What Kenya Taught Me


Caroline Colwell, Staff Writer

As our van pulled into Irigithathi Primary School, a horde of children swarmed us, banging on the windows, pressing their faces against the glass, and shouting with excitement at the arrival of “wazungu” (literally translated: white-people). I was dragged away from my fellow Americans into a large group of screaming boys and girls. Immediately they began petting my hair, pinching my skin, holding my hands, and asking questions like “Is the skin under your hair white too?” Unfortunately, I had little time to answer before I had tiny hands pulling my hair trying to find out the answer for themselves.

Longing for a chance to catch my breath, I did my best to distract them from their curiosity about my appearance.  These efforts spanned from everything to tag, singing, peek-a-boo, and that painful hand slapping game that we all unfortunately played as children to me standing up and looking ridiculous while leading a ludicrous rendition of the Macarena. Needless to say, the Macerana worked wonders considering the fact that their favorite source of entertainment seemed to be me looking like an absolute idiot.

As I became more comfortable with these new surroundings, I began to truly love dancing and singing just as much as these enthusiastic kids did. All of this encouraged a desire to spend every day singing, dancing, and playing whatever game came to mind – whether it be duck-duck-goose or hide-and-go-seek.

But this sense of nostalgia transformed into curiosity and confusion as I noticed the huge differences in our cultures. Coming to Kenya as an American, I was able to watch the children I was teaching from an outsider’s perspective. I was shocked when I taught my first P.E. class in the local elementary school. When I asked what they wanted to do, unanimously they chose Red Rover – a game where students, linked together, call on someone from the other team to run over and try to break through their chain. This seemed harmless enough, but I soon realized that this was no childhood game, but was a vicious activity designed to injure one another.  The chain of kids met the oncoming opponent with a full swing of their arms right into the stomach, or in some cases the head.

After watching a few rounds of child after child getting decked and landing flat on their backs, they made it their mission to get me to join in on the game. Terrified, I did my best to resist, but never underestimate the pressure of little children. I soon felt the pains of this game first-hand and I still wonder how those children managed to find joy in these beatings.

After thinking about it, however, I realized that we were no different when we were children. How dodge ball is considered a safe and kid-friendly sport still escapes me. My time in Kenya demonstrated to me that whether they are in Africa or California: kids are kids. My misconception of the vast difference between our cultures faded.

I realized that my favorite part of the entire trip was watching these kids get excited and watching the joy light up on their faces. What made it even more satisfying was knowing that I could help make that happen. When I was younger, there was nothing more satisfying than attention from someone older than me. As I walked into their school every morning, I was bombarded by hands shooting out of windows handing me notes, drawings, and stories that the students had drawn for me.

By the time my trip was over, I had acquired a stack of over a hundred sketches and adorable notes. On my final day, I was honored with skits, dances, songs, and stand-up-poetry from each grade. I couldn’t help but be reminded of how hard I tried to impress everyone older than me when I was a child and it just reiterated the similarities between us.

When I look back on my time spent in Kenya I laugh at all the unusual experiences I encountered, but ultimately I am pleased when I think of how awesome it was to feel so loved by my new friends in Kenya.