Though I've been through many exciting and scary events in my lifetime, nothing changed me as much as my first trip to Africa in 2006 did. After years of begging my parents to take me, my dad finally presented me with the opportunity to go with him and a group from my church. I was so excited about the adventure that lay ahead of me and, being an animal lover, I couldn't wait to see the lions and giraffes I assumed would be wandering around everywhere. After a long flight and a layover in Amsterdam, we finally touched down in Nairobi, Kenya and got off the plane. Driving to the hotel, I was surprised to see that we were surrounded by buildings. It was late at night and I was exhausted, so I assumed I'd get to see all the animals in the daylight. We left early the next morning to go visit a Masai tribe and I couldn't wait to head out. To my surprise, around the buildings surrounded our hotel were groups of people living in houses made out of nothing more than cardboard and tin. We drove further out into the Kenyan countryside and we passed village after village of similar poverty. The only animal I saw on the drive through Nairobi were the emaciated cows that ate whatever garbage the people hadn't gotten to yet. The smell was also overwhelming; a smell of body odor and dust. I was shocked to see this "real Africa". I had always heard about the poverty that took place on the other side of the world, but somewhere in the back of my mind it never seemed real. I had grown up in my own little bubble, a safe little community where a family that only had one car seemed poor. I couldn't believe such a situation could be real. Driving by the dump was a complete shock to my reality. People and animals dug through the rotting garbage as trucks pulled up and dumped more onto the heap. I had to roll up my window in the van to try to keep the smell out. The sight of it all was enough for me. Visiting with the children in the villages was fun and we spent the next few days bringing them little gifts and spending time with them. I couldn't believe the conditions they lived in and how happy they were. How could anyone that lived in a two room house and had to collect water from some distant well everyday be happy? They ate every bit of food with gratefulness, while I sat there staring at my plate, unsure of what lay in front of me and debating whether I should eat it. Laying in my bed in the hotel at night, with my mosquito netting draped all around me, I wouldn't be able to sleep just thinking about everything I had seen during the day. Watching TV or reading a book couldn't get those beautiful yet horrifying images of what I'd seen out of my mind. In the middle of the week, we went to a village called Kibera. I expected it to be similar to the other places we'd seen so far; little did I know that Kibera is one of the biggest slums in Kenya. Our van barely made in through the mud and filth that make up the streets of Kibera. When we finally reached the orphanage in the middle of the community of over a million people, I was exhausted from the drive in. I was also excited because today was the day I was supposed to meet my sponsored child, the girl I'd been sending money to for the last few months. I already felt connected to her and couldn't wait to shake her hand. We were led into the little church and the African leaders began discussing the program that was developing in Kibera. Looking around, I noticed one little girl in a yellow dress, sitting quietly and solemnly. For some reason, she caught my attention and I felt immediately drawn to her. She was sitting in the area we thought was for the kids who were not yet sponsored, so I leaned over to my dad and whispered that I wanted to sponsor that girl. He smiled and said he actually had just had the same thought about her. When the leaders finished speaking, they began matching up my group with each of their sponsored children. I waited patiently with my dad, excited and nervous to meet Charity, my sponsored girl. To my surprise, they called up the little girl in yellow dress and introduced her to us as Charity, the girl we had been sponsoring all along. Immediately my throat closed up and I couldn't speak. I was overcome with the overwhelming desire to hug her, but didn't want to seem weird to her. She was very shy and looked down, but I noticed she had tears of joy streaming from her soft brown eyes. I sat down with her and began coloring, something I thought we could bond over. Almost immediately we began laughing and connecting over little things. We ate candy together, listened to music, and kicked a soccer ball around outside. As we were walking, she slipped her hand into mine and we walked around the area together. After a while, Charity ran off to play with her friends and I noticed this tiny little girl following me around. I had played with her earlier, but she still was there, smiling shyly at me. She didn't expect anything from me and I didn't know what else to give her, so I just scooped her up and carried her around for a while. She was so small and she laid her head on my shoulder and wouldn't let me go. I sat down and cradled her in my arms and I knew, before the trip was over, we'd be sponsoring another child. I found out the girl's name was Lucy and that she was actually five years old. I had thought she was two or three because she was so small. I spent the rest of the afternoon playing with both Charity and Lucy. Their shy faces brightened into laughter and they gave me hug after hug. At the end of the day, when we had to load the van and head back to the hotel, I couldn't believe how sad I was. I had fallen in love with these adorable girls in only a few hours and my heart was breaking to leave them. We all had tears in our eyes after we left them and for days after, I could only think of their precious faces. Going back home to America was even harder than leaving it. Africa was nothing like I had expected it to be. It was better in some ways and in others, it was worse. I never knew such poverty was going on in the world and the reality of it all had shaken me to the core. I also had been touched by two precious girls that lived in a horrible slum. I had connected with people on the other side of the world in such a short time and I felt I had been prematurely ripped away from them and left alone to deal with the pain of it all. It was hard to adjust back to my normal life. Amazingly, I had the chance to return to Kenya last Thanksgiving. Stepping back into Kibera, I felt almost as if I had never left. Strangely though, I felt so much older and more experienced. The poverty no longer scared me motionless. I was still surrounded by trash and mud, but the faces of the kids seemed more hopeful this time around. The area seemed cleaner and livelier, like some change had actually taken place. My world was brightened when I got to hug Charity and Lucy again. It felt so relieving to see that they were alright. I had kept up corespondence with them over the last few years, but nothing was as wonderful as hugging them again. Those two precious girls changed my life so profoundly. It's amazing the influence a little girl in a yellow dress can have.
The Girl in the Yellow Dress
December 10, 2009