Walking through Kibera for the first time, I felt giddy. I knew the names and faces of countless students, had seen photos of the Kibera School for Girls building from all angles, marveled at our expansion to Mathare, and heard personal stories from the ground, but my conception of Kibera, nonetheless, remained a fairly simple picture. I imagined pretty tin roofs and smiling, smart girls, but I knew in my heart there was so much more. When at last I arrived, my picture blossomed into something far more vibrant and dynamic than I had envisioned.
I walked down one of the streets through Kibera, witnessing commerce, rowdy chats, and a whole lot of cute baby humans and sweet little animals. We were days away from the start of rainy season, so the ground was packed hard with dry, reddish dust. I turned off the road and to my right I passed the open windows of the SHOFCO pre-k, with delighted screams and songs wafting through the air. It became my early morning joy to walk by those windows each day.
I kept walking and witnessed our big, blue building for the first time with my own eyes. KSG did not disappoint; it was as beautiful, bright, and welcoming as I had imagined. Being in Kibera felt as if things had finally been put into place.
As my time in Kenya progressed, I met so many fabulous people. There was Beverline from the pre-k, who was constantly trying to stifle her beaming smile and infectious laughter in class. I met the baby with the beautiful cheeks who would not take a nap with his tiny classmates. There was Vivian in kindergarten, her uniform a little long for her tiny frame, who insisted on introducing me to all of her friends one by one. I met Eva and Debborah who lead the Mathare and Kibera Schools for Girls with grace, vision, and deep purpose, and Lily and Amy who seamlessly fit into the Kenyan environment and put their big hearts into their work. I met countless moms who lovingly cooked for the whole school and the Mathare librarian who said her dream was to inspire a love of reading in Mathare. There were strict, tender teachers with high standards and boundless love for each student, and Billiah, the MSG social worker, who knew each girl’s story and needs intimately. I met Melissa’s daddy, who despite feeling unwell, came all the way to school to tell me how much he adores his daughter and how proud he is of her. I tickled tiny puppies and played with toddlers who just wanted to hang all over me. I loved Rose, the proud mama of the safe house, and Evelyn, the entrepreneur and creator of the best peanut butter I have ever had. Oh, and those Safe Place girls. They are perfect.
SHOFCO’s community is full of people who are warm, hilarious, and inspiring, full of grit and grace.
I can only describe my experience in Kenya as a joy. It’s not just a line that there is so much hope in Kibera and Mathare. It’s a palpable truth. The more I travel and the longer I get to stay in cultures not my own, the more I am reminded of our shared humanity, humor, and tenderness as people. Children’s energy and enthusiasm feel particularly universal, with the din at KSG sounding like that of a school anywhere, full of laughter, little feet pattering in the hallway, and the sounds of children questioning, learning, and growing.
As an avid international traveler and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I have become accustomed to the big-hearted sadness that comes from leaving a place that you have connected to so deeply. To not knowing when you will see someone again, or simply the ache of knowing that you will miss the sounds, smells, and quirks of a place. Knowing all of this, I told myself I wouldn’t indulge in those feelings when I left, that I would be back soon and see everyone again. But when I turned the corner, KSG gone from view and the tiny screams of laughter of the SHOFCO pre-k fading, I felt the familiar lip quiver and misty eyes.
What SHOFCO is doing is really special, and I say that personally rather than professionally. I feel it in my heart. There is such light in Kibera and Mathare, and SHOFCO’s buildings concentrate and accentuate it by facilitating avenues of hope that already exist in these settlements. It is an honor to work towards our shared vision for a hopeful future each day. And, most importantly, I need to return to Kenya soon to buy more of Evelyn’s peanut butter.
About the Author: Kaylie Cordingley is the Community Officer at SHOFCO's New York City office. She manages SHOFCO's student sponsorship program as well as communications and social media.