I step forward through a rusty gate, my mind racing for the events that are sure to transpire. Full of both hopes and fears, my heart beats rapidly. I have arrived in Kenya: both my greatest excitement and greatest cause of worry. The wet, red earth made muddy from last night’s warm rain squelches under my feet. As I make my way through the crowd of children, small dark hands reach out for my much lighter arms.
Nervously I sit down on an old pew inside the church. The spaces fill up and a teenage boy sits down next to me, taking up the last of the wooden space. My nostrils fill with the assaulting smell of industrial strength glue. Upon closer inspection, I realize just who is sitting to my left-A boy of sixteen dons the same tattered clothes day after day; his only possessions he carries with him. His feet, red from the same Kenyan dirt I walked through, stick out from the multiple holes in his only pair of shoes. Somewhat reluctantly on my part my eyes meet his. My heart drops somewhere deep within me. Timidly I smile a greeting but those dark eyes do not respond. They are preoccupied with fumes from the glue and something I sense as fear, which stems from the hardening realities of destitution.
I sit next to this boy who is the same age as my youngest brother. I am afraid to ask his name. Hours later my heart is still weighted by the smell of glue used to forget. The very substance that binds is tearing him apart.
The obsessive part of me takes over, having been structured by an American education system based on problem-solving. I start to make list after list of how to fix this problem of orphaned street kids turning to drugs for support. I brainstorm the needs of Kenya with other local volunteers at the church: water, food, education, healthcare, clothing, shelter. This simple list is just that-the basic needs of children and people around the world. I continue to write with my three dollar pen, pages of dreams to fix these issues.
Soon my attitude becomes one of disbelief at the enormous problems laid out in my black notebook, tangibly displayed in these children who lack a daily meal and clean drinking water. My list cannot heal this problem, even my mind cannot fully comprehend how great the need is here. I leave the church feeling disheartened, helpless and unsure of how to respond.
The next morning comes too quickly, and I enter those same rusty gates with shaky hands and nearly overflowing eyes. These two weeks in Kenya will be my chance to contribute in the fight for the needs here. I serve the kids ugali, corn flour mixed with water, along with vegetables. This meal is the only one of the day for most of the children here. We sing songs with them, give hugs, play games, and try to show as much love as possible to those who are just beginning to learn the value they hold in their small selves. In these children I see a haunting spectrum. They are young and impressionable; my prayer is for positive influences rather than self-destruction or a fear of trusting others with their dreams.
Afternoon hours come and another young boy sits next to me on the hard earth. We shake hands in greeting, and I notice something different in him. Most boys his age bring with them the weight of glue and hardened eyes. I met Paul Kariuki that afternoon, a 14-year-old boy who proved me wrong. Paul has been at the church for five years; the first three years were a haze of glue fumes and a life hedged by the influence of his friends. He explained to me he did not see his family during that time. He had no food, no shelter, no education and no love.
Smelling rags soaked in gasoline was his only defense against the cold of living on the streets; it helped him not to feel so alone. People categorize street kids as thieves, and Paul was looked down upon by pedestrians, shopkeepers, tourists and other hesitant adults.
I asked him what caused him to stop doing drugs; his response caused me to reflect on my own goals. He said he had really thought about life, and what he wanted from it. His old life was one of fear and neglect, but his future is bright. Paul was accepted into the Fikisha program where, for the first time in his life, someone told him he was allowed to dream. I was told that often as a child, but he had never been asked what his hopes are for his future. Now he was able to answer-an engineer.
He talks about his past with mentors at the church, in order to process his old life and the beautiful transformation into the present. He tells me the rest of the boys who still do drugs have been influenced by Paul’s new vision. They say he made a wise choice. I smile and nod my head in agreement, a small outward sign of my heart for him. He has made a wise choice, because of the opportunity to find better influences, people to encourage him, a place to live, money for school and a place to sleep.
Paul has shown me that many children have unrecognized potential. Fikisha placed a hope in him, and in turn he inspires hope. I have seen the tragedies are real. Orphans and children who don’t have money for school or food pour into the church grounds daily in hopes of a meal. But the successes are real as well. Paul showed me this the first day we met, and he will continue to exeunt that hope in Kawangware to those who need someone to reach out, pull them up and show them a new life is possible.