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A little girl in a purple sweater

This morning, I decided to try to catch the school bus very early because I wanted to get to campus in time to see our new breakfast program in action.

I’m staying at our girls dorm — a big farmhouse a few miles from our campus — so just after dawn, I went out into around the yard, listening to the cows and sheep, suddenly realizing I wasn’t actually sure what time the bus left. I climbed into the front seat of our big Land Cruiser (our bus is very cool) and made myself comfortable. I spent the next twenty minutes alone typing on my phone, scrolling, and calling back to the house for the girls to hurray up. Tired of waiting, I opened the car door to get out and as I turned to climb out I almost jumped out of my own skin. All the way in the back of the land cruiser, was a child. A little girl, sitting right in the middle of the back row, staring back at me. She had on a purple sweater and a torn gray skirt. She was sitting straight up, her hands folded in her lap, and a look in her eyes that was the opposite of afraid. Just as I was about to open my mouth, all of our girls began piling into the car, seeming to not notice anything strange about her already being in it.

Ah, she must be a neighbor that we give a ride to, I thought. But she rode with us *all the way* to school. Maybe she’s a new student and she doesn’t yet have the uniform, I figured, reassured by how familiar everyone seemed by her presence.

At school, it was amazing to see all the kids eating porridge, eggs and bananas. Our students live in such extreme poverty- many of them weren’t eating breakfast, and some weren’t even eating dinner.

Excited to see this impact, I went bounding towards our Head of School’s office. She came out to meet me halfway.

“You are not going to believe this story” she began. Nobody tells a good story like she can, so I settled in for some funny tale of what it means to build a school out of thin air.

She began, “On Monday, we started doing our admissions. I had a list of 20 students to interview, all of them arrived with their parents. At the end of the day, Teacher Paul came up to me and said, “the student you placed in our class today was really really bright.”

She looked at me and raised her eyebrows, and I finished her sentence for her “you didn’t place a student in his class”

“Exactly. So the next day, same thing, this little girl comes and she sits in his class. So I call her into my office and explain we have an admissions process. I told her to come back with a parent or guardian tomorrow so we can begin it.”

The next day, she’s back in his class. He sends her back to my office and she tells me “I couldn’t find an adult to come with me”

She pointed out a little girl in a purple sweater.

I assumed our kids knew who she was. Our kids assumed because we were in the car together, I had made the arrangements. Our teachers assumed because she appeared in class, the Head Teacher has placed her there.

And here is this little little girl in a bright purple sweater who can’t find an adult. Crazy town.

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Rubbish

A few months ago, my mother approached me with wide eyes and a juicy piece of neighborhood gossip.  “You won’t believe this,” her voice a whisper “you remember that boy who lived next door to us in Greenwich?  The one with the ponytail and the motorcycle?”  I think back to being 11 years old and watching him work on his bike. Ah, my first crush, how could I forget. We called him El Guapo, I never knew his name, he wasn’t particularly friendly, but he looked like a character in a Spanish soap opera.  “Yes…” I conspired.

“Well, turns out he was a……(she pauses for effect) ….hoarder.” 

If you know my mother, you know this is the worst crime anyone could commit. If you don’t know my mother, let me give you more context. When I asked her how she knew that our old neighbor was a hoarder, she explained that El Guapo had attempted to murder his own disabled mother by setting their shared house on fire.  Apparently, the police and fire department couldn’t open the front door because the house was busting at the seams with hoarder memorabilia.  So there you have her ranking of crimes: hoarding: a more serious offense than attempting to kill your wheelchair-bound mother.

Which is why it pains me to admit, we have a bit of a hoarding problem at Flying Kites.  At times, it feels hopeless. I will throw something in the trash, an old and empty vaseline container, the remnants of a paper lantern that is now just a few wires and a tiny section of paper, five cards to a board game that no longer exists.  And then, one by one, these things reappear. On shelves, in drawers - the very same items I threw in the trash pit weeks ago.  It drives me absolutely insane, I walk around like a crazy person yelling, “WHO RESCUED THIS EMPTY VASELINE CONTAINER??  I CAN’T LIVE LIKE THIS. THE CONTAINER IS EMPTY, LET IT DIE IN PEACE”

I know that a lot of this behavior comes from a place of trauma and scarcity but that doesn’t always make it easier to deal with.  The food hoarding is somehow easier to accept; it usually takes a few months for a new student to settle in and stop stashing food.  Zippy used to hide pieces of bread under the couch, Njeri would take fistfuls of avocado and put them in her pockets.  We’ve had kids try and stash raw eggs, always worried that the food will one day disappear.  But the dumpster diving for an empty, broken bottle of olive oil, half a shoe lace and a handful of pens that have run out of ink? Dear Lord, we need an intervention.

Last night I called together a group of our small girls, (don’t be fooled by this description, they are all under 13, but their collective debating skills could bring a supreme court to its knees).  I was staying in their bedroom for the night, having given up my bed to some volunteers. “Guys, we are surrounding ourselves with trash, and it has to stop.  It’s dirty, it’s embarrassing, it’s unnecessary.”  I hold up my first piece of evidence and complain, “Someone took this empty glass bottle of peanut butter out of the trash.”  “Auntie!” Rahab gets to her feet, takes the jar out of my hands and begins to wave it at me, “You put that in the garbage pit but the guards told us all glass goes in the pit latrine!!”  Ok, fair point, I ask her, why then, didn’t she put it in the pit latrine?  She looks at me.  “I was going to.” she lies and throws her head back and laughs a guilty giggle, like a housewife whose husband just discovered a shopping bag full of new shoes.

One by one, I hold up things I’ve thrown away, and the girls devise lengthy explanations for why they were resurrected. Friends, please do not be fooled, remember, these are not children who are committed to recycling and reusing, these here are hoarders. Markers that don’t mark, plastic buckets with no bottom, and don’t even get my started on the clothes situation. After much debating we come to a “Code of Conduct” mainly regarding discarded food containers and torn sweaters. We agree that when the new dorms are built, and we all have our own space, dressers and desks, we won’t keep or collect trash.  We shake on it and Lucy suggests we follow up on our progress at the next student council meeting, she offers to “add it to the agenda.”  My heart melts a little at this serious and earnest gesture.

Done for the night, I climb onto my bed and open my toiletry bag.  Anytime the girls are within a mile of cosmetic products you can hear a pin drop.  I can feel five sets of eyes on me, watching my every move as I unzip the bag and begin to clean my face.  Wanting to make up for being a bit too crazy over the trash situation earlier, I tell the girls they can play with my hair and face products.  They all sit in front of me, faces of amazement and tenacious hope.  I offer my perfume to Lucy and she holds out her wrist.  “Wait!” Sarah shrieks.  She jumps off the bed and grabs Lucy’s school uniform sweater, “Spray it here, that way it will last and tomorrow at school we will smell it.”  (I never said these children were cute, I said they were hoarders).  I offer Rahab my Hermes body lotion, putting some in her hand and watching her rub it into her tiny calfs.  I do the same for Lucy.  The girls are delighted, their fascination reminds me of being a little girl and watching my stepmother blow-dry her hair.  They all get into their beds and when I go to tuck Lucy in, she hugs me with one arm, the other hand raised up and clasped shut.  I open her hand to find a dime-sized amount of lotion.  I laugh and ask her what she plans to do with it, to which she responds, “Put it on my face in the morning, before school.”

I explain to her that she can’t sleep with it in her hand because it will get absorbed.  She looks deep into my eyes, somehow choosing her words carefully.  “I am going to store it.” she says.  “Where?” I ask.  She swallows, “I have an empty vaseline container.”

These children, they will surely be the death of me.  I will suffocate under trash, or love.

-Leila 

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Closing Our Volunteer Program

You may have noticed that earlier in the year, we closed our volunteer program.

It was a difficult decision to make, and I worried that our students would lose access to a stream of fun, energetic, passionate camp counselors who volunteered their time to teach classes like "how to make a pet rock."

Flying Kites was founded by a small group of volunteers who spent time with orphaned and homeless children in the slums of Nairobi and were inspired to do more, do better.  But when we first opened the volunteer program, we struggled with how to manage it.  I became frustrated (or maybe righteous) and I wrote this piece about how self-serving voluntoursim is.

Professionally and personally, I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about this topic. We've changed the parameters of the program many times: you have to come for a minimum of three months, you have to be in the education field, you have to raise enough money to sponsor a student at the highest level.  This helped set a higher standard and a few years later, I wrote a rebuttal to my previous piece about the pitfalls of volunteering.

But even then, we struggled to sift out the resume-builders from the change-makers.  We want people to see our school firsthand, because we want them to see the difference we are making and help us make more. 

Today, I'm somewhere in the middle, and what I've come to learn is: you don't need a volunteer program to really find your people: the folks who will come to believe in your mission and give until it hurts.  The people who get all of their friends to sponsor children and stay long after the cocktail party has ended, stacking chairs and recycling empty bottles.

These are the people you want on your team.  And you don't find them by telling them they are "needed" at a school in rural Kenya.  Do they visit?  Yes, absolutely, all the time.  They are family and welcome anytime.  But they visit as donors and long-time investors - coming to see what their time and efforts and fundraising has built, and using their visit onsite to get a sense of our upcoming goals, so that they can roll up their sleeves back at home. They recognize that talent is a natural resource in Kenya, and that at Flying Kites, we have a team of 30+ people to meet the needs of our students. They come to Flying Kites with the understanding that their volunteer job exists back at home.

We are deeply grateful to the shining supporters who helped make the decision to close our volunteer program easy and we are inspired to work in partnership with you to build a more equitable world.

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