Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Journey Home

        It is odd how a place that was home for a month and a half can feel so far away after only a week. I left a part of myself in Kisumu. It is too early to tell what small fragment innocuously dropped off somewhere on the walk from the Dominican compound, passed the mud huts to the school, like a quarter falling out of your pocket in some unknown place without you noticing. I do not consider it a loss. I guess, in a sideways sort of way, I gained something from it. By leaving a part of myself behind in Kenya, I opened a place in my heart for Kenya. I know this all sounds mooshy gooshy and I know mooshy and gooshy are not words but that is not the point, the point is that I will always remember my six weeks in Kenya, the sights, the sounds and the all too often unpleasant smells.
         The memories will come in short fragments, kind of clips of a movie in a preview, enough to tell the basic story but too little to truly tell the whole thing.  I guess that is the beauty of an adventure. The events pass into a distant and cloudy memory, like a long lost dream, until one clip unexpectedly floats back up to the mind. One memory snowballs to the next and the story slowly comes back to the dusty halls of my memory. Like Bilbo's adventure, mine was a shove out of my comfortable life into a new, exciting and not always pleasant world. I did things that I never would have imagined myself doing and exprienced things that will, one day, fundamentally change the man I will become. My adventure is not the typical story, I hope. I do not want to be the stereo typical twenty something year old student who goes to some third world country and comes back with the self-righteous attitude of "You do not know what people go through outside of the U.S you are so comfortable sitting in your air-conditioned room far away from pain and suffering. I now know what it is and you should feel bad for everything that you have." If I learned one thing in Kenya, it was that we all experience pain and suffering.
         As odd as it sounds, I constantly had to remind myself that these students, the ones telling me their stories, were not just stories. They are men and women of faith and character with the same inherent dignity as you and me. I did not tell the students stories to garner pity or make anyone feel like their problems are insignificant. I told them to give insight into the school and the students that go there.  I do not blame anyone in the United States for being blind to the sufferings of our brothers and sisters around the globe. We all know it because we have all gone through it. We have all suffered the sting of pain and the burn of suffering. It is far too easy to allow myself to hyper focus on the sad story and lose track of the person telling it. I will always remember what Fr. Martin, a co-founder of Fr. Tom's Kids, said about the students. Myself and the other volunteers were drilling him about the stories of all of the students that we had met. When answering, he would take off his glasses, spin them around and in his typical fidgety fashion and relay each students story in detail. I told him that he had very impressive memory, he looked at me and simply replied, "Well I can remember because I love them. It is easy to remember if you love them."
        We said goodbye to the students at OLG about a week ago. It was the first time I heard someone say to me, "We will meet again, in this life or in the next." It sounds trite but I know it was said from the heart. I never thought that I would find myself saying it either, "I will see you again my friend, in this life or in the next." I did not say it to be dramatic or because I had nothing else to say, I meant it. After only six weeks, I felt like I was leaving family. I consider the men and women I met and grew so close to my brothers and sisters. Over the course of my six weeks I came to a greater appreciation of the unity of the Catholic Church through the Eucharist and all humanity. We are not all that different. The more you learn about people, the more you immerse yourself in a culture and way of life totally different than your own, the more you realize that we are not that different. Is this just another cliche? Maybe. I do not think it matters how much I mean it and I am okay with that. If a cliche is the best way, then why not use it.  I will always remember the men and women I met in Kenya.  It is odd but every time I think I go somewhere to try and help people, the people I came to help end up giving me more than I could ever give them. Sometimes I struggle to grapple with this reality and I try to find a way to counter act it but always to no avail. All we can do is thank God for the time he has given us and do our best to use it wisely and for His name.
       Time and  memories will fade  then slide back in again like waves on a sandy beach. I may forget many of the students names but I will not forget their friendship, all that they gave me. Africa has a strange pull and I doubt if this was my last time on the Dark Continent but regardless, this adventure has ended and I am left sitting on my bed at home wondering when I will hear the loud "rap rap" of a knock on my door, beckoning away form what I know, on a new adventure.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Zip Up The Man Suit And Jump

        When we arrived in Kisumu about a month ago, tired and aching from our hike, we had no idea that we were about to be thrown in the deep end. That first night our contact in Kisumu, a Dominican priest fondly known as Fr. Mad Dog, did not waste any time. We flew up the mountain in darkness squeezed in the Dominicans van praying the entire way that we would make it to the top without getting hit by a bus barreling down the other way. We sat in the postulants house community room,  our home for the next five weeks, and listened, wide eyed and jaw dropped as Fr. Mad Dog debriefed us on all of the challenges of the school, all the dangers, barely any of the positives, we would need to find those for ourselves and the harsh reality of working in a school filled with street kids and orphans. He bombarded us with hard information for a good hour before he finally said, "Well I think thats good for tonight. You start tomorrow, the hounds from hell get put away at 5:45am, they bight so do not be out while they are. You should leave the house by 5:50 to walk to the school for Rosary and Mass, which start at 6:10. After that we will walk around the two schools so you are acquainted with them, then you are on your own. Good night. God bless." That night I crawled under my mosquito net, lay on my back, stared at the ceiling and thought,  "What did I just get myself into."
           I was thrown in the deep end my first week here and though I awkwardly floundered trying to stay afloat the first couple of days, I eventually found my rhythm and taught myself how to swim in the unpredictable waters of Kisumu, Kenya. I do not think that I have ever been thrown in a situation so quickly before. I recall thinking, "This man (Fr. Mad Dog) is crazy! How am I going to do this for five weeks." But as he said, "It's time to zip up the man suit and get to work." I know Fr. Mad Dog's demanding work schedule and his method of pushing us out of the plane with a parachute and seeing if we could figure out how to pull it ourselves, has been the reason I have not just had a "good experience"here. He told me the other day, as we were driving through the Kisumu, that he did not want us to do what he felt most students do during a summer mission experience, observe people in a lab, safely behind glass and in a sterile environment. In his mind we were grown men and women and we were going to get the real deal, no frills and no harness, in his words, "I wanted you to get your ass kicked a bit." I can definitely say that I have gotten my hands dirty here in a number of different ways and I worked harder than I could have imagined. I have struggled some days to drag myself out of bed and mummy walk to school, stumbling over the rocks that pepper the uneven road but I would not trade it for the world. I took a week or so but I moved past my fears and learned how to live.
       I honestly feared the older boys in the secondary school for the first week or so. Some of them were older than me and most of them were bigger, or at least much tougher looking. It took a while but I finally realized I was being ridiculous and that I needed to get beyond my fears even though they were not a totally invalid ones. I know for a fact that some of the boys, many of which I have now grown close to, regularly engage in some pretty serious criminal activity. The village around the school is teaming with mambas in the grass waiting to strike and drag our students down to their level. But what I had to realize was that these men are not just test subjects or foreign objects to be viewed, they are human beings with inherent dignity and worth, no matter what they have done in the past or still do. I never saw them as less than human but I did disconnect myself from them at first.
        The upper school boys have become my closest friends here. One of them told me the other day while he was sweeping the pathway at the school in the dim red light of early morning after Mass that he could tell we were all a little afraid of them, the older guys, in the beginning, "It took you a while to get use to us." I smiled. I could not deny it. I knew he was not angry about it, he was simply making a very acute observation. I only started playing football (Soccer) with the older boys a week ago. I tried playing barefoot, a bad idea in Africa, the field is mostly small stones and rocks with patches of grass, to gain some respect. Almost all of them came up to me during the game and said, "do your feet hurt?" I would shrug my shoulders, smile, elbow them and say "keep playing I am fine!" They probably just thought that I was a crazy mazungu, the Swahili word for white people, but I was having fun despite the my clear lack of football skills and I think they were having fun watching me trying to play striker. Some of these men have shown me what it means to have courage and that, no matter how hard your situation may be, you can always claw out of it and make something of yourself.
          This adventure, much like Bilbo's in the Hobbit, has been full of surprises, welcome and unwelcome, and has tested me. It has not been an experience, it has been a transformative adventure.  Just as Bilbo transformed, not always willingly, from a timid Hobbit to a fearless and clever burglar, I have unexpectedly found myself trying and doing things that I never thought I could. I have been forced to take leaps of faith and wander beyond my comfort zone. I will take a lot of good lessons away from this adventure but I will always remember the one the secondary school boys and Fr. Mad Dog taught me, "Let go of your fears, zip up the man suit and jump."

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Story Untold

I find it hard to grasp the complexity of this place, its struggles, evils, triumphs and virtues. Where one appears the other quickly follows. Our Lady of Grace School is no exception. Though many of the students here work hard and respect their elders but just as many look to swindle and cheat whenever they can. What do you expect from students who have no money but still have to buy their own pens, pencils...ect. I asked a student how he got his pens if he had no money and his response was simple, "You swindle." These student’s situations in no way justify their actions but they do explain them to an extent. Some of the students speak of how the teachers and workers at the school beat them physically and mentally. I have to take what the students say with a grain of salt because some of them tend to exaggerate situations but all to often their tales prove true. A grade three student, about seven years old, pointed out his matron, the authority figure that stays in the dorm with the students, and in a very matter of fact way said, "That is our matron. She enjoys beating children." As of this week that matron no longer works at the school, thanks to those in the upper administration that truly care about the students here.
One young man, a refugee, I have grown to know very well told me that he keeps his personal story guarded because he knows, from experience, that people, even within the school, will use it against him. This disease especially plagues the few refugees at the school. Many people spend their whole lives in refugee camps, an odd limbo of freedom and confinement. Though you have escaped violence or persecution you still must fight to scrape along, unable to really leave because the government does not want to formally recognize you and become responsible for you. The young man I have befriended is a refugee from Rwanda. He keeps his incredible story under lock and key out of fear of persecution, "people will take it and use their words to hurt me. I just let the people think that I am from this area" I have only heard bits and pieces of his story but what he has told me astounds me. 
       I asked him how old he was when he left Rwanda. He looked up into the hazy morning sky and said he was probably around six years old. He has an uncanny memory and remembers almost all the details. But then again, how can someone, no matter how young, forget genocide. He remembers peoples heads impaled on posts lining the streets and people being dragged off to be shot. He turns, looks away and says, "I do not like talking about this sorry."
We usually get on the topic of how he came here by accident. I found out about his mothers in a conversation about funerals after hearing a Luo, the predominant tribe in the Kisumu area, hearts drive by with horns blaring. He squinted his eyes a bit, as if he was searching the dark halls of his memory and quietly and peacefully said, "I do not know where my mother is buried. She died somewhere in Rwanda but I do not know where her body is." I know many people lose their mothers at young ages but I cannot imagine, nor do I really want to, what it feels like to have no idea what happened to your mother, all you know is you will have to face the long road ahead of you without your mother.
         I enjoy walking around bare foot. I avoid shoes and socks whenever possible and take some pride in the fact that my feet have grown pretty callus over the years. One day at dinner while I stood in line with him as he waited for food, he commented on my sandals. I told him that I enjoyed going barefoot and he said, “but it can be tough.” He shook his head and with a slight smile touched with a hint of sadness he continued, “I once saw this part of a mans foot fall off,” pointing to his heal, “he was screaming and crying. It was during our walk.” He continued to tell me that he and his family walked from Rwanda to Tanzania, and finally got transport once in Kenya to go the rest of the way.  We have all faced long roads in our lives and had our fare share of long walks. At the end of the day our feet ache and our only comfort lies in the knowledge that we have a nice comfortable bed at home waiting for us. My friend spent his nights in the bush, open uninhabited land, afraid of being discovered by people or animals. I told him that what he did was incredible. He just smiled and said, “I was still young so my brother carried me most of the way.” Even though he was carried for most of the way, I still have great respect for him, his family and countless others who attempted the trek and the few that made it.
         My friend is an orphan. I am not exactly sure who he has left. His mother died in Rwanda and his father died of complications from an injury sustained one the walk. I do not know what the injury was but to honest, it does not really matter. All that matters is that, at the age of six or seven, this boy was left an orphan in a foreign country.
He used to struggle with anger. He did not understand why his parents were killed. He has come to peace, as much as that is possible, with his reality but the pain still lingers. He focuses on school and strives to make a difference in the lives of those he comes in contact with. He still feels the sharp sting of painful memories when reminded of his exodus from Rwanda. I hear the pain in his voice and see the deep sadness in his eyes whenever something reminds him of Rwanda. The school showed a movie one cool African night, Hotel Rwanda and my friend simply could not watch, “I hated that movie, I hated it. I could not watch it. It was too hard.” His words were broken and mixed with confusion but I understood. The memories that the movie invoked were too vivid, too painful and all too really to a young man whose memory bares the scars of a long walk through a gauntlet of human evils.
Life is never simple. I know I will never completely understand the knotted lives of these children. I can only listen, tell his story and hope that these stories ignites the same love for these people that it has ignited in my heart. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Man's Journey to God

       Little in the lives of the students at Our Lady of Grace School plays itself out simply. Normalcy takes on a completely different definition among young men and women who have seen genocide, political violence, lost all the people they loved and never knew anything but poverty. The path to adult hood and the formation of our religious beliefs factors greatly in the shape of our lives and our personhood. Many of us in the United States grow up in a particular faith and, for the most part, remain at least loosely tied to that faith for the duration of our lives. Although some of us go through conversion experiences and others lose their faith, the circumstances of our religious and personal construction tend to be relatively controlled and non traumatic. I do not intend to take anything away from anyone's personal situation nor am do I intend to make this a contest but what I hear on a daily basis from the students here tells a story altogether different form what I have ever heard. We hear these kinds of stories in books and from time to time on the news but to hear them with my own ears adds brings them to life and makes them more than just a story. It is someones life.
        A few days ago, I was sitting in a class room with a student from Southern Sudan. In the middle of our idle banter, he paused for a moment, his facial expression became calm and focussed and he said in a serious and somewhat somber tone that he wanted to tell me something. To be honest I was a bit surprised. I have grown to know this student very well and a smile rarely ceases to leave his face. I told him I was all ears and he began to explain. He was born in Southern Sudan and baptized Catholic and received First Communion and Confirmation. He remembers going to Mass with his family and living a normal faith life. But war erupted and he and his family had to move constantly to avoid violence and persecution. During the time his family constantly moved, he was unable to attend Mass or really practice his faith in any sort of way. "We always had to be careful and hide our religion," he said looking down at his feet, "The only reason I was safe was because I was so young." for as long as he can remember his faith was something that he had to keep quiet. Professing his faith could get him or his family thrown in prison or killed. He refused to learn Arabic because he knew that if he did it would be easier for them to force him to convert. He said he saw people being forced to convert at gun point, "They held a gun to your head and told you to convert. Some did and others refused to renounce their faith and were shot. I do not know what I would have done." When the Muslim radicals came to any village, the first thing they did was take over the Christian Churches and convert them to jails where they tortured and killed prisoners. These were not  senseless acts of violence. They preformed torture and executions in Churches so that people associated Christian Churches with torture and death. 
         Eventually, my friend and his family moved to the city of Kanga. There, with the support of his brother in the U.S, he was able to start school again. But, he had to learn Arabic. He contacted his brother and told him he would not learn their language, he did not want to be forced to convert or be killed. His brother agreed and found a way to get him to his other brother who was studying in Nairobi.
         For as long as he can remember until 2005, the year he arrived in Kenya, he had never had the opportunity to freely and openly practice his religion. In Nairobi he was placed in an Anglican school and experienced religious freedom for the first time. He was in shock, "I had not known God for so long. I mean I believed in Him, but I had not spoken to him or really prayed in so long that I lost touch with Him." Now, he was just happy to be able to say that he was a Christian. He took to the Anglican brothers at the school and worshiped with them for a number of years. He began to consider himself an Anglican and was proud of it.  In 2009, his brother told him that he had found a school in Kisumu for him to finish his last two years of high school in. When he arrived and realized that Our Lady of Grace School was a Catholic school, he remembered the faith he was baptized in so many years ago and thought, "Now what God."
           For the past two years he has prayed and listened for what God wants him to do next. He said that he believes in the doctrines of the Catholic Church but is not ready to receive communion again and come fully back to the Church. He is taking it one step at a time. He has faith that he will know when God wants him to receive communion again. For the time being he respects the Eucharist, participates in Mass and prays. Once he makes his decision he will stick with it but he must make it freely. After years of fearing forced conversion, he wants his reversion to be a completely free choice. His face has brightened since he first began and his scrunched faces, profuse head shaking, quick out bursts of laughter, sweeping hand gestures and plenty of high fives and hand shakes have returned. He still communicates a slight sense of confusion but the decision he now faces is a mere hill compared to the mountains he climbed to come to this point. Even though the pains of his past weigh heavy on his heart, his joy and faith that God will shepherd him down the right path give him strength.
       As I have learned from so many of the students here, if we want to make something of our lives, to climb out of the mire of depression, anger and self-pity we must simply decide to be happy. We must chose to learn from our difficulties and keep marching forward, endure. This man from the Sudan is an incredible man. He survived violent attacks on his faith, lost connection with God and bouts of confusion but through all things, he will endure. He will be happy and will never abandon his faith.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Birth of a Nation

        Yesterday, at midnight, the world welcomed its newest country with shouts of joy and relief, The Republic of South Sudan. After years of genocide, persecution and brutal fighting, the people of southern Sudan can breath a sigh of relief. The road to rise out of the dusts of conflict will be grueling but a renewed sense of hope rings in the country so ravished by war.  Kenya shares a border with Southern Sudan and took in thousands of Sudanese refugees who fled the genocide and war that engulfed their home land over the last three decades. But more importantly, I have befriended two refugees from South Sudan who live in Kenya and attend school at Our Lady of Grace. I have been blessed to grow especially close with one of the students, a tall slender young man with the pronounced cheek bones and ebony skin so unique to the people of Sudan. In typical Tommy fashion, I forgot his name after the first time I met him. I had to point him out from a distance and ask a staff member what his name was, the staff member squinted and said, "wait the black one? well I mean we are all African but he is black! He is from Sudan you can tell by just looking at him." He did not say it in a derogatory manner but rather with a tone of respect. He sticks out from the rest of the students as he walks around the school, ducking in every door way to avoid hitting his head. At first,  he was that tall guy from the Sudan who bounced around, a head taller than the rest, with a smile plastered to his face. But as I grew to get to know him better, I came to deeply respect him and his people, who have survived and persevered years of conflict. About a week ago while walking around the upper school after Mass just talking and joking around, he began to tell me his story.
      He was born in southern Sudan, the youngest of six boys. Like the majority of people in Sudan, neither of his parents could read or write and only two of his brothers were educated. As the youngest in the family his brothers made it a point to ensure that he receive a good education. It quickly became evident that he would not be able to fulfill his aspirations if he stayed in Sudan. His schooling was touch and go. He would have classes for a short period of time until war would inevitably erupt and literally interrupt his classes and force him to wait for a more peaceful time. While speaking about his early years of school he shakes his head and says, "I just wish I started earlier, but eh thats how it is." He is old for a senior in high school but by no fault of his own.  Two of his brothers were able to escape from Sudan as refugees. One made his way to the United States, where he still lives and received and education and the other now lives in Nairobi and attends university there. His brother who lives in the U.S supports his family and travels back and forth between the U.S and Sudan frequently to built schools in South Sudan. With the help of his two older brothers, my friend was able to leave Sudan and get to a refugee camp in Kenya. He eventually made his way to his brother in Nairobi and began his education again. He arrived at Our Lady of Grace four years ago and is now preparing for his national exams in hopes of scoring well enough to qualify for the Kenyan government to pay for his education. He is an extremely bright and driven student. He struggles with swahili because, unlike all the other students at the school, he did not have to speak it growing up but he excels in math and science. He placed ninth over all out of over a hundred students at a math competition.  
          In the days leading up to the independence of Southern Sudan, his emotions ranged from excited and relieved to worried and nervous. He told me that there has been so much persecution and violence that he cannot even explain it. He enjoys talking about his family and how blessed he is to be here but anytime Northern Sudan comes up in conversation he shakes his head, looks away and softly says, "its too hard, I cannot talk about it."
     His mood changed a bit over the weekend. Yesterday his nervous anticipation and excitement was palpable. At Mass the Priest offered a prayer for Sudan and congratulated him and the other student from Southern Sudan for the independence of their new nation and the liberation of their people. I do not think that everything sunk in right away. He was visibly happy all day but always seemed a bit nervous when he would ask me for updates on how his new country was doing. But this morning at Mass when I slid in the small spot on the bench next to him, he leaned over to me and in a loud whisper said, "my country has its independence!" I cannot imagine how he feels, years of violence and finally he has hope.
      The violence at the border of Sudan and The Republic of Southern Sudan will continue but the hope and desire for peace rings louder than ever. I can see in the eyes of the Southern Sudanese hope and a deep desire to make their new nation great. The birth of a nation is a beautiful spectacle and always shines brightest on the faces of those who have suffered with her.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Celebrating the Fourth with Africans!

    When I realized I was going to be in Kenya for the entire month of July my first thought was, "bummer I am going to miss the Fourth of July at home." I thought that maybe the three other Smith Fellows and I could celebrate America's independence in our own small way. I was at peace with this fact and was actually looking forward to it until last friday when at dinner with the Dominican Friars we were informed that their would be a traditional Kenyan barbecue called nyama choma in honor of America's day of independence. Nyama choma means roast meat, a smorgasbord of goat, mutton or beef and of course plenty of Kenya's beer of choice, Tuskers.
       We looked forward to the nyama choma all day as we went through our daily routine of teaching at the lower school and helping around the upper school as much as we could. After a rough game of basketball on the dirt courts bordering the Dominican compound I rushed to the shower to scrub the two inch thick layer of dirt caked on my feet and legs. As we walked up to the front of the Dominican house, which has a large overhang big enough to fit a few cars under, we only expected to see the Dominican brothers in training and maybe one or two of the Hawthorn Dominican sisters that minister to the terminally ill just down the road. Instead we were greeted by the Hawthorn Dominicans the Dominican brothers and priests and the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who have a postulant house just down the road. Kenyan's are known for their hospitality but this act of kindness blew me away. Here we were, thousands and thousands of miles away from home and we were celebrating America's independence. The Kenyan Dominican's mainly Fr. Steven, very strongly felt that they must do something for us on our  country's day of independence, especially because our Dominican contact Fr. Chris and Fr. Martin, another Dominican in Kisumu, both spent extensive time serving with the American armed forces. 
        There was potato salad, which I had been craving for weeks, macaroni salad, hot dogs and for dessert, seven layer jello kindly made by the Dominican Sisters. Though I was far from home, all of the food and good company made me feel like I was sitting in my own back yard. The biggest surprise of the night came when I was speaking to one of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. I told her that I was from Connecticut and she mentioned that she had spent some time in a mother house in a small town called Wilton, my home town. I was shocked to hear the name of my town slip out of someones mouth in Kisumu, Kenya. It was a very odd moment. My heart leapt out of my chest and I was unable to blink.  After getting over the shock of hearing someone say the name of my home town so far away from home, I jogged my memory and recalled that I use to go to the that very house to be tutored many years ago and my brother and cousin use to volunteer there. To have a direct connection home on my first Fourth of July away from home, warmed my heart.
       It was strangely wonderful to celebrate our nations independence in a completely foreign country. It brewed in me a strong sense of pride and joy for my home country. All of the Africans insisted that all Americans present sing the national anthem. As the Americans, a hodgepodge combination of five college students and various religious men and women, belted out The Star Spangled banner to the best of our ability, I could not help but smile and allow the feeling of overwhelming joy overflow and fill my heart with joy. Although I was halfway across the world and surrounded by strangers, the majority of whom were not American, It still was one of my proudest moments as an American.
         The whole experience was a beautiful testament to God's unifying power.  He brought people from all over the world, Ghana, the USA, Canada, Germany, Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, Nigeria, Kenya and I am sure I am missing a few, to simply share in each others happiness and rejoice. It truly was an international celebration. They were all too happy to join in our joy, even though we had little in common. But, as Fr. Chris pointed out, "Well the USA and Kenya are happy to have gained their independence from England." If you search long enough and hard enough you can always find common ground. 
         Despite the fact that I still missed being home with my family and close friends on the fourth of July, this was a Fourth of July I will never forget. I can only thank God for surrounding me with such amazing people, blessing me with an amazing country and even more importantly, with such a beautiful faith. Only through the divine providence of God can people from all around the world gather to celebrate a brother's day of joy, in this case America's Independence Day. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Day of Triumph and a Day of Victory in Defeat

       Football (soccer) is a way of life in Kenya. Just like you can always find children and grown men playing baseball, basketball or football in the city streets, city parks, country fields and back yards all around the country, you cannot go more than a few hours without seeing barefoot footballers shuffling around on makeshift football pitches in Kenya. For the past two weeks I watched from a safe distance as OLG's mens football team prepared for their distract tournament. On one of my first days a primary school student (Middle School) warned me not to play with the big guys, "don't play with them, they will break your legs." After watching them practice for about five minutes I was happy to sit on the sidelines and stick to my comfortable game with the primary school students, who still proved to be a challenge.
       Saturday after mass and good breakfast we pilled in the school Land Rover and followed the carrying the athletes to the outskirts of Kisumu to watch the men's and women's football teams compete in the distract tournament. Their goal, to win the tournament and advance to provincials, one step closer to nationals and representing Kenya in the East Africa games. Armed with new uniforms and some new gear, all generously fundraised by Kevin, a Providence College student in Kenya with us, the men dismounted the bus to a sea of spectators blowing horns and waving flags. Although some of the boys had to make alterations to the youth sized shin guards they were extremely grateful to have use of them. The fields, located at a larger school in the rural outskirts of Kisumu, had two regulation sized fields with patchy grass and a bumpy surface at best. The first game, played in the scorching mid-day heat looked like it was going to be a challenge. But the men from OLG came out flying with two quick goals in the first ten minutes  Although they did not score for the rest of the game, they maintained control until the end when fatigue and mussel cramps set in and they let up one goal in the final minutes.
        After a rest and some refueling the men prepared to take the main field, this time against a more challenging opponent. After only a few minutes, it became evident that this match was not going to be easy. The first half was a stalemate with both teams having no solid shots on goal until the final minutes of the half. With time winding down we were looking for a quick strike to go ahead before half. One of our forwards, we will call him Ronald, was obviously injured and limping around the pitch. We all shook our heads as the coach refused to remove him from the game.  We were all calling for a substitute, a fresh pair of legs in for the final minutes to ignite a spark and push the pace against the tiring defense. As we pleaded for a substitution the ball came up the left wing, played forward with a beautiful pass from one of our midfielders. Ronald turned, grit his teeth and fought through the pain to make a powerful turn towards the middle of the field and take a strong running, bouncing drive towards the bottom left corner of the net. The ball jumped off his boot and skipped past the outstretched hands of the goal keeper. He ran the best he could arms outstretched as his teammates tailed behind and patted him on the back. The captain ran to the sidelines one arm extended pointing at us and cheering.
        The team was confident coming out of the half with a one to nil lead. They continued to control the game despite losing Ronald and our first striker, who sat on the field unable to move due to massive cramps. With time waining and the end in sight a quick ball was played out of the midfield and found a opposing striker streaking towards the goal. Our goal keeper was back on his heals as he attempted to deal with the charging opponent. When he got within striking range he drove the ball in the corner and equalized the game at one to one. The game ended in a draw.
      The men needed to either draw or win their game on Sunday morning to advance. We were not able to make the game. We all knew the result when the men and women came back early on Sunday afternoon. The woman's team lost their match against a challenging opponent and the men lost a rough hard fought battle against a tough team one to nil. They marched through the compound with heads held high, proud of their performance. They lost with class, no complaints, temper tantrums, tears, hung heads or excuses. It took me a while and a bit of prodding to find out about the questionable officiating. It was not given as an excuse but just as another fact of the game, an odd bounce or odd turn of luck. The officials accused our team of having club players playing for them and cut the game short because our team came a little late to the match due to Kisumu traffic. One player shrugged his shoulders as he said, "eh they were against us from the beginning but what can you do? I am happy about how we played." I was extremely impressed with all of our players class and pride. They know what it means to win and lose and one loss at a football match fails in comparison to the disappointment some of theses students have experienced in their lives.

            Football is a way of life here in Kenya but for the men and women at OLG it is not life itself. They have the right perspective on things and know that success comes in effort and the pride of knowing they gave it their all and left their hearts on the field. Our footballers ability to roll a tough loss and shoddy officiating off their sturdy shoulders is just another testament to Kenya and her people's incredible resilience.