How Far I Am: One Venti Starbucks and Killer Swahili Skills

I’ve witnessed a lot of goodbyes these past few weeks, more than usual I would say. And they weren’t just my goodbyes, there were other people too, waving their hands at people they loved and trying to keep their tears in the rim of their eyes. It’s strange that as humans we can so directly relate not only physical sensations but those emotional ones, too. Seeing someone get a paper cut makes me wince. And watching someone trying to say farewell to a friend with no determined reunion date makes my stomach sink and my jaw feel tight, because I’ve been there so recently myself.

My family hosted a beautiful early Thanksgiving feast before I left the country. I sat with the people who helped me prepare this safari (every journey in Swahili is considered a safari, even a simple trip to the store.) These were the people who helped talk me down from job that didn’t fit me quite right, and talked me into the idea that I was doing the right thing as I pursued a strange calling to move so far from home.   They were the people who liked me enough to say, “I don’t want you to go,” and loved me enough to say, “But I know this is right for you.”

I spent my last day in Colorado with snow on the ground, but I never made it up to the ski slopes (this will be my first year not skiing since I was three years old!) The whole family drove me to the airport, my stomach dropped, and I said goodbye and I love you, with no reunion date set in place. “This is good!” everyone kept saying, “Think of how much you will learn and grow! Think of all the people you will meet. What a wonderful thing to come into your life!” And all of this was so good and so true. But it didn’t make my stomach less tight or my heart feel less heavy. Leaving is still hard. The change still hurt even if I did know it was good for me.

I arrived at the O’Brien School for the Maasai one week after the seventh grade graduation. The school educates preschool through seventh grade and is considered a primary school. After seventh grade, the kids ideally would head on to secondary school (or high school) although that’s not always the case. There are a lot of factors out there keeping those kids from transitioning, at age 13, 14 or 15 to a typical American teenage experience. The percentage of kids going on to secondary education, along with the application process to get into the secondary school and the school fees make secondary education in Tanzania feel something more like college education in the United States.

There is, of course, the fact that many parents want their children to work and help out the family right after primary school. A seventh grad graduate from O’Brien School was taken into the fields to herd goats and cattle instead of pursuing studies further, and potentially a life less dependent on the rain in the village. The risk of not attending high school is even higher for girls, but the consequences seem to be a little more permanent than the boys who tend to fields after seventh grade. These girls are at risk of getting married (often to a man who already has 2 or 3 wives.) The father receives a dowry for each daughter he marries off, so deciding to find a husband for his thirteen year old is more of a financial decision than a consideration of her future or wellbeing. The threat of these marriages is so real that often when these girls get out of the village and into secondary school, they are at too great of risk to come home again: even for vacations and holidays.

A few grade seven girls and recent graduates!
A few grade seven girls and recent graduates!

With this in mind, having three girls successfully placed into a secondary school hours away from their village is a really big deal. These girls are safely ready to begin a path to a life where the choices they make are their own, and that is powerful. I think that’s a big part of this education thing: having options and decisions to decide where one’s life will go. After school one day, the wonderful three women who ran this school last year and myself visited these three young graduates at their new secondary school. We wanted to let them know how proud we were of them for studying so hard and being admitted into high school. We also wanted to take a few photos of them in their graduation gowns. (They were unable to attend the graduation at the O’Brien School as they were still at risk from getting married off if they had stayed around the village.)

We sat outside in the dark at their new home and high school (the power had gone out again) and ate chicken and talked about what their life would look like these next four years. There was laughter and excitement but you could also sense a little nervousness. They were in a new place, with new surroundings, new people, new places to sleep and different food to eat, and not the familiar voices whispering good night when they closed their eyes. The girls took a look at the women who had encouraged them to attend secondary school while they still studied at O’Brien, who liked them enough to say, “I don’t want you to go,” but loved them enough to say, “But I know this is right for you.”

“This is good!” everyone kept saying, “Think of how much you will learn and grow! Think of all the people you will meet. What a wonderful thing to come into your life!” And all of this was so good and so true. But I knew from personal experience, that these words didn’t necessarily calming an anxious stomach or soothe a worried heart. Leaving is still hard. The change still hurts even if it was a good thing.

How strange it felt for me to realize that the people who understood me at that moment, perhaps the best, were raised and molded in an environment so different than my own. And while I cannot come close to fathoming the experiences that led them to that place and that time, I could understand that while your head often welcomes the newness, the heart remembers the sweetness of the old. I get that. And I respect these girls for moving forward in spite of it.

So perhaps I am a long way from where I want to be: from air conditioning, decent coffee, killer Swahili skills and comfort in the midst of a new, strange place. But maybe I am exactly where I need to be. And maybe, just maybe, these girls showed me that a brave face is all that really matters right now.




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