After leaving my clean room at the Kogelo Retreat Villas and Homes, I walked down a red dirt road in Kisumu, Kenya, dodging goats and stepping over puddles and piles of garbage. I was on my way to visit a family who lived in the slums. Occasionally, I looked up from the road and scanned the crumbling huts that fit together like the pieces of a puzzle and the filthy rags that were hung outside to dry. The Nyalenda slums painted a detailed picture of suffering and perseverance. A crack in the side of a mud hut, a bare footprint in the mud, and a small sack of insect-infested grain all told their own stories about life in the slums.
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As I walked, I imagined what the lives of the people here could be like if they were given the opportunities to become successful in whatever they were passionate about. A child from the slums could become a lawyer or a pilot if he only had the opportunity. As a single drop of water starts a pattern of ripples, a single person who is able to make a sufficient living for themselves could start a similar pattern in others by lending a helping hand. I imagined helping a family to pay their kids’ school fees and watching them grow up to become successful businessmen or scientists and move out of the slums and into a better life. I wanted to help the slum children reach success.
As we bent over to step through a low wooden gate, I was greeted by a dozen little children, barefoot and giggling. “Muzungu! Muzungu! How are you?” was shouted twenty times over by the group of children, and I replied with, “I am fine! How are you?” and a smile. They giggled and grinned in return. They grabbed my hand as their mothers watched, smiling and laughing at the children’s fascination with my fair skin. As I approached my destination, I looked back at my growing band of shadows and imagined what their lives could have been like if they had been born into a wealthy family instead of into a family toiling away at life in the slums.
After my visit with the family, I stepped back out into the dry, stale air. The children were waiting with their ever-present grins. As I looked down at their smiling faces, I wondered how they could be so happy living in the slums without even the slightest hope for a successful future. The living conditions of the family I had just visited were the same as those of the other people living in the slums. A single bed was placed in the back corner, a few chairs against the wall, and their cooking supplies and few other possessions placed wherever they could find room.
As I watched a few of the youngest children running on ahead, laughing and squealing, I finally understood. Success isn’t about living a comfortable life. Success isn’t even about getting a college degree or even being able to provide for your own family. True success in life is the ability to be content and happy no matter where you are. Working your hardest and thriving in your situation. A million dollars to some, and a joyful smile to others. Even with stomachs swollen with worms and last year’s dirt behind their ears, they were content. As I walked back up that red dirt road, I thought to myself, “We are rich and they are happy. Now…who knows the feeling of true success?