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By Casey Crow
Special to The SUN
At the start of summer, as many of my friends jetted off to taste Italian cuisine, sit beneath the Eiffel Tower or ride a red double-decker bus through London, I packed a backpack full of long skirts and malaria medication and boarded a plane for Kisumu, Kenya. The dusty city on the shores of Lake Victoria is one that embodies my personal journey towards finding purpose and learning to love.
I remember the first time I set foot in Kisumu the previous summer; it was utterly overwhelming. The chaotic clamor of honking tuk tuks and rattling matatus. The smell of smoke, raw fish and sometimes sewage. Blaring African pop music drifting from behind metal-paneled shacks, and the foreign rattle of Swahili and Luo composing a rhythmic background to the infinite commotion.
I remember the first time I walked through the large open market with a Kenyan. I unintentionally held my breath as I worked to avoid two-wheeled carts piled high with goods, little children weaving in and out and an occasional goat or cow running loose. I skipped over trash and puddles of water in my navy blue TOMS to the sound of, “Aye, mzungu! How ah you? Seesta, what can I geeve you?”
It is quite funny looking back on how flustered I was being dropped inside this world that was completely unfamiliar and overly stimulating.
This time, however, it was a welcomed sensation as I dove into the sounds and smells of a place that has overtaken my heart. While the thrilling feeling of novelty was gone, and is in some ways missed, it was replaced with a calmer and more consistent feeling, a sturdy, reliable sense of belonging and familiarity. I felt at home.
On the outskirts of the city is a forlorn campus for 700 primary and secondary students. I walk along the rugged cement pathway, noticing the melancholic grey walls, broken windows and chipped blue paint. Women toil with bent backs, washing clothes in a small drainage ditch filled with cloudy water. As I round the corner I know exactly what to expect: A group of young students sitting outside one of the dorms. Heads turn, smiles emerge, and thus begins my welcome to Joyland School for the Physically Disabled.
Before I’ve even reached the building, I am ambushed by children. A little boy with no arms greets me confidently with a foot, an 8-year-old girl waves and begins taking laborious and painful steps towards me in heavy leg braces that go clear to her hips, others come pushing chairs or leaning on a crutch, and although some cannot speak they still welcome me with beautiful smiles and tugs on the edge of my shirt. Young refugees from Somalia peek out hesitantly from their colorful head coverings, pretending to be shy as they usually do, but their eyes are bright and it won’t be long until they join the gathering crowd.
Each child has a story, from the third grader with a bone disorder who was nearly murdered by her father, to the gentle young woman with one arm who was raped at age 13, to the young man who fled Somalia and spent ten years of his childhood in a refugee camp.
There are stories of heartbreak and oppression, but also portraits of unwavering love like the one painted by a mother who carries her teenage son on her back to and from school each day because he can’t afford a wheelchair. I think back to days of pure joy as I sat with little girls on the grass, listening to them chatter and bend over in laughter at my poor Swahili skills.
I remember the day I brought a lending library to campus, and the children caressed colorful story books as if they were made of gold and might crumble at the touch of a hand. The things I remember most though are just moments. Snapshots in my mind of my little friend Sally running up to me excitedly — her TOMS match mine, but are pulled on backwards over her lower leg and knees because she has no feet.
An image of 30 children hovering around my laptop screen, watching a movie for the first time as rain gently tickled the ground outside. A brief moment of awe each time I caught a child laughing, opening up or carrying themselves with incredible dignity despite the intense adversity and stigmatization they had endured. In a tiny forgotten corner of the world, I discovered a love that can’t be spoken — a love, not for a “cause,” but for individual people. Love that took a 21-year-old from rural Colorado and a group of students with completely different life experiences and allowed us to reach across lines and barriers to connect in our common humanity. A love that gave me new eyes to see the world, eyes that empowered me to look past my Western paradigm composed of Save the Children ads and “Hotel Rwanda,” to see the immense beauty, potential, and unmistakable ability of a people and a place so long defined as “disabled.”
I walked across the vast campus one afternoon, the sun warm on my cheeks, and a soft, smoky breeze drifting through the dilapidated buildings. A bubbly teenage girl ran up beside me, sliding her hand into mine. Swinging our arms back and forth, she began to study our contrasting skin and exclaimed, “You are WHITE!” I laugh at her surprised tone. “I am black,” she says. “But we are both beautiful.” I respond, glancing at our hands intertwined. “Yes,” she nods gently, “Because we are human beings.”
Casey Crow, a former valedictorian at Pagosa Springs High School, is currently a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying for a double major in political science and global studies with a minor in social and economic justice.
Crow was one of six students awarded the Class of 1938 Study Abroad Scholarship to study in Kisuma, Kenya.
Crow is currently working with The Uhambo Foundation, based out of South Africa, to set up a wheelchair distribution center in Nairobi, Kenya, that will provide employment for the disabled and supply the East African region with wheelchairs adapted to the terrain.
In addition to being named a scholar by several organizations and receiving several scholarships, Crow has also been selected to study with the School of International Training’s Honors Program and will study in several locations around the world.
Anyone interested can follow Crow’s blog at adventureswithcasey.wordpress.com.