As I step off the airplane all I am thinking about is if the rest rooms in the Nairobi, Kenya airport are sanitary, because I desperately need one after flying for fourteen hours. I don’t even take time to notice the women milling around me in colorful outfits or appreciate the beauty of the Swahili language being spoken all around me. Was the restroom going to smell bad? Were there going to be bugs all around it? Was there even going to be an actual toilet or would there only be a hole in the ground? As I rush towards the signs I hope, I pray, that there it is at least a device that flushes.
Looking back on my memory of my first moments in Kenya, I laugh at myself for my ignorance and snobbishness towards the country that I would grow to love in the next fifteen days. It turns out that the restroom in the Nairobi airport was not only serviceable; it was cleaner than many I had been exposed to in the U.S. Nairobi, as I discovered, is a thoroughly modern city but with heartbreaking poverty throughout.
In the summer of 2007, I traveled to Kenya with 60 other American teenagers through a group called Africa Exchange. We lived at a camp with 60 Kenyan teenagers, volunteered at a children’s center in the slums of the city, participated in a safari and had a meal with Masai warriors.
I learned that Nairobi was at the same time worlds away from my home yet more American than I could have imagined when I arrived. My roommate, Mwendi and I discussed which Harry Potter book was the best, which of the American boys and Kenyan boys were the cutest, and the best possible way to drink chai tea. Mwendi, who preferred to go by Emmy (as in the awards she always said with a giggle) braided my hair and taught me the Kenyan National Anthem in both Swahili and English. I in turn shocked Emmy with the fact that I was trusted behind the wheel of a car at the age of 16 and the height of five feet two inches. What I really learned from Emmy however, was not how to “move my hips with an attitude” when dancing, but to appreciate all I have.
Emmy’s family is well off and well respected in Kenya. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland because her father was in the United Nations at the time. Her uncle is the Vice-President of Kenya, and her family has a guard that lives with them who is equivalent to the American Secret Service. Despite all of this, she lives with far less than I do. Her house has three bedrooms for six people. If I ever had to share a room with my brother I would pitch a juvenile fit. When Emmy found out that my family owned three cars she asked if one of my parents had a large “Paris Hilton” type of inheritance. Emmy walks to an internet café in the middle of Nairobi to have internet access, and I don’t know what to do with myself when our family’s Wi-Fi internet gets knocked out.
I saw elephants, giraffes and lions. I saw children stare at our horde of white people. I saw modern skyscrapers next to traditional huts. But what I will always remember are the lessons I learned from Emmy and the other Kenyan youth. They taught me to dance, to appreciate what I have and even to have the courage to use an outhouse.
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