Finding hope in the midst of darkness

This is the final edition in a five- part series.

Kathryn Nelson

When I left for Kenya, I believed that I would change the country more than it would me. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I now see that my life has fractured into two halves: the before and the after. It seems like the before has begun to fade away like it was some sort of façade, as if I was really only born the moment my feet touched African soil. Before that, I did not know the world.

As I think back on my time in Kenya, I feel a profound sadness for all I experienced. It’s hard to corner the exact source of my grief. I think the cause constantly morphs as I try to fit myself back into the box of American society, one I can’t feel comfortable in again.

It seems as if I can’t escape my memories. Every corner of my mind is filled with the details of my two months. It’s really the only life I know now.

Still, I would never give up the experience that has made me the woman I have always wanted to be. I will never give up this pain because it has provided me with the most profound understanding of who I really am. There is no greater joy in my life than retelling the stories of my children. I see their smiles as they touched my hair, tugged on my clothes and tasted the candy I brought them. This constant narrative runs in my mind and provides me with a deep inner bliss, but also makes me long to return to my country.

I see my world through the eyes of a broken aid worker. Smelling the sour stench of garbage takes me to Nairobi’s slums, blooming tree buds send me back to the flowering branches on Moi Avenue, the taste of chai tea brings me to eating dinner with my father, legs stretched out on his rotting couch.

I desperately want to recreate my life in Africa. Sometimes I search in the aisles of the grocery stores for sweet bananas, sukuma wiki, ingredients for chapattis, just so I can escape for just one moment, to the only place that has given me peace. Sadly, I usually come up empty and wandering.

I am a different person now. I sometimes mourn for the ignorant bliss I urged to shed only a few months ago. Friends and family have told me they see the change. They tell me that sometimes I’m physically present but not mentally “there.” I’m off in some other world, they say. I know exactly where I am though – sitting in a field of grass wrapping plastic bags with twine to make soccer balls for squirming kids or sitting in a hut, flies crawling up my legs, laughing with my best friend Centrine.

Instead, I often find myself in some dirty bar in Minneapolis, music pumping in my brain as I suck down another vodka tonic.

I’m so frightened that those memories, my most cherished thoughts, might leave me one day. I often find solace in listening to my grandfather speak about fighting in “the war”. It seems that even though he forgets the day-to-day details of his life, he seems to hold those past memories, decades old, so close to his heart. He spins yarns about the battles he fought in Morocco and the way shrapnel feels when it burns under your skin. He rehashes these stories, looking for new angles to note or people to remember.

I too, have become a withered storybook, retelling the same tales to whoever will hear them. My friends have listened enough since I returned, but they always humor me when I pull out another album and retell Kenya again.

It’s hard to think of hope in a world like this. I try to make sense of what this life is, why such unspeakable acts have occurred under our noses. Some people say that we are all cursed, doomed to fester and fight until the earth collapses. Other people rationalize the pain by believing it’s just a natural process of the universe. There always has to be an underdog.

I can’t accept these explanations. I have to believe that someday there will be happiness here, both in my own soul and in my country. If I give up that hope, there is nothing more to live for.

My only faith for Africa rests on the shoulders of our generation. In Kenya, children study their school notes under kerosene lamps – eyes squinted as to make out the torn pages of their books. In Chebukwa, groups of girls came to meet me in the afternoon just to practice their English or tell me about their studies.

“I want to be a pilot,” one girl said. “I want to be a doctor,” another answered.

This is where hope comes from – the girls and boys of Africa who have the undying lust to break free from their parent’s poverty.

We, in the West, also have the power the rise up for these children. Their futures depend on a menial amount of money. Children cannot attend school without a uniform, but for around $17 they can purchase one. School fees are less than $30 a semester, but this is far too much for a Kenyan who makes .25 cents a day. It’s amazing really, how much power we hold in our own pockets and we have the ability to change it all.

I plan to return to Kenya soon, May 2008 at the latest. I have to attend to my charity, The Nafula Foundation, meaning she came in the rain. It was founded with Pastor Daniel and University student Aaron Bucher. We are striving to make a positive dent in this world of chaos and sadness.

I often dream the emotions I will have when I step foot back in Africa. Though I can’t wait to be back in the arms of my family, it breaks my heart to think of all the people who won’t be there when I go back. Already half a dozen have died from AIDS and malaria in the village, leaving close to 30 orphans to fend for themselves. But it doesn’t have to be this way forever.

There’s an African proverb that says, “A little rain each day will fill the rivers to overflowing.” I find that even the smallest contribution in the lives of these children can determine their entire futures. It just depends on if you wish to become a drop of rain in this river, or if you want to let it go dry.

We simply must remember that it is only when we truly believe that we can change the world that we accomplish it.

Kathryn Nelson welcomes comments at [email protected]