Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Lessons of a long-termer


So I’m coming up on eight months of being here, which is a pretty substantial amount of time, and it’s causing me to reflect on what I’ve learned and how my relationships with people have changed since my coming here. Especially the children – I think my relationships with them have been the most simple yet the most complicated, considering there are 90 of them, they’re each so unique, I want to get to know all of them, and I’ve truly developed a love for each child as though they were one of my siblings.
At first the kids were all fun and adorable and they loved me and I loved them… and then after the honeymoon wore off and I wasn’t just a visitor anymore, they started pushing my buttons to see what my limits were, and to see if I would push back. The Kuria people (the local tribe that most of the children come from) are many things, but most people agree that a stubborn nature is their overwhelming congruous attribute, therefore making them very hard to work with at times. It can sometimes be very good, causing them not to give up on something until they see it through, to be exceptionally hard workers, to be fiercely protective of their families, and to be able to hold up their end of an argument. (Well, that last ability can really go either way.)
Buuuut it can also be very not good, as I’m sure you can imagine. I realized very quickly that when asked to do something they didn’t feel like doing at that particular moment, the children would flat out refuse, go along but then make life miserable for me the entire time, pretend they were working but then get into trouble with their buddies as soon as I turned my back, or straight up run away and hide! That’s gotta be the worst – you know you’re unpopular when you ask a kid to do something as simple as draw a picture, and then they’re impossible to find for the next three hours. Certain kids, when I would confront them on something they knew they weren’t supposed to be doing, would get angry at me and then refuse to speak to me for almost a month! Before coming here, I’d never known the memory of a 13-year old boy to be so powerful. It often upset me, because I was in the grown-up position of looking out for the kid’s best interest, which in the end was actually helping them, but I only got the silent treatment or sullen mutterings in Kikuria in return.
Nevertheless, I was determined to get through to those kids who were pretending to hate me (I knew they weren’t really as indifferent as they put on), so I just kept attempting to greet them every time I saw them, and I would even do things like slip them a piece of fruit or invite them to go on a walk with me and some other kids. Like I said, for a couple of them it took weeks before they would speak to me again, let alone be my friend, but I think I can safely say that I’m on good terms with all the kids in the children’s home now. Who knows, something could happen tomorrow to put one of the kids off and I’ll be back to getting the cold shoulder and the obnoxious mutterings, but I know I just have to thicken my skin a little, keep loving them, and they’ll eventually snap out of it.
 I think I have now reached somewhat of a happy medium; the children respect me and look up to me as their big sister and also as a teacher, they know that I’m not going anywhere for a while, and they know that the father of the children’s home, Baba Christopher, is going to back me up in whatever I do. I think this also has to do with the fact that slowly but surely, I’m understanding and speaking more Swahili, which gets their attention a whole lot faster than English, even though most of the children have been learning English for a couple years now. I can also pick up some Kikuria (their mother tongue), which is what they switch to when they don’t want me to hear what they’re saying, but many times I’m still lost until they throw some Swahili in there too.
Tonight I went down to the children’s rooms to give medicine to a couple boys, and even though it was technically “bed time”, no one was even considering going to sleep. I went into the first boy’s room, and I think chaos was a good term for the atmosphere in there. I told them to settle down, then moved on to the next room to find Joshua so I could give him his medication, and found that his room was also in an upheaval. After finally getting them to be quiet, I gave Joshua his meds, and then spoke to Leonard, the leader for that room, who told me he was trying to get the boys but they wouldn’t listen to him. I announced that all the boys needed to listen to Leonard and respect him, and then kicked out the boys who were coming in from other rooms and causing trouble. I made it to the last room which was also very far from quiet, found Emanuel John and gave him the medicine, explained to the other boys that they needed to go to sleep, and then went out again. On my way out, I noticed that the door to the middle room (Leonard’s room) was shut and its inhabitants were quiet – which means they listened to me and to Leonard! Woohoo for small victories!! However, the first room wasn’t any more calm then when I had left it, so I went in and told them all very sternly that they had to go to bed right now (in Swahili) and gave one of the boys who was running around “the look”, and to my surprise, they listened! Victory number 2! Who knows what they did after I left, but at that moment they were all shushed and tucking into bed.
I was pondering this as I headed back to the guesthouse, and I felt a surge of accomplishment after realizing that a few months ago, the children’s reaction to me probably would not have been the same. It’s not that I’ve figured everything out, I still have so much more to learn about the children’s stories, the culture, and the language, but right now I feel as though I have reached a good place with the children, and they know that I truly care for them.