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Social internship in Kenya: ‘my mother loves me very much’

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The setup is simple: four Belgians are sent to a developing country for a social internship, with the aim of making social commitment top of mind, while immersing the participants in a completely different culture. Fedactio sent two coaches and two students to Kenya, a country that is not only warm and sunny, but also a country where extremes live side by side. In these series of blogs, our communication manager recounts her experiences.

(Second stage): My mother loves me very much

Mornings in Nairobi are cold and loud, filled with impressions and traffic jams. We’ve decided to start the day with a visit to the Huda Integrated School, a boarding school located in one of Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods. Today we will meet its orphans.

The school counts 14 orphans, six and seven-year-old children that have been rescued from a life on the streets. The choice for orphans specifically was one of the conditions of its founder: only children without family would be included in the program. Aslan explained some families would be willing to disown their children so they qualify for the admission requirements, but that was definitely not what the programme was trying to achieve. His statement is hard to swallow … and the rest of the day will undoubtedly be even more confronting.

The school is situated very closely to the most beautiful mosque in the city. Its shadow covers the school partly, as if it was protecting the building. In the school, everything is neat and peaceful: shoes must be taken off before stepping on the carpet, and hands must be washed before every meal. We are invited to sit at the table, waiting for the children. It is Sunday: on the table, there is cake and boiled eggs.

When the children arrive they spread out and take their seats. White sits next to black, the whole table like an improvised human chessboard. Everyone is silent, as it soon becomes clear that we don’t speak Swahili and their knowledge on English is limited. In Kenya, both English and Swahili are taught at school, but these children have grown up speaking the local dialect. Some did not even master Swahili when they arrived here. Luckily, the school educates them in both languages.

The atmosphere is slightly uncomfortable while ‘Mother’ is cutting slices of bread. The children are very fond of her, as is clear from the glances they’re throwing her. She nods encouragingly.

I point to the slice of bread with an inquiring look. ‘Can I eat?’ I want to say with my eyes. ‘Mkate’, says the little kid next to me. I raise my thumb and smile at him: ‘Mkate’. It’s only afterwards that I learn mkate means ‘bread’ and not ‘okay’.

The food initiates conversations and the children are starting to have fun with each other. With Mother’s translations, we get to know some names. Now that some of the pressure is off, the children are gesturing wildly, expecting to be understood. While they are trying to attract our attention, the woman taking care of them tells us we are not the first white people that have come to visit the orphanage, but we are the first ones to join the children’s daily activities: together with the children, we organize their scarce belongings within their lockers, we clean their Sunday shoes, we check their homework and use our imagination to draw. The children enjoy everything that they do. It fascinates me how little they need.

It may sound as a cliché, but Muhammadin is indeed content with his new second-hand One Direction T-shirt, and Omar with the soccer jersey that is a little too small, and Isa with a toy car whose wheels don’t roll very smoothly. However, more than the gifts, they are satisfied with the time we spend together.

When I was checking their homework, I read: ‘My mother loves me very much’. Now I finally realise what it means, looking at the woman who watches us guide the daily activities. She gently pushes one of the boys towards me. I lend him my camera, causing a stir in the crowd as every child wants to use it. When the situation is getting slightly out of hand, I try to save my camera from the children. Without discussion, the boy who’s holding it at the moment gives it back to me. ‘You come back?’ he asks.
I check the pictures in my camera. The last one is one of us all, laughing. ‘You come back?’ he asks again. I don’t have the courage to tell him that this is a one-time visit.

It is hard to accept that some moments are ephemeral. Nevertheless, this finitude is also beautiful: two radically different cultures have found each other and spent a day together, resulting in long-lasting memories for both parties.

That evening, I call my mother to tell her what happened.
Yet, in my notebook I write: ‘My mother loves me very much.’

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