"It's a dance," Jen says to me as we leave the N.V.S. offices this afternoon.
Earlier that morning we had left our apartment to walk to the matatu [bus] stop. The woman we are staying with, Njeri has a modest apartment that butts right up to a slum. My window looks down upon the tin shacks and the hustle and bustle inside the cement walls. Our apartment is gated, and once outside we make our way down the ally that runs along the slum. We are the only white people around, as far as I can tell. We dodge some goats and chickens and make our way out to the main road, stoping briefly to talk to some sweet young little girl who has run up and grabbed our hands. Jen says something to her in Swahili and we continue on.
We had spent all afternoon meeting with her friend, Joe, who runs an organization placing volunteers who come to Kenya in work projects and places to stay. We sat in an office with Joe and discussed the work Jen was doing with the Simba Scholars Program as well as the Mwangatu artisan women that I do work with. We talked about road blocks we were running into, and discussing ideas to help these programs become sustainable. Somewhere between the chicken farm idea, and how to get a space at the local market place I got quiet. And a bit overwhelmed.
As we leave NVS, I try to explain to Jen how I've managed to crawl up in my head and untie every bundle of confidence I had stored there. "I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing here, Jen." I say as we walk. Jen asked me what I meant by that, so I try and explain myself better. I try to explain to her that as we are sitting at NVS with this Kenyan man, who is running this organization, and helping children get scholarships to school, I really began to wonder what the heck I was doing. What business does a seemingly privileged white girl from America think she's doing coming to Africa to do mission work. I start to question if what I'm doing is the very same thing that I don't like about many NGO's, giving handouts or committing a few weeks of my privileged life so I can go home and feel good about myself? I start to question my whiteness, and my Americanness, and I wonder is it helpful or a hindrance? I tell Jen that I just really want to be sure that what I am doing is really helpful to the people I am working with here, and not harmful in any way. But how can I know for sure? "You can't really know." says Jen. "Some of our intentions, as good as they may be, might cause a negative reaction, and some may be so impactful they are changing lives. It's all just a dance. And you pray, and you listen for God, and you head in the direction you are called. He will use you there." I thought about this over lunch, and made some peace with myself. I know my heart is in the right place. I know our approach is intentionally good, and it is not a handout. And maybe even my whiteness and Americanness are tools that I have been given to use.
We are here to help empower these women, and quite frankly that empowers us. Jen told me that one of the greatest benefits that come from the work that we do is that the children see their mothers working, and running a business, and becoming strong and empowered and self-sufficient and it has a very positive and strong impact on them. It made me think of the mission statement I had created for work a few months ago: "As a woman living in the 21st century I will live as though I have a thousand daughters, even though I have none, because every girl is my daughter and when she sees me, or engages with me, she is looking for how to live. So I will live, I will smile, I will laugh, I will speak, and I will pray as though her heart and soul depend on it." That brought about more peace as we finally made our way home that evening.
In the alley way back to our apartment, we ran into the same little girl from this morning. She grabbed on to my hand and walked with us for a moment. Several other kids were out at this point and they were all waving and saying "hello, how are you!" We smile at them and shout Jambo! as we make our way inside the gate. Upstairs in my room, I open the window that looks down upon the slum and I watch the people engage in their lives. Some are washing laundry, others are cooking or doing dishes. Several men are standing around talking. Kids and goats are running everywhere, kicking up dirt. The chatter and laugher drifts up through my window. Out in the common room Njeri is playing African music. It's nice and has a good beat. I'm enjoying it as I sit here to write. Njeri, asking us if we like the music, stops and looks at me for a moment and says to Jen, "Look, Nicole gets it! She is dancing."