Senior reflections of JanPlan in Nairobi, Part 2
What is the point of graduating from college without knowing what you are really passionate about? Why have I taken all of these courses and accumulated all the credits without truly knowing what I want to do with my future?
In September, these questions danced around my knotted brain, repeatedly taunting me as I thought of my emerging life as a senior in college. September brought both worry and excitement for what the real world would look like after Colby and as the nagging continued in my head I decided I needed to do something “real” for Jan Plan. That would be my chance to discover more of what I longed to do with my future. Wherever I took this trip, I decided it would be outside of the United States and would be focused on service to others. Kenya was the answer.
With the emotional and financial support of friends at Colby, I returned home to New York near the end of December, and prepared to spend a month in east Africa volunteering with World Relief, a Christian development organization.
On January 3rd 2012 my mother and best friend drove me to JFK airport, asking redundant questions about the next flight from Heathrow to Nairobi, about the families I would live with in Kenya, and reminding me to stay away from strange people. I did not argue, but knew that, of course I would speak to strangers, of course I would try to fit in, adjusting to cultural norms by eating what others eat, studying their language in speech and body, and living in a new way. If I had been unwilling to “take candy from strangers,” I could never have taken this trip. Yet I did not obsess about such things in the airport. I simply focused on the banal tasks at hand until I passed the roped off area, the imaginary line of freedom, where I now had to make decisions on my own, away from home, away from family.
Once in the waiting area, imagining the car that left me here returning to its home, I could not focus on the book I brought to read, but was instead consumed with the actions of those around me. As I sat in the faux red leather seats, attempting to read, I considered the lonely looking bald guy to my right, the curly haired Hispanic girl to my left and the two guys sitting across from me. I thought of where they were going, why they were leaving, where they were from and why I refrained from interacting with them. As I mused, my flight was called and I walked over to the gate, my first step into a world of immense beauty, disparity and hope.
Only once on the plane, did I realize I was leaving. The 7 hours to London were followed by a five-hour lay over and a 9 hour flight to Nairobi Kenya. The airport signs led me to an immigration line where my visa would be checked and stamped for entry. With my stamp of approval, I marched off to pick up my suitcase, which took what seemed like forever to arrive. Reenergized by the new setting and expectations for the month, I followed the others making their way out of the airport and hoped to find people that would welcome me to Kenya. The welcome area was full of individuals holding signs and families jittering with excitement. I was unsure of exactly what to look for but right ahead of me was a white paper with large written letters that read “Karen Colby.”
I was graciously received into the home of a Colby friend before heading to work with World Relief and beginning my service in Kenya. I spent my first few days in a town called Kikuyu, acclimating myself to the new landscape and learning more about family life in Kenya. The following day, Thursday, I was told to relax and recover from jetlag in the morning and then venture into town with Claudia, my friends’ sister, to buy my Kenyan telephone.
As we walked on the red brown clay streets of Kikuyu town, I realized what an oddity I was in this rural neighborhood 40 minutes outside of Nairobi. Before leaving, Claudia had told me not to worry if I was started at, and as we stepped outside the door and down the stairs, I quickly realized what she meant. I noticed increased murmuring as I walked past cocoa bodies, children staring up at me, women holding live chickens and beggars lying against walls. The curiosity slipped out through my lips. “What is the word for foreigner?” I asked. “Muzungu,” she replied, “is the word for foreigner, white person.” Muzungu was the word I had heard uttered over and over as I walked up the streets, past the fruit vendors, past the men selling plastic sandals and soccer balls. Even though I am a daughter of immigrant parents from Pakistan and Dominican Republic, in Kenya I would remain a muzungu. The very thing I had never considered myself, and found offense in. After all, I have not profited from white privilege, my parents and I have suffered racial discrimination and my skin is not even white, rather more olive colored. As we entered one of the largest supermarkets, a small crowd began to gather. Brown eyed children inched past me, staring up at the tall ghost in the supermarket; school girls in uniform circled the store, even touching me at one point, perhaps checking to see if I too was made of flesh. I decided that the mutual curiosity would be quelled with kindness and so I began waving to the murmuring heads and introducing myself to the giggling school girls. While I wished to be considered anything but a selfish tourist or dumb wealthy philanthropist, I would always be a muzungu here, an American or European with opportunity and wealth, no matter how much I wished to shake that perception, no matter how much I told myself I did not hold such a high level of privilege. In Kikuyu, it seems I did.