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Volunteering in Kenya

It took me around 24 hours to get from Los Angeles, California; to Kenyatta National Airport in Nairobi, Kenya.  That time and distance was nothing in comparison to the long journey that lay ahead of me on the dark continent of Africa. 
I was greeted warmly by three IHF volunteers, and we began our 9 hour drive to East Pokot. It was scenic and glorious passing through the Great Rift Valley, but at one point, the pavement ends, the pot holes begin, and we experienced 2 flat tires in one day…a very common occurrence in this corner of the world.
Reaching Chesirimion Orphanage, it felt as though I had divorced myself from my other (western/city) life and I stepped into a cultural Twilight Zone. 
East Pokot feels like a place that time has forgotten; the land is vast, rough and rugged.  Lava rocks cover the ground, the sun is blistering and unforgiving, and even the flora and fauna have a defense system (they have thorns like a porcupine).  Every single day, every part of my body was either dirty, scratched, bruised or sun burned.  
I’ve come to the conclusion that these people are made of something much different and tougher than myself.  The kids run barefoot on land, that I could barely walk on with my New Balances.  They drink brown water from a dam that goats, donkeys and sheep urinate in, and they sleep two or three to a bed made for one.  They fear little and withstand more than I could ever bear. <!–page–>
One child has tuberculosis and her chest is an open wound, another is blind and left to sit in the shade and play with rocks all alone.  Another girl has a bloody, infected scalp from the ringworm that has infested her head.  Some complain of difficult breathing and constant headaches, others have coughs so deep and awful I feared for their ability to breath properly again. Simple cuts become infected wounds from no medical care; and most of these problems would be a thing of the past if they had access to clean water, and immunizations that almost every child in America receives as an infant.
Most are orphaned due to tribal warfare or parents that simply could not be parents…they were just incapable of supporting a family, so the kids are left to survive on their own. 
I was greeted each morning with big hugs and on my arrival they sang a song, ” We are happy to welcome you, to welcome you to Africa!  We are happy to welcome you, we welcome you sister Erin!!!”  It was an emotional touchstone that I will never forget. 
Some days I walked 16 miles to teach a group of adults in a traveling literacy class.  The Pokot’s are a nomadic tribe and when we would (finally) reach their village, it seemed like I was walking through a National Geographic special. 
Bare breasted (and saggy) women, had only large beaded necklaces and tribal sarongs to cover them.  The men sit on ngai char, a wooden seat that lifts them off the ground a few inches and a bow and arrow is their version of going to the butcher.
We taught under the shade of trees or in an abandon church which housed more than a few creepy crawlies I would rather forget.  Some days we would spend 3 hours teaching, and only get from A-H in the alphabet.  <!–page–>
Of the 3,500 nomadic people living in this area, 97% of them cannot read, or write.  There is exactly one doctor (the director of EPIHF) and he is a pharmacist.  Only 7 women have jumped the educational high wire to join the ranks of the some 40 male teachers.  But for those who are educated, they continue relentlessly spreading the word of it’s importance. 
The children are incredible and they understand that school is their only way of getting out of the goat business.  They are up at 6am to be at school by 7 in an attempt to get some more studying in.  As there is no electricity, kids stay up, and go over all of their work by the light of a solar-powered flashlight.  (Which attracts every conceivable insect to hover and crawl towards the brightness.)  But they are not deterred, and I’ve never seen such a determined sense of desire for knowledge. 
I fell head over heels in love with these people, but I also realize I won the lottery being born in a place where I have choices, options and opportunity.  My perspective has been changed and my heart has been opened.  I believe East Pokot is magnificent, the people are the best I’ve ever met, and I am learned more about the world than I ever thought possible.

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