“On my third day in East Africa, I found my mantra: Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.”
I discovered these words graffitied on the wall at PAWA254, an art collaborative in Nairobi that empowers local artists to use their work and creativity as vehicles for social activism. For PAWA254, activism through art, or “artivism” as they call it, is a daily struggle.
Sometimes they win, and their work fosters tangible improvements. And sometimes their art is wiped off the walls by the Kenyan authorities – both literally and figuratively.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.
Although it needs no context, this phrase rings particularly true when it comes to traveling.
During our week-long stay in Kenya, we collected a number of “wins”: meeting wonderful people, eating delicious food, planting trees at a school in Kimende, and so on. But intertwined amongst these wins were a number of challenges. Not losses, but lessons.
After visiting PAWA254 that day, the other program participants and I got pulled into a local crafts shop. Surrounded by wooden giraffes and handmade sarongs, it was time to put our bargaining abilities to the test. The shopkeepers overwhelmed us with their insistence. I left the shop with $60 USD less than when I entered, with souvenirs far too small to justify my payment. I learned that bargaining is an acquired skill and one that I was far from mastering.
“The secret to learning while traveling, in my opinion, is to explore the boundaries of your comfort zone, be honest to yourself about what they are, and then take one small step outside.”
That step, regardless of how small it seems, tends to go a long way.
Whether we were navigating our way through the bustling streets of Nairobi or devouring a plate of warm, homemade chapatti, we were learning.
During our short stay in Kimende, we had the opportunity to live with local families while volunteering for KENVO, an environmental conservation organization. The cultural barriers between our hosts and us were striking. Yet, ironically, this was also when many of us felt most connected to Kenya. Despite our obvious differences in lifestyles and customs, we were in many ways the same as our hosts. Preoccupied with laundry, cooking, friends and family. Taking care of children in the best way we know how. Sleeping in on weekends.
Our next stop was Kampala, Uganda. We packed our bags and piled into a coach bus, excited to begin the next leg of our journey. Getting there turned out to be more arduous than we had expected: fourteen hours on a stiff seat, too narrow even for my small frame, bouncing along a bumpy, twisty road with no hope of sleeping. At the first bathroom stop, the bus driver warned us, “five minutes only,” and sure enough, began to pull out of the driveway with a few of us still using the toilet. Lesson of the day: family road trips are nothing to complain about.
Once in Kampala, we partnered with the hard-working men and women at RWEYOWA (Rescue Widows, Elderly, Youth, and Orphans with AIDS) to open two free HIV-testing clinics in the city. During this time, we stayed in the RWEYOWA guesthouse, where we were fed lavishly with fresh avocados, mangoes, rice, chapatti, beans, cabbage, potatoes, and peas. Our stomachs had definitely hit the jackpot.
On the second day, we took to the streets with flyers to spread the word about the free clinics. I was nervous, expecting cautious looks and distrustful whispers – “Who are these people and what are they doing here?” But I could not have been more wrong. Sure, there were a few skeptics, but the vast majority came running to talk to us, to ask us our names, to take a flyer.
Later that day at RWEYOWA headquarters, I voiced my surprise to the organization’s coordinator Tony, a tall, energetic man with a contagious smile. “Our people do not take HIV/AIDS very seriously,” he told me. “But when a white person opens his mouth to speak, people listen.”
Our journey in East Africa was in fact filled with eye-opening moments. Another one was our visits to the slums of Kibera and Mathare in Kenya. We roamed streets filled with burning trash, passed wooden houses that seemed to be minutes away from collapsing, and shook hands with children showing signs of malnourishment. None of this surprised us. On the other hand, we did not expect the happiness that emanated from those same streets. In their laughs and in their voices, we heard serenity which I didn’t think was possible for people struggling to survive through each day.
We also spoke to the staff at Carolina for Kibera, an organization that works to improve the living conditions in three villages of Kibera. We learned that, among other things, they organize various sports tournaments to present local youth with positive ways to pass their free time. I was immediately reminded of my childhood, when I too played organized sports in my community. Again, the kilometers between us suddenly seemed less significant.
“None of these experiences would have been possible had we chosen to spend our summers within the safe boundaries of our comfort zones.”
Because sometimes you win, sometimes you learn, and sometimes you do both.