8 students from Marywood University & Chestnut Hill College attended a 3-week service trip to Kenya this summer. They provided service at various sites, including a refugee center, a hospital, a home for street boys, and an orphanage for both physically and mentally disabled children.
This service learning trip went above and beyond my hopes and expectations. I became immersed and engaged within important day-to-day life scenarios of my Kenyan sisters and brothers. From growing close with the patients and staff of the St. Francis Community Hospital, to working alongside the women who serve handicapped orphans each day in Mother Theresa’s orphanage, to playing games and laughing with the Ukweli boys each evening, these experiences filled me with an all-encompassing love and my overall understanding of differing cultures has completely expanded.
One of the most profound and impressionable relationships I made was with a young girl, about my age (20), named Mary1. Mary had been in the hospital for over a month past her official discharge date because she did not have the funds to pay the hospital bill. Meanwhile, her bill was increasing daily. Mary and I connected easily as friends, and it was not until later, that she told me I was the first “mzungu” or “white girl” she had ever spoken to.
After my week of service at the hospital had expired, and I was assigned to the orphanage, I looked forward to visiting Mary in my free time, as I did most days. As I learned more and more about her situation I found out that the hospital was requiring her to stay until she could pay at least part of her bill. I later learned that the hospital often has to decide between releasing people who cannot pay their bills or requiring people to stay in the hospital until they can pay some of their bill, so that the hospital has enough money to continue serving people.While I could understand that the hospital needs money to operate, I also saw the injustice of her having to stay at the hospital.
Despite her situation, Mary was always brightly smiling whenever I saw her. Mary seems to represent the way many Kenyans view life—as a gift. I was often surprised by how openly grateful for life itself people were, and how often they tended to talk about their spirituality. Thinking back, I will always remember a strong feeling of the presence of God that seemed to permeate the being of the Kenyan people. They were always thankful and seemed to consider any goodness or amenity as a “blessing from God”.
Making friends in Kenya felt natural and easy. It is hard to tell if the people only wanted to talk to me because I was a white, but I like to think that it was a part of their customs to be so friendly, because I was always seeing other Kenyans stop and talk and listen amongst themselves. Unlike in the US, it was common to see people passing by to stop and chat about how the day has gone or weekend plans, as opposed to, like in the US, keeping your feet moving as you quickly say “hi, how are you?” as you continue to the destination. Although this difference may seem small, such respectful attention to the other as a person that I encountered on just a short walk from here to there, helped me to feel welcomed, comfortable, and appreciated.
Mary and I shared stories about family, interests, and even boys! All of our conversations highlighted variations of our cultural differences; it was nice to talk to an honest girl who was about my age. By the end of my three weeks there, I had grown so close to Mary and was feeling guilty to leave her there in the hospital; only time could tell how long she would be stuck in there. These thoughts led me to no other option but to go to the administration and see if there was anything I could do or say to help get her released sooner rather than later. Mary wanted to be back home with her mother and her baby, and for her hospital bills to stop increasing by the day. Luckily, my two chaperones were supportive and helpful, and accompanied me in paying a visit to the director of the hospital.
The day after we left Kenya for home, I received a message from the hospital informing me that Mary had been released. I could not have been happier to receive this news! Not only do I want to thank ASEC for arranging this eclectic program and allowing me and my group to see the many aspects of a developing country, but I will be ever grateful for the friends I made, because our relationships and interactions made such a powerful impression. Kenyans are eager to communicate and exchange knowledge, making each relationship rich and meaningful. I feel so lucky to have been able to be a part of the ASEC service-learning trip and to travel to Kenya.
Being involved in this trip taught me about the variety of adversity in our world and showed me how amazing and inspirational humans are capable of being. The strength of love and community is everywhere in Kenya. I learned that, while our Western concepts of comfort and status are shared amongst ourselves, they are not universal, and they should not be all that we know. “Ignorance is bliss” has never sounded so absurd to me. Seeing and learning about our world, to me, is bliss, because it has given me the confidence to feel informed and as if all things have been considered. I cannot wait to go back to Kenya to work alongside its people and to experience more enlightenment.
1Name is changed to preserve confidentiality