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."