Grappling with the cliché of mzungu and African child

We started our community service projects this week here in Kisumu, Kenya with our partners, the Young County Change Makers, a community-based organization empowering youth in the area. As expected, it has been a struggle, mentally and emotionally.

We were at the Nyalenda informal settlement when we were surrounded by little school children. The scene was all too cliché. Hurray! Mzungus (Swahili word for Westerners) surrounded by happy African children! Haven't we seen too much of that already? Are we living and telling the same narratives? I found myself outside of the moment, just watching my friends hug and play with the kids. A part of me wanted to take pictures to capture the moment, but the other part of me couldn't help but feel uncomfortable and disdain for the whole situation. So what did I do? I became cold and distant to these children, vacantly giving polite high fives, but really wanting no part of this all too typical scene.

And I went home with all of these questions about the stories we tell of Africa, our impact as visitors to this regions..and just felt overwhelmed and actually paralyzed by my thinking. And I really hated myself because instead of enjoying these children's presence and playing with them as all children love to do, I spent the afternoon inside my own head. Instead of seeing and treating them as human beings, they became just abstractions in my academic lens. And in the end, isn't that worse? Isn't that more dehumanizing?

But today at Joyland, a school specifically for kids with physical disabilities, I put my thinking cap off and just allowed myself to be in the moment. I played soccer with one of the classes, exasperated by the heat but enlivened by how my ass was getting seriously kicked by these kids. We took photos of each other and many were fascinated by my Asian heritage. "Are you Chinese?", they'd ask. "I'm from the Philippines". Many Jackie Chan moves were exchanged nonetheless. I also got to spend time with my new friend Tabitha, this sassy little 12 year old, who told me about her everyday experiences at the school and even showed me how to do a proper catwalk. At the end of the day, she gave me her bracelet saying, "I want you to keep this so you don't forget me". I gave her my hair tie to remember me by. Cheesy and cliché, but her gesture really touched me and it was all real.

As my good friend, Saleema, wrote to me today, "it's not a cliché to bond with another human being, and it will never be a cliché to laugh with a child". And in the end, making those genuine connections is what we and what Operation Groundswell is all about...