The problem with describing a trip like this, though it might be my second, is that there is no right way to describe Wagner’s Alternative Winter Break. Maybe it is the constant uncomfortableness of understanding my privilege as a well-off, white American. 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. I simply had the privilege to experience it and now share it with you. Regardless, my experiences in Kenya were unimaginable and nothing I could have anticipated.
We entered the borders of the foreign nation not fully understanding where we were coming from and how that could be perceived by those whose homes we were entering. When I say homes, I mean the communities that make up Kenyan culture, because not all live between the comforts of four walls that they can call their own. Most homes we entered were what we call communities, spaces filled with multiple families, a neighborhood. Our hosts led us through twists and turns, dealing with our American whining, despite our efforts to just be grateful to be there, despite our efforts to silence our entitlement and honor the open arms welcoming us.
One home that took us in was a local orphanage that houses children with HIV and AIDS who have been abandoned by their biological family. We entered these youthful buildings, greeted by smiles and nervous waves. Our time in these children’s home was beautiful, yet provoked a lot of emotions. The children’s energy was contagious. Each one of us put aside the sadness that comes with situations such as these and gave as much love as we could in the brief moments we had. When I truly think about it, we were given love so pure. Some of us had girls teaching us dance moves, boys playing basketball, games of soccer, hide-and-seek, or a simple game of patty-cake.
The few hours we had with the kids reaffirmed that beauty is not an absolute. Beauty is not always ‘pretty.’ Beauty is raw, rich, genuine, pure. Beauty is the sparkle in the young girls’ eyes, the friendships of kids of all ages, the home that is built despite being abandoned. 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 also painful. Our trip to the orphanage was invasive yet rewarding, saddening yet enlightening.
This moment, this day, was when our privilege was truly put into reality. The experience was humbling, it was educational, it was awakening. We were challenged to put aside our emotions and entitlement. We were in a place of hope, potential, and growth. The sincerity of the individuals we were surrounded by changed us.
A few days later, we were welcomed into more villages, to walk beside a mother and go through her standard day, step-by-step. These villages were in the hills of Kenya, about seven hours from the city center. The views were absolutely breathtaking, and yet the conditions of life did not seem to match the magnificence of the land. We worked with a beautiful, young mother of two who also took care of her siblings and mom. She led us to the little stream where she acquired water about a mile away. We filled as many jugs as we could carry, trying 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 neighboring huts who came to get any piece of food they could, and we ate with our hands under the sun while gazing at the never-ending landscape. I could not help but feel wrong for eating food made from the resources that we brought them. And yet, she insisted.
This moment, which I do not have words to capture, was by far my favorite and most memorable experience. This was the moment I cried over, the moment I still cry over. I think about the hospitality, the positivity from each person. I reminisce on the optimism that shined from the soul of a woman impaired by what I assume is polio. When we first arrived, the grandmother crawled from behind the clay home picking up her legs with her bent hands, to greet and hug us as if we were her own. This experience alone was worth every single last penny I spent to travel to this wonderful country.
This trip was not luxurious; it was 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 did not want us there. Just as the average American does not live in what the pictures portray, neither do the communities of the places we visited. We went to live with the people we were working with, not live above them. 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.