A mixture of passion to help those less fortunate than myself and the desire to completely immerse myself in another culture led me down the dusty dirt paths of the slums of Mishomoroni, Kenya, to New Hope Orphanage, with the countless rows of wide brown eyes greeting me at every corner. I was 18 and on my own, scared and apprehensive as I had never been out of Europe before, yet I found myself feeling somewhat at home among all of these new, smiling faces.
New Hope is a school as well as an orphanage, based in a small district of Mombasa in Kenya, near the Indian Ocean. The buildings placed so close together on the dirt tracks created a cramped atmosphere, yet the surrounding fields dotted with palm trees were a pleasant retreat away from it all, and it was also the place that the children called their playground.
On my first day, after being introduced to the 30 children who permanently reside among the narrow corridors and dark walls of the orphanage, I was thrust into the chaotic ordeal of trying to teach twenty 7-year-olds who couldn’t speak English, a basic science class. I might have been slightly terrified, but the look of awe upon their innocent faces as I tried to communicate with them made the experience worthwhile and I felt a sense of accomplishment as I sauntered out of the classroom at the end of the lesson.
I was then greeted by swarms of fifty or more children, eager for me to take their picture and barely giving me a chance to breathe! Here, I learned a lot of their names and discovered that although the children I taught science to could speak only Swahili, the kids above the age of around 10 could speak conversational English perfectly. Michael, a boy of around 11 but who was not sure of his actual age, preceded to tell me that he is going to call me ‘Alex’ and not ‘Alice’, as I soon learnt that ‘Alice’ is an extremely popular name in Kenya!
As well as teaching the children English, science, maths and geography, I also had a hand in cooking lunch – cabbage and ‘ugali’, a type of maize that is utterly tasteless but fills you up. New Hope’s cook, Emily, with her hard-to-read expression and slight smile was watching as I attempted to stir the thick maize, and I eventually decided that cooking for 50-plus children was not my forte, and so I helped the children wash their hands instead. With no running water at the orphanage, some of the teenagers would fetch large buckets filled with the liquid from a nearby well each day.
On a few of my days from the two months that I spent at New Hope, I went with them and was astounded at just how heavy the containers were, once filled. The children never once complained about lugging these impossibly large buckets around, and seeing the smiles on their faces gave me a sense of melancholy as I thought about how much we take our running water for granted.
My days at the orphanage also led me to sewing ripped clothes, washing floors and scrubbing the basins of lunchtime’s ugali out, under curious eyes of children passing by from class to class. At playtimes, I would often hear cries of ‘cheza!’ coming from the kids, meaning ‘dance!’. I would then become the audience for four or so of the boys who would break out into Michael Jackson-style sliding, asking me to take photos and film them. This brought a smile to my face to know that these children, some of who are HIV Positive, seem to be happy in their own way, and are just like kids in any other part of the world.
The owner of New Hope, a middle-aged kindly-faced Kenyan woman named Violet, was extremely welcoming and would invite me round her house for cups of tea after school hours. She also tried to teach me how to carry boxes and containers on my head, which, to the chorus of laughter from some of the children, I positively failed in doing so! Violet would take me to the markets to show me where to buy the bright coloured fabrics called kangas that the women here wear. I bought several as the heat was explosive at times and the material really kept you cool.
Teaching the children, and especially the older ones, was a very rewarding experience as they are all so eager to learn, with several arms soaring to the sky every time I asked a question. Willson, one of the most intelligent boys of the oldest class would often tell me about his dreams to become a pilot and his wishes to travel the world.
At the end of two months at New Hope Orphanage, I felt that I had formed such strong bonds with the children. Some of them were so intelligent and they were the smiliest, happiest children I had ever seen. Leaving them left me empty as I drove away on the local minibus, called matatus, past the herds of goats crossing the roads and the endless street stalls selling pineapples and bananas. I looked behind to see a sea of grinning children waving me goodbye, and a bittersweet feeling overcame me as I realised that even though these children do not have parents, they are happy.
Looking back, I am so glad that I decided to venture into the middle of Africa on my own to a community that changed my life. If I didn’t go I would never have known that a place so far away from home could feel like I had actually come home.
Alice Bzowska is a London-based writer who currently writes for London theatre blog, Theatres.TV. She has traveled throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, and since her first trip to the New Hope orphanage has returned another year to visit.