Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Helpless, but hopeful

I’m not quite sure how to describe the emotions I’ve felt today. I feel like I’m being pulled from opposite ends of the emotion spectrum. I feel helpless and helpful at the same time. I feel hopeless and hopeful too. Let me explain, today, was the first day that I truly realized the poverty that I’ve been living in. Sure I’ve been living here for over two months, but the excitement of being in a new environment truly masked the “real” life of a Kenyan. Carrying water on my head, walking 45 minutes to school, and eating 10 cent meals was fun and new. To me, living here has been an adventure.

But today, I realized that my temporary adventure is what other people here call life. And for many Kenyans, it’s a struggle just to get by. Carrying water on their heads, walking hours to school and eating cheap meals isn’t exciting- it’s what they do to survive.

This realization sunk in today when I spoke to my school’s principal about the possibility of sponsoring students. Many of them cannot afford to pay their school fees- the family’s either do not have the money, give their son’s education priority, and/or assume that their daughters don’t deserve an education. I have been receiving emails from some friends and family back home interested in donating somehow, so I breached the subject with principal. She told me that yes, we have needy students. But I had no idea just how needy she meant.

She continued to tell me the stories of some of the students. One was raped by her father, ran away from home, and now lives with distant relatives in order to complete her education. A majority of the students are orphans living with kind strangers. Two of my students are pregnant. All of them struggle to purchase sanitary napkins (which are expensive) and often resort to prostitution to pay for them. Many students have children of their own. Some of my Form 2 students (sophomores) are older than me.

The lowest/highest part of my day was when I told one of the students that I had found a sponsor for her. She would be able to move out of her house and move into the boarding section of our school. She would no longer have to walk an hour to school, cook and clean for her family, and worry about paying her school fees. The sponsor would pay for her tuition for the year- she burst into tears in happiness/relief/ and any other emotion one would feel with a huge weight lifting from your shoulders. I asked her what other things she would need in order to move into the school. She told me she would need slippers, a blanket, sanitary napkins, and toothpaste- things she has never had before.

I left the room and cried behind a tree for a good 30 minutes. Her single parent mother had never been able to buy these things for her. Her story made me feel so happy and so devastated at the same time. She will now be able to finish her secondary school education. She now has the possibility of going to college. She will now have the opportunity for a different future. Yet I felt so disheartened at the same time. How can she be so enthusiastic about education (asking me so many questions and participating in class) when she had all these troubles at home? How can she be so happy and motivated all the time when she doesn’t have a blanket to sleep with at night?

Part of me feels so foolish and ignorant for living in my “adventure bubble.” And the other part of me feels incredibly motivated. I can do a lot to change the future of these girls’ lives. And I truly hope that with dedication, mentoring, and encouragement my students will be able to decide their own futures, rather than let cultural/social norms force them to drop out of school. I am motivated to keep my students in school so that they will be able to find and follow their dreams. I ideally want to find a way to keep all the students in school, and then, as a long term goal, build a laboratory for the girls to actually see why science is important.

Please be on the look out for an email from me soon on how YOU can sponsor a student at my school. And spread the word too. There is so much that can be done here, but I need help to do so.



  1. I'll be looking for an email about how to sponsor! You are doing an amazing job!

  2. Very evocative account, Jenny.

    That's awesome you're doing Peace Corp. I work for USAID now and heaps of folk are ex-PC. I also have orientation colleagues going to Kenya.

  3. Jenny, you are doing such a fantastic job of assimilating into this culture and being able to see life and perspectives from your new cultural vantage. I have really enjoyed your writings - you are a skilled writer, educating us as you share your experiences. I so appreciate the time you are putting into this blog!

    As I'm sure the Peace Corps taught you, there will be ups and downs throughout your time there - victories and possibly some defeats, a sense of accomplishment and the overwhelming realization that there is so much more to do.

    You are inspiring those of us who are reading your blog. I understand that your time is not only taken with the mundane things, but with lesson plans and the time you put into your job, and the time it takes to relate to the folks in your community as you greet them along the road. I look forward to your next posting, whenever you find the time to do it! -Sharon