up at 5 a.m., turning the lights on and playing her music so I sleep in until 11 a.m. before slowly getting out of bed. I walk into the dining room to see Lydia and Virginia sitting at the dining table in silence, just enjoying the quiet morning.

After breakfast I get dressed and we make the mile and a half walk to the Nakumat. Shops line the streets selling clothes that look like they’ve been handed down and come from other countries. They sell for so little, jeans are priced at about 1 shilling.

Once we’re at the Nakumat we decide we want to eat as much good food as we can before the family returns from their trip.

We buy frankfurters and I buy ketchup and am lucky enough to find some presents for people back home. After that we walk over to the market to buy fruit for a fruit salad. We only get fruits with a shell to keep the flies away from the good stuff, this includes pineapple, mangos, apple-mango and watermelon.

There are mini busses called Matatu’s that we can take back to the house for a shilling, but I request we walk. I know the sun is hot and our bags are heavy, but I miss running and my body aches for some form of exercise.

Our 3-mile round trip walk takes a little longer after having to dodge obstacles such as cars, people, gaping holes in the ground, pipes, goats, garbage, chickens, and every half block jumping a drain that is actually a deep trench dug horizontally in the sidewalk. We have to watch where we are walking for fear of spraining an ankle or getting hit by a car.

The whole way home people sitting outside their shops or huts shout out to us “How are you!” We don’t respond because getting pick pocketed is a big problem in Kibera. When we don’t answer they yell “Mzungu!” meaning white person. Adults and children alike do this, and some shout “Mzungu!” just because they think it’s funny that we don’t respond.

People seem to approach me more than the girls, at one point a man runs up to me and asks me to take a sip of his water. It could be because Virginia and Lydia seem to fit in here more, or it could be that I am wearing a NY Jets hat and a finals blowout t shirt from college, looking like a typical American.

Twenty-five minutes later we arrive back at the house, sweating and out of breath. I think the walk made Virginia sick because she goes to lie down and Lydia and I begin making lunch. I feel like royalty looking at our spread of leftover pasta and vegetables and our fruit salad and frankfurters. There is so much food and I don’t know where to begin, so I dig in and even go back for seconds.

The rest of the day is spent relaxing and I figure out how to use a VPN to access my Netflix account which feels like a real achievement. While the girls play on their phones I am hit with fatigue and go lay down. After a small nap I am called to the table for dinner. Still half asleep, I sit down, glad to be eating a good meal for the second day in a row.

It is our goal to eat all of the food we bought before the family gets home for fear of them eating it, so I’m told to have a second helping. I don’t feel guilty about eating so much, knowing the next day will most likely be Ugali and knowing I will probably go to bed hungry.

We wash the dishes together and then sit in the living room and just enjoy the silence. There are two kinds of silences, awkward silence and comfortable silence; this being the latter, I sit back and enjoy the tranquility.

Chapter 8

At a little after 11 p.m. I finally fall into a fitful sleep, I toss and turn until I am woken up suddenly around midnight by a horrible, awful, pungent stench. A little disoriented, it takes me a minute to realize the smell is coming from the girl in the bunk below me, Rose.

Not a volunteer like me, Rose takes care of the house. She is up at 5:30 every morning and tonight it appears she stayed out and whatever she did tonight offered no favors for her body odor. Although, come to think of it, I’m certain it’s been three days since her last shower as the smell continues to waft up toward my nostrils on the top bunk. It’s 1 a.m. before I decide to climb down the ladder and grab my phone and my flashlight. Quickly messaging everyone I could think of from back home, I thank God for the time difference, switch on my flashlight and immediately grateful for the six books I thought to bring with me to Kenya.

At 4 a.m. I had finished one book and moved onto the second one before dozing off and after what feels like five minutes I awake with a start realizing it’s 8:30 and I’m late to meet Lydia and Virginia to go into Nairobi. It’s an immediate relief to no have to worry about how I look as I get dressed in about three minutes, pulling on a pair of capris, an Orioles three-quartered sleeve t-shirt and my dusty sneakers. With my hair thrown up in a pony-tail I’m ready to go.

I rush out the door to find the girls sitting at the table eating breakfast, waiting on me. It’s not that surprising considering the family I come from; for my mom and I, we’re early if we show up a half hour late.

As we were leaving Kibera, I gaze out the window at the trash lined streets and see people rummaging in the mounds of garbage. The first thought that comes to my mind is “I don’t want to see this,” but I can’t look away. The look on the people’s faces should read feelings of hopelessness or appear forlorn but somehow, they pick through the trash with the expression like someone who just walked into a diner. It is the most normal thing in the world for them, on a Saturday morning to make their way to the local landfill, which seems to be everywhere here, and look for breakfast. After my initial thoughts, I am instantly ashamed. I know where my next meal is coming from, this poor woman with a weather worn face doesn’t.

Continuing into the city I quickly realize how dangerous it is to drive in Kenya. Down here there are no stop lights or stop signs or even lanes that divide the roads as we leave Kibera. It’s a free-for-all, whoever gets there first wins.

Trucks and buses and cars weave in and out of traffic, cutting each other off which includes driving on the wrong side of the road while I’m holding on tight, praying that I survive. The funny part is, that even though they drive like maniacs and have no traffic laws, I haven’t seen a single accident.

It’s while we’re on our way to the elephant orphanage that Jackson, who is driving without a license, asks us if we have cars back at home. We all three nod and say “yes of course we do” and he responds with an audible gasp. He comments that we all must be very rich if we can afford to own a car. In Kenya, he explains, it takes people sometimes their whole lives to save enough money to be able to afford a car, and even once they get one they can’t drive it because they can’t afford the gas to make it run. I sit in the back quietly contemplating that for a moment. I am astounded that owning a car is considered rich, but then have to remind myself where I am and am instantly grateful for everything I am blessed to have at home.

After about a half hour on the road we pull into the elephant orphanage and walk up a path where they charge us 1000 shillings to see the elephants; it’s no wonder Kenya is riddled with poverty, everything costs an arm and a leg for them, whereas for me 1000 shillings translates to roughly 10 dollars.

The four of us make our way up a narrow path to an enclosure where baby elephants under 2 years old are huddled around a man pushing an old rusted cart filled to the brim with 2 liter bottles of milk. It is adorable watching them drink their bottles and roll around in the muddle water for a little reprieve from the hot sun. It was all I could do not to laugh when one elephant mounted another who was lying near a mud puddle, minding her own business. Hey folks, elephants need love too.

Once the presentation with the elephants is over, we continue to the giraffe habitat where we get up close and personal with the animals. We are handed food to go up and feed them; which is all well and fine until a man working with the giraffes tells me to put the food between my lips so the giraffe would give me a kiss. As appealing as that sounds I back away and begin to say no thanks, something about an 18-foot animal putting his mouth on mine freaks me out. That is, until Lydia shouts “You have to do it Nikki! For your blog!” Sufficed to say I begin laughing uncontrollably before giving in and taking a small treat from the hand of a nearby worker. A good journalist has to make some sacrifices after all for her craft, right? I kissed a stingray once, so this should be no problem compared to that.

Slowly I put the treat between my lips and lean over the fence to where the giraffe stands waiting. His lips are hairy and his tongue feels rough, I think we’ll be announcing our engagement any day now.

Our next stop would be the Bomas of Kenya but since we have some time to kill, we decide to stop for a bite to eat. There is a mall located nearby that is so nice you wouldn’t believe we had just been in the slums that morning. I hadn’t realized how much I was craving some good, old fashioned, American food until I spotted a KFC across the parking lot. The smell of grease and fried chicken lured me to the restaurant before quickly stepping inside to take a look at the menu.

My jaw dropped open in surprise when Lydia and Virginia announced they have never had KFC and after their first bite, I can tell they are hooked.

After lunch we quickly make our way to the Bomas, which is basically an outside museum to show what villages in Kenya used to look like.

As we walk through and glance at the small clay huts Jackson explains that his grandparents used to live in huts like these, but the structures died out because there wasn’t enough tall grass to build the roofs.

The Bomas are circular structures made of clay with straw roofs. Inside there is a small fire pit for warmth and a bed made from bamboo tied together. Jackson is narrating for us as we continue from one tribal village to another. The inside of the huts consists of only a small fire pit for warmth and a bed made from bamboo. In each village there are four huts, one for the husband and three for each of his wives. I am shocked to find out the it was the wife’s idea for the husband to have more wives because it meant she would have help maintaining the land, the chores, and it meant the other women could have children.

Jackson continues on to tell us that it is still common in Africa to practice polygamy. “If I got married,” he says, “I would have one wife and maybe three girlfriends.” He asks Virginia, Lydia and myself if we do that back home. Virginia tells him sometimes, but it’s called cheating. He says “Okay, so I could do it then.” I said, “You could, but your wife would leave you.” His response to that made me laugh. “Then I’ll hide it from her so she won’t know about it.” After I finish laughing I say “Jackson, women find out everything. You can’t hide anything from us.”

It becomes a running joke for the rest of the day, and when we enter one village that has the four huts labeled husband, wife 1, wife 2 and wife 3 I know we have to take photos in front of the signs. After taking several photos, we continue touring the villages and joke that Jackson is our husband, and we are his 3 wives.

In the next village I notice there is a husband’s hut here as well and, curious, I step inside the dark cavernous space. I stand still just inside the entrance waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark when I get the feeling that I’m not alone. Suddenly I notice a bright white set of teeth smiling at me and realize there is a person just inches from my face. I immediately run screaming from the hut and the man who was sitting still as a statue follows me out. Lydia and Virginia begin laughing at the look of sheer terror on my face.

It doesn’t take long to finish touring the villages and once done, we make our way back to the car for the hour drive home.

After arriving back at the house, it is blissfully quiet since the Mutua family is away until tomorrow night. So after setting our things down, exhausted and completely worn out from our day, we head to the kitchen to make ourselves dinner. We make pasta for the second night in a row, I’ve never felt so lucky!

And the best part…no roommate tonight, so my room won’t smell, I can keep the lights on as long as I want and maybe I’ll get a good night’s sleep.

Chapter 7-Finding Myself in Africa

Chapter 7

On my fourth day in this poor, third-world country I wake up to realize I enjoy the rooster crowing at 6 a.m. It’s like a nifty alarm clock I don’t have to set; he goes off at 15-minute intervals like clockwork, snooze button included!

Going to the school is becoming easier for me. I’m finally getting into the swing of things and I know my way around, although I am admittedly a little quieter than I usually am. I’m waiting to come into my own out here, in fairness, it’s only been four days.

Mila (the mom at the house I stay at and the teacher I work with) was out today, she had to have a checkup since she is due to have her baby at the end of this month. She didn’t want me to teach her class because she thinks I am too quiet. I almost laughed at that, I am the furthest thing from quiet. So instead I spent the day with Lydia and Virginia (the two German volunteers).

I’m getting more comfortable with the kids. Today we can spend the majority of the day playing games and practicing for their graduation. Graduation occurs every two years in the school and in 2 weeks I will get to watch the kids walk in front of their families and receive their little diplomas.

It is becoming easier to relate to the children this way; Lydia, Virginia and myself taught the kids how to walk on a catwalk and strike a pose at the end. It is so cute watching the girls walk like supermodels. They shake their cute little hiney’s and place a hand softly on their hip and walk like they own the runway.

Finally, after much practicing we watched teacher Tyson walk out of the building to watch our progress. The boys and girls were beginning to get tired of posing for the “runway” and Teacher Tyson stopped us to play some games. One or two were so familiar I had to laugh, including red light/green light and shark which is essentially a game of tag but once you get tagged you become a shark too and have to tag the other kids. They giggled and ran with so much joy and happiness it was infectious.

After several games, with the 8-10-year-olds giggling and out of breath we once again begin to practice for graduation.

Each class has their own announcement. The baby class and pre-unit are first up as they thank their “teachers and parents and fellow people” for their education, class 1 showed how they can count in English and class two showed how they can spell in English.

As the class practices, I sit on an old, beat up car that has been deserted for what looks like years. I look down at the kids and try to keep them quiet, in line, and keep them from jumping up on the car since I am being a bad influence. The rehearsal takes about an hour which is cause for a little complaint from me since I am beginning to bake in the sun and my nose is turning into a poorly represented Rudolph’s nose.

When we finally take a break for lunch I can’t help but opt out of eating. I take one look at the flies covering my food and I can’t do it. I think maybe I’ll have some watermelon, but as I look over and see the 20 some-odd flies covering it I think to myself, maybe not.

Everyone sits in their chairs, which are more children’s chairs you’d normally see in a pre-school, and the begin to talk. Not having any food myself I mostly sit and listen to the conversations around me until I am, for the first time, included.

Teacher Winnie who teaches the baby class looks fondly at my hair as she asks “Do you put oils in your hair after the shower?” I reply with a tentative “no” and smile saying I don’t put anything in my hair. Her mouth opens in an astonished gasp and says, “Do you just get out of the shower and your hair looks like that?!” I begin laughing, I don’t know what to say. This is a completely different type of lifestyle and we are still talking beauty products as if I were back home. There is a momentary pause before Teacher Winnie starts commenting on how smooth it is and asks me to take it out of the ponytail I have it put up in haphazardly to see how long it is. “Your hair is so pretty and long,” she says, “and the color looks perfect with your skin!”

It kind of makes me feel bad. In the States, we are so consumed with being the picture of perfection. We are constantly comparing ourselves to each other, it’s always a competition. Yet here I am, in mud-splattered jeans, dirt-encrusted sneakers, a grungy pullover sweater, my hair pulled back in a haphazard bun and no make-up and I STILL get complimented because my hair is smooth and my hair color is pretty. It makes me wonder, why do we try so hard instead of being proud of the qualities we already possess that don’t have a label?

As lunch ends it is time to round the kids up, and since Teacher Tyson is practicing the graduation with our students I go to the kitchen to help Leonard was the dishes. As he scrubs the plates and I rinse the soap off in the bucket of clean water we begin talking about what it’s like in America.

The conversation makes me feel increasingly like an entitled American as he asks me if we wash dishes by hand in America. I tell him sometimes, but we have a machine that washes dishes for us. He then asks me what about clothes. I say “we have a machine to wash clothes too.” He thinks the concept is funny and asks how a dishwasher works. I explain that there is a machine that we place the dishes into and pour soap into a small hole. When we close the door of the machine and press start the machine begins to wash the dishes for us. A smile breaks across his face as he says he wants to visit America so he can see the machine that washes dishes.

Eventually the conversation turns to where I work and I tell him I work in a restaurant. He asks if there is a machine there that washes dishes too? I smile and kindly tell him there is, it is at this point that he suggests that when I go back I should teach the dishwashers to wash the plates by hand like we do in Kenya. Laughter escapes from my mouth before I can stop it and I tell him that the dishwashers wouldn’t be okay with that, he looks at me confused and wanted to know why. I kindly explain that there are too many dishes to wash by hand, it wouldn’t be fast enough.

At that point he stops washing dishes and looks as me seriously and says, “In Kenya we don’t mind hard work and it is important to work for everything. You should teach that to your dishwashers.”

It continues to amaze me how much we take for granted. At home, I complain about loading the dishwasher when it does the work for me and here they are proud of a little hard work.

As the school day comes to an end I gather up my things and walk the kids across the street so they can run home to their families before I rush to the house to take a much needed nap. These days seem to be taking a lot out of me, but with the time change and the rooster waking me up at 6 a.m. I can hardly be surprised.

Rose wakes me up for my nap to tell me it’s time for dinner, so I slowly walk to the kitchen to find, much to my delight that we are having a real treat for dinner. On the table I see pasta with broccoli and carrots! My face instantly lights up like it’s Christmas morning, causing the other volunteers (Tim, Lydia and Virginia) to laugh at my excitement.

Yesterday when we went to the Nakumat (grocery story) I saw Heinz ketchup. Anyone who knows me knows I had to buy it. With that in mind I jump up from the table to run to my bedroom to grab my ketchup. It is honestly the best dinner I’ve had since I arrived. After my first helping I ask if anyone else wants more before I dig in for seconds, which would have been the remainder of the food. I receive funny looks all around and quickly try to tell them that I don’t want to take the rest if someone wants more, but no one says anything and just continues to look at me as if I have two heads, so I shrug my shoulders and dig in. I guess down here it is survival of the fittest and ’86 the manners.

I have begun to make it a ritual of sitting at the dinner table after we have all cleaned up and put the dishes away to write in my journal. I later post everything I write online and I find it very therapeutic and a way to share my life with loved ones back home. As I write tonight’s journal entry I notice that Joseph (Barnabas and Mila’s son) is watching Disney channel. It’s the same Princess Sophia show my nephew watches back home and all I can think it how amazing it is that halfway across the world, I am still finding ways that culture doesn’t matter. We are all inherently the same.

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.