While I have been teaching on the KeMU campus, my spouse, Joan, has been volunteering several nights a week at a children’s home not far away. A university driver picks her up about 5:00 and she returns to the Guest House on campus where we are staying about 9:00 PM. Each night when she returns, she is full of stories about “the kids.” It takes her a while to talk about what has happened, what she has experienced, and what she might do next to be helpful.
The children’s home (CH) is affiliated with the African Methodist Church. Being United Methodists, Joan had asked the campus chaplain if there was somewhere she might volunteer—and the CH came up. Joan had initially wanted to work with infants—she had said, “I might just end up hugging AIDS babies,” but those facilities are farther away.
There are about 14 kids that Joan works with—boys and girls ages perhaps 5 to 15. I say “perhaps” because the youngest has no idea how old he is. How the kids interact with each other is amazing. They are a very tight group, caring for each other, assisting each other, cooperating with each other, and more. Joan has not seen competitiveness, bickering, abusive behaviors or any of the other things you might expect from a group of youth. They have minimal adult supervision and jump in to do maintenance tasks without prompting—I watched one girl scrub the floor of the group kitchen with buckets of water and old towels.
Joan took paper and art materials to introduce an art contest. The colored pencils were an amazingly fascinating set of instruments (this from kids who might share a pencil in their overcrowded school rooms—54 in one class for the older girls who say they love school. At best, there might be one text book for two students.) The plan was to create a drawing, post them on the wall, have the kids decide which one they liked best, and the winner would get to cut and distribute the cake that Joan purchased as a prize.
One girl said, “I can’t draw.” Joan encouraged her. She began to sketch and made two drawings—one of a person and one of two three-petaled multi-layered flowers. They were quite intricate. Then she astounded me (I was watching) by writing two questions on the paper: “Who is God”? and “Who Created God”?
We are not in Kenya as missionaries. We are here to volunteer where we might be needed. This was one of those developmental moments that pops up with youth and they always astound me. Here was a 13-year-old girl who has had a really tough life. She may have lived on the streets for a while. Who knows what else.
I told her, “Wow, you just asked the two hardest questions in the world”! I added that many many people had tried for many many years to answer those questions. I again commended her for coming up with such difficult questions. She said, “Thank you” (asante). When one of the other girls looked at her paper and said, “God is holy spirit,” she wrote a third question on her paper: “If God is holy spirit who created holy spirit”? (This girl understands Socratic method!)
I would have given her the cake prize immediately. The kids put sticky dots on their favorites and another girl won the prize. She then opened the box with the “store-bought” cake inside and very carefully counted heads, then equally carefully cut the cake in as many pieces. She distributed the pieces and there were no grabs for more, demands for another, pushing, or any other selfish behavior. Some cake remained, so she very carefully cut the remainder in the correct number of much smaller pieces so there would be one for everyone. She had a small corner left over which she took to her room.
I was blown away—the deep philosophical theological questions, the cooperative and caring behaviors, the attitudes. It was significant. To watch a young girl knit socks using two twigs as knitting needles was interesting. To sit in a chair and have a five-year old “discover” my hearing aids and examine them from every conceivable angle. To be called “Dad” immediately by the same five-year old. The evening had been full of impact.
And then, we moved to a building where their meal is cooked because it has a larger assembly room (bare and rather dark because of the one low watt light bulb in the ceiling). They sang and danced for us. How I wished I had a video camera with me! One girl is the obvious choreographer and song leader. She grouped the boys and girls in a formation and began to sway in a rhythmic pattern, then clap, then sing. She had a beautiful voice and would “line out” a phrase which the boys and girls would echo in full voice (in Swahili, of course). The dance movements began slowly and with minimal movement. Before they finished the song, there had been coordinated jumping, waving, spinning, changing position in the formation—and above all, jubilance. At one point, an older boy had stepped out of the formation and began to use a wooden cabinet in the corner as a drum (he was good).
A fascinating evening. And now for the questions: The girl was disappointed that she hadn’t won the prize, but said to Joan, “When are we going to discuss my questions”? That happens tonight. Joan is going and I’m staying on campus—that depth of thinking is beyond me. We’ve talked about an approach to the discussion and I said, “There’s only one way to handle this, say, ‘What do you think the answer is’”? At 9:00 tonight, I’ll be intrigued to find out.
Lesson: Youth have both the questions and the answers. I think we should listen to them more.
Brooke B. Collison (written in my comfortable campus office)
P. S. Joan had her meeting with the young people at the CH last night. It was a busy evening since it was the first day of school (after a teacher strike of over a month) and they had laundry to do (washing school uniforms in buckets on the lawn), home work, and cleaning (one girl scrubbed the kitchen floor with buckets of water and old towels—a lot of stooping). They had their discussion with the kids supplying a lot of answers. At the end, the girl who raised the questions initially said, “But you still haven’t answered my questions.” Joan agreed and acknowledged that she would have to continue wrestling with those issues for a long time.
Brooke Collison is professor emeritus of counselor education and a former president of the American Counseling Association. He will be a visiting professor at Kenya Methodist University in Meru, Kenya during the September trimester. Joan Collison will be a volunteer with children in a social service agency during their four-month stay in Kenya.