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Seeing

If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 4:11

The birds sent up a chorus of twittering, the only noise that broke the silence of the morning other than the sound of gravel crunching under my feet as I trekked up the walkway from the Naomi’s Village guesthouse to the main house, where I would meet the Land Cruiser that would take me, Nurse Ann, and 15-year-old Joel to an eye surgery in Nairobi.

Joel and I have bonded over our shared love of art. Because of Joel’s eye problems, he’s prohibited from playing soccer with the other kids during free time because of the risks posed by rapidly flying projectiles of mud, elbows, and black-and-white soccer balls. So, instead, he and I spend time drawing. He has a “how to draw” book that teaches step-by-step methods for drawing pirate ships, monsters, animals, and we take turns pushing a sketchbook back and forth as we complete each consecutive step, finishing a clomping Frankenstein and a fire-spitting dragon together.

We also share a love of books. Joel tells me his favorite books are Tom Sawyer and Oliver Twist, which of course prompts me to recommend Huckleberry Finn and A Tale of Two Cities. He’s reading the Harry Potter series for the first time and is starting the second book, laughing at Dobby’s antics. He tells me he loves school.

Joel has been having serious problems with his left eye for years, to the point where he has to squint to see anything but blaring white light out of it. He had two surgeries before I came to Naomi’s Village. On Tuesday, he had his third.

When Joel asked me after an evening of working through his 8th-grade math homework if I would come to the surgery with him, of course I said yes.

We bundled ourselves into the Land Cruiser and bumped and jostled and wove our way through the traffic-packed roads to the eye hospital, a blue and white box with sterile fluorescent lighting, and sat on one of the navy couches. Joel was matching his fingertips together, wringing his hands, cracking his knuckles. I asked him how he was feeling.

“Nervous.”

The surgery itself only took thirty minutes, but we waited in the office for hours. When Joel came out, his eye was still affected by the localized anaesthesia the doctor used, but the consciousness of the pain soon to come already crumpled his features, as much as he tried to hide his fear. On the drive back, a bumpy “shortcut” through the back roads of Kijabe where we were tossed around like popcorn kernels in the backseat, I read aloud to him from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as the letters on the page shook and the light of the day waned. His eyes were closed and every so often a tear trickled uncontrollably from his left eye.

I have put off writing this blog post for a while, long enough to break my resolution to try to write once per week, because I don’t know if I have anything profound to say yet about my time at Naomi’s Village. It’s not for lack of profound material: every day I am dazzled and my expectations are subverted and I am filled with laughter and tears. I am walking around each day with my eyes wide open, noticing as much as I can, talking to as many people as I can, hugging as many gap-toothed kiddos and ruffling as many heads of hair as I can, but sometimes it feels like the staggering volume of data my eyes and ears and taste buds and brain are receiving is too big to synthesize.

I am learning. I’m learning that it’s okay to admit when you don’t know something. I’m learning to greet everyone I pass and to spend time talking with the staff, who know so many stories and can offer an incredibly unique perspective. I’m learning what it feels like to be a cultural outsider, and I’m learning what a blessing it is when the insiders welcome you in despite you having nothing in particular to offer. I’m learning names—hundreds of them!—and faces and favorite foods and birthdays and who’s good at which sport and who likes which movie. I’m learning Naomi’s Village isn’t perfect, that there is still so much work to do. I’m learning that there are problems I can’t fix. I’m learning to be patient and show grace to both myself and others. I’m learning to watch and to listen.

Above all, I’m learning that any change I make here must be in the smallest of ways. Many days, I feel unequipped, underqualified, unnecessary—not only in the face of the overwhelming tragedy that makes up so many of these kids’ stories, but also in the face of the joy and plenty here. What can I, a mzungu who only knows a handful of Kiswahili, can’t dance, and loses all the points in volleyball actually contribute to this well-oiled machine that seems to run just fine without my help? Anyone could have ridden to the hospital with Joel. Anyone can sit in a waiting room. Maybe not just anyone could have made out the bouncing print of Harry Potter at twilight on rutted roads, but I hardly think my near-memorization of Rowling’s canon shines out as an outstanding quality for effective service.

But I am the widow from Luke, coming with two meager pennies clinking in the emptiness of my purse, and dropping them into the collection jar. I’m here to give what I have, not what I wish I had. That’s what I’ve been learning this past week and a half. I can’t solve all the problems or revolutionize already well-working systems or fund all the initiatives. I can’t even be the best friend of every kid.

But I can wake up each morning and pray for God’s will to be made manifest in small ways. I can shake each auntie’s hand and remember their names and ask them about their families. I can draw pictures for the little ones and read Bible stories during evening devotions and paint decorations. I can fail at volleyball and give everyone a good laugh. I can have patience with visitors and dig deep for the energy to answer the day’s hundredth cry of “Auntie!” I can ask kids about their lives and care enough to remember the answers. I can help grade English compositions and encourage my fellow interns and dust off kids’ knees after they trip on the playground. I can keep my eyes open, learning and empathizing and caring, even when the seeing is uncomfortable.

After all, that’s why I’m here.

By Erika Depalatis – Naomi’s Village Intern, Summer 2018; Rising Senior at Stanford University

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