This is a story about my trip to Kenya this past summer, a journey from Rhode Island to Houston to London to Nairobi and back. It is only one story about Africa; there are many more stories. Before I left I thought that I was prepared for my trip. I had everything on the packing list, gotten my shots, started my malaria pills, and watched Lion King eight times. Africa would be poor. The people would have no water, electricity, modern conveniences, and deserve my patronizing, well-meaning pity. AIDS and deadly mosquitos would be everywhere. I expected to see rampant hopelessness. What I found was that African lives and African culture are composed of many overlapping stories. The Kenya I saw with my own eyes was filled with possibilities and people with whom I share a connection. I experienced a range of human emotions so much more complex than pity. There was joy, suffering, fear, hope, faith, and a transcendent optimism.
Kenya has great poverty. I worked in an orphanage that housed children whose lives had been affected by HIV/AIDS. The children were happy, beautiful, funny, clever, and naughty. Within 24 hours they had completely eaten my private stash of granola bars, leaving only crumbs and forcing me to eat the local fair of chapati, matoke, and ugali. Together, we labored building eco-huts on the surrounding land adjacent to the orphanage. I had never worked as hard in my life. Before this my idea of a stressful workout was carrying a basket full of laundry and wet towels down a flight of stairs. I went without electricity for four days. We worked by the light of the sun, we sang and danced by the glow of the moon, and we ate food prepared over an open fire. I woke each morning to the sound of roosters and the slanted rays of the Kenyan morning, feeling confident I was exactly where I was meant to be. When the electricity returned, my Kenyan friends checked Facebook and downloaded Taylor Swift’s concert playlist.
On my birthday, my Kenyan friends dumped buckets of cold water over me following a African tradition that calls for a washing away of the old year and a baptism into the new one on one’s birthday. A local family that I was staying with for the night, killed, plucked, and cooked its best chicken for me to eat for my birthday. I was overwhelmed by the sight of that chicken cooking over the firepit, as it had been running around only minutes before. However, I must admit that I have never tasted such a delicious meal.
There was violence. Traveling through Somali neighborhoods, I often felt unsafe. Border attacks are not uncommon, and death is a constant companion in Africa. But Africa’s story is not only one of corruption, AIDS, chaos, and poverty. Africa is vibrant, beautiful, and economically and politically rising. Kenyans are friendly, fiercely loyal, and exquisitely resourceful people. The Africans I met did not seek pity, but sought understanding as human equals. A common story of Africa in the West begins and ends with the failure and warring of the African states. There is another deeply painful, truthful African story that tells of the colonial creation of African state borders without regard for tribe, culture, language, people, or history.
My work and time in Kenya taught me that there is no definitive story of a person, people, or place. Our stories are multiple, overlapping, rich, and textured. We run a great risk when we define others or ourselves by a single story. As I was saying goodbye on my last day in Kenya, that lesson became personal. Held tightly by the elders of my village, I was warned to be most careful at school because American schools are filled with gun violence and deaths. That single story of American high school life had taken seed in the minds of my Kenyan friends, try as I might to tell another story of my experiences. A single story can never tell the whole truth.
So now I know that Kenya and the entire African continent is a storybook, and I have only read a few chapters. I desperately want to read more. As the sun set on my Kenyan adventure, I vowed that African stories will always be a part of my future.