Thursday, August 29, 2013

Elizabeth: “I like your hair, can I braid it?”

I am sitting in a community gathering in Ngong. I can feel my hair being gently tugged. I turn around and see a young girl smiling at me.  She is holding the ends of my hair. “I like your hair, can I braid it?” Her name is Elizabeth and she is 11 years old. Her first language is Swahili. She also speaks English. When she talks, her voice is soft and she chooses her words carefully. She is open and receptive, curious and inquisitive. Her eyes flash with intelligence. Everything about her is refreshing.

She asks me if I have children. I tell her I have a son and she asks to see a picture. When she sees his face she giggles and says ‘he looks like you’. She studies the picture for a few minutes, then she asks me what his name is. I say Cole…and she repeats it over and over till she gets it just right. “Cole” looks happy.

I ask her about her life. She tells me that she loves science and math. She is the most excited when she says, “I like to make art, I am an artist. I am learning how to weave baskets." I ask her what she does after school. She says that gets home at 5:30 and depending on if there if food for dinner or not, she goes to bed. “I know if there was no food for dinner, there will be no food for breakfast.” I try not to react as she shares her world with me. Her mom doesn’t have a stable job, and her dad “went away” when she was 7. She says that she wishes her dad would come back and help her mother. I just listen.

She braids my hair, and I listened to her talk about how she likes to “be creative”. She tells me more stories about life. She is a good story teller. My heart swells bigger and bigger. She asks me if I would come and visit her again so we could talk more. I can’t find words to answer. I will be working with Tatua Kenya in the future from the states. I will not be able to return to Ngong to see her. Our hands clasp before I leave. I tell her I loved hearing her stories. I tell her how special she is and that I thought she was smart. She understands and nods her head yes, receiving my words. We smile together.

I knew coming into this experience, that it was likely that my immediate impact would not be sustainable. I continue to struggle with that. Did I create any value on this trip? Is this more about me? In this moment the answer is yes. It is about me. My time with Elizabeth disrupts me. It makes me ask questions about children. I saw light, intelligence and resilience in Elizabeth. I imagine her future as a woman, as a leader? Elizabeth needs more the foreign aid and free hand outs. She needs to be developed by the community around her. She needs to be challenged and mentored. I ask myself uncomfortable questions, and I don’t receive quick or easy answers.

I am clear that I have an obligation to Elizabeth. When we got together for a photo, she put her arm around me so tight. I can still feel her hand on my shoulder. I want to be a better person because of Elizabeth. I am going to take the energy, love and meaning I received during my time with her and pour it into my world at home. 

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