I believe that you learn the most of what you don’t expect.
In the spring of my junior year, I decided to take a trip to Kenya, hoping for an inspirational, I-can-do-anything kind of experience before starting off my final year of high school. For months I busied myself preparing for the two-week summer outreach program in Nairobi. Africa as a whole fascinated me—its history being connected with ours. I had thought then that Kenya would be completely different from the States, that most parts might not have electricity or water, and that an American like me would be able to make a difference.
My departure date finally came, and eighteen hours and hundreds of miles later, I was greeted by the sight of—to my surprise—Kenya’s westernization. Big road signs advertised Fanta, Coca-Cola, and Old Navy. Hondas and Nissans belched pollution in the streets. Even Harry Potter was the featured movie of the week. Where are the poor I came here to rescue?
I finally arrived at my destination and was met by the two UN representatives with whom I would be staying. They told me I would be working at the orphanage, which was great because I had experience working with children back home. There I met one of the maids, Marci. She always wore a flowery dress and wrapped her head with a matching scarf. She was always cheerful, always trying to make guests comfortable.
Work at the orphanage was never a drudgery. The children loved to gather around me, the only fair-skinned worker at the orphanage and an object of their curiosity. Yet still at the back of my mind were the slums I would like to visit and poverty I would like to stare in the eye. In a sense I was a Don Quixote and the Kenyans were my Dulcinea.
I had a chance to talk to the maid Marci one afternoon. What started as a casual conservation took a different turn when she began talking about herself and her family. Her family was 60,000 schillings in debt ($895, monumental by her standards) and her salary was 5,500 schillings a month (about $80). She had three sons who couldn’t go to school, worked a twelve-hour shift every day, and walked for an hour back to her home. As she went on with her troubles, I was reduced to listening and being exposed for my naiveté.
Talking to Marci has put into proper perspective all the economic theories and political gobbledygook I’ve learned. But, talking to Marci has also made me realize just the uselessness of my vague and unreal objectives. My eulogy of the government and soliloquy of the needs for reform were not going to help Marci pay her rent.
Marci cannot simply be meshed under the general category of ‘poor people.’ The phrase cannot convey pathos, for the adjective ‘poor’ alone fails to show real worries and palpable anxieties. It was ironic how I crossed oceans to help poor people in Kenya, and here I was standing with one and I couldn’t even comfort her.
I had written an essay on “The Need for Change in the World” and now I wish I had talked to Marci first before I wrote that. The title might have been different. The content might have been different. Even I might have been different.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.