(circa the beginning of November 2016)
The first afternoon at Restart was challenging. Sitting down to lunch, I struggled to catch a word in the delicate balance between a lingering introductory state with the volunteers and the immense emotional history I have with Mary. Nonetheless, we dined like queens with three different types of knives and forks, antique china, and a tree branch stretching overhead, lined with chirping birds. After the decadent meal ended, and the conversation petered out, the volunteers and I headed over to the premises of the children’s home.
To get there, we strode through the dusty streets of Langalanga, passing by goats, cows, low, brightly-colored buildings, and an array of all kinds of people. Children shouted “Mzungu! Mzungu!” while running up to shake our hands like dive-bombers. We walked by fundis welding on the side of the road, women behind dukas selling a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, and everyday people going about their lives. Besides the excited children, their observant mothers, an occasional, staggering man exclaiming “Hello, beautiful women!” and a few quizzical looks from old ladies, everyone else really didn’t pay us that much attention.
After a long walk down a rocky dirt road, bordered by fields, we at last strode into the gates of Restart.
Restart is a beautiful place. Unlike many children’s homes in Kenya, it is in the midst of the countryside, and has ample fields and wide, open structures. The architecture is elegant and simple, consisting of a ring of pale, stone buildings. It is green, and there are many, many flowers.
Another unique aspect of Restart is its independency from religion. Most children’s homes in Kenya are affiliated with Christianity, teaching a more rigid and conservative world view to their inhabitants. Restart, on the other hand, wants to empower children through freedom of religion. Instead of associating personal “rebirth” with a greater world belief, like Christianity, Restart wants children to realize that they themselves are the catalysts for a new life. Personally, I believe in this more secular model. With a powerful motto, “Think not what you are, but what you can become,” it is the way forward for humanitarian projects in the developing world.
Now, if you know me, and know me fairly well, it’s apparent that I am afraid of a couple key aspects of life. Children, particularly those under the age of ten, happen to be one.
As soon as the other volunteers, Nicole, Sarah, and Ellie, walked in, they were bombarded by exuberant little children laughing, screaming, and hugging them. I stood in the background, my internal energy dropping down a notch. Oh no, I thought, beeping going off in my head like a heart monitor picking up. I’m not good with children. I’m not good with children. I’m not – Meredith! JUST INTRODUCE YOURSELF.
“Who’s this?” one of the smallest girls asked, pointing to me after her initial explosion of excited energy.
“You can call me Mary,” I replied timidly. “Mary” is so much easier than “Meredith.” It’s surprising how much more comfortable children are when they know your name, especially when there’s something of a language barrier involved.
While a few of the small children grew somewhat enthusiastic about my presence, I still felt out of place. I pulled out my camera to take a few pictures, hiding behind the busyness of the shuffling lens. Then Mr. Luke, one of the administrators, came up to me. “There’s a girl who would like to talk to you.”
A little shyly, a teenage girl stepped forward, and proceeded to guide me to some steps where we sat in the sun. She asked me where I was from, and said that she could tell I had grown up in Kenya. What she expressed next was beautiful.
We talked about wanting to go into journalism. She told me about the euphoria she felt while singing or acting or writing. Her openness melted the edge of my anxiety, and we made plans for her to create a guest post for this blog (stay tuned, dear readers). It was comforting how the small hopes of life can connect two strangers.
After an hour-long conversation, I got the feeling that the other volunteers were ready to go. Exhausted myself, we began the long walk back to the volunteer apartments. Though still overwhelmed by the tapestry of heavy stories at Restart, now made manifest before my eyes, I felt more hopeful.
And, quietly in the back of mind, right around where Mary’s eyes pierced my conscious, was a question. What do I really think I am?