A massive body of water appeared below us, surrounded on all sides by luscious green vegetation and trees. Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, was in sight, which meant that we were about to descend into Kisumu, our final destination. What initially struck me about Kenya was how green everything was. An aerial view of the country, courtesy of Kenya Airways, had quickly taught me that my preconceived notions of a dry, arid landscape with zebras and lions grazing the low grass and shrubbery were obviously false. The dense green plains converged with rolling hills and slopes that composed the landscape of the place I would soon call my home.
As our plane descended in Kisumu, the wheels touching down on the runway, I felt my heart rate speed up and a knot of excitement in my stomach tighten. I had been waiting for this moment for over 6 months and it was finally here. Months of preparation to develop a narrative based model for HIV/AIDS education, purchase medicine to start a clinic, and organize my first trip to Africa were finally coming to fruition. It was finally happening.
Unsure of what to expect, I got off the plane and was immediately greeted by the fresh morning air and towering green hills behind Kisumu’s modest international airport. After collecting our luggage at the small baggage claim, Amanda and I made our way outside the airport and were immediately greeted by Teresa and Stephen, the kindhearted owners of the orphanage/school we were going to volunteer at. Although we had never met before, we embraced and exchanged greetings, both groups excited for our arrival.
Teresa and Stephen are the owners of Wema Children’s Center/Highway Academy, a private school located in Bukembe Village, 2 hours outside of Kisumu, dedicated to empowering students with education and giving them a better future. They realized the needs in the community early on, especially the desperate necessity to take care of orphaned children, who the government had all but neglected. While the United States has foster care for children without parents, Kenya has little infrastructure in place to take care of its orphans. As a result, many of these children end up homeless and have little hope for the future or die soon afterwards. A lot of the children at Wema Children’s Center became extremely impoverished or lost their parents after the brutal election violence in 2007. Additionally, the area where Wema is located has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDs in East Africa–1 out of 3 people are infected with AIDS. This disease along with the election violence has left numerous children orphaned, a fraction of which have been fortunate enough to live and go to school at Wema.
Wema Children’s Center was our home for the next three weeks, where Amanda and I hoped to create a medical clinic and to teach HIV/AIDS education and prevention to the students. I also wanted to hear the narratives of the children, who have experienced unimaginable trials and tribulations, to immortalize their stories in my senior capstone project–a book about the heroes I have encountered and lessons learned during my travels at USC. These children undoubtably would become my inspiration, their smiles and hope would sustain me long after I returned to America. Hearing about the amazing kids from the board members at Wema that have visited in the past, the students are incredible, resilient, and full of life. I was thrilled to finally meet them.
Driving in the truck on the way to Wema, our luggage loaded in the flat bed behind us, I looked out the window and was in absolute awe. Amanda and I, usually very chatty people, were silent, staring at the endless fields of sugar cane and maize. We passed by small villages, with tin roofed huts and little concrete shops often with men standing outside in a group chatting amongst themselves. We saw women dressed in long skirts, walking along the side of the road, carrying water jugs or other items on their heads. Men pushing bicycles loaded with bags of rice or dead chickens hanging from the handlebars moved to make space for our driver, who often drove on the shoulder or other side of the road to pass a slow moving truck or overcrowded taxi. Children stood on mounds of dirt, playing next to fields where men and women toiled, their bodies bent over as they dug into the earth with their axes. I found everything incredibly fascinating, an unfamiliar, foreign land that I was excited to call my new home.
I found myself dozing off, exhausted from the 28 hour trip, my body weary from jumping time zones and running through airports. When I finally woke up we were driving along a bumpy dirt road, the car shaking from side to side. I rubbed my eyes to remove any remaining sleepiness and looked out the window. We passed by children in green school uniforms and cows and goats standing next to small dirt huts. After a 5 minutes the truck pulled into a gate with Wema Children’s Center/Highway Academy painted on it in blue letters, and pulled up next to an old broken down bus. I looked around me and saw laughing children in blue uniforms on a large field ten feet away. They were huddled in a group, playing an unfamiliar game, but immediately looked up at us when we exited the car. I waved to them and smiled, a few of them waving back, others unsure of who the light colored strangers were that just exited the car.
Teresa guided Amanda and I into her house where we’d be staying and welcomed us in Swahili: “Karibu!” She lead us to the living room where we sat until they prepared our room, a quaint space with a bunkbed, concrete floor, tin roof, and window that looked out at the chicken coop. We quickly grew to love our room and everything about the house, surprised that it felt like home within a matter of a few hours. I felt so incredibly comfortable and safe at Wema as soon as I arrived, a feeling that I have never experienced so quickly in any foreign place before. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening, but I knew there was something magical about Wema and as soon as I got a good night’s sleep I would definitely explore and begin my work there.
After a hearty dinner of cabbage, rice, and chapatis, I climbed into bed at 7 pm, my eyelids growing heavy as I thought about what the next three weeks would have in store for me. While I couldn’t predict what would happen, I felt my heart and mind open to the possibilities that would unfold. If I already felt safe and at home in a matter of a few hours, I couldn’t imagine what life would be like or how Kenya would change me in the upcoming weeks. All I knew is that whatever happened would be incredible and I went to bed smiling that night, not waking up until 9 hours later when at 4 am the rooster outside our room began to crow.