[originally posted march 27th, 2013]
For those of you who didn’t know, I got to travel to Kenya at the beginning of March to work with a friend who started a non-profit called Justice Rising. One of the many things she does is empower girls in Kenya who want to leave their work in prostitution or sex-trafficking. This past August she acquired a home so she could offer a safe place for some of the girls to live. Since they now have constant shelter, food & other necessities provided for them, they can go to school and have a future beyond working in the sex industry of Mombasa. Last December, we started dreaming with our friend, Cass, about partnering our design skills to empower her girls and make their house (Bella House) feel like a home. We talked for a while but never committed. We finally bought a ticket three weeks in advance & we scrounged as many resources as possible to get over there. Jonathan stayed behind (to pay bills) while I traveled to Kenya by myself. OMGsh, what an exhilarating experience. I had never traveled internationally by myself so it was such an adventure for me on so many levels.
Thank you to all who donated money toward this project. Thank you for your love, your prayers, your excitement, and your support. You provided furniture, decoration and joy to each of these girls. They loved every single thing they received (The first day I met them, I set out a rug in their living room before they came home. The moment they saw it they started screamingand jumped on it, calling it their “magic carpet”. That was one of the many moments of excitement you gave them. Pillows for their sofa were another. Who would have thought?!) Jonathan and I are so grateful to be a part of these girls lives, & hope to make this trip annually (or quarterly when we make it big ;)
(just before my flight to Kenya)
Here’s a bit more in detail about my trip:
Since I’ve been home…
My trip to Kenya was incredible. It’s taken me a couple of weeks to share my journey with you but I’m finally sitting down to do it. Over the past two weeks of being home I’ve had enough time to adjust and come to some realizations.
While I was in Kenya, and immediately following my return home, I felt stuck between two worlds. I felt the tension of being in America where I have a business that focuses on outward beauty & aesthetics, and wanting to be in Kenya where those things don’t matter. The two cultures are so different. Because the cultures have such extreme differences (don’t get me wrong, there are definitely similarities), it took me a while to figure out how to process or what to process coming home. Maybe that’s what everyone calls “culture shock.” Maybe the fact that I couldn’t process meant I was actually struggling with the very thing I didn’t think I had. Who knew?! Ha.
This trip has helped me marry those two worlds together for the first time in a while: American & Kenya, details & simplicity, external beauty & internal. It helped me see the relationship between the value of external beauty and the heart. How the development of aesthetics can impact the heart. How re-designing a living room can make a young girl who just left prostitution feel at home and help her heal. I don’t have to feel guilty that I love purchasing fresh plants for a house, or that I care about where something hangs on a wall or that certain textures and patterns work well with others. In fact, I can embrace it. Those strengths and gifts came alive on this trip. They were free. Kenya (and the girls) re-shaped my understanding of beauty. That both external beauty and internal beauty are valuable. Both are part of the human experience. And I get to help shape internal beauty with my appreciation for interior space.
Traveling to Kenya also re-awakened my knowledge that I am responsible for helping change lives. Or, at least, provide opportunity for those who might not have any otherwise. This trip allowed me to be a part of providing that opportunity for young girls rescued out of sex trafficking and I L-O-V-E-D it. I mean, how incredible is it that I got to learn joy and beauty from them?! They taught me so much about humility, trust, patience, laughter, and love. They surprised me with their strength to daily choose to be free from the pains of their previous circumstances. They all made me laugh. They all made me cry. They all taught me to dance and to enjoy “Pitch Perfect” for the bazillionth time (But really, who would ever get tired of watching that movie?!)
I can only hope I showed them how to learn and grow, and, most importantly, to receive love.
Daily Life in Kenya…
Every day I was there was full of some amazing adventure and consisted of at least one the following forms of public transportation: taxi, motor bike, van, car or a mutatu. “What is a mutatu?” you ask? Well, it’s only the best (& cheapest) way of getting around Kenya (and most of Africa I’ve been told). You literally JUMP onto a van-like-taxi, that should only fit 8-10 people but usually has at least 14-16, and drive quickly down the dirt streets. If anyone wants to get off you tap the roof of the mutatu and the driver pulls over to let you off. *Note: I tend to exaggerate. When I say “jump” I mean “quickly and clumsily climb in” Most days consisted of shopping for items for Bella House (where the girls live with their “mommas” and “aunties”), eating a new Kenyan dish (chipati was one of my favorites. It’s a Kenyan’s version of a tortilla or pita), and playing with the girls. I didn’t actually decorate the house until the last two days because I wanted as much time with the girls as possible (and decorating usually took me away from spending time with them). And, it was the perfect week for me to be there because the girls were off school as a result of the Kenyan election. I got tons of quality time with them. They got to know me & trust me much quicker than most vistors. It felt like such a blessing because I didn’t intend to time my trip around their school break. Of course, this quick bond made it much harder to leave (but let’s face it, it would have been difficult for me either way because the girls are incredible!)…
(Here is a video of my first experience on a mutatu):
There was so much to take in on a daily basis. While I was there, I started a list of things I learned or observed:
- Being a “muzungu” or “white person” means you can’t really hide anywhere you go in Kenya. Smiling children point at you as you walk by, yelling, “muzungu.” The smiles usually make you forget about your embarrassment and shame for being white. I felt awkward at first but quickly learned to embrace it.
- Kenyan food uses many of the same spices as Indian food (but not nearly as many)
- Curly hair is hilarious to some of the girls. They would call me “fuzzy”. It’s abnormal (in the area I was in) for the girls to leave their hair undone. If you have big hair, you pull it back in braids or some form of a weave. Obviously I didn’t do that so I stood out
- Pedestrians don’t necessarily have the right-of-way. But cows do.
- Running water is a luxury. As is electricity.
- Kenyan mosquitoes really, really love me.
- You can’t be in a hurry. If you are, too bad. The African way of life is a much slower pace than the American way of life. Our taxi driver told me: “you always have somewhere to be and something to do,” and I laughed and said, “Aston, I’m American. It’s what we do. I can’t help it.” He replied with, “Hakuna Matata” and I wanted to belt out in song (don’t worry, I held it in)
- 15 minutes in American time is about 40 minutes in African time
- You can’t always believe what you hear. Often times, I would get an exaggerated story from a local Kenyan & would believe them. My friend Cass would have to tell me it wasn’t entirely true. Not great if you’re gullible like me…
- Driving into oncoming traffic is how you get places faster. I quickly learned this on our roadtrip across the country. I had white knuckles for the first hour and then I got used to it. Most of the time.
- You can’t possibly fit too many people in a van
- Someone making a clicking sound at you means “get out of my way”
- Who needs trash trucks when you can just leave it for the goats?!
- There is no real sense of personal space. Americans love their space. I realized that on this trip.
- Dowrys still exist and you pay with a cow (at least in the area I was in)
- When you think it’s too hot, just wait, it gets even hotter
- When you pee in a latrine, take a wide stance. If you forget, you’ll end up with pee splatter on your legs. Remember this especially if it’s a dirt floor.
- It isn’t normal for a woman to know how to use a power tool. This was probably the most frustrating (and also most liberating) realization for me. I had to buy a power drill while I was there (the journey to finding one is a story on it’s own) and had many confused responses when I asked the men working. One man told me, “Women don’t know how to use tools. It is not for a woman to do.” My response was to show him my muscles and say “this woman does.” (maybe that wasn’t appropriate but, hey, I’m an American woman. And, I’m often inappropriate in America so I can’t help it)
- Middle/Upper class Kenyan house walls are much more “solid” (aka cement) than American walls. This proved to be really frustrating when I wanted to hang things at Bella House. It ended up working out but required a lot more effort, patience and creativity.
- The local butterfly pavilion is scarier to the Bella House girls than an alligator park. Ha!
This list isn’t meant to make Kenyan culture look bad. If anything, it’s meant to point out the beautiful (and fun) differences between Kenyan and American culture, and to communicate the quirks of traveling internationally.
Clearly, I learned a lot on this trip
Here are some images from my trip:
On my safari/roadtrip across Kenya. From Nairobi to Mombasa. We saw LOTS of animals. I got to see everything but lions & elephants…
A street in the city of Nigali, just south of Mtwapa
One of my favorite roads we took regularly on our way to the house.
Don’t worry, I have tons more to share. I’ll try and post over the next week. And, I’ll be posting more images and further details about decorating Bella House in the next few days (including the before & after photos, and the shopping photos). There is just too much from this trip to do it all in one post !