As a departure from the travel stories we regularly feature in our magazine, in this issue we journey to Africa through the lens of our Art Director, Amanda Nelson-Sinagra.
As a departure from the travel stories we regularly feature in our magazine, in this issue we journey to Africa through the lens of our Art Director, Amanda Nelson-Sinagra. Not destined for safari or spa sanctuary, Amanda encountered an Africa very few experience. Her mission to teach art and computer skills to children was beautifully documented on camera. Here’s her story…
In October of 2008, I set out alone on an adventure that I knew would change my life forever. I headed to Kenya to work with the schools and orphanages. I had never done anything like this before and had little idea what to expect.
In the months leading up to the journey, I researched many of the organizations online and made a connection with George Mumba from Touch Africa. They offered me a chance to work with children in schools at two locations in two different parts of the country: Malindi, which is on the coast, and Kaloleni, which is inland in the countryside. They would provide housing with a volunteer family, and in exchange, I would be working with the children they support.
The weeks leading up to my departure were unsettling. Many of the people I told of my upcoming travels were less than supportive. They could not understand why I would want to travel so far, by myself, to help a community to which I had no ties. I struggled with everyone’s worry and dissatisfaction; however, in my heart, I knew this was something that I had to do, not only for the children, but for me as well.
Since I would be traveling for an extended period of time, I had three large bags to check in, in addition to my backpack and carry-on duffel. One of these bags contained all of the donated materials I had collected from friends and supplies I had purchased for the kids. “Pens, they need lots of pens,” everyone told me.
Arriving in Nairobi, I found that my bags, including the donated supplies, hadn’t made the trip with me. Nevertheless, I pressed on and greeted three representatives from Touch Africa. They welcomed me with warm handshakes and huge smiles. I felt so happy to have finally arrived.
Language was the first cultural divide to cross. Most of the people speak Swahili, but broken English is also spoken rather commonly, though many of the words are different than ours and are often spoken rather softly.
I also noticed some minor differences in fashion: despite the heat, every man wears long pants, not shorts, and suits and ties are the norm for those who work in offices. Women wear skirts to their knees or sarongs, sometimes over their pants.
Buses, which are actually old Toyota vans, are the major form of transportation. Some drivers deck them out with American musicians like Britney Spears, J.Lo, Tupac, and Kayne West. The best buses are blasting music to attract more clientele. Everyone wants to ride in the “fun bus.” For those who want more privacy, there is the tuk tuk. This is a covered three-wheel bike with a passenger seat on the back.
Mobile phones here are a necessity as the landlines do not cover much of the region. Approximately 200,000 people have landlines in Kenya compared to over 2.5 million who have mobile phones.
There is no garbage service in Kenya; the only method of trash removal is building it up in piles and burning it. Laundry consists of putting clothes in a bucket, soaking them, and rubbing them with a stone or something hard to get them clean. Despite the difficult living conditions, the Kenyans were continually in good spirits, always smiling and welcoming me with open arms.
After a short stay in Nairobi, I left for my first assignment, in Malindi. I was awakened by the sounds of Muslim prayers from the mosque down the road at 4 a.m. After listening in bed until my alarm chimed at 7, I took a cold shower, gobbled up some breakfast, packed up my backpack and took off with George and Joel from Touch Africa. This day would be my first meeting with the children.
We took a tuk tuk to the local BP at the other end of town and jumped on a bus headed to the Children of the Rising Sun School. Anna, the school’s manager, greeted me and filled me in on what I might be doing there. A few minutes into our conversation, two small children approached the office with curious eyes. They came up to us and put out their hands. We greeted them with a cheery “Jambo.” Alice was two-and-a-half and Richard was four, and they quickly became two of my favorites.
Behind the small office and nurse’s room, there were 12 rooms for the main elementary school (grades 1-8) and two smaller buildings for the youngest kids, who were mainly in kindergarten. To the right of the main school was the computer lab that held 22 Mercer computers. The lab was only a year old and smelled almost brand new. Next to the school grounds, separated by a fence, was the orphanage. Though the adults greeted us with handshakes and smiles, these children were a bit shy in the beginning.
The school itself had no electricity other than the computer lab. The windows of the building were actually just holes in the walls and rain would pour in. All of the children walked to school since there were no buses. Some of them lived miles away and would make the journey barefoot. Many didn’t have sandals or shoes.
After a long day at the school, I headed home for dinner. We had chapati, which is a flat bread, along with spiced rice and sauces. It was delicious. I couldn’t wait to learn how to cook it back in the States.
At the school, I helped out in the computer lab repairing and reformatting the computers and assisting the children with computer skills. They were very appreciative of even the simplest things, like learning how to use a computer mouse properly.
My favorite part of the day was eating lunch with the children, who were a continual source of joy and happiness. Their laughter resonated throughout the school, making one forget the hardships their families face on a daily basis. Alice, the little girl I met in the manager’s office on the very first day, made an incredible impact on my life in Malindi. Every morning I was excited to wake up and spend time with her. I felt a very strong emotional connection to her that I’d never experienced before with a child.
When my time in Malindi was done, I took a three-hour bus ride to Kaloleni, an inland country town with a population of 10,000 people. During my stay there I worked at the J.F. Hope Centre, a non-profit Christian day-care for the extremely poor, orphans and HIV-positive children of various religious backgrounds. The pastor and his wife, who also founded the Deliverance Church in 2000, started the school. They opened the doors with seven children and now take care of 187.
During my time there, I taught computer classes four times a day. “Teacher Ah-maun-duh”, the kids would call me. I mostly covered the basics of how a computer worked…the mouse, keyboard, monitor, and CPU. Some children picked up these tasks very quickly and others would become incredibly frustrated and even cry, but they were all very determined to learn.
On my last day in Kaloleni, I met up with some friends at the local pub. All of the children insisted on walking me there. I had close to 40 children walking alongside me, carrying my bags. Each one wanted to be the closest, and some got trampled in the commotion. I picked up one crying girl and carried her the rest of the way to her home.
Two months in Kenya were not enough. I could easily see myself living there for an extended period of time, teaching and helping the children. Making the trip, meeting the people and helping the children learn face-to-face and one-on-one was worth more than any dollar amount I could have given, both to them and to me as well.
To learn more:
Touch Africa International
P.O Box 26958;
South C Mugoya Estate; House Number 151