我生长在一个安定，有保障的，在家庭氛围庇护下的环境里。周围是富裕舒适的近郊社区和那享有着一流的公共教育的特权。然而 我在意的主要是以个人的发展为中心:我的学习分数, 我的暑期实习,我的形象。拥有了一切所需的，都足以影响他人生活的资源之后，我选择的却是注重个人的强化。
例如：怎样全心全意地爱他人? 我怎么会对那些开车太慢或吃起东西来嚼声振天的人感到沮丧呢, 而同时在肯尼亚，有些人没有车，常常有一餐没一餐的，却还能把自己的生命奉献给他人？
那约翰呢? 在他的一个女儿瘫痪的时候，他妻子带着另一个女儿走了, 但他仍然想方设法扩大他的牧道场所来帮助孤儿，扶助寡妇。当数以百万计的人经受着那极端的困苦却仍然充满希望、富有成效、甚至是快乐的时候，我的消极情绪(以及面对这些情绪时的不折不挠)合理吗?
快乐，幸福和喜悦之间的区别倒底是什么? 当我看热闹搞笑的电视节目时，我感觉“好”；我花了数百个小时实现了我的一个个人目标时，我感觉“好”；当我有机会和肯尼亚的孤儿呆在一起并成为他们的朋友时，我感觉“好“。但是，“好”是一个含糊不清、不精确的词; 在很多方面，我开始细分昙花一现的快乐，为自己取得成就的令人满意的喜悦，以及为他人服务而忘掉自我那腾腾向上的幸福。
进一步讲，我是否应该放弃自我成就的意愿? 为什么要予我以拥有时间的权力去批判性地思考”我要什么样的生活”？或,“我到底是谁”呢? 对这类在哲学上的探索来说，那怕是最令人满意的答案也无法糊住一张嗷嗷待哺的嘴。
Hope Begins: What I Learned from Children in Kenya
Discovering incommensurate beauty in the midst of seemingly insurmountable challenges
I. THE CHILDREN OF NAOMI’S VILLAGE
It has been over 24 hours of travel from my hometown of Austin to Naomi’s Village, a children’s home nestled in a rural truckstop about an hour away from Nairobi.The adorable cacophony of curious babies washes the weariness from my limbs, high pitched giggles filling the nursery room with the rhythm of joy and innocence. Baby Sammy calmly lifts his delicate knuckles against mine; it is perhaps the most tender fist bump I’ve ever received. Meanwhile, Baby David waddles along the circumference of the room, a ball of mischief wielding his trophy: a stolen hat that swallows his forehead, leaving only a triumphant smirk. Faint yet unmistakable tendrils of sound make their way into the “baby room” from the grassy courtyard outside — the cheers and jeers of young boys clamoring for the soccer ball. I smile. It feels familiar, like an elementary school recess.
Yet many of the same boys who will rattle off the names of their “top 5” soccer players without hesitation (the consensus, in order: Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, Salah, and Kane) cannot recall the faces of the parents that abandoned them. The name David, given to the playful baby of hat-stealing notoriety, means “Beloved.” Yet just a couple of years earlier, the first name given to David at Narok hospital had been Abandoned. Abandoned was a euphemism: David had been rescued from a 12 foot pit latrine, saved only by the buoyancy of the plastic bag his mother had wrapped around her child before tossing him in. Jarring contradictions between the present and the past are the norm for kids at Naomi’s Village. The familiarity, I quickly discovered, terminates bluntly beyond the surface.
Familiar or not, these children do not need your pity.
Quite the opposite, they deserve your admiration. They are happy, smart, and healthy. The older ones are frighteningly ambitious. Evalyne wants to be a neurosurgeon in New York City. Paul wants to travel around the United States, sharing his story and experiences to fundraise for Naomi’s Village. Millicent wants to practice medicine so that children in the future might not endure the loss of their parents to disease in the way that she did. An ardent love drives their purpose and a confident determination accompanies them along the way.Unlike their older counterparts, the younger children often do not yet know what they want to accomplish later in life. However, they have already achieved much as charming and sometimes pudgy bastions of compassion and joy. Essie and Elizabeth stalk the sidelines of pickup soccer matches, meekly offering candy from a box of Jolly Ranchers and squealing with delight as surprised children (myself included) instead receive a handful of gravel. Nyongesa and Kevin worship the two inch dip in elevation between the sidewalk and the grass; without it, they would have no ramp to score airtime (however slight) for their afternoon wheelbarrow rides. Optimism is canvassed so thickly over these childrens’ grim pasts as to smother any trace of melancholy.
Regardless of age, many of these children grew up experiencing nothing but neglect, abuse, and tragedy. Now, at Naomi’s Village, they are brimming with eagerness, selflessness, and love. Despite my mzungu status (Swahili for foreigner), the Naomi’s Village children would ask me questions about my hometown (their second option after disappointedly realizing that I could not teach them to fight like Jackie Chan), give me Swahili nicknames, and even offer up their (usually unsolicited) love and marriage advice. Some even made me bracelets, offered to teach me Swahili, or wrote me letters. All of them knew that in less than 2 weeks I would be almost ten thousand miles away. It did not stop them from treating me as one of their own.Experiencing the selfless compassion of the children at Naomi’s Village exaggerated an already uncomfortable dissonance between their lives and mine: Despite being raised in a safe, sheltered family environment, surrounded by the comfort of a well-off suburban community and the privilege of a stellar public education, my concerns largely revolved around personal advancement: my GPA, my summer internships, my image. Given all the resources I needed (and then some) to impact the lives of others, I choose instead to focus on individual aggrandization. In contrast, despite an abundance of challenges, these children devote every day to the people around them and to their faith in God, tenaciously holding onto their dream to one day revolutionize the system that so miserably failed them. What gives?
II. THE PEOPLE OF KENYA
The discrepancy between my mindset and that of the children at Naomi’s Village ultimately boils down to the starkly contrasting environments in which we were raised. Rescued from dire circumstances, these children were exposed to unconditional, selfless, and all-encompassing love; love that comes without expectation. Bob and Julie, the founders of Naomi’s Village, relinquished their comfortable suburban lifestyle and lucrative careers in the United States to devote themselves to missionary service in a developing country. Because of their sacrifice, the children at Naomi’s Village are made to understand that they are each uniquely and passionately loved, that they are desired, and that they are more than enough for themselves and for those around them. Without Bob and Julie’s intervention, these same children would be attending the local primary school instead of reveling in compassion— a primary school which constitutes a third of the prostitute population in town. The dichotomy between desperation and hope is obliterating, yet without Bob and Julie’s efforts, even hope would not exist.
The remarkable self sacrifice evident in Bob, Julie, and the rest of the Naomi’s Village team is not uncommon in Kenya. The same willing self-effacement can be found in John, who founded a school for disabled children when he discovered that his paralyzed daughter was not being treated with respect in public schools. In addition to supporting his classrooms, John also organizes food programs for the impoverished, manages a project which teaches widows to sew for income, and works as a car mechanic to provide for his daughter and fund a plethora of charitable projects. Or take Eunice, a mother of six children who makes less than $2 a day. When asked what she looks forward to most each week, she replies immediately: She is most ecstatic when she is able to pull some extra money together and surprise her kids with porridge when they return home from school.Under conditions of brutal poverty, these individuals preach a gospel of hope and of love. They recognize that one’s concept of “self” — the domain over which one holds responsibility and agency — has to expand to fit the entire family, the entire community, perhaps even the entire population. Instead of utilizing other people as means to an end, Bob, Julie, John, and Eunice made people themselves the end-all, be-all of their actions. The children who experience this generosity naturally learn to pay it forward: at Naomi’s Village, children volunteer at other orphanages starting from a young age. In serving others, they discover their own sense of dignity, learning to become the leaders of a new culture, a new government, and a new Kenya.
In contrast to the pervasive selflessness I became acquainted with in Kenya, I feel that many of the incentives in my life (and the lives of my peers) are aligned around individual exceptionalism. With competitive class rankings, intense exam cutoffs, and the obsession with individual excellence that is so prevalent in American culture, an artificial inequality is enforced from a young age in which everyone is measured by those around them. Unlike the real and crushing inequality one can witness in Kenya, which breeds heroes like John and Eunice, this artificial competition can encourage a worldview in which others are treated at best as means to one’s ends, and at worst, as obstacles in the way of those ends. The abundance of material wealth in the United States contrasts starkly with its dearth of social compassion, a distinction that exists in reverse in Kenya. Through witnessing and experiencing this juxtaposition, I learned a lot about the simple mechanism that can either cement a cycle of poverty or fuel a cycle of prosperity: Love perpetuates love. Selfishness perpetuates selfishness. Like begets like; such is the inertial nature of cultural education.
III. THE PERSON I WANT TO BECOME
I want to incorporate the compassion and empathy that is so present in Kenyan culture into my own life. I want to welcome others with the heart, the joy, and the love that I was greeted with by all those I met on my trip, and in particular the children at Naomi’s Village. I want, in some sense, to live with a higher, more inclusive sense of purpose and direction: to live not solely for myself, but rather for the benefit of a global human community.In order to satisfy these desires, I am beginning to realize that I need to learn things that I never thought that I would have to learn. Things that weren’t (and still aren’t) taught in school. Things that I thought I had already mastered by being “a good person.” Things like:
How to love people wholeheartedly? How is it that I can so readily experience frustration at people who are driving too slowly or chewing too loudly when there are individuals in Kenya who don’t own cars and often have to skip meals, yet still manage to devote their lives to the service of others?
What constitutes resilience? Is resilience forcing myself to stay up into the early AM in order to finish a problem set? If so, what would one consider Eunice, toiling seven days a week in others’ farms for less than $20 with no running water and no electricity in order to allow her six children to attend school? What about John, whose wife left him, taking one of his daughters with her just as his other daughter became paralyzed, yet who still managed to simultaneously grow his ministries to the orphaned and widowed? Are my negative emotions (and my supposed resilience in the face of these emotions) justified, when there are millions of people experiencing far more extreme conditions and still remaining hopeful, productive, and even happy?
What are the differences amongst pleasure and happiness and joy? When I watch a hilarious television show, I feel good. When I achieve a personal goal that I have spent hundreds of hours working towards, I feel good. When I have the opportunity to spend time with and befriend orphaned children in Kenya, I feel good. Yet good is a vague and imprecise term; in many ways, I’m beginning to draw distinctions between the ephemeral goodness of pleasure, the satisfying goodness of achieving something for oneself, and the exuberant goodness that is losing oneself in the service of others. Upon the arrival of a new baby named Sam at Naomi’s Village, I watched as Mary, a 7th grader, sobbed in the joyful appreciation of how drastically Sam’s life had changed for the better. Though Mary is only 12, I reckon that she experienced a deeper, more meaningful sense of joy in that moment than I have experienced in all my years of material abundance.
Under what criteria should I make decisions? Who am I working for, and what really matters? When I am awash with anxiety and self-doubt as I prepare for internship interviews, it is the burden of my own self-worth that is bearing down upon me and driving my emotions and actions. What are the burdens that I carry, and am I willing or capable of exchanging my own burdens for the innumerable burdens of those in need? Moreover, should I abandon my will for self-actualization? Why privilege myself with the time to ponder critically about “what I want in life” or “who I really am” when not even the most satisfying conclusion to these philosophical inquiries can feed one mouth in need? Indeed, all the reflections in this piece will be consumed by those with the incredible entitlement of pondering their lives on a level immaterial.
IV. THE CALL TO ACTION
I hope that after hearing about my experiences, you’ll want to meet these beautiful people face-to-face, surrounded by the gorgeous rolling hills of the Kenyan Rift Valley. I hope that you’ll visit Naomi’s Village to see 85 living, breathing, screeching miracles playing soccer and pushing each other around on wheelbarrows, squealing with delight. If nothing else, I hope that you’ll take a moment to make a personal sacrifice wherever you may be right now: skip out on the money you would have spent on a couple cups of coffee and set aside the time you would have spent scrolling on social media in order to help people who you’ve never met or seen or even really heard of, people who won’t be able to say thank you in person, people who will probably never shake your hand. To do something even though it doesn’t directly benefit you in any way — the same way the kids at Naomi’s Village offered me their peanut butter sandwiches, or tried to teach me martial arts, or insisted that I take turns playing with their favorite toys.
It bears repeating: Love perpetuates love. Selfishness perpetuates selfishness. We can only see from our own eyes, only hear from our own ears, and only think from our own mind. Let us not take for granted what a miracle it is that we can feel what others feel from our own heart.
V. THE MOST IMPORTANT SECTION
Donate to Naomi’s Village here.
Donate to John’s projects here.
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