Thursday, January 21, 2010

Searching for Silas

It’s an interesting thing when your heart breaks—you feel as if it should be something everyone could witness and say “aww” or “do you need help?” Or perhaps that it should make a sound--cracking or slow buzz of sadness, running through your veins, pumping throughout your body. That is the thing about the heart, it has its own prerogative, maybe that is why matters of the heart feel so unresolved in our lives, the palpitations of sadness have to be felt, but perhaps never quite understood.

Living in Africa has its share of heartbreaks. It demands honesty with the world which from a far could seem impossible. I see a reality that I could imagine but never really felt. Sometimes you look the world in the face and you enfold yourself in the brilliance that it possess, and other times you want to look away. The difficulties can truly overwhelm. How can one person even consider change when the world is full of such unanswerable and unreasonable situations?

He is bright beyond his meager 16 years, though you would never guess from this reticent, unassuming boy, who is often times found wandering alone. Once you get his attention he’ll inform you with a shy smile he is “thinking” signed as the pointer finger touching the temple. Silas is often found thinking, which is evident from his test scores—he is a curious by nature. He always knows the answers to questions in class yet is hesitant to “show off.” Often times he waits until everyone else has tried before he answers (the correct answer he knew all along) and you can bet when he explains his answers it is clear and with confidence, when you praise him a huge smile grows on his face but he always tries to cover it by turning into his shoulder. While he is not the most athletic, or outgoing, Silas really comes into his own at school; he is well liked amongst all teachers and pupils a like. In a school for the Deaf he is able to socialize, debate, joke, be understood and appreciated.

Life hasn’t always been easy for Silas, he lost his hearing when he was 7-years-old, when asked how he reenacts a slam on the head—when I inquire who? He looks at his feet for a moment and signs teacher in class 4; he is told to say it was illness, but he was beaten so badly for “misbehaving” that he became deaf. Since then everything has changed: he was moved to a boarding school, has learned a new language KSL, and has found a new family at school.

Despite the fact that Silas is at the top of the class (and has been for his total duration at school) he has never arrived on the day school has opened. Sometimes weeks, sometimes months of phone calls asking about the boy until finally he arrives at school. Yet he never misses a step in class despite his absence, but is often times recovering from some wound or another. Last term he returned with a two inch open wound on the back of his head, he was embarrassed when questioned and stared at his feet. I tilt his chin up and sign “problem nothing, better soon” he stares at me for a moment I can see the tears building in his eyes. “OK?” I sign, he shyly signs “ok” I sign jokingly with a grin “don’t smile, please don’t” “ I see the sides of his grin turning upward and he covers his mouth. “I said no” I sign with a smile, and then we are both laughing, I pat him on the back; sign “you good, you know right, you good”. I leave with the uneasy sense there are no limits to the times I could sign that to him, and no limit to the times he needs to see it.

He has just finished class 8 and sat for the national exam the K.C.P.E., the test is given in November and pupils report to schools to receive their scores in January, yet no one has arrived. I remember the last day class 8 was at the school, I chatted to them about the future and Silas looked me in the eye and signed, “I want to go to secondary school” then looked away. I know he belongs in school and deserves an education. He left that day and I had a heavy heart, the chances of him coming back were slim.

We have received the results for the K.C.P.E. and Silas has been accepted to secondary school ( In Kenya secondary school is not mandatory and pupils are accepted on a competitive basis, it is also not paid for by the government). He is the only one of our class 8 to achieve this. This is a huge accomplishment; the whole school is proud of him yet Silas has not been seen. For the past 3 weeks we have been trying to find Silas. We have called his family, asked neighbors, asked students, and yet it is to no avail. I cannot explain the utter despondency I feel--to see this young, bright mind go missing. Theories have arisen and concerns voiced but what action is to be taken?

My work, everyday, is to give these children the best I have—every time. Sometimes I struggle with what my role is, or what affect I am having here, because what I am doing has no tangible signs, no buildings, or computer labs, or businesses, if I left you would hardly know I was ever here. What I have done is not that easy to define. Teaching a child to read, and write it does not provide a lot of glory, but I know education is the most sustainable and powerful way to change the world—but on days when a smart, creative, warm, student is just lost—what is left?

I wasn’t settled with the idea of Silas not being in school, everything about it just felt—wrong. I asked my teachers again what could be done, and they said “find him,” I knew instantly this is what I have to do. The teachers told me of the closest school to Silas, I could travel there and find out where he stays from the school. I was told his home was very “interior” meaning far from the tarmac, in a village. My only hesitation was the language barrier because I do not speak enough Kiembu to explain why I was around. Luckily another teacher offered to take me there and help interpret.

I woke up 5:30 a.m. to prepare for the journey, I was nervous, questions ran through my head, “how will we find this boy?” “what will happen once we do?” I somehow managed to make it out of the door. I met the teacher in town and we headed out, stuffed into a matatu, we passed the thick shambas filled with mangos, and people became sparser. We walked about 6 km into a small village, where a man nearly fell off his bike at the sight of a mzungu. We finally reached Kasafari Primary School where we were greeted, and told Silas' brother attended this school and could lead us to his home. We were taken down a small path and lead to a small homestead; the home is quite traditional, made of earth with a tin roof. We were introduced to the his father, mother, and grandmother-- they shrieked when they saw me.

They questioned in Kiembu:

“How did you get here?”

“I walked,” I said.

“But why?”

“To visit my bright student Silas, and find out why he is not going to school.”

They shrieked again. Soon Silas appeared and was shocked to see us, but greeted us warmly. The Silas I found here was very different then the one I knew in school, frightened and shy. I asked him to show me around his compound, and he opened up explaining what each plant in the shamba was, yet the moment he was in front of his parents, he closed down, embarrassed to sign.

We asked the parents if they knew he was accepted to secondary school. They were shocked and said “ but he is deaf, he cannot do well.” The teacher with me assured them that Silas was very capable and would undoubtedly excel in secondary school( his family may mean well, but in the culture, sending a Deaf boy to school at all is a altruistic endeavor). They told us they could not afford to pay for secondary school, because they have five other children. Silas sits quietly observing, yet unaware of what is being said, in his own world. He is surrounded by a world of misunderstood solitude, at Saint Luke’s he is a hero, a success, but here, what is he? I ask him again what he wants to do with his future. He looks me in the eye then to his father, then rapidly back at me and signs, “ I want to go to school.”

My heart breaks, a million times over. I am not a big fan of throwing money around, because often times it is not sustainable or creates a false expectation; and the truth is all the children at my school have similar stories; all heartbreaking and tragic in their own right, but this child deserves an education. I must try to do everything in my power to see that Silas gets an education.

The truth is there are hundreds of Silas', deaf children brushed aside, oppressed, misunderstood, and when I think of that I am overwhelmed. Silas is just one of many. One child— although small and to some insignificant, can represent a whole population of change. I can recognize my smallness, and the fact that could never give enough, do enough, change enough, but I sign to Silas “you will go to school” and I mean it, somehow it is enough.

*** Update***

Silas is registered with the Kenya education fund, if you would like to donate to Silas education please click the link, and under designation field write referred by Virginia"Ginnie" Seger.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Adventures in East Africa Part 1

Pheewwww this past month has been hectic! I've seen and done so much I am going to need to break these posts up into several editions. As for now I am back and ready for my second year at St. Luke's! I love to travel but it feels great to be right where I belong. Karibuni Ginnie's Safari!

With the school closed it was time to head out on my adventure. My friend and myself planned to go to Western Kenya and Uganda, to get a sense of the other side of the country and visit a country I have been interested in for some time.

Driving through the Rift Valley I am always amazed, not only is it the birthplace of humanity—its beautiful, and now that the rains have begun, it felt alive. As we continued west the farms that lay on top of one another became infrequent, the land turned greener and greener; trees, forests, rivers, small mud huts and grass roofs passed by. Kericho was filled with tea fields wet with rain and people gently picking each leaf all along rolling hills and forests set the backdrop. Finally we arrived to Kisumu the third largest city in Kenya, beside the great Lake Victoria. The streets were filled with “boda bodas” or bikes fixed with cushions for passengers to sit on and the streets were clean and unlike Nairobi or Mombasa not filled with honking horns and traffic. We enjoyed some of the best fish I have ever had, and caught the tail end of the sunset on the lake. The next morning we walked down to the lake which was covered with lily pad type plant that extended out into the lake for at least a kilometer, I was told this was an invasive species and millions of shillings were spend on removing it. The lake is massive, and borders three countries.

We headed out towards to Siaya the home of Barrak’s father and where much of his family still lives. We met another Volunteer in the area who showed us around. Since the election she has become a local celebrity, and accepts visitors everyday. I could see from the sign in sheet filled with thousands of visitors from Kenya and all over the world. We passed the primary and secondary schools that Barrak opened. Her house was as big as mine in Embu and we sat under an expansive tree and waited. Finally Barraks stepsister, informed us that Mama Sarah had malaria and was resting. We chatted for a few minutes with her and wished Mama Sarah a quick recovery and headed out for another delicious meal of fish!

The next day we headed out to Kakamega, the last little circle of what used to be the Guineo-Congolian forest ecosystem stretching to central Africa. Today it looks like a small island within a sea of farms and towns. Within the park you feel closed off from the encroachment ( although during one hike we could hear the consistent hum of a chainsaw in the forest). The rainforest is cool and bursting at the seams with life! Everywhere you look there is life, trees killing each other for the suns gaze, termites eating the left over’s, ants underground tunnels, and of coarse the monkeys! Colobus monkeys are black and white have long white tails, walking into the forest , you see a shake in the tree and you can guarantee it is monkey gathering, they jump from limb to limb with acrobatic ease. The main source for anxiety and sense of “ were not at home anymore” was the baboons. These guys are everywhere, and they are big! The first day we decided to hike up to the “ viewpoint” to get a view of the rainforest, the hike was simple enough and we situated ourselves on a rock for a moment only to discover baboons surrounded us. We were reassured that these baboons were afraid of humans, and did not attack but seeing these guys up-close bulging muscles, and 2 inch fangs, I didn’t want to take any chances. We had planned to climb higher to a wooden perch but each path we took we were greeted by baboons, who didn’t look as if they were going to move! So we made our way back down to trail only to be greeted by more baboons! My friend’s theory was that my singing could scare anything away and it work a rousing version of “ hakuna matata” did the trick! The baboons walk into the thick bush and literally disappear. We stayed in bandas which were identical to those used by people in the area, mud and thatched roofs, we were beat and fixed some PB &J and slept to chorus of forest night.

The next day we took a long hike to a small waterfall and trail along a river. Miles through the rainforest I just gazed at the hugeness of these trees and life within this ecosystem. The trail wasn’t marked very well, and at times I was sure we were doomed to walk the rainforest for years, but we jumped, climbed, and crawled our way through the forest. We had yet another meal of PB&J a quick gaze at the stars, and dreams of Kisumu fish.

The next day we headed out of the forest and our intended destination was Kampala the capital city of Uganda. This is were the beauty of traveling in Africa comes in; and this is a really abstract beauty, like those paintings where you pretend to see the meaning, but in your head you’re saying this makes absolutely no sense! We headed into the Kakamega town and enquired about how to get to Uganda, we were told three different routes to take and thanks to our masterful planning neither of us had a map, a guide book, or any idea geographically about which direction to go! I somehow remembered that Busia was closer to Uganda then Webuye, but were told that there was no direct route to the town we would have to board a matatu to Mumias and board another matatu there. Matatus were just as the always were—cramped and crowded. Due to the fact that I had a huge bag I had to take the first row of seats, not so bad but the engine is underneath you and on your shins which can melt your shoes. Of coarse in true Kenyan style I resembled Garfield stuck to the side of window as six people occupied the row! The matatu also broke down half way through and we had to wait for another one to switch into. I was stuffed into the front row again, but was disturbed when the door had some trouble closing. When another passenger got off I was moved to the front seat, luckily, because as we took off; so did the door. We waited as the driver and other villagers tried their best to reattach it, which worked! Finally we reached Busia the border town where we bought our Visas and reached Uganda! Once again we had no idea where we were in Uganda and which direction Kampala was, or how to get there, or Ugandan currency. We remedied our money woes at the bank and were lead to matatu going to Kampala full of hay literally! I had to hold my big bag on my lap for the 4 hour trip, I could barely feel my leg. We laughed at the differences in Uganda and Kenya, while stuck in traffic, we actually sat in the traffic and waited, in Kenya this would never happen, the side paths become roads and you can always get ahead! In general people of Uganda were relaxed, and very friendly.

We eventually headed out to Jinga to raft the mighty Nile River. Jinga is where the river take root from Lake Victoria, this place is the renowned by explorers for “the source” of the great north running Nile. We stayed at a camp on the banks of the river, which was beautiful. We enjoyed watching the sunset over the river and monkeys jumping from tree to tree. The next day we prepared ourselves for rafting. The rafting is regarded as some of the best in the world, having class 5 rapids, and pools of calmness. I am not one for really worrying but when I saw some videos of rapids before our trip I was a bit nervous. We teamed up with two other travelers, and had the craziest guide, who ended up being rather entertaining through out the trip. We were told to jump into the water to see if we could swim, handle the temperature, and basically not freak out. Then we were taught how to forward paddle, back paddle, and other commands on how to turn left and right. We hit the first class one rapids and we glided through, we continued through a few class 3, then finally to a class 5. My strategy was to stay focused on paddling to try not to notice the rapids flowing all over and jagged rocks. The first class 5 we were told forward paddle and I used all my might until a huge rapid like a wave was flying towards my face, a rush of water I could see the boat and my shipmates flip. In the water water I held on to my paddle with a death grip, the river pulled my down, and I could see greens, blues, black, then finally white, I wanted up, I wanted air! I popped up for a moment I sucked in the air, but was dragged down once again, I was washed pulled left and right until I was up again, AIR AIR AIR, I love air. I spotted the “rescue boat” and was pulled aboard. I tried to spot my friend and saw her on a “rescue kayak” she was on the other side of the river and I could only imagine the journey she was on!

We hopped raft to raft until we were finally back on our raft, the next rapid was called 50/50 because you have a 50/50 chance of flipping! We were given instructions to “forward paddle” and we headed straight into the churning water, any attempt at making it through was quashed by the rapids; we rapidly flipped. I held onto the boat but was mercilessly sucked down into the Nile, I was tossed around helplessly, I craved air! I tried to calm my mind but lost it when something hit me in the face ( a foot or a paddle) I surfaced gasping for air and could hardly get my mind to focus enough to hold onto the boat. Finally I gained compose and flipped the raft, again my friend was on the other side of the river, she told me a similar story of being caught under the river. The rest of the journey was more relaxed as we ate pineapples and crackers and enjoyed a bit of a swim. This leisure time was only momentary because in the distance we could see the sky turning black—rain. Behind us the sky was bright in sunny, yet here we were heading straight into a black abyss! The wind picked up and was blowing against us, we now had to paddle but we were all exhausted, but every time we stopped we were blown back, so we all resolved to paddle hard until we got there. The rain was pouring and made us all very cold, but finally we reached the next rapid.

This rapid was the most technically difficult to manage it involved leaning to one side and back paddling all to avoid—a waterfall. Well needless to say we were all exhausted from paddling in the storm against the wind, so when the time came to paddle hard we ended up beached—at the waterfall. Our guide then informed there was only one option at this point and it was to go down! The waterfall wasn’t so big but it was still a long drop, I was sitting in the back and as we went over I could see the boat tumbling vertically and in a big flop, we were down, in one piece, we all screamed and whooped at our success! The next rapids looked menacing but we went down an easier route because the water was low making everything more choppy, we ended our day with a uphill hike, in the mud, barefoot. The day concluded with a buffet of barbeque choma, which was needed! The whole day was loads of fun and something I would do again in a heart beat!

The next day we headed into Jinja town and enjoyed just wandering around the town, and drinking Mountain Dew (impossible to find in Kenya) and passion fruit Fanta (also not available in Kenya). The next day we were Kenya bound! I enjoyed Uganda, the people were friendly, the land was beautiful, I hope to return again and explore different parts.