When I was 21, I went to Kenya. As a bleeding-heart-liberal type, I always had a desire to someday experience a third-world country. Talking about human rights and living conditions in developing nations made me feel like it was something I needed to see firsthand to truly understand, or understand as much as I could. So when it came time to choose a study-abroad program for December intersession, a six-week break spanning Thanksgiving to New Years, I opted for Kenya rather than the EU or Morocco. I’d been to Europe and I could go to Morocco on my own, so Kenya felt like the best way to take advantage of DePaul University’s connections. I had never really studied Africa, seeing as my focus was on Iran and countries in that immediate vicinity, and knew I wouldn’t likely spend multiple weeks on the continent in any other context.
I was part of the first group to do the program, which had been canceled the year before due to election protests. The school partnered with the Green Belt Movement, an NGO that works for female and community empowerment through environmental initiatives. We learned about food security and post-colonial social issues, in addition to spending a few days at the base of Mount Kenya planting and mapping trees. We went to Kibera, the largest slum in the country, and visited a school with dirt floors and adorable uniformed children. We stayed in houses without electricity or running water, pulling mosquito netting around us every night.
Basically, it had everything one would expect on a life-changing trip to Africa. In just a few short weeks we were exposed to a number of extremes, be it drought or poverty or history. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I’m glad I took advantage of it.
But it didn’t change my life.
A lot of people expressed their desire to have a spiritual journey while in Kenya, while others talked about learning more about their own identities. I had more superficial and simple reasons for going: I wanted to experience something totally outside of anything I ever knew firsthand. I wanted the perspective that comes with that kind of adventure, but I didn’t feel the need to be impacted fundamentally by it.
When we first landed, it was instantaneous culture shock. Seeing giraffes just outside the airport and men with huge guns on street corners was a serious jolt to the system, and I was immediately aware of just how different Kenya is compared to other countries I have visited. Since we were only there for a couple weeks, I didn’t feel the need to “get used to” the differences. I just took them in, noted them, and kept my eyes open for more. When I got back to the states, the word I used to describe Kenya again and again was surreal. “I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around it yet,” I would say when asked to explain it. Anything else felt disingenuous.
I’ll never forget the way the food tasted—goat stew and mashed plantains and passionfruit. I’ll never forget how green the foliage was against the deep red of the mud. I’ll never forget how intimidated I was by the Maasai women aggressively selling bracelets and knick-knacks in parking lots. But I also won’t cheapen the experience by pretending I came back to the U.S. with the desire to save Africa. Because my largest takeaway was that they didn’t need me to save them.
Kenya was vastly different from my reality, but I never got the sense that it was worse or better. Staying in villages without electricity, I was surprised by how shocked they were by our way of life—“You don’t have dowry?” “Your parents divorced?” “21 and no children—you need to get going!”—but not in a wistfully dreamy way. It wasn’t envy they felt, just curiosity, much like how I felt coming to Kenya. Others may have come away with a different sense, but I just felt lucky to spend an evening sharing stories and swapping questions.
Even Kibera, which I expected to touch my soul deeply, washed over me without making me want to start a non-profit. Maybe I’m a horrible person, or maybe I don’t have a white savior complex, or maybe I just went in with a good idea of what to expect when I heard “largest slum in the country.” What kind of willful ignorance does it take to be truly shocked by abject poverty? How deeply do you need to plunge yourself into mindlessness to not know what it looks like when thousands of people are living in subpar housing? Or rather, how lacking in empathy do you need to be to not be capable of imagining it vividly?
Kibera looked like any mental image of a slum I could possibly dig up. Ramshackle houses and businesses lined narrow, winding streets. There were children everywhere, music all around, and curious faces looking at the group of American students from every doorway. Having a sense of what day-to-day life is like for the masses that live there, I had a gnawing sense of sadness as we walked along, learning about education in the area and efforts to secure computers. But the empathy I felt didn’t translate to my needing to save the day. I was bearing witness to human suffering, and as a 21-year-old college kid from a small town in Illinois, that felt like enough.
I think about Kenya often. The country was beautiful, the people were unbelievably kind and the food was spectacular. Although at the time I was entirely too overwhelmed to fully process what I was seeing and smelling and hearing, in retrospect I like to think I can appreciate the experience fully. But I’ve never once felt a burden to save or liberate or otherwise interfere in that fantastic country. It was a privilege to be embraced by Kenya, and I would never want to repay the many kindnesses I received with ignorant attempts to better their country.
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