At age 13, for our children’s coming of age ritual in our faith, they are presented with the opportunity to participate in a community service project. This mission to Kenya, is the second one for us to Africa. The first took place two years ago in Uganda with my second oldest son.
After contributing ourselves, and collecting donations from family and friends, my husband and I and our youngest son, our third child, decided to travel to Kenya to a remote community near Nyahururu. The objective was to build them a social hall and kitchen so that they can effectively gather as many as 200 people during holidays and for special occasions. In addition to building, we also brought their children soccer balls and school supplies.
While we were there helping them to build, we also spent time learning more about their culture and customs as well as take time to enjoy meals with them during work breaks. Toward the very end of our trip we visited the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya’s largest safari, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an elephant orphanage, where we fostered a baby elephant, and visited and donated to Hope House Babies Home, a home that provides safety and comfort for abandoned babies and toddlers ages, newborn to 4 years old.
For every aspect of our trip, we tried to show our son the direct power of providing for others in a respectful, compassionate, and caring manner. With the power of doing, and proactively and effortfully putting himself out there, we are hoping that he internalizes significant lessons going forward as he matures.
Some of the life lessons that were derived from this trip included highlighting the significance of:
Diversity and Openness. In the village Jews, Catholics, and Muslims all lived peacefully and tolerantly. They shared natural resources, lived near one another, and would unequivocally help each other if there was a need. The leader reported that he expects that he will share the structure with his neighbors because it is the only one of its kind and in close proximity to the neighboring communities. He expressed that it’s customary for surrounding communities to share and be generous with their resources.
It was explained to us that there were adopted children in Kasuku that were originally from other communities. They requested to change their faith and were given permission by their parents to join the Kasuku community. These children, as young as six, remain in contact with their biological parents, but live by community members and practice their new faith.
A community member who identified as a convert expressed that as a child and teen, she would stay home as her family attended church because she found herself unmotivated and disinterested. I asked how her family feels about her conversion, she reported that her parents are happy that she’s actively participating in an organized religion and that she found a faith that she feels especially joyful about and connected to.
Sharing and Empathy. I was astonished to see how caring and connected the community seemed to be. There were several examples that stood out to me. We brought them some specialty snacks when we arrived. A mother was eating one and realized that her son didn’t get one and so she offered it to him. He quickly said he didn’t want it. I was surprised that he wouldn’t jump at the chance. I thought that maybe he just didn’t like it. When I asked why he was giving it up, his mother explained that he would never take food away from her, even if he really wanted it. He preferred that she enjoy it and didn’t want to get in the way of her pleasure.
It was evident as well that despite whether they do or don’t have the means, community members came to the immediate aid of others in need. If parents were sick or died, community members would step in and foster or adopt their children. Also, if someone were hospitalized, the community would fundraise to pay for their hospital bill, because otherwise, a patient was bound there until their bill was fully paid.
Personal Responsibility and Independence. Children do chores from a very young age and are expected and required to contribute to the needs of the family and house while they are living at home. A member shared that as soon as her three-year-old is able, she will teach her how to wash clothes by hand. She will help with all tasks including cooking, cleaning, and watching younger siblings when she grows older.
Kids also walk independently to school which are often far distances away. One community member expressed that it teaches them independence and to work for what they need and want. They see personal responsibility as being independent and interdependent. That one doesn’t have to preclude the other. Their attention is generally toward the collective even if they are doing something independently.
Gratitude and Being In the Present Moment. Members shared that the social mores and value system keenly focuses on having immense gratitude for everything they have and being a kind, caring, and hard-working member of the community. Because resources are scarce, and life is generally precarious because of the economy, the weather, etc., the members are taught to avoid comparing themselves to others and assess their pride based on who they are and their own accomplishments.
The stress is to have gratitude for all they do have rather than on what they don’t have. When I was speaking with many of them, they shared that they’re just happy to be healthy and alive, eat every day, and especially cherish occasions when they can gather and just enjoy each other’s company.
Parenting and Family. There was a well-established hierarchy in the families. Because of the need, family members highly rely on one another. During “holiday” when children are off from school and are on break, they are expected to follow up on tasks that they were not able to do when they are engaged in their studies. Kids were out harvesting in the fields, helping their mothers prepare meals, and even assisting their fathers at the construction site while spending time with us.
Siblings were especially close and protective over one another. They were cognizant of where their siblings were and included them in the tasks they were participating in. It was heartwarming to see the felt sense of brethren the community children shared among each other, whether they were biological siblings or not. They traveled in groups and were playful with one another.
I got feedback that they are taught from the onset to share and give up their own things for the sake of others. A member explained that most things are purposefully shared, even if they don’t necessarily need to be to teach children to be flexible, resilient in the face of discomfort, and be more open to others. This was evident in their interactions.
When we inflated and disseminated the five soccer balls, it was noticeable that among 20 or so children, none of them quarreled over their turn. Each child quickly took their turn and generously passed it on. They were excited about taking their turn and weren’t concerned with what the other child was or was not doing.
Expressing Love and Affection. Members were especially warm and affectionate. They made no qualms about putting their feelings out there very straightforwardly. Many of the children wrote endearing notes to my son, expressing warmth and appreciation toward his mission. The letters were written in a heartfelt, thoughtful and loving way. The leader, his endearing wife, and other community members openly expressed love and gratitude toward us. We continue to receive messages conveying love for who we are and what we and “our” community provided for them.
We videotaped our son every evening to hear his perspectives and reflections about his experience. He expressed that he is left feeling “a greater understanding about how people in other parts of the world live and how hard it could be for them” and he realizes that “it’s important to be happy with all that you have and always try to give to others.”
We were afforded with so many gifts and life lessons from our experience in Kenya and with the Kasuku community. It helped us to get in touch with what is truly important in life and the need to return to our fundamental values when we are interacting on a daily basis. It amazes us that despite all that the adversity the community has to contend with regarding sanitation, contaminated water, lack of financial resources, etc., that they have a sense of relenting integrity, kindness, and connectedness.
There is a part of us that leaves feeling guilty and shameful for all that we take for granted. We also question our connectedness or ability to sit with intensity of emotion because of the discomfort it evokes when we are approached with such an open expression of love and appreciation.
This reminds us that we need to continue to strive to be present, be grateful and express appreciation, and work toward more open emotive and expressive connectedness with those we love.
These are all life lessons we will try to continue to reinforce with our son and our other children through their development. These direct experiences are so incredibly meaningful and powerful and ones we will savor and continue to learn and grow from for a lifetime.