I had always dreamed of visiting Kenya from the days of watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. For you younger folk, Wild Kingdom was the premiere nature show on black and white television when I was a kid.
Well, the dream has been realized. The plane touched down at Nairobi-Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. I knew we were in for interesting times. We lucked out and got right through immigration and were the first to get our luggage off the turnstile. And there was Sammy, our driver and the man with the plan, to pick us up.
I was aware of travel warnings for Nairobi, so I was ultra vigilant. With a driver picking us up and a safe place to stay, I felt we were in good hands. As we drove through the streets, I realized that this city was different… more metropolitan than the other African cities we had visited. Luxury malls, highways, office buildings. Don’t get me wrong… there was still the poverty, the dirt side streets and the occasional cow in the middle of the road, but it seemed like a city.
We arrived at our quarters – The HEART Foundation, a wonderful compound housing volunteers and relief workers in the Nairobi area. HEART is an acronym for “Health Education Africa Resource Team”, with a motto of Knowledge = Power = Survival. Their goal is to educate and empower the people of Africa to survive the HIV/AIDS pandemic. They are doing some amazing work in Kenya.
We stayed there for a day and a half to wait for our host, Don Howard of Rotary International, and also the founder of SCOPE (School Communities Offering Projects that Empower).
While in Nairobi, we were invited to visit Nyumbani, an orphanage for children with HIV. We had the good fortune of meeting the director, the charismatic and soulful, Sister Mary, who is truly doing God’s work here in Kenya. Nyumbani is a magical place, so well organized, clean, and obviously run with a lot of love. The kids greeted us with a song and smiles, and then gave us a tour of the grounds. Then Sister Mary announced she had arranged for the boys and I to visit one of their HIV clinics, this one in the center of Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa.
Yikes, I thought. Kibera? Is it dangerous for the kids? Can we catch something? Are there kidnappings? She assured me that if we were accompanied by the clinic’s social workers, we would be fine.
We took the ride across town that would, once again, change our prospective forever. The driver said it was better to not bring the camera with us, but that he would stop outside of the slum, for us to take a picture.
As we descended the dusty road, there it was. The famed Kibera slums… so unique, so surreal. Almost unbelievable, it felt like a backdrop on the lot at 20th Century Fox. Miles and miles of rusted tin shacks for as far as the eye could see. A wasteland… a village for those unable to afford better, a haven of need and disease, and sometimes violence. A township of sewage-seeping creeks flowing through its narrow alleyways. The stench for a ‘westerner” is unbearable, though the locals seem to take no notice.
We arrived at the HIV clinic to be met by a staff of diligent workers who offered us a soda. They gave us a tour of their small facility in need of repair, it’s sole mission: to save lives. The clinic sees patients, does testing for HIV, administers medication and treatment, and deals with other life-threatening issues such as TB, Malnutrition, Cholera, Typhoid…etc. I’m in awe of their bravery and commitment.
The director of the clinic asked if we would feel comfortable doing rounds with two of the social workers. We agreed and began our trek through the alleyways of the “Tin City”. As we walked down the narrow alleys, children smiled, especially interested in Jackson and Buck. When I said, “Jambo”, or “Hibari”, they responded with surprise… Wow, this Muzungo (what they call Caucasian people) knows Kiswahili (the Swahili language)!
We arrived at our first location and pushed back a soiled sheet that doubled as a front door. There, in a dimly lit room roughly the size of a backyard shed, sat six woman in traditional dress, two holding infants. Jackson, Buck and I were introduced to the family and my “Hibari” seemed to impress them and make them smile, with a response of “Karibu”… meaning “welcome”.
We sat on a shabby sofa and instantly five or six kids appeared with curiosity at the curtained door. One little girl came in, stared at me in amazement, and then sat on my lap. I felt strangely at ease and part of this life for a moment. She then proceeded to wet herself. Normally, I would have stood and commented, but somehow I didn’t feel it appropriate. Instead, I gently sat her down next to me and made no notice of my wet pant legs.
The next home, down a dank alleyway, housed a quite attractive, thin woman and her child with HIV. The woman looked tired and we were told she was suffering from TB. I nonchalantly steered Jack and Buck clear of her, not knowing if she was contagious, and, in a panic, went through the checklist of our inoculations in my head. The child, in addition to having HIV, was diagnosed, then and there, with malnutrition. I asked our social worker how they came to that determination and she showed me the child’s swollen cheeks and an indentation on the top of each of her feet… a telling sign. The mother was instructed to bring the child to the clinic on Monday, this being Friday. My pushy American upbringing piped in, “But can’t they see her later today?”, to which our guide smiled knowingly and said that the clinic opens again on Monday.
I put myself in the place of that mom with TB, or the kids with HIV… we are all just one step away from any of these experiences. Luck of the draw… I could have been born in Kibera… or the slums of Mumbai… we are all these people. And this isn’t just flowery exposition; it’s what I feel deeply. And when I’m there in the middle of it, there is such a strong connection to all of it.
The rest of the day we witnessed similar experiences… checking in on kids and their caretakers. As my sons and I walked through this daunting world, I thanked God for giving us the opportunity to experience it. We would head back to our accommodation that evening exhausted both physically and emotionally. Kibera will stay with us a lifetime and I have vowed to return and do what I can to help there. I applaud Sister Mary, and the like, for all they do, on a daily basis, to make a huge difference.
The next day, we left Nairobi and headed west to the town of Kisii, where we teamed up with SCOPE founder, Don Howard. I was asked to run an acting workshop for 6 different schools in the area, as they were preparing for a national theater arts competition. The 3-day workshop was held at a small hotel, (more of a motel, really). The kids were invited by SCOPE to stay at the inn for the entire workshop (2 nights). It was the first time that the majority of these kids had slept away from home, let alone spent a night in a hotel. By our western standards it was quite funky, but by Kisii standards it was first class. The kids loved it.
The workshop started in its normal tentative manner… the kids shy and staring at the floor, having difficulty sharing their names loud enough for anyone to hear. But as some of you know, God gave me the gift of being a “goof-ball” and the un-canny ability to rile people up… so by the middle of the first day, I had the kids jumping around and having a great time.
After a day of getting acquainted, the next morning, the real work began… writing the beginnings of original works for them to present at the competition. With such a short time, we weren’t going to be able to write an entire play, but I felt I could at least get them started.
I encouraged the students to pick subjects that excited them. In Kenya, kids are a bit trained to say what they think the adults want to hear. Children are definitely seen and not heard in Africa. So their first suggestions seemed a bit canned. And after I blew the roof off that, we got down to business. They wanted to write plays about political corruption, and lack of latrines at school, and illegal child labor, and my favorite “Why It’s Important To Have FUN”. That particular play would include the music of Bob Marley. Yeehaw!
Each school got together and through improv and throwing ideas around, we came up with some amazing work. And the best part, the kids were having a blast doing it! They were the writers; they were the directors, the real artists. I, with the help of Jackson and Buck, managed to just keep them on track.
The weekend ended with a five-minute performance from each group… each inspiring, each moving. And these kids!!! These kids were coming out vocally, having the time of their lives, and performing their heads off. It’s makes this kind of work so magical and gratifying. And I don’t care what anyone says, “Art Makes A Huge Freakin’ Difference In The World!!!”
After the weekend, lead by Don and his team, we got to visit each of the schools that had participated in the weekend. Quite a schedule… Six schools in 4 days.
Jackson, Buck, and I were able to check out all the different school that the kids were from. The buildings and classrooms were mostly concrete rooms with no windows and wooden, 3-kids to a wooden desk set ups, with a blackboard that was just painted on the cement wall.
Most of these schools were in desperate need of the basic necessities… latrines, books, supplies, water, sanitary napkins for the teen girls, and a meals program. That is were SCOPE comes in. They are helping each of these schools, (they represent at this point, 42 schools), with self-sustainable projects that will help them meet the needs of their schools. Projects like building libraries, digging wells and harvesting water off the roofs into large gathering containers, creating gardens, and also planting trees, that in 5 to 6 years they can harvest for timber to sell to fund more projects. We were able to participate in a tree planting ceremony, which was a lot of fun. SCOPE’s goal is to have these people, these schools, and these communities, help themselves, and not just rely on gifts and donations.
It was nice to see all our friends from the workshop in their village schools. They all came up to the Jackson, Buck, and I excited to see us again. Buck had the honor of handing out new soccer balls to all of the schools…. So basically he was a major Rock Star!
And the students performed their pieces for their entire schools while we were there…. 200 to 500 kids to a school. It really was powerful to experience. Afterwards, Jackson, Buck and I just ran around with the kids all over the schools playing and laughing.
This is living. This is the real deal. It’s not a shopping spree at the mall, it’s not a bonus at work, or an Emmy Award, or a cocktail party, or a hot date, or a Hawaiian Vacation, or a day at the spa. And I’m not saying those things don’t sound appealing… Jackson, Buck and I are living in the elements. It’s “lowest common denominator” stuff. It’s joy on a level so organic, I find myself wanting to cry a lot. And to scream to the world, “What’s up, people? Wake up! It’s time…. Let’s do something! Let’s do the Dance”…. And then I have to remind myself, that we come to what we come to, when we come to it…. And my experience has me in that mode right now, while others think I’m a bit over zealous. When you see it first hand, it makes it real.
Oh wait, one last story… When the schools were introducing themselves at the beginning of the workshop, there was a rather tall, quite awkward girl who could hardly muster up the sound when it was time to say her name, let alone look up from the floor. “Ruth”. Ruth wasn’t all that comfortable in her body, but there was something…. I don’t know, just something unique about her. Her soul spoke to me. And I felt led to use her as an example. I said, “Ruth, you are so beautiful, smart and unique… Do you know that?” She looked at the floor. “You know, I’ve worked with a lot of actors in my day, and you have something special…you do. Something cool… And you have an amazing face”. She managed a look up at me for a moment. “I think you are going to go on and do great things in the world. I mean that.” I meant it and still do. And then I said, “Ruth, there’s a lot of power in you. You have to allow yourself to be heard. When you speak up, you give people the Gift…. The gift of you… We get to experience how cool you are…. But when you whisper and look at the floor, you keep it for yourself.” “Ruth, the world needs the gift that you have to offer…. And it’s not doing much good down there on the floor, so next time you have to speak, dig deep, even if you’re a little scared and come up with the gift. Okay?”
She nodded and we moved on… Throughout the workshop, I keep being drawn to her and always made a point to say what great work she was doing and how cool I thought she was. Well, I don’t need to finish the story…. (And yes, that’s a picture of Ruth and I!)
When we visited her at her school, she came right up to me with this real sense of herself. I was floored. She said in a big, bold voice, “Jambo, J.D., This is my school.” It’s like something woke up in her. And maybe I got to be the messenger for that particular “wake-up call”. All I know is that it meant more to me, than to her. Damn it, I made some sort of difference in a small village in the mountains of western Kenya and I’m proud of it.
I give my grandmother credit for my Ruth moment. She used to sit me on her knee when I was little and in the midst of the worst childhood imaginable, she would say, “You are going to go on to do great things in the world. You are!” And heck maybe I am… No, for sure, I am!
After good-byes to our students, our friends from the states, Bo and Ed arrived to meet us here in Kenya. It’s nice to be able to experience some of this first-hand, with people that we love from home. Plus they adore my sons, and quite frankly, after seven straight months on the road with my sons, it’s nice to get a break…
Before heading back to Nairobi, our driver, Sammy, took us on a game drive through the Masai Mara. Amazing! We saw lions, giraffes, gazelles, hippos, warthogs, hyenas, and tons of other animals…. And also just the beauty of the Masai Mara of Kenya that stretches from here to eternity.
I’m currently on a plane to South Africa… It’s late. I’m tired but I’m thankful. Thankful for my kids, my life, the experiences that we are having, the ability to help others, the friends I have and the new ones we are making along this mystical journey, and all the support that you all have given us and our project. Okay, I’m sitting here crying in my aisle seat…luckily it’s a night flight and most everyone’s asleep.
And one last thing I have to mention before I post this. I’m sending all my love to my dear friend, Marc Cittadino, who lost his brother to cancer this week. We love you, Marc and Jenna and we are hurting for you.
All a reminder to live in the moment, each day, each moment. More adventures to follow in South Africa.