I wasn’t sure what to expect embarking on the 2019 Alternative Winter Break trip. I wasn’t sure if it was because I had the preconceptions of my life-changing experience from last year’s trip to Botswana, or if it was my junior year crisis looming over my head. Maybe it was the constant uncomfortableness of understanding my privilege, as a well-off, white American. Regardless, my experiences in Kenya were unimaginable and nothing I could have anticipated. The problem with describing a trip like this, though it might be my second, is that there is no right way to describe the Alternative Winter Break. There is no right way to share the lives of others, nor position the writing of this piece as not to misrepresent the purpose and meaning of the lives we were lucky enough to cross. It is their homes, their land, their lives, their stories. I simply had the privilege to experience everything and now to share it with you.
During our time in Kenya, we were able to see, hear, and experience far more than can be put into words. The hospitality of Patrick and Ben, our first hosts and organizers of our trip, was truly a blessing. Patrick and his wife had recently gone through a hardship during her pregnancy and still, he hosted us in his home with a traditional homemade meal. They lead us through the city streets and country roads, adopting us as their own and teaching us every step of the way. We explored different tribes and saw traditional dances.
They lead us through twists and turns, literally, dealing with our American whining and entitlement, despite our efforts to just be grateful to be there. We got to see the work of an individual who spent his summer at Wagner a few years ago as part of the Mandela Washington Program. His company, KShoes, raises money to help sponsor women entrepreneurs, specifically women from one of the biggest slums in the world. It was amazing to hear his inspiration and his company's success.
On our third day, we visited a local orphanage that houses children who live with HIV and AIDs. Our time at the orphanage was beautiful, yet provoked a lot of emotions. We entered into the children’s home and were greeted with smiles and nervous waves. If you were to see this moment from a bird’s eye view, you would have seen each one of us fully engaged into the excitement of the kids. Some of us had girls teaching us dance moves, boys playing basketball, a huge game of soccer, hide-and-seek, or simply patty-cake. We were on our hands and knees, trying to make these children feel as loved as possible for the short moment we had with them. It reaffirmed that beauty is not an absolute, it is not always positive. We entered someone else’s home and exited, as if it was an exhibit on our trip. This point was brought up by another individual who went with us, which showed how beauty is painful. Our trip to the orphanage was invasive, yet rewarding; saddening, yet enlightening.
Dawson, our second host, housed us in the comforts of his own home, a stunning villa seven hours from Nairobi. He has dedicated his life to helping the greater good of Kenyan communities, specifically nearby villages and schools. Each morning, his wife had prepared us an amazing breakfast spread for our day ahead. First, we went and toured his office to see all the different services his parent organization oversees. One of these includes an organization that makes reusable pads for females. Feminine hygiene is an issue in many communities as the lack of resources prevents girls from going to school during weeks of their menstrual cycle. Another organization is a team working to fight Jiggers, fleas that burrow in feet and create sores and holes from the inside out. What was so profound about this experience, was watching each one of us Wagner affiliates put aside our privilege, overcome any hesitation to feet, and try our best to make each child feel as safe as possible as total strangers gently cleaned the painful effects of these insects. I worked at the first station, where the children who speak no English sat across from us with fear in their eyes. I saw smiles and I saw tears, we held hands and we sang, and on our way back to our privileged home, we sat in silence, pondering the magnificence of what had just occurred.
The following day, we were welcomed into the villages, to walk besides a mother and go through her standard day, step-by-step. In our home, we worked with a beautiful, young lady who was a mother to two but also took care of her siblings and mom. She led us to the where she acquired her water, a little stream about a mile away, where we filled as many jugs as we could carry and tried to save every last drop on our way back to her place. She taught us how she makes a meal for her family, but what I did not realize, was that she was making the meal for us. We sat next to her children and many kids from the village who came to get any bit of food they could, and we ate with our hands under the sun overlooking a breathtaking view. I could not help but feel wrong for eating food made from the resources we brought them.
And yet, she insisted. This moment, that I do not have words to capture, was by far my favorite and most memorable experience. This was the moment that I cried over, the moment I still cry over. I think about the hospitality, the positivity from each person, and the optimism that shined from the grandmother's soul, a woman impaired by what I assume is Polio, who crawled from behind the hut to greet us and hug us as if we were her own grandchildren. This, in its entirety, was worth every, single, last penny I spent to travel to this wonderful country.
On one of our last days, we traveled through the Masai Mara. Surprisingly, we saw the big five (elephant, water buffalo, cheetah, lion, and rhino). However, it was eye-opening to realize how endangered and rare these animals are. The beauty and amazement of these creatures, in this breathtaking land was not able to be captured on camera, despite our efforts.
This trip is not luxurious, it is not meant to be made of five-star hotels or utter relaxation. We are immersing ourselves in communities and cultures, some of which we must realize do not want us there. Just like the average American does not live in what the pictures portray, neither do the communities of the places we visit. We went to live with people we were working with, not live above them. We went to reaffirm that no matter where you are from, what you look like, or your manner of life, we are all one. It is painfully beautiful, it pushes your comforts, and forces you to truly reflect internally and externally. You grow, you learn, you change. You are not saving the world, but investing in yourself. Personally, I believe it is the best investment someone could ever make.