Kenya taught us both more than we ever could have imagined it would when we applied for the trip. Not only did we learn some of a new language, a new culture and the technical skills we required for our research and presentations, but we also learned life skills that we’ll be able to carry with us indefinitely.
Lesson 1: Embrace the Awkwardness
Almost everywhere we went, we were meeting new people, we were being put into situations that we had never experienced before and we were doing things we had never done. A lot of these situations were really awkward. I can’t even count the number of times we were asked to speak in front of large groups of random people when we had nothing to say. We spoke to several churches, at a prize giving ceremony for the primary schools in the area, and in front of students at schools. We didn’t expect to speak at any of these events and really had nothing to say except thank you to these people. It was always incredibly awkward to be thrust in front of a group of more than a hundred people who are all staring at you expecting you to say something epic while your mind is blank and all you can hear are the crickets chirping between your ears. But if we had gotten worked up over every single awkward situation, we would have hated our lives the entire trip. Embracing the awkwardness allowed us to laugh about the absurdity of each situation.
Lesson 2: Don’t Underestimate Anything
It’s easy to get caught up in the fact that Kenya is so different from home. The standards of living are a dramatic contrast to the conditions we accept as livable and everywhere you go there is something shocking to see. The women we worked with seemingly had nothing compared to what we are used to. You can’t help but wonder how they manage to keep on keeping on day after day. It’s easy to underestimate these women, but they are the strongest, smartest, most generous women I have ever met. They are so incredibly proud of absolutely everything they have, and are so appreciative of anything you can contribute. We made the mistake of underestimating the impact we were going to have on these women. We thought we would go, teach them a few things about nutrition, and were hoping that maybe they would take one message home with them. Instead, at the end of the session, we had women standing up and telling us that we had changed their lives. We were happy that we had had such a great impact on the women we spoke to, but apparently word travels fast in Kenya. Before we had left the country, the tips we had given the women about nutrition had spread by word of mouth to villages over an hour away. We learned to never underestimate ourselves, the women, and the impact small acts can have on individuals, families and entire communities.
Lesson 3: Expect Nothing
I don’t think there was a single thing that we did in the entire 90 days that went like we expected it to. Eventually, we learned to expect nothing. Things never quite go as planned and as soon as you think you’ve got something or someone figured out, they find a way to surprise you. Expectations are tricky; they can make or break the experience. Expect too much and you risk being disappointed by your own unrealistic ideals, and expect to little and you’ve already mentally decided that the outcome will be negative. Instead of over thinking everything and getting all worked up, just go with the flow and let things happen.
Lesson 4: Take Advantage of Every Opportunity
We met the most amazing people in Kenya. These people are so proud of what they have and where they live that they were constantly asking us to go places with them. After a really long week of presentations, data collection and analysis and report writing, sometimes the last thing we wanted to do was climb mountains all day, go to a church fundraiser or sit through a very large, very starchy Kenyan meal at someone’s house. No matter how much we woke up dreading having to do anything but nap all day and relax, we were always so glad we dragged our butts out of bed. We wouldn’t have seen nearly as much, formed such close friendships or enjoyed the trip nearly as much if we hadn’t taken advantage of these opportunities. We probably would have gone a little stir crazy in the compound if we hadn’t gone on weekend adventures with our local friends. By taking advantage of every single opportunity we were presented with to try new things and meet new people, we gained respect from members of the community. They began to see how passionate we were about what we were doing and learned that we weren’t simply rich white people. The community members respected that we were so willing to get our hands dirty and try new things.
Lesson 5: SAWA SAWA
Sawa sawa doesn’t have an exact English translation, but it is a phrase that is very commonly used in Kenya. Sawa means ‘ok’, and sawa sawa basically means ‘take a deep breath, relax, it will all work out’. Kenyans are incredibly relaxed about everything. There is no such thing as on time, there is no such thing as ‘in a rush’ and there seems to be very little stress. Sawa sawa is not just a saying, it’s a way of life. It took us the entire trip to learn how to live sawa sawa, and now that we are back in Canada, we have to constantly remind ourselves to sawa sawa. We took taxi’s to all of our presentations. We felt that we should be at our sessions early so that we could arrive before the women, so that we had time to set everything up and get ourselves ready so that we could start promptly at the scheduled time. We often found ourselves sitting on the side of the road waiting for the taxi to arrive, checking our watches every 15 seconds, hard core stressing out because our session was supposed to start 15 minutes ago and we haven’t even left the hospital to drive to the session which is an hour away. This is where you have to give up. You have to tell yourself ‘sawa sawa’ – it will all work out, we’ll get to the session eventually, there will be women there who will learn a lot and it will all work out perfectly fine. Easier said than done! Eventually we learned that no on is ever on time, and that it worked best if we were over an hour late for our own sessions because then we weren’t waiting for 2 hours before any women showed up. Sawa sawa might be the most important lesson we learned in Kenya, and it’s a lesson we are still trying to master. It takes a lot of practice to let go and trust that everything will work out in the end.
We could all use a little more sawa sawa in our lives.