Some of the best things in life evolve when we are miles outside of our comfort zones. I’ve begun to understand my innate need to push myself constantly to the edge and take giant leaps of faith.
I’ve been back on American soil for just over four months after volunteering for 10 weeks in Etora, Kenya. I returned with tan lines, bruises, new scars, new perspective, gratitude, a newfound appreciation for hot water, and an expanded heart.
Life in Kenya is so different from life here in America. From their interpretation of time to the color of the dirt, Kenya has a different pulse. I miss bucket showers, eating cooked bananas, dancing to music that gets into your bones, teaching the kids yoga and art, and constantly getting caught in the rain.
I spent enough time there to actually feel settled, as if I lived there. And spending time with the kids at the Sacred Care Orphanage was one of the most enriching experiences I have ever had. These kids have each overcome hell, being found in toilets, abandoned as babies, or abused. They have lived heartache, and yet their smiles are entirely genuine and full of life.
They lead vigorous, joyful and content lives, and are incredibly well cared for by the staff at the orphanage. They taught me that hearts are built to be broken, to know the dark in order to fill it with happiness. Each person I met in Kenya further proved how true that is.
I left in August with my friend Kira Kerr, a backpack full of belongings, and a list of tasks to do for Helping Children in Crisis (HCIC) while I was there. I was equally excited and terrified for what the next few months would hold.
HCIC is the organization that was lovingly created to financially support the Rev. Samson Abuga and his staff in caring for 64 orphans.
Something I’ve learned about travel and experiencing new cultures is that you can never be fully prepared, and there is always more going on than I know to look for, so it’s best just to be open and ready, fully letting go of control and becoming a sponge to the world. That way you see, smell, hear and feel more, and I’m so grateful for this realization.
Kenya itself is a force of nature. From the moment I stepped off the plane onto the dusty red earth, things worked differently. The weather fluctuates drastically and nothing happens as planned. Everything is more organic, there is an ebb and flow to the market place, a natural momentum to daily life. Time is an illusion, an estimate.
Likewise, the people I met are forces of nature, from the tiny women carrying giant sacks of potatoes on their heads, to the teachers with fervent concern and care for each student. But the kids were the ones teaching me the most, making the world feel more in sync. They reminded me to get busy living. And made me remember that there’s nothing better than feeling thoroughly exhausted after a day of doing something you love.
One of the orphans grew up a delinquent street kid, following a path toward a life of crime in order to survive. But he was taken in and has turned his life around completely. I watched him graciously receive an award for being the top of his class. It’s incredible to witness first hand the power of human connection and how all it takes is just one person to care.
Samson and different members of the community here are the sole reason half these kids are even alive. Listening to him talk about them and watching him interact with them makes it clear that the support they are getting from the staff at the orphanage is grounded in respect, compassion and love. They’ve shown the uncanny amount of bravery it takes to be selfless, and I am humbled to be witness to it.
It is so hard to try to portray the kids. Each of them is a different combination of nerves, love, opinions and mannerism. We tried our best to gather up as much as possible to put into paper and picture form for sponsors and supporters here in America.
Life is so different for them. Many of them spent years of their lives malnourished or abused, forced to steal just to survive. And now they are clothed, well-fed, and catching up on schooling they missed.
The teachers at their school actively help the orphans catch up and get the best grades possible. Education is the key to a successful future, and the kids are so aware of that and love learning for that reason.
Samson thinks it is crucial for the kids to know they are supported, loved and cared for, and set up with every tool possible to help them matriculate into society successfully. Every decision he makes is based on what would be best for the kids.
All of the work Kira and I did was in some way supporting Samson in these goals by helping gather information and complete tasks for HCIC. We went over excited to experience a new culture and help in whatever way we could. We had no idea the life-changing shift in perspective that would come from working with such wonderful people in such a foreign world. While in Kenya I wrote something for our blog that summarized this shift well:
I once read that universal pain, mystery and the beauty of life cannot be separated. Often the tangible world we belong to feels precariously tilted too far on its axis. We start to exist as shells, waves of light and shadow passing through for a temporary stay. We crave the unknown but feel frozen in routine. This vibration of society runs through humankind, demanding us to be partially numb to survive its gauntlet every morning.
In this numbness we constantly practice the unnatural act of hiding our hearts; we create a rhythmic void of blockades and excuses. Protecting ourselves from the beautiful harsh pain that is so necessary to grow. So many of us exist a short distance from our bodies, unwilling to face the feelings we never dare experience consciously.
We attempt to squeeze and mold our lives to what we think we want, making everything feel off kilter. Yet every evening the sun tucks itself away below the horizon and the stars peek out. Break the numbness. All it takes is starting to notice the heartbeat in your ears and the breath in the palms of your hands—sensing stillness in movement, space in tight corners, silence in noise.
Vulnerability takes immense strength and yields the simplest yet most suppressed and craved need to love and be loved. In Kenya struggle and hardship are so common everyone has to wear them on their sleeves. There is such beauty to being honest and raw with the world.
This is what Kenyan culture and working with the kids really drove home. It’s an entirely different world, run by different rules and expectations. It’s easy to witness developing countries from afar and feel unable to relate. But this is what the simple, minimalistic lifestyle with daily struggle brings to light.
All of humankind was created with so many intricate, complicated, layered subtleties and differences; and underneath it all, underneath our facades and judgments, it all boils down to love. We must realize hearts are built to be broken, and experiencing the cruel pulsation of struggle only opens us to live with lightness.
Love is the best gift a human can give and I will never stop wondering how I got so incredibly lucky—to be able to give and receive love from all these incredible kids. I wish that feeling upon everyone, every day, in some form. Love wins.
– Cailin Elphick, HCIC Intern
Published in New Church Life, Mar/Apr 2015