A life changed by a study abroad experience

By Sarah Lieser

Lumen Reporter

Twenty-seven hours after leaving the USA, my feet felt solid land as I waited in the long line for the visa entry into Kenya, Africa, staring at the “Karibu Kenya!” sign (“Wel­come to Kenya!” in Kiswahili). My nerves were on high alert as I imag­ined the next five months of my life living in a developing country. A new culture, new friends, new lan­guage, new life. What was I think­ing?

At the time, little did I know the growth and adventure that await­ed me in this foreign country. As a freshman at Viterbo, I immediately knew I wanted to study abroad, and I wanted to go to Africa. With the help of Viterbo’s Global Education Office, the Knowledge Exchange In­stitute (KEI), and a boat-load of pa­perwork later, my dream was com­ing true in the spring semester of my junior year.

As a biochemistry major, I was excited to spend a semester in Af­rica studying humanities and fulfill­ing my Viterbo general education requirements through African Phi­losophy, 20th Century Eastern Afri­can History, HIV/AIDS Testing and Counseling, Myths Rituals and Ar­chetypes, and Human Physiology.

Also, through studying with KEI, I was excited to take several week­end excursions to the Indian Ocean in Mombasa where I rode a camel to go on wildlife safaris where I saw live elephants, cheetahs, and lions, cultural tribal dances, a Maasai vil­lage and national museums.

My first week at the United States International University (USIU)-Africa, I was in awe. I got to live in this beautiful tropical paradise for the next four months? The beautiful green tropical trees, outdoor cafes, paved sidewalks against perfectly cut green grass. It felt more like par­adise than school.

My first day of classes, I arrived at class about 7 minutes early, pretty normal for me. But I looked around in confusion at the empty classroom. I double checked the room number, and took a seat in the empty room. I waited, and waited, and waited. And finally, 15 minutes after sched­uled class time, the room started to fill up and the professor walked in. This was my first lesson in “African time.” There is a saying here that goes, “If you are rushing today, you should have done it yesterday.” And this remained true the entire time I was in Africa. Nothing started on time.

And I just had to get used to it.

My first week I also got to know my roommate. I lived in an on-campus dorm filled with international and Kenyan students. USIU is unique in that it represents over 40 different nationalities and cultures. My room­mate was from Uganda, and prob­ably the best dancer I have ever met. It took her a couple of days to warm up to me, but eventually she became one of my best friends. Later in the semester I found out why she was so uncomfortable around me. She said she had never really spent any time with a mzungu (“European” in Kiswahili) and had a negative ste­reotype. Later, she thanked me for changing that stereotype for her. It may have been one of the best com­pliments I have ever received.

So, life at USIU was going pretty great, but soon I found out what a safe, secure little gated world I was living in at USIU.

My first time traveling into Nai­robi, the biggest city in East Africa, also home to the largest slum in East Africa, I was in for some culture shock: the dirt and dust, the awful traffic, the non-existent roads and road rules, the constant harassment as a mzungu and the deserted and falling apart buildings. Some parts of the city were extremely Western­ized and lovely, while others were a reminder that you were living in a developing country.

While in Kenya, I had the oppor­tunity to visit the slums on the out­skirts of Nairobi. Never before have I seen or experienced poverty like the slums. The poverty is something you cannot even imagine unless you experience it firsthand.

I went with some of my Kenyan friends to volunteer at a children’s home in the slums. We planned a “Sports Day” where we played football, jumped rope and sang and danced to Kiswahili songs. The love, the happiness, the innocence of the children touched my heart. These children grow up with nothing. The clothes on their back, the food that they eat, all comes from the children’s home we volunteered at. But there are not enough children’s homes or funding to care for every child living in the slums. Many slip through the cracks. The United Na­tions World Food Program says one in four children in Sub-Sahara Af­rica is malnourished. This broke my heart.

And as we walked through the slums, my heart continued to break. I have never felt so overwhelmed or helpless in my life; the poverty, the hunger, the living conditions. I really recognized how spoiled I am as a Middle-class American. As we walked past a garbage strewn river of waste we came upon some chil­dren playing in the puddles. As they spotted me, the one mzungu, an ex­cited smile spread across all their faces as they ran to touch me.

My immediate reaction was, “Their hands were in the waste! I don’t want them to touch me.” And then I turned crimson with shame. I remembered a verse Jesus said to his disciples, “Let the children come to me.” So I held out my hands and touched God’s children. It was an emotional experience and some­thing I will remember forever: the smiles on their faces and the help­lessness of their situation.

The slums showed me that it is possible to find light among the darkness, and that these people with so little still had so much more; the ability to smile, the ability to laugh, the ability to love, all amidst the overwhelming darkness they lived in.

As my four month semester in Nairobi came to and end, I knew I hadn’t had enough. I was not done. I found a hospital on the coast, the Malindi District Hospital, who wel­comed me to volunteer for a month in the pediatrics ward through Touch Africa Volunteers. At the hos­pital I shadowed doctors on rounds, took patient notes, aided nurses in administering treatments, and up­dated patient paperwork. One expe­rience I will never forget is the case of a three-year-old HIV-positive young boy, who looked like he was around one year old due to malnu­trition. The young child was suffer­ing from TB, malaria and pneumo­nia. The child was with us for just over two days fighting for his life, drowning in oxygen machines and IVs hooked up to his small body.

Losing the child and watching him take his last breath was one of the hardest experiences of my life. Children should not die. A three-year-old young boy had his life ripped from him, mostly because of lack of knowledge. The stigma and misunderstanding of HIV and ill­ness prevented many people from seeking healthcare before it was too late.

My five months in Kenya, Af­rica, absolutely changed my life. My heart is now tied to Africa, and I know my heart will lead me back there one day. My experience helped me decide to apply both for medical school and the Peace Corps. Ultimately, my dream is to work in women’s health on a global scale.

Studying abroad was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I learned so much about myself, and none were easy lessons. I was chal­lenged and pushed beyond limits I thought I had for myself. My prayer for the future is that God will take this experience and continue to shape me according to his purpose.

If you want to read more about Sarah’s experience, check out her blog while she was in Africa at sar­ah-kenyaafrica.blogspot.com.

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