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.

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End of Chapter 3/ Chapter 4

The car makes its way slowly as it turns onto an old dirt road. Trodden so many times it’s hard to believe vehicles can drive through the area at all as I bump up and down in the back seat. The car swerves to the left and right avoiding holes in the road and the bigger mounds of dirt. It’s 11 p.m. and it is hard to make out the area through the darkness but I vaguely see houses and shops built haphazardly along the side of the road. Graffiti covers the aluminum walls and it’s hard to determine where one shop ends and another begins. We take a swift left before stopping in a tight enclosure. The path leads on to what I can only assume are homes as Jackson gets out of the car and runs up to a blue metal gate; after slowly pulling it open he runs back to the car and parks in the driveway.

A clothesline hangs above the vehicle with a few white shirts hanging off of it and I glance up to see a small modest home. After stepping out of the car the overwhelming smell of body odor and rotting garbage fills my nostrils, making me nauseous as Jackson walks to the trunk and pulls out my over-sized London Fog suitcase. I am immediately ashamed that I brought a $200 bag with me to a third-world country. My only hope is there is somewhere I can put it so it remains out of sight during my stay here.

We wheel my suitcase to the front door where Barnabas extracts a key from the inside of his jacket and opens the door. I am instantly amazed at how quiet and chilly the night is, “this is Africa” I think to myself, “shouldn’t it be sweltering hot?”

It’s been a long trip to get here, a 16-hour flight and finally I am in Kenya, but all I can think is how much I want to be in bed. Barnabas shows me to my room and tells me that there are three other volunteers here that I will meet in the morning. I walk in my room and meet Rose, she works for Barnabas and will be my roommate for the next three months. She comes up quickly to me and gives me a hug, her English is better than I expected, I don’t know what I thought, but I expected there to be a language barrier of some sort.

She directs me to the top bunk. I have to climb up the end of the bed to reach my cot where there is a blue mesh net hanging from the ceiling. Rose shows me how to drape the netting around the bed to keep out the mosquitos while we are sleeping. It seems to me to be more of an annoying unnecessary process than anything, but I think, “better safe than sorry” as I lay down on my hard mattress and let the crickets lull me to sleep.

Chapter 4

The next morning, I wake up a little disoriented and a little earlier than I had hoped to. A rooster with the biggest set of vocal pipes I’ve ever heard cries out at about 6 a.m., (or 10 p.m. east standard time). I yawn and sit up, looking around I see the room is tiny, a small wooden dresser stands at the foot of the bed with Rose’s perfumes and clothing covering it, while a rack stands in the opposite corner where her towels and jacket hang in a disheveled row. I climb down the ladder of the bed and nearly fall backwards into a table that I would have seen at a backyard party set for party snacks.

I shove my suitcase haphazardly below it and meander out of the room and down a small hallway. Entering through a door I see Barnabas sitting at the table sipping on a cup of tea and a young man who looks about my age sits across from him with a laptop open in front of him. Rose can be seen cleaning dishes through an opening in the wall next to the table and I sit down while Barnabas offers some bread and butter for me.

It is at that point that I decide I should keep a daily blog and begin to take note of everything I am seeing, eating, smelling, living.

Day 1

I am finally in Nairobi, I really thought this day would never come. The flight was what I was most frightened of, but I had no idea what I would be in for.

I am staying in a modest home. A small television set sits near a window next to a stereo. Two armchairs and a couch sit in the middle of the room and seem to be more for display than anything else.

The room I live in is small and quaint with a table pushed up against the wall and a bunk bed for myself and my roommate, Rose, pushed up against the opposite wall. The bathroom consists of a toilet and nothing else. A small rust covered sink is in the hallway for us to brush our teeth.

Taking a shower becomes an experience. A nozzle comes out of the wall and water falls on the laminate floor. A switch needs to be turned on for the hot water, which is separate from the cold. It gets too hot so a small green basin has to be filled before being poured over myself to wash off the grime for the day.

At this point I interrupt your daily blog material to say that I did not explain the bathroom situation clearly enough. The bathroom has flies covering the walls and crawling on the floor. Small flies that are more of a nuisance than anything else. The shower is one of the most difficult things to get used to. As I shower I think of the glorious shower back home, falling in a steady stream on top of my head. The shower in Kenya forces me to wear flip flops to take my shower, strongly reminding me of my days back in college, fear of contracting any sickness followed me to Kenya. The thought crosses my mind that I should thank my mother for instilling the sense of fear of becoming ill while I’m here.

The water falls in one single stream and is either scalding hot when the electricity it working, or freezing ice cold when it’s out. There aren’t any nozzles to adjust it to just the right temperature, which becomes an issue when it’s time to shave. Because as my mother would put it, unless I want to look like Magilla Gorilla, I needed to shave.

The process in turn became taking a wash cloth and dowsing it under the hot water, waiting for it to cool down before wringing it out over my body. Imagine the method of washing my hair; if my scalp gets hit by the water, it’s a pain I’ve never known.

As far as the sink goes, for brushing my teeth or washing my hands, well, washing my hands wasn’t an option. The bar of soap looks like it has been sitting there since the family bought the house and might make my hands dirtier and be a tad counterproductive; so hand sanitizer becomes the course of action. I risk brushing my teeth with the water, I have read that as long as I don’t swallow the water, I will be fine, so fingers crossed.

I have become most nervous about eating while I am here. For lunch we had liver and rice with cabbage and potatoes. It was incredibly difficult to choke down and a couple of thoughts crossed my mind. For one, I hope I don’t insult them by throwing this up, two, I miss American food, three, I guess I’m going to be a vegetarian while I’m here.

It is the rainy season here in Nairobi and the sun shines briefly in the middle of the day, but not long enough to dry up the puddles that cover the sidewalks and the dirt road. Piles of trash line the street and I can’t help but wonder why they don’t have an organization to clean it up. I know money is an issue down here, things cost almost nothing for me, but it could even be a job for the volunteers. Send people in to clean up the streets.

Yet somehow, despite being surrounded by so much filth, the people seem to be happy. I hear Rose in the kitchen humming to herself while she cooks. I hear children outside laughing while they play. At the Havilla Children’s Centre, kids are separated into groups and are learning in classrooms so small you can barely open the door. Yet despite all that they are so happy. They laugh and smile and sing; I was told to wait in a classroom for a few minutes and the children ran to me shouting “Teacher Nikki! Teacher nikki!” And held my hand and gave me many hugs.

These children come from the Kibera slums, the worst slums in Kenya, and a place I will be visiting tomorrow. No, I am not prepared.

The power is out right now, which happens from time to time, so I have to write next to the window on the couch that no one sits on. I am sore already from the stiffness of the furniture and have already begun dreaming of home. “Am I crazy?” Is a thought that continuously crosses my mind. “Three months? What was I thinking?” I’m sure it will get easier; it is only the first day.

The people here seem to be incredibly friendly. They smile and wave and ask me about home. One boy who lives with us, Jackson, suggested multiple times that maybe he should come back to the U.S with me. He asked about where I work and said he could work there too. It was very sweet to hear him talk about it.

There are so many people living in this house with me. There is Barnabas and his wife Mila and their 4-year-old son Joseph. Rose (their maid) and Jackson, Tim (a volunteer from Indiana), and Virginia and Lydia (volunteers from Germany) and then myself of course. People are always stopping in and I’m surprised I’ve remembered as many names as I have.

This is certainly going to become quite the adventure.

Finding Myself in Africa

Dear Readers,

Less than a year ago, I embarked on a 4-week trip that would change my life. As many of you know I posted a daily blog indicating my experiences, and as life changing as they were, I want to share those experiences with more people than just those following my blog. I am writing a book and will be posting daily on here. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Chapter 1

I am sitting on the floor of an already empty apartment. Once the space of so many fond memories, of parties with friends, family dinners, late night talks and secrets shared under the cover of moonlight; now just another space for another family to create new opportunities. I should thank this place, I think to myself as I look at the boxes stacked one on top of the other filled to the brim with books I have collected over the past two years. I glance in the corner of the room where I remember sitting in a desk chair at four in the morning wondering if I was crazy to move in with someone I had only dated for a few months. It isn’t hard for girls my age to empathize with the coming-of-age right of passage every mother and daughter goes through that signifies the end of their ability to live in such close confines with one another.

That first week after we moved in was difficult for me, I was on my own, figuring out how I would graduate from college and pay my bills. I knew I would never be able to go to my father and tell him I had failed, that was simply not an option. For two years I worked forty hours a week as a waitress in a local Applebees in a small town in Carroll County, Maryland. It is the kind of place where you see the same faces every day. Glancing around the small, mundane bar and grill, I watch Carroll County residents squeeze into their chairs to enjoy a talk with the bartender they are accustomed to seeing every day. These customers, or guests as the establishment wants us to call them, are the symbol of what our restaurant is to this town. It represents a place where the guests form bonds with the servers, bartenders and managers.

On the eve of moving out I have been working at this restaurant for 3 long years. In those years I fell for a coworker, moved in with him, and lived in the same apartment as him for a year after we broke up. So many people ask me how I did it, how did I live with someone I used to be in a relationship with? The answer isn’t simple, and it definitely wasn’t easy. But that’s a story for another time.

It’s always been incredible to me how people live the same mundane life day after day, but that’s what I was doing. I woke up, went to work, came home, went to bed and did it all over again the next day. I was like those people meandering through life never realized you need and want something more until finally the light turns on, you find your way out and are miraculously free.

It was December 2014 when I came up with the idea. I looked at my formal acceptance into the Mass Communications program at Towson University and the email informing me that I would be graduating in the spring of 2015 and I began wondering what I would do after graduation. I didn’t have a job lined up, I hadn’t even begun looking; what would I do? I have always been an enthusiast of travel, never having done any myself I only knew what I had learned in books. It was at this point that I remembered a dream I had always wanted to accomplish, but had never had the opportunity.

As a child growing up, I was an avid reader. Every night for as long as I can remember I sat up late reading any book I could get my hands on. With only a sliver of light shining through a crack in the closet I read about places I could only dream of. I traveled to Hogwarts and had my first Potions Class, fought a Basilisk, discovered Horcruxes and defeated Voldemort. From the comforts of my bed I learned about love, life and friendship. I got to see different points of view, learn what it might be like to fall in love, or more often fall out of love. I learned about sacrifice and loyalty. And one day, I learned about the rewards of volunteer work.

I was 12-years-old, reading a book my mom had just bought me titled Angel of Hope by Lurlene McDaniel. I was inspired by the story of a girl who was only a few years older than me, who went to Africa in the place of her sick sister. She went to Uganda with her mom and I watched her transform from a stubborn, selfish 17-year-old to the kind of girl who sacrificed her life to save someone else. I saw through her eyes the difference one person could make and the struggles and poverty that are faced in other countries, countries we seldom think about. The last page of the book had a very important message, if you want to volunteer contact Youths with a Mission. My mind expanded, opportunities like that were real? I could actually go to a third world country and make a difference

I immediately ran to my dad and told him I wanted to go on a mission trip to Africa. He laughed and told me I was too young and to ask him again when I was 16. Sure enough, my sixteenth birthday finally approached and I asked my dad again, could I go volunteer in Africa? Once again he placated me with the short response that I was still too young and to ask again when I was 18. Anyone who asks my father about these responses will get the same answer, “I didn’t think she would be so persistent.” As an 18-year-old about to graduate from high school, still a child but very much wanting to be a woman I approached my dad once again, asking him if I could go to Africa. His answer this time was a little different, his shock that after 6 years I still showed a desire for volunteer work was apparent on his face as he said, “You’re 18 now, you can go if you can figure out how to pay for it.”

That was the last time I mentioned Africa for 6 years, until my graduation date from Towson University approached.