“How far along are you?” The 14-year-old in front of me replied in Swahili that she did not know. Caro was the youngest of the girls at the Kiota Rescue Home in Kiriaini, Muranga, Kenya. Not only was Caro pregnant and uncertain about how old the developing child in her bulging body was, she had also been abused in her home and finally kicked out when her pregnancy was discovered. With nowhere to turn, she was luckily put in contact with Dr. Kagia who had just established a rescue home in Muranga, Kenya for pregnant girls who found themselves out on the streets with nowhere to go.
After spending time in Kikuyu, discovering that I was actually a muzungu (or “my inner muzungu”), a white person and/or foreigner, I went straight to work in the World Relief Headquarters of Nairobi, Kenya. After two days in the office, learning more about the organization, the logistics of designing relief and development plans as well as a little about the politics of non-profit work, I headed to Muranga, Kenya to meet a group of girls who would change my outlook on life. I was accompanied by Mary Waitheria, a crisis expert who regularly visited the home to encourage the girls. Mary also taught them how to make jewelry out of plastic and paper beads. With each new lesson, the girls made and designed new necklaces, earrings and bracelets to sell in the city of Nairobi. The activity kept the girls busy and gave them a way to help fund the home sustaining them. The jewelry making art that Mary taught them would also provide them with a form of income for the future.
I went along with Mary to encourage the girls, experience the work World Relief was doing and try to gather their individual stories. As we drove up to the cement block house enveloped by dark green hills, I was enchanted by the beauty surrounding the medium sized home. These girls had come from various distant parts of Kenya, rejected by society and their families. They had also been deserted by the fathers of their children and ended up in Muranga to try and find a new life between rows of tea, rolling hills and cows at the foot of their hill. I had not suffered the same rejection and saw this as a beautiful place with lush scenery where I would see another way of life and hopefully help someone see that they are indeed beautiful and loved. But the girls did not share my view. They had perceived this new home as the last and only chance of survival, an undesired respite between rejection and a future of excommunication. Here they were living in the eye of the storm, uncertain and disheartened about their future. Although this picturesque home was only a gap between uncertainties, it still offered momentary sanctuary for all of us.
Mary walked into the gray cement house first, and the girls dashed to greet her. In the month she had been away, the girls’ affection and respect for her had only multiplied. As I stepped into the sky blue kitchen, I felt like her shadow. The girls passed me without a word, ignoring the tall visitor to catch up with Mary. Although I had not enjoyed the considerable attention I had received in Kikuyu for my light skin, here I was a bit shocked that I was invisible. I stood immobile inside the building, wondering if my week with them would make me feel like a burden, an unwanted presence. At that moment I began to feel guilty. They would have to house and feed me, perhaps even be forced to speak with me but I was simply an inconvenient load.
I had eagerly assumed I would be welcomed with curiosity, yet it seemed they wanted nothing to do with the muzungu from America, another reminder of a life they would never have. Time slowed, I watched a blue/black iridescent fly glide through the air, twisting back and forth, content and at home. Zipporah, the house mother, the woman in charge, called me over and spoke to the girls in Swahili, telling them something along the lines of “make sure you greet the muzungu.” They did not know I had already learned the word. I was torn between feeling uninvited and wanting to leap into their community. I did not want to focus on myself but neither did I want to invade the close bonds they had and upset the balance of the home.
What I came to learn in my days there was that they were scared. They were scared of me, of how different they thought my life was, of the comparisons I might be making of my life there and my life in the US. But I did not want them to be scared of me, or to think I was different from them. I did not want special treatment, no different food, no different plate or cup. I did not want to be a muzungu and I wanted them to accept me. In Muranga, I would share a bed, wash dishes in a bucket, cook outside on a fire, make jewelry, do chores and eat what everyone else had. Being treated differently meant that I was somehow special. I wanted them to see that aside from light skin and short straight hair, I was just like them. I too wanted to be accepted and loved. The days shortened as the week came to an end and with each new day, the girls who once ignored me willingly shared how they came to the home. They shared their desire to go back to school, the uncertainty of the future, the way their families spat them out.
I remember holding Wakanesa’s small hand. She was 16 years old and a little under five feet tall, with a round russet face framed by short braided hair. In the other arm she held her two-month-old baby. As we walked through the corn stalks, picking which ones to cut, my long fingers embraced her petite hand, trying to emit all the love and all the hope I could. Even though I needed Mary to translate my words to them and even though I felt unwanted at first, whenever I think of these eight pregnant girls, my stomach aches and my heart melts, hoping they can still feel the love and smiles we shared. They may not think their families care about them but I hope a visit from a random muzungu from America reminds them every day that somebody cares.