The Roles We Play in Life
// August 14th, 2012 // Kenya
Note: I wrote this back in April and it got lost in my drafts.
I never saw the stork. It never arrived on my front porch with a swaddled baby hanging from it’s large beak. Maybe it bypassed me because I refused to believe that this is how babies come into the world. Just like how Santa doesn’t visit those who don’t believe, the stork must follow suit. Last time I checked, I was a single 27-year old girl (ahem, now 28- that’s what happens when you wait to publish something) with zero children and few responsibilities (yes, Mom and Dad, I do pay my credit card bills on time and get the oil changed in my car regularly). I recently found myself being referred to as a guardian, and suddenly it exacerbated into being called a parent. And someone has taken on my last name. It’s all just so very bizarre. Let me explain.
Three months ago, I signed guardian papers in Kenya for John to attend a boarding high school. I’m sorry if you have read my blog (or have had to hear me in person talk about him a million times and about how he’s sooo funny… even though he is… watch this video if you don’t believe me. Ooh, or this one. And then there’s his mention of Chuck Norris.), because if so, then you know all too well that I am referring to a boy that I met back in Kenya in 2008. Okay so he’s technically no longer a boy, but it’s complicated to call him something other than that when he’s only in the 9th grade.
Let me rewind for those of you who don’t know the story. Here’s a huge, long story condensed into a summary:
John is from a rural village in Kenya. His father was never really in the picture. He has 4 siblings- a sister with a family of her own, an alcoholic brother who is in and out of prison and has 3 beautiful little girls, an older brother who is on a great track in life and who is inspired by John, and a younger brother who is currently struggling with teenage rebellion and has dropped out of school. John himself dropped out of school when he was seven. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. His mother, a severe (and undiagnosed) diabetic, called him home from school one day. She couldn’t walk. One day turned into a week, which turned into three weeks, and soon John realized that he needed to work if his family ever wanted to eat again. His sister moved to a larger town when she was 14 to work as a housegirl and send money home. But when you only make $40/month, you can’t send much home. John’s oldest brother was already starting to get into trouble, and his two other brothers stayed in school, while John went to work in neighbors’ fields to make sure his mother had something to eat everyday. Child labor is sad, but his neighbors were his saving grace; they gave him some work so that his family could eat something. It was only on my most recent visit, when we started recording stories from his life, that he admitted to me in his most ashamed voice, that there were a few times when he stole something from a neighbor’s garden so they could eat. For a boy who is the most honest and hardworking person I know, I can’t imagine what it was like to lower himself to steal something; and even then, I know it was even harder for him to admit that to me. Times were hard.
His mother passed away when he was 12, and just two weeks before she died, John told her that he wanted to go back to school. She took him 5km to a school in the neighboring village, as this was the last gift she could give him. Being the main caretaker for his mother and taking care of his family in the years of your life when your biggest concern should be whether your mud pies are a good enough consistency to hold together (because that was my concern as a little girl), John didn’t take the news lightly. But he stayed in school. Sure he dropped out again for a month in a depressive state, but he went back. Despite the taunting from village kids. Despite being in the 8th grade at the age of 18 and towering over all the other kids on the playground. He stayed in school. Despite his older brother being an alcoholic and having to care for his nieces most evenings and borrowing food from the neighbors to cook for his family instead of doing his homework, as he desired to do. John is a survivor. His will is stronger than any word I can think of to describe it. He has settled disputes in his village. He’s held in high esteem by his neighbors. People greet him by name, and when I ask him who they are, he doesn’t know. Yeah, that’s how it is- people know him.
Though I hope to help him pen the story of his life, because it’s so fascinating, this is only a snippet of it. He knows what it’s like to be turned away from school because he doesn’t have shoes. He knows what it’s like to bail his brother out of jail. He knows what it’s like to go days without eating. He knows what it’s like to stay in bed for a week at a time because of malaria. And he knows what it’s like to sit down and shed tears under a tree beneath the intense African sun, exhaustion setting in from manual labor, and asking God, “Why me?”
So, that’s John. That’s the boy that I talk about so much from Kenya and the reason I’m on the path that I’m on right now.
It’s been a long road. Our relationship went from daily walks and chores in a rural village my first summer in Africa in 2008, to monthly letter writing, another visit, weekly phone calls, and finally a trip that would bring us to where we are today. My last trip in Kenya, again if you read my blog you already know, I spent the majority of my time a.) reporting a child abuse case at an orphanage to authorities and b.) searching for a boarding school for John. John had a sponsor from the U.S. (which for all I know is still paying and has no idea that he’s no longer in his village), and even though he was accepted to decent boarding schools, he was sent to a school at another orphanage. At 19, he was sharing a twin bed with another boy, doing manual labor half of the time instead of attending classes, going to school without textbooks, and spent part of the time in bed sick with malaria. It was an unhealthy situation all around, and most disappointing for his desire to learn. He left the school and enrolled himself in a day school in his village. We both had heartache over it, and even though I desired to move him to a new school, it wasn’t until a local friend of ours knocked some sense into John that he allowed me to search for a new school. He cared about his homestead and his family members, instead of for once worrying about himself. Hell, I even cried in a principal’s office as a 27-year old for him. So ridiculous. But I don’t care. Determination made the stars align, and I found John the best school I’ve ever visited in Kenya. It felt like a family from the instant we stepped in. And as cliché as it sounds, we felt like we were home. And that’s what he needed. Because as a result of my other journey down the path of getting myself involved in a child abuse case, I made it so that John no longer felt at home in the village. He left home and hasn’t stayed there since that day (note: he has since gone back to visit, as time does heal). Trust me- I shed tears over that too. And I cried when he told me at 2am, as he lie awake in the bed next to mine, that he never wanted to go home again. I felt responsible. But I’m stubborn and I believe in doing what is right, and in this case John and I both felt we had other children to protect, even at the cost of his own roots… the place he had been all his life. The place where his mother was born, and the place where he last saw her alive. Life is never without consequences.
And even though we still hold our breaths, waiting for this bubble to pop, I think I can say it. He’s the happiest he’s ever been in his life. And so am I. I talked to him a few weeks after he started boarding school, and I asked him how it was going. He told me about his new friends, about how much he loves the staff, and how delicious the food is. And then he told me, “Oh and they call me John Walker. They don’t even know my real name. Even the principal. I write it on my exams now. At the top of all my papers it says John Walker.” It’s so silly how something like this can strike a chord with me but it did. Not because the kids had called him by my last name, but because he had embraced it as well.
John is now out of school after completing his first term of school. I got the phone call that would practically make my heart burst with joy. He finished the term with an A-. An A-!!!!!!! This is huge! He had Bs and Cs in primary school (not a reflection of his intelligence of course, but considering all of his home issues, that was great). But at the village secondary school where he was going before we moved him to boarding school to start again, out of 177 kids that sat for the mock exit exam, not a single one scored above a B+… and only three of them got a B+. If John wants to go to a public university and get government assistance (unlike the U.S., the public universities are much better than private institutions), then he will need to score a B+ or above. And if he wants to study to be a lawyer (his dream), then he really does need an A-. And in just one term, he’s already shown his abilities at school. It’s a reflection on his hard work, on his studying at 4am during the weekdays before classes, and it’s also a reflection on the institution. For a child that was nearly flunking math the past few years, to average an A- in all of his studies, both student and teacher are to ‘blame’ for such a good grade. I’ve never felt so proud. Really… just like a proud parent. He also informed me that he had been selected to play socccer for a national club team, and that he would be going to Mombasa (all expenses paid!) to play in a soccer tournament. And if I can brag for a moment, he and his older brother are amazing soccer players. I think I squealed on the phone.
John, a boy from a rural village who grew up in circumstances completely foreign to these wealthy Nairobian boys, also had his moment. Some of his teammates have never been to the coast, and when they asked John if he had been, he beamed proudly, and said ‘Of course.’ :) We went this past December, and he told them all sorts of stories… but of course he started by telling them about the old 70 year old mzungu (white) women that frolic with 20 year old rastafarian men on the beach. :) But that was his moment, when he felt like he could fit in. He’s done something that separates him from his village background.
After a lengthy conversation, I had to ask John something I’ve been dying to know. Of course based on the cost of his schooling, I know that his background is probably very different from the rest of the kids at the school. However, his best friend is a boy from a single parent background, and even though that boy’s mother does business in South Africa, I still felt like they were middle class. So I asked John what the other kids were like at school. ‘Are they rich?’ And he started by gushing about the first Parents’ Day, when parents were allowed to come visit their children, and he saw people very high up in the government. And then he told me, “Oh! And you know Laura, some of the kids’ parents live, or have lived, in the USA, London, South Africa, and Germany.” Wow, I really was impressed at that point. And then John told me, “The kids asked me one day, ‘John, where do your parents live?’ and I said ‘In the USA.’ And they said, ‘What are their names?’ And I said, ‘Her name is Laura Walker.’” Once again, he melted my heart, and that’s the day that I realized I play the role of a parent at times. We’re close in age, and we are more likely to refer to each other as brother and sister, but when it comes to schooling and serious issues, it is more like a parent/child relationship. I scold him when he’s irresponsible and loses his ID card. I ask him a million times if he has enough money to ride the bus, buy phone credit, or buy food. He asks my permission to do things, and when he’s nervous to tell me something, he says, “Please don’t be mad, but…” It’s a complex relationship we have, but we are friends, siblings, and yes, sometimes even child and parent.
John has now completed his second term at school and once again, scored all A’s or A-’s on his exams. His school record is stellar. I wrote these words because every time I hang up the phone after speaking with John, I always feel so inspired to share his story. I hope his determination will inspire you today and encourage you to never give up.