Monthly Archives: March 2014

Hard Wooden Benches

 

Wooden Benches

I purposely left the house at 2pm—the time that the meeting was supposed to start. Even though I got to the school half an hour late, I was still one of the first parents there. The teachers were crowded around the chalkboard carefully using a ruler and colored chalk to draw out a chart cluttered with numbers. I sat down on one of the wooden benches, lamented the fact that I had forgotten a pen, and tried several times to load facebook’s news feed. Yup, no signal. This was going to be a loooong meeting.

Forty-five minutes after the meeting was supposed to start, the teachers finally called the parents’ meeting to order. I’m sure parents’ meetings in the US aren’t fun, but ones in Kenya seem especially excruciating. All the parents of class seven kids were required to come due to the fact that the class had scored 18/19 in the district on the recent midterm exams. Hard to do worse then that. The teachers spent the majority of the meeting blaming the parents for not properly motivation and providing for their children. How many parents had bought some type of story books for our kids? In a classroom packed with parents only four of us raised our hands. Why weren’t the kids bringing lunches to school? Why weren’t all of the parents present? The kids whose parents hadn’t graced the school with their presence were pulled to one side of the room to serve as an example of what not to do.

Three hours into the meeting my head began to pound. Concentrating so hard on understanding Swahili, seeing kids marched in front of me while their midterm scores were read in front of everyone, heads down staring at their shoes (which were in various stages of disrepair) did a number to my head.

The class teacher with her multi-colored braids and black and white poka-dotted earrings kept saying, “these are good children,” but would then belittle the child for something he or she did in class or for the fact that their parents where absent. The audience chucked at the teacher’s stories of the kids antics, but I couldn’t. One little girl looked like she wished the floor would swallow her—tattered royal blue sweater and all.

Three out of my four kids were in the top 5 of their class with one of my girls scoring the highest score in her section. I was told to buy her a present, and they called her a Muzungu (an English speaking foreigner). My fourth child didn’t fair as well coming in number 14. I was told that he could do better. I nodded and watched him march in line with all the other students who hadn’t quite made the cut.

Each teacher took a turn defending his or her teaching methods. The clock kept ticking. The chief stood up and told a story about how he gives his son money when he scores well on his tests. Then it was the parents’ turn. They mostly blamed the teachers. The teachers turned it back on the parents saying there was only so much that they could do. I saw no end in sight so finally I apologized and ducked out of the dark class room between parental complaints.

The air felt light on my face and my headache slowly started to subside. It seems hopeless at times. Sure, I can do what I can to help the kids who live at the children’s home where I volunteer, but what kind of future do the rest of these kids have? I’ve offered to help out at the school once a week helping with English or composition. The headmaster appreciated my request but has never taken me up on the offer. I’m afraid that he thinks the English teacher would feel threatened by my presence. So I wait. I go to three hour parent meetings, try to show that I do care, and wonder what to do next. How do you help when help is needed but not wanted? How do you help when the teachers care more about defending themselves then they do about educating children?

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Some Day I’ll Go Back

I remember where I was sitting when I heard the news. He’d been killed—the little boy I used to play hide and seek with. Him, his mother, brother, aunt, and cousins. They had been our neighbors when my family lived in Congo the family of my dad’s very good friend Bura.

Bura had moved his family and his brother’s family into town where he thought they would be safe. He had stayed with the house sleeping in the shamba (garden) at night incase of house to house attacks. The house to house killings happened again, but this time in town not in the village. All but one of his sons was killed.

I’d been reading a Redwall book, a fun little series about mice and various other animals who lived in an abbey. With each book some greedy rat pirate or fox king would attack the abbey and an unlikely hero would rise up and save the peaceful inhabitants from the evil that threatened them. Well written books but at times violent. I couldn’t finish the book after hearing the news. I picked it up several times, stared at the same page for awhile, and then eventually returned it half read to the library. I was in jr. high and learning quickly that the world can be an ugly, uncertain place to live.

Awhile ago a friend of mine recommended that I read the book Stringer. A journalist’s story of living in war torn Congo. I’m at the part of the book where the journalist is arriving in Bunia not far from where I grew up.

Bunia—the first place I remember lying awake at night unable to fall asleep because an occasional truck would rumble down the road. To me, a girl who had been living in a rural mountain village, it felt like a big city. It was the first time I remember sleeping under a mosquito net, and it was where my brothers and sisters and I read Calvin and Hobbes comic books for the first time.

Now I think about Congo, and while I long to visit the places where I grew up, I know they wouldn’t be the same. It’s still a war torn country corrupt and broken. A country full of natural resources but constantly under bad leadership. It’s a forgotten country. The holocaust of my generation ignored except for the occasional news story. But, when I read about names of towns and statistics of rape and death I don’t just see numbers and maps. I see people I knew and loved. I see places full of memories.

Some day, God willing, I will go back. I haven’t forgotten. I haven’t given up hope of again seeing the place I once called home. Congo is always on my heart. It’s pains affect me. Its stories have changed me. I haven’t forgotten. I can’t never forget.

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What do you do Anyway?

“So, what do you do?’ she asked as we sat sipping chai and killing time until lunch was ready.  It was the second or third time that week that I’d gotten this question from visitors stopping by the children’s home where I volunteer.

“What do I do?” I thought. Here I was talking to the nursing director of the entire Kijabe Hospital. To someone as busy as her, I’m sure my life looked fairly mundane. Well, today I was spending the morning entertaining guests that I had no idea were coming until I saw a car drive up the drive way. “Every day is different,” I answered. How do you explain being on call 24/7, starting your day at 5:30am but then having the kids gone for the majority of the day? Some days it does feel like I sit around all day, go for walks, and just exist until the kids get home. Other days I’m so busy that I barely have time to breathe and fall into bed at 8:30pm only to have my alarm jolt me awake telling me that it’s time to do it all over again.

As an “auntie” to 17 children, ranging from the ages of 6 to 17, I do everything from braid hair to clean up throw up. I cook a little, clean a little, help tutor the kids, try to teach them what it means to take care of their things (a never ending job). I pick puzzle pieces up off the floor and beat the living room rug after a weekend leaves it filled with enough dust and dirt to fill a sandbox.

What do I do? On Mondays usually do laundry which involves a couple of buckets, some Omo, and a whole lot of clothes pins. But, I don’t have to do the kid’s laundry. Mama Jane (my hero) does that. That woman is amazing. She can get the entire house mopped, the kids laundry (a literal mountain) washed, and cook a mean pot of rice (another mountain), all before lunch.

Tuesdays are town days. Catch up on emails and usually blog while we have fast Internet, stock up on fruit from the fruit market, and get some somosas (sometimes the only meat I get all week). Wednesdays are worship Wednesdays. We’ve been teaching the kids new songs, and I absolutely LOVE hearing them sing their hearts out when we worship. Thursdays are mandazi Thursdays. We head into our little town of Maraigushu to go to the local eating spot for some chai and mandazi (a doughnut type food just not as sugary). As we walk to town we inevitable end up walking with the local neighborhood kids on their way to nursery school. They like to grab our hands and by the time we reach the school we’ve usually collected a nice little string of kids. Friday is movie night. One of the kid’s favorite days of the week. We pop in a movie, sometimes Richelle makes popcorn, and we enjoy some family time.

The weekends are always a blur. Our cook doesn’t work on the weekends, so my Saturdays start at 6am. I get up, heat up water for the man who milks our cow, and then I typically start making pancakes. As the kids wake up, the little kids trickle in the kitchen to “help” me. I usually start burning the pancakes when I have 6 kids hanging on me, but most days the majority of pancakes turnout alright. The kids usually work in the shamba (garden) for awhile in the mornings. I typically braid one or more of the little girl’s hair (always a long project). Sundays involve church, sometimes walks, and whatever else happens to happen.

Then it’s Monday again- beautiful Monday. The kids head off to school. I typically clean up the kitchen and living room area, and it stays clean for the rest of the day! So that’s what I do. That and clean up bloody noses, put on a lot of band aids, give lots of hugs, and just live the day being flexible and taking care of whatever comes my way.

“It’s an emotional job,” Ruthann reflected the other day. “Not a job that can be easily measured.” Some days I do feel like I spend the majority of the day chilling, reading, doing whatever, but then the kids come home and I think, “What don’t I do!”

What do I do? Some days I’m still not sure, but I love it being here for the kids, watching them grow, and doing whatever needs to be done in a day.

Walking to town for mandazi Thursday picking up a string of kids as we go.

Walking to town for mandazi Thursday picking up a string of kids as we go.

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