Monday, May 31, 2010


One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned since I focused more on living abroad than traveling, is the simple reality that every life you become a part of is not always one that you can stay involved with. This is especially true with children in the foster or orphaned system – unless you are permanently setting up a home or joining as a staff member, you must resign yourself as a volunteer to reality that you are but a blip in the life of a child, trying to have faith that the time you spend with them will somehow be more important than the act of leaving, or the inability to keep track of them once one of you has moved. It is unfair, especially to them, and yet somehow you know that it is better to provide those solitary walks and talks while you can - rather than leave them undone in the first place.

When I was staying at Sizanani center in 2007 a 15 year old boy named Fanele had just arrived after having been removed from his mother’s home. I never got his story in full, no one really seemed to have all the pieces and yet here he was on our door step. He was one of the oldest of the kids at the center, and for most of the time I was there he wasn’t yet in school. This left us with a lot of time together and in general he was very helpful watching after the two toddlers and baby that stayed at the center each day as well. Still, it was clear that Fanele had discipline problems and while we bonded very early, he rubbed almost all other adults the wrong way. He quickly befriended one of the other older boys and between the two of them the little kids ended up in tears quite frequently from nasty jabs, taunts or simply exclusion. When I left I had the sense that Fanele’s days at the center were numbered, and I pleaded him to be more respectful and to do what he could to stay in school. He is a bright kid who has honed is smarts on the streets, and that tends to be a lethal combination in childrens' homes which try and protect the little kids who haven’t yet been hardened in such ways (having their own traumatic histories from which the home provides a respit).

It has been hard to get full updates from the home in the past three years – everyone there is so busy and overworked and I don't want to take away from their daily schedules. I did get word at some point that Fanele had ultimately left or been sent from the center, thought I never found out where he ended up.

After I left in 2007 another volunteer from Germany came within days of my departure. She has since returned three times and is currently on the 9th month of an 18 month stay. She also knew Fanele well and while in town a couple weeks ago heard someone calling her name. When she located the voice it was a dirty and hungry Fanele in dire need of help. She shepherded him back to her apartment, got him a shower and some dinner and started working on a place for him to stay. By the time I arrived in Nkandla last week he had been re-enrolled in school and was staying with one of the local priests. I was overjoyed to see him and receive a huge hug from someone I have often thought about and wondered of his path.

He is now 18 and I can see a certain hollowness in his eyes that reflects all the realities of life on the streets in an urban African center (he’s spent some time in Durban). But beyond that I saw the same soft-hearted boy whose story I won’t ever really know but who I continue to hope and pray will find a way to fight his demons and make use of the head and the heart that could do so much for himself and those around him.

We went for a short walk into town, I gave him my camera to take pictures and we chatted about what we could, striking up the same banter and camaraderie of three years prior. I didn’t get to seem him the following day when I left as he was in school, but as I said goodbye on Sunday I once again implored him to stay in school, to study hard and to be good.

These are empty words coming from someone who has only been there for him two months and one afternoon of his 18 years. All I can hope is that he heard in them what I could not figure out how to say and somehow he doesn’t understand yet from the world.

I love you Fanele and I’m sorry I can't be there for you. I believe in you.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Saturday, 22nd of May, 2010. Nkandla

Three years ago I sat on this bed in moments of stolen calm listening to the sounds of little voices echoing in the hallway. This became a sacred space in which I caught my breath, distracted myself and created some order with what little possessions I had. How funny to be back here these years later seeking calm so soon after my arrival. The sites, the sounds the energy is virtually the same. But there are more systems in place, there is more structure that makes it easier to step away in order to rearrange hair left frantic by tiny hands and carefully stow the camera or ipod responsible for thirty minutes of ecstatic entertainment.

I know these faces so well. I stared at them, worried over them and captured them on film for the time in which I would be elsewhere. Their limbs are longer and their baby fat may be gone, but I see unmistakably Funeka or Paga or Lindilani. Some haven’t grown much, certainly not to the stature expected by their age. But one whose legs may be short and whose belly may still be too big speaks perfect English, the result of a private school scholarship that has him bilingual at six – a rarity in rural S.A. What a revelation to be able to speak in a shared tongue with these kids for whom a hug or a song or a craft used to be the only way I could give them love.

I’m only a quasi-celebrity this time around. My name is shouted and spoken but I’m not sure if it’s because I’m recognized or because I’m a visitor. Nosumo grabs my hand and gravitates to me just like she did when she was little– is that recognition or is that simply the chemistry of our body heat drawing each other together for swinging hands and hugs? Zinhle is the only child at the center with serious physical and mental impairments. She is blind and cannot speak, though she understands most Zulu and some words in English and German. When she was younger she was brutalized by male family members in unspeakable ways and it’s hard to know whether her ailments trace back to this or they simply made her more vulnerable to attack. I arbitrarily decided she was 17 when I was here before – only to realize she’s only 14 now.

When I first came to Sizanani in 2007 I tried to set aside a few minutes a day to give Zinhle some one-on-one attention and one of the few things I came up with in an attempt to keep her stimulated was variations on paddy cake. Mostly we just ended up slapping hands repeatedly but sometimes I could create very basic patterns and eventually get her to follow. Today as I walked down to greet the children who had stayed behind at the center* I saw Zinhle for the first time seated next to a beautiful play structure (this was in the works while I was here and a friend of the center had finally managed to make it happen). I approached her and one of the mamas asked her if she remembered Megan, and she immediately grabbed my hands, placed them out in front of me and started slapping them with her own.

When the opportunity to visit here cropped up the idea refused to die, regardless of logistics and funds. I think I am seeking to arouse some muscle memory from the time in which I blindly boarded a plane and arrived laden with craft supplies and good intentions, only to discover how little I understood about the nature of this work. In the years since I have peeled away my expectations as I began to prepare myself for the start of my career in the development sector – now I fear I’ve peeled myself a bit raw and know precisely nothing as I try and finish my degree and prepare to launch my job search.

What can I glean from these few days back where this journey began? What shall I take away for the sake of building my confidence moving forward, of being reminded of the certainty in which God whispered this path in my ear until I heard it and believed it?

Here in Nkandla there are a few new buildings, fresh looking paint and a list of continued improvements to be made as the funding comes in. I treasure the care that is evident in this my temporary of homes that is now the only one known to these kids. After two short days I am reminded of the hope I found here after I confronted the absurdity of poverty and disease and its littlest victims. I hope I can get to that same point back in Kenya where I struggle more and more to make sense of an aid structure that seems to further empower the wealthy while robbing the poor of the faith in themselves to change what’s going on in their country.

How I hope to find that peace in hope itself.

* The other children had gone to a football match and returned proudly sporting World Cup t-shirts provided by President Zuma, who is from the region – thus Nkandla has finally made it into the modern lexicon of South Africans countrywide.

If you are so moved, please consider making a tax-free donation to the sisters’ work in Nkandla via The Africa Project.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


In 9 hours I fly to Capetown with a ticket my dear friend jasmine helped me buy to see her on African soil. By Friday I’ll be on a flight to Durban where I’ll rent a car and drive 3.5 hours to Nkandla where I started this journey three years ago. I’ll take pictures with an SLR my father bought for me before I came to Kenya and visit the projects that dear friend Joy’s donations have helped support (along with many initial contributions from family and friends when I first joined The Africa Project). I mention these things because they remind me that this incredible journey that has ushered me out of my twenties and helped me grow and get ready for next steps has taught me one thing above all – the role that community plays in each of our lives. I’ve been supported in my own endeavors and in my efforts to support the people I’ve come across. I’ve received phone calls and emails and letters and donations so full of love that they bring me to tears. I’ve had a group of strangers in a service club in Orange County become friends and facilitate an experience abroad that transcends anything I could have hoped for. I’ve had what feel like divine work opportunities that helped me stretch this experience into two full years. I’m reminded daily that in this final push it will all be worth it for the doors it hopefully opens for work moving forward. But perhaps more importantly it has been worth it simply for the journey it has been as I delved deeper into my understanding of humanity and community at home and abroad (sometimes facing the crystal clear reality that not all can be known). And I know this now more than ever - there really isn't any difference between here and there after all. Different stages, different distractions, different gifts, different blessings. But as people - we are the same. As countries - we are the same, imperfect collections of humanity with pockets of brilliance and truth just above torn knees needing repair.

I may not have taken the leap to book this trip to South Africa if I’d realized I would be here until September (original plans had me flying back to the U.S. end of July). The timing is horrible and I can’t afford it. But my community helped make it possible – both with financial support and with a reminder that this is about my time here coming full circle. As soon as the seed was planted what could I do? The thought of seeing the kids, of seeing the hills, of re-familiarizing myself with the zulu click – it brings back a rush of emotion I have stored away for three years. The sisters in Nkandla bid me warm welcome when I told them I might visit, and I can’t wait to turn up those dusty roads, to see all that has grown and changed in three years. But mostly to know that under it all is a vein of truth that remains the same – that constant companion of faith and trust when steps taken in response to a call are made. This is a place in which I learned more than I can ever encapsulate in words, and I can’t wait to see how that continues as I return a slightly wiser (only in my knowledge of how little I truly know) and hopefully more humble version of the self that visited there three years ago.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

All the kings horses

I'm often struck a bit dumb by the reality of the last few years in my life. Most often by the blessings and the experiences, sometimes by a level of overwhelmed I can't really even convey. Last week I took advantage of a crazy cheap ticket to have an extended time in Addis Ababa during our District 9200 Rotary Conference. I saved $300 by flying at 4:30 a.m. last Sunday and coming back at 12:30 a.m. this morning. It meant I had almost 9 days in a totally fascinating city and country - 9 days of which I planned to be working consistently on my project while seeing some sites during the day. That plan was scratched at approximately 9:00 p.m. on the 24th when I spilled an entire glass of milk onto my laptop right as I sat down to finally synthesize my notes into a long-overdue and long-promised draft proposal. Remedy? Box your comp up in rice and say a prayer that it dries out over the next nine days (this post is evidence that it worked!). What that meant was my travels to Ethiopia suddenly turned into more of a vacation than a work trip. "Let the impending guilt begin," I thought as the plane took off early last Sunday morning.


Turns out I needed a vacation. And not because I don't get to take amazing trips or see amazing sites all the time here - I do! If you take the projects and groups I've gotten to know and throw in visits by two of my best friends, this year has been especially full of incredible experiences and sites. But it has also been full of a lot of packing and unpacking, sweaty clothing, bumpy roads and a mixture of beauty and poverty that I'll never fully wrap my head around.

Ethiopia had the latter, but none of the former. I was hosted by a friend of a friend of a friend in a lovely four bedroom apartment with an incredible DVD collection. The apartment was insanely quiet. Quiet in a way I had no idea I needed or missed. My house in Nairobi never has less than three people in it (even at night) and during the day it averages around 6 and up to around 13. It is not conducive to any sort of quiet workspace, and if you mix in my predisposition to multi-tasking (or should I just call it A.D.D?) it's a recipe for disaster in relation to getting my work done. What I do get done is everything else. Rotary? Check. Boy's home in Nakuru? Check. Daniel's new hand? Check. Visit from my favorite baby Christabel? Check. Proposal? Ummm....

So I spent some time in Addis feeling guilty. Wondering why I could think so clearly (and why I needed so much sleep) and then realizing that my phone wasn't ringing with situations that make me panic. And my house wasn't full of people who knew exactly when I woke up or went to sleep, when I got something to eat or left the house (and all the parents out there say BIG DEAL). I wasn't being woken up by slamming doors or fits of giggles or someone asking me for money to go buy soap or milk or bread or matches. A full house is definitely not a bad thing - especially when you love the people that are in it (and when half of them are there to take care of it!). But I don't think I've ever fully conceptualized just how much I miss having space to myself. This past summer I took advantage of amazingly generous and flexible friends and family to couch hop and house sit my way through three months at home. The logistics were insane - I think I drove at least seven cars (and 1 bike!), carried at least one bag of cat-pee stained clothes on the eBay shuttle to work one day, and had weekends where I slept in three different beds over three different nights. So personal space and an unfettered schedule has been in short supply over the last two years.

I'm feeling pretty great after this break, after some "me" time combined with some wonderful new friends in Addis and some additional perspective into the challenges facing East Africa. I'm also clearly home, as by 11:00 today I had:
a) heard from Daniel twice asking for money for his next month of training
b) received an email from a friend involved in one of the craft projects I support about how his life is being threatened as a result of some pretty horrific post-election events he was dragged into
c) received an unexpected visit from the manager of the Kipsongo Project I visited last month to pick up the Lifestraws donated last year (which upon opening we discovered had exploded and are all ruined - SO SAD)

So I'm definitely home. And I'm definitely up against the same things that remind me why I'm here, but also pose a serious challenge to finding the space (both physically and mentally) to get my work done. It seems so simple - go to the library, shut off your phone, knuckle down. I know this is what I need to do. But I find so much value in the relationships I've created here, they feel like why I came - and I just don't know how to make them a second priority. But I have to, and I'm hoping that the time and space of the last week will remind me that life goes on whether I'm in it or not, and being able to build on these relationships, experiences and the small opportunities to help people in need that I have found (and have been so incredibly supported in by my community) requires me to finish this degree and package myself in a more complete and effective way that I'm currently living being pulled in so many different directions. I think I make progress every day in setting boundaries and focusing my efforts, but at the end of the day I have a really important proposal to write and I need a little bit more of my Addis Ababa life and a little bit less of my Nairobi life in order to get it done.