In 1981 I lived and worked in a tiny village in Kenya for a summer. I’m not sure how much of a difference I and my nine colleagues made during our time there—all of us in graduate school—but the villagers changed me forever.
I had never read much about Africa unless Out of Africa and the National Geographic issues count. But, I jumped at the chance to go when my Antioch University graduate program offered a summer internship in Kenya. I left my family, shedding many labels: wife, mother of two teenagers, daughter, and sister. The only labels left were woman and student. It was both scary and exciting to be on what would be an adventure of my lifetime.
One experience I had while we waited for our assignment was stepping out of the post office in bustling downtown Nairobi and seeing no other white person among hundreds of Africans on the crowded street. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind. Later I had one of “those moments” when some amount of grace brings understanding. Nothing I would call “knowledge” but a glimmer of what it must be like for African Americans living in my home town in Marin County, California. What was it like for them to live in a mostly white community? What must that feel like on a daily basis? While I had thought of it often, now I was living the reverse. What was I willing to do to dig into my family history (and my own) of prejudice and ignorance and have it end with me?
I arrived with all of my biases and preconceived ideas gathered from childhood to age forty when I landed in Nairobi. It took all day to leave the Rift Valley behind, riding along with “brock, brock” chickens on our crowded bus. At one point I looked out and saw giraffes running along—OMG, not the zoo! We arrived at our village literally at the end of the national highway, 16 miles from Uganda. Here is how I describe stepping off the bus in the dark in my forthcoming memoir The Opposite of Hate:
There were no lights anywhere unless you counted the stars, so low and bright we stopped in unison and looked up. The night sky was glittering with cosmic smears and blinking planets or the biggest stars I’d ever seen. No one said a word until a swarm of small buzzing bugs strafed us, interrupting our awe. Out came our flashlights and off we went, struggling into our packs, and stumbling down a rutted dirt road to our cement- block compound—home.
From that day until I left at the end of August I had the good fortune to step more directly into village life, assist in the hospital, and meet the women in the village. I don’t know what I expected—see wild animals in game parks – √, be of some help – √, learn about the issues facing Kenya, especially life in remote villages – √. What I hadn’t expected was to be so taken with a country, the people—especially the women and children—and want to stay there forever. A doctor who volunteered at the hospital from the Netherlands diagnosed me with le mal d’Afrique—I was in love with Africa.
Of course, I returned home, happy to be with friends and family, but I was never the same. I knew then, and especially now looking back, Kenya is where I came of age.
Did you come of age in a more typical way: a drivers’ license, turning 21, voting, leaving home for the first time, through a religious, spiritual or cultural event? Or were you like me—delayed? If so, why? And finally, regardless of when, how did you know you had?