Here in the U.S. spring is unfolding and vaccines are on the horizon. But in Kenya, things are looking worse. A "third wave" of infections is enveloping the country, burrowing into the cities and countryside alike. Our friends who are doctors in Kenya report full hospitals and full morgues. Our Ajiri scholars are on school break right now, but it is hard to imagine them returning to school in four weeks.
At Ajiri we have always gotten through things with a common refrain, rarely spoken aloud, but a silently agreed upon mantra: "things will get better," followed up with "if we only work harder." This past year we worked harder than ever--arranging "school" for 30 of our students to be delivered via motorbike. Every day we were arranging lessons and teaching for 30 kids at various levels with no internet and sparse cellular connection. But at home, away from school, life was hard. Some of our students got jobs to support themselves and their families. An Ajiri scholar and some siblings of scholars became pregnant, following a larger trend of growing teenage pregnancies.
And then, just last week, Joyce, an Ajiri graduate, died giving birth from complications in a C-section. She had just turned 20. She was sassy, she was confident, and she was kind. She was a lot more than three adjectives in an e-mail. "Things will get better" seems hollow now. As we help fund funeral arrangements and help support her sister and the new baby, we can't help but feel inadequate and a bit lost. "Things will get better . . . We have to work harder . . . " it just isn't enough.
Joyce, photographed in 2019
It is unlike us at Ajiri to grieve for the future, to find our steadfast optimism discarded, like some emotional leftover.
So we turned to the poem "In Peace of Wild Things," by the environmentalist, Wendell Berry:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The natural world has a way of recalibrating our spirit. We must keep going. We have to keep working. For all the people we're trying to protect in this world. And for the world we're trying to protect from the people.
Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said that "You can make a lot of speeches, but the real thing is when you dig a hole, plant a tree, give it water, and make it survive. That's what makes the difference." We have to keep on doing--selling tea, creating safe environments for vulnerable children, employing women, and doing it all in a thoughtful way that minimizes our impact on this world.
So we're taking that scrap of optimism. We're not burdening it with the forethought of grief. We're cultivating it with every student we help to raise, every woman we employ, every box of tea we sell. Thank you for being the day-blind stars. Your quiet dependability gives us faith.
To finding peace in the wild things and hope in everything,
Kate, Sara, Difna, Ann, and Regina
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