Learning the Meaning of “Hakuna Matata”


I have been back in Chicago from Kenya for a month now and as I am going through the thousands of pictures I have taken, I cannot express the influx of emotions I am going through. Getting back into the busy world of technology, overflowing media, malls packed with Christmas shoppers and perpetual post-election depression seemed incredibly hectic. This probably became acute for me since I came back from two weeks of working with children, who walk in mud all day (sometimes barefoot, because they have to keep washing their shoes and wait for them to dry) and share a positive view of Donald Trump and “how he talks”. I was shocked at first. I heard this from an 11-year-old girl I spent much time with – the same girl who wrote me a very touching letter about how she wants me to be happy upon my return home as I was saying goodbye on my last day in Kenya. I still wonder today if the kids were joking about our politics or if they only liked Trump, because they didn’t know anything besides the trauma they have been through and wanted to see the raw picture of US leadership, or they wanted me to become aware that this is all they have known as far as someone’s language towards them. I figured their orphanage was the place to be after 2016 elections. I could see how aware they were of the fact that they lived at the bottom of political corruption and saw Trump’s demeanor as more honest. I was amazed how smart they were, making sure you’re not there for sentimental reasons, but to educate them, inspire them and show interest in their community. They love to challenge volunteers like me. They don’t have parents to rely on, have experienced traumatic past we cannot even imagine, yet have the most energizing spirit and the biggest hearts to share. Simultaneously, they want you to know that they don’t have time for bulshit. This is something anyone should think about. People who can retain their emotional intelligence and good heart after such experiences are rare, and these children are necessary for society, before their positive spirits and flames enter a bigger risk of depleting. The point of this trip was to get to know the people in Kenya, interact with them and get a sense of their energy to understand them better, but at the end of the trip I found that the main reason to do this, was humility. Not just helping, but learning from them and realize how much I didn’t know. I am still clueless and learning – the more I get involved, the more I realize the complexity and mentality of the underlying system of their culture and eventually feel more clueless. As I grew somewhat closer to the children and learned about their lives, I felt like an ant trying to understand a large tree with deep roots. You definitely get humbled after spending time with them. After all, two weeks is nothing and the more I think about it, the more I realize I need to go back with more knowledge of the issues these children face when placed in rescue centers.


On my way to Nairobi, I did not know what to expect. I knew I was going to live with the locals and it would be very different from home, but I was looking forward to obtaining a better understanding of their life. I’ve traveled enough to realize, that it is the best way to actually experience the culture beyond touristic spots and hotels carefully designed to accommodate people like me. I didn’t have another choice, but to learn the ropes quickly enough to start volunteering the next day upon arrival.

I lived with my host and two other volunteers. We started getting along quickly, which I was grateful for because I only had two weeks. We shared the moments of meeting the kids and realizing their potential, their wit and understanding of life beyond their age. Due to their past experiences, they gained knowledge of the importance of positive social circles early on and this was staggering to us. They live in a community, where they share their food, wash each other’s clothes and look out for each other. Wherever needed, the bigger kids take on the daily tasks of parents – carrying the babies, making sure they are wearing shoes and comforting them, when they cry.  During lunch time they wanted to share food with me and even though I assured them I had food home or wasn’t hungry, they kept saying “Nooo, eat!!!” with a look of genuine concern on their faces.

Besides their geniality and affection, they were eager to learn. I arrived during a time of school break, so I was placed in an orphanage. It was surprising to me at first as I was not aware that the schools were out and was originally signed up to teach music. Nevertheless, many things were needed there. If it was helping with daily chores or fun activities, kids wanted to expand their knowledge. Any skills were useful there. The children wanted to learn how to play the guitar. Some kids craved to learn Spanish or French since they already spoke fluent English and Swahili. Others had musical talent and a dream of recording a label and one even wished to become a politician. I questioned why the girl, who wanted to become a politician didn’t have any means to keep herself informed. Why isn’t she able to receive a newspaper? She was a 16-year-old, inquisitive and courageous girl. I brought her newspaper and couple of books on influential African leaders, but I can’t deny my concern for her for the upcoming years. I tried giving her some pointers on how she can research her career possibilities and find out the steps she needs to take to get herself to the level she wants to be at, but I soon learned that even when she is at school she only gets one hour per day to use the computer and do her research.  Throughout my stay, I got to listen to several stories from the children about their past and their highly ambitious dreams. It was overwhelming because I could see where they were, I began to get a sense of the system around the management of their institution and found it hard to find the words that would be encouraging and at the same time realistic. It was clear to me how important they were to make positive changes in the world, having experienced the difficulties some of us face in life and having the spirit to do something about it.

Since they were having a break from school, we combined our skill sets to spend time with them that would consist of fun, educational, inspiring and motivational activities. My fellow volunteer Kevin brought his guitar and we started playing songs with them, learning some songs in Swahili and enjoying their laughter, when we couldn’t get the words right. Kevin also taught them chords on the guitar and I started incorporating djembe beats I learned towards the end of the trip. I wasn’t surprised the djembe became popular with some kids, who love to jam and dance with the beat or learn to play. We realized that some kids needed a good ear and someone to help them become aware of their worth and potential. My other fellow volunteer Sasha was very good at that, creating a collage with words of encouragement, talking to them and developing fun motivational activities that put smiles on their faces. Sometimes we could hear crowds of kids laughing out loud and when turning head, we’d see Sasha teaching them fun dance moves or skits from musicals. I found a couple of young girls who wanted to learn Spanish. I took Spanish here and there during high school and college, so I was up for the challenge of sharing my basic knowledge since they were complete Spanish speaking beginners. I let them jot down conversations they normally have among each other, so I could write up translations and converse with them in Spanish while explaining a little bit of grammar and sentence structure. I also brought a fun art activity of making bracelets to spell names and phrases using a morse code to teach them the thrill of encoding symbols and communicating in other “secret language”, perhaps with flashlight or sounds.

This could be obvious, but the hardest part of this trip was leaving as I could see how much more is needed (and will always be needed) to be done. The kids sang goodbye song and wrote letters, I got emotional, but we all laughed (or the kids laughed at me and I went from tears to laughter myself), because we knew I can always come back. I think I will, It was hard to leave. I felt really blessed and part of the community when they gave me this name. I felt as though the kids were eager to provide as much life education and love as I wanted to give them and they were very successful at it. One girl made me smile. She was about two years old. She introduced herself when she walked up to me through the mud with banana, saying “BANANA” in the cutest way, wanted me to take a bite and since I didn’t, took a bite herself then wanted to share the fruit with me to take a bite again. For those of you who are mad at mother Earth, you should listen to her advice. I felt so small when someone could show me such a selfless act at such a young age and in such situation of own need for love and security, and have a completely optimistic and innocent way of doing so. I cannot get that moment out of my head and often think of her, if she is safe at the orphanage, considering risks of human trafficking and the lack of dependability of the law enforcement in Kenya considering children. I have a hard time with it, because I left, and sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t have. The connection can haunt one if they don’t do anything about what they have learned from their experience. I have often felt disgust towards myself for leaving at times. Another girl spent a lot of time with me to learn French/Spanish and just talk to me. She was sad on my last day and quickly wrote to me that she hopes I find a lot of happiness back home. I’ve learned that sometimes privileged people want to take a whole arm when you give them a hand. These kids are just happy you are there and when your last day comes, they let you go with a sense of gratitude. To me that’s priceless AND timeless. My experience with them was undeniably one of the best I had. I learned countless lessons from them just by observing them and interacting with them and I hope they gained the same from me. I already know that I will be back one day.

Through my time in Nairobi, I was becoming more amazed by how much my experience exceeded my expectations. During our free time, we hardly ventured downtown or to any tourist-heavy areas.  We decided to engross ourselves more into the culture and keep hanging out with the locals. Walking in mud, munching on chapatis from the streets for 10 cents a piece, and having an utter blast with the Riruta Satellite people, hanging in bars with cheap Kenyan beer and listening to African music. I ended up getting a Kenyan name – Wanjiku (meaning “born with the rain”) – and learning a little bit of djembe. The kids clapped and kept repeating the name. We met a group of local musicians and artists, who get together to improvise through drumming, rapping, music mixing, singing and other forms of art such as beading, painting, and sculpting. We were instantly welcomed as part of the family to start jamming with them and listen to their improvisation sessions. One of the djembe players agreed to teach me. I have never touched a djembe or any type of drum in my life, but during my last few days, we spent morning hours before working and a couple in the evening practice. I quickly grew much more appreciation of this instrument. The guys did some very helpful exercises with me, where they tried to create a lot of random noise to throw me off and challenged me to focus on the beat throughout. I’ve taken guitar/piano lessons throughout my childhood and teenage years and music lessons have never been so much fun! The djembe teacher/player also helped me to connect to it on a spiritual level. I find it better to clear my mind when I have to stay focused on the beat of the drum, up until the beat comes in naturally and I get lost in it. Perhaps it is the type of person I am – always over-thinking and in need of action. Perhaps I need a loud sound to get me to snap out of it and chill my guts for a while. My awesome djembe teacher mentioned that getting connected with the drum spiritually is important and really one of the main reasons one starts playing. Any negative thinking gets overridden by the pulse I share with the djembe. With that said, working with children at the orphanage and learning to play the djembe have been invaluable for me during the process of learning the meaning of “Hakuna Matata” (No Worries)

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