Saturday, September 6, 2014

the joy that comes from dirty feet

muddy shoes, in the clinic line in Kangemi

I packed an old pair of running shoes to wear for clinic days in Kenya. For our first five days, camping out in rural Maasailand, they were on my feet the entire time except for when we slept. The night we arrived there, the dust started settling into the mesh and seems. By the next day, it had seeped inside and coated my socks. After our hike at Lake Natron, I found dirt in between my toes. At night, I used baby wipes to clean my feet -- balancing on one foot while wiping the other. But then I looked down and realized that the only place to put by now semi-clean foot was right back in my dirty, smelly shoe.

After a few days of no running water and the baby-wipe cleaning system, my feet were a mess. And they smelled. Even though nights stayed warm, and our tent could get stuffy, I slept with my feet tucked into my sleeping bag out of respect for my teammates. Albert, one of our Kenyan hosts, kept telling us that we would stop to wade in an alkaline hot springs on our drive back to Nairobi. "All skin diseases gone!" was how he advertised the detour. As soon as we pulled up, I was untying my shoe laces and peeling off my socks. Walking through the steamy water was better than a pedicure. I hesitated to put my smelly, dirty sneakers back on, but that was all I'd packed.

My sneakers went back on my feet for our next clinic at in Kangemi slum in Nairobi. As we drove, the cloudy sky let rain drops fall, and by the time we arrived at Kangemi the soft ground had turned to thick mud. Our van pulled as close to the school where we'd hold our clinic as it could, but buildings are packed tight in slums. Walking a distance was unavoidable. I rolled up my scrub pants and did what this trip was teaching me best: to embrace being dirty.

But even more than embracing dirt, this trip was teaching me to embrace joy. As we got closer to the school, we heard children talking, playing, laughing. I smiled in my heart. Relating to and caring for kids - no matter how dirty my feet were going to get - was just about the best way I could imagine spending my day. I walked around outside the classrooms, through the mud, to take photos of children, who smiled and giggled when I showed them what I'd captured. And I learned the names of the youth in classes 7 and 8 who had helped us carry our supplies from the van. Wilberforce, the founder and principal of the school, shared with me about his determination to help kids who didn't have the means for education, how the school has grown from 2 to nearly 400 pupils in just five years, and how he named the school Light Rays because of the way that educated children can illuminate dark places.

When I went back inside, my sneakers carried a thick layer of mud underneath that I had to scrape of on the cement step. I sat down next to Shannon. She was the last "station" of the clinic that day. As children came to her, Shannon read aloud each child's name from their registration cards as she handed each one a bright orange Alabaster bracelet and a piece of candy. The gifts coaxed a smile from most of them. The litany of names reminded us, again, of the joy of knowing and remembering people who have been forgotten by most of the world, their government, sometimes their own families.

At the end of our trip, I decided to leave my sneakers in the trash at our hotel. Part of me was compelled to keep them for the sake of remembering where I had walked in them and what it was like to get dirty. But I knew that what I really needed to carry with me was the joy that came from it, which I have in my photos, in these stories, and in my heart.

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