About 2 months ago I wrote a blog on “making a difference.” I remember feeling like I was chipping away at a massive wall and wasn’t sure if I was making any progress. On Saturday most of the kids I knew left for their school holidays. That means 2 things : 1 I feel lost without them and 2) I now have a chance to reflect on if I did “make a difference.”
I may have come in here with grand ideas of exposing these kids to the Internet, getting every kid a textbook or being able to speak fluent English with them but my goals slowly became a lot less ambitious. This was not because I thought it was impossible but because I realized that wasn’t what they needed most. As my time is slowly coming to an end here, I’ve realized that I never intended to make an impact on the kids I made an impact on. The kids that I grew close to were kids who could speak fluent English and had become my friends. They were kids I could laugh with and just have a decent conversation with. Others weren’t so fluent in English but were friendly enough to always be by my side and greet me when I came to their dorms and through my little Swahili and their little English we found a happy medium.
When I finish the work I have in the office I generally go and sit with the girls in their dorms or wherever I can find them. On this particular Saturday I went to their dorms and sat down.(I actually fell asleep for a while). One of the girls opened up my hair and told me that my hair was dry and that I should put some oil in it. I made a disgusted face and told them how I hated the feeling of having oil in my hair and hadn’t done so since I was about 10 years old (when my mom would do it for me). Before I knew it they had brought out the oil and told me they wanted to comb my hair for me. I insisted that I hated it but I couldn’t bear disappointing them – they seemed to be so excited at the fact that they could put this stuff that I hated on me. After putting it on and combing my hair, they tried to comb my hair in different styles and were really getting a kick out of me being their doll. I thought it was over until one of the girls went into her cupboard and brought out lip-gloss and an eyeliner. They even explained to me that they eye liner may burn my eyes a little but it would make me look pretty. I tried to resist and even told them that I didn’t even let my own friends give me a make over and here I was sitting in a dorm with 15 year olds letting them do it. They were having such a blast and such a small thing made them so incredibly happy that I felt I had no choice. When it was time for me to go I thanked them and they responded, “ No! Thank You for coming here! Will you come back and sleep here tomorrow afternoon?” I laughed , they just wanted me to be here even if I was asleep. At the end of the day, I think all they want is for someone to come and spend time with them, laugh with them, and even just sleep on their bed. More than anything they just need to be told that they’re worth spending time with because they might not have been told that at home.
2 months later, the girls that I’ve joked with, talked to, and tutored have started to open up to me. Never did I think that they had been through so much. Most of these kids have either lost one parent, both or have separated parents. Most of them seem to lack that basic unconditional love from both of their parents and just a stable home. I can see the difference that it makes in a child. Someone like Sabrina who had both her parents for most of her life is a confident upbeat and happy child (I am assuming that she got love from both of them while they were alive or just has really strong faith in God.) and then there is Taslim whose father left her family, then her mother left them and then her mother came back but then re-married and had two other daughters. It is really no surprise that Taslim is shy, scared and timid and highly emotionally dependent. She doesn’t believe she’s good enough partly because she wasn’t good enough for her parents to stick around for nor is she good enough for her mom right now. After failing in an exam she would come crying to me and tell me that her mom would not let her come back to this school and force her to stay at home. With every exam that came back to her there was a fear that she would not pass and that would mean she would not come back to school. She told me how everything she did at home was wrong and that her mom loved her sisters but no one loved her. She came to me in a panic the other day because she lost 2500 shillings (which is about 1 US $) and I asked her what that money was for trying to calm her down and she told me how when she goes home she doesn’t get any money so it was really important (I secretly wondered how 2500 shillings would be her spending money for the next two months). I struggled with Taslim because I was used to someone like Sabrina who despite her struggles was strong, hardly cried, and really didn’t disclose her hardships. I grew afraid of her dependency because there was nothing I could really do (it wasn’t like I could pull her out of her house and give her a new one.) I wanted Taslim to be stronger, not be so afraid of everything and to be patient with her circumstances but didn’t know how to do it. I explained to her that in life no one would fight for her, that she would have to fight her own battles and that in order to succeed she would have to grow stronger. I went home that evening and weirdly enough found the movie “Good Will Hunting” lying around. After watching it realized that that was what I needed to tell Taslim – that it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her fault that she was in this situation. It was not a reflection of who she was that both her parents walked out on her nor that her mom did not give her the love she deserved.
I think I’ve realized more than anything you can give these kids what they need most is to know that someone is listening. Reading with the kids is important, as is teaching them English and so is getting them textbooks but I think the most important thing is to show these kids that you’re here for them and are listening to them. The key is to befriend them and be in a position where you can give them advice and they will take it , tell them that they can achieve anything and they believe it , and reassure them that there will be a better tomorrow. Because what they need most is hope – belief that there is more to come and If you can make them believe that then I think you have made a difference. Because even if you leave they still believe that they’re worth it and that can alleviate themselves out of their poverty and you don’t need to be there to tutor them or hold their hand ; they will find a way to succeed because they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.