Gentle light streams in through the small window in the corner of our room. Jenny and I wake up and smile at each other through our mosquito nets; it’s our last full day here. We have tomorrow too, but other than church, tomorrow is packing and debrief day, and we leave Little Sisters at 7 tomorrow night to catch our flight to London. But let’s not get sad yet. We still have one full day!
During breakfast we are all buzzing with anticipation, because today we are meeting all of the SoH kids at Brackenhurst Park, which we’ve heard is a stunning park and mission retreat center about an hour outside of the city. Jenny has poured herself into planning an Amazing Race sort of activity for all of us to do, and considering the fact that two of my birthday parties over the years have been Amazing Race themed, I’m pretty pumped at the prospect of getting to do that with my newfound friends in Kenya.
The bus ride to Brackenhurst is beyond breathtaking. Located northwest of Nairobi and south of a large nature reserve, Brackenhurst is luscious and green, surrounded by tea farms, green hills, and even a country club. It’s a great reminder that Kenya has infinitely more to offer than just the poverty of the slums and the city. Kenya is breathtaking.
Once we arrive at the park, I’m surprised at what it actually is. In my head, when I hear “park” I think of a really big open space and a playground, and maybe a pond. Brackenhurst Conference Center is actually a series of lovely, winding cobblestone paths, many smaller green lawns, several trails that go into the forest nearby, a nice restaurant, basketball and tennis courts, and very nice buildings that look like huts (I’m assuming you can buy these out and stay here like a hotel). Jenny needs time to set up for the Amazing Race, so most of us wander to the basketball courts. There’s at least fifty of us on the court between all the SoH kids and staff and most of our team. Laughter is constantly echoing in the air. Some are playing PIG on one half of the court. Myself and a few of the teen girls are playing double dutch. Many of the younger kids are throwing a frisbee. We spend at least an hour just goofing off, and by now, most everyone has formed friendships with new people.
Shortly thereafter Jenny comes to find us and tells us it’s time for lunch. At least for our team, the sisters had packed lunches for us to bring along, and I assumed we would be eating our packed lunches on the various lawns together. What a surprise it was when Colleen led the entire massive bunch of us to the restaurant, and we had half of it reserved!! Most of us were holding kids hands or had them riding on our backs, and both our team and the SoH team mixed and mingled (that sounds like an insufficient word but I don’t know what else to say- it feels like we’re all family at this point) and sat down in the reserved half of the restaurant. Bottled sodas were in front of us- what a treat! Lunch is buffet style: a salad bar, several different kinds of meat and bread and rice to choose from, an assortment of fruits and desserts and dressings and gravy. This is by far the fanciest meal we’ve had so far. And it is TASTY.
We spend lunch talking with a few of the kids about their dreams and making jokes and enjoying friendship. One has a dream to become an engineer-he’s 12. Another is excellent at track, and runs incredibly fast. All of them smile wide and talk with excitement about their futures. I can’t help but think of the kids in Mathare who don’t have this same hope for their future- what a difference family makes.
After lunch, Jenny has each person draw a slip of paper out of a hat. Based on whatever Swahili word was on our slip of paper was what team we would be on for the Amazing Race. There were probably 9-10 teams, each one named after a different fruit of the spirit. There’s different activities set up all throughout the conference center, and upon completing each one, we get the next clue.
Isaac and three of the SoH kids are on my team, and I think we’re all pretty committed to WINNING. Of course, the object is to have fun, we know, we know…. but we can definitely win. Our first clue leads us into the forest on the side of the conference center. We take off in a full sprint up the winding trails and through the trees (side note: my mind can’t stop thinking “It’s SO PRETTY” and also “Please slow down, I run but I’m clearly out of shape”). Breathing hard, we all slow down and find our team name tacked to a tree at the top, with our next clue on it. We then go back down to the lawn outside the restaurant, and I’m blindfolded and one of the SoH kids has to lead me through a maze using only Swahili words. I don’t know much, but I’ve picked up a little bit: “kushoto” is left, “kulia” is right, “mbele” is forward, “nyuma” is backward, and stop is “kuacha”. Using these simple words, he guides me through. We have to trust one another, but we do it and get our next clue.
The next few activities go quickly and each has a spiritual lesson tied in. For example, the blindfold maze is a lesson in trusting one another and trusting God to guide us. The next few activities include a giant “keep the balloons in the air” marathon, putting together a puzzle as a team, playing PIG in a PIG showdown between a few different teams, carrying one of the SoH kids on our shoulders through an obstacle course, and writing notes to each of our amazing race team members for them to read later. We aren’t in first place, but we’re having a lot of fun and laughter is abundant, and even though it’s hot and we’re sweating and covered in mosquito bites, nothing can steal the joy that is surrounding today.
My team finishes all of the activities and has some time to spare, so we meet the other teams who have finished at the playground. The next hour or so, as more and more teams join us, we teeter-totter and swing with the kids, lie in the grass looking up at the clouds and talking, play tag. It goes too fast, and the next thing I know, Colleen and Pastor and Mama are calling the group to the other end of the center for one last tea break together before saying goodbye. Esther comes and holds my hand while we start to walk over. How crazy is that?? It feels like we only just got here, and now it’s almost over.
At the place where we all meet, there’s a long table set up with tea, brewed coffee (my heart jumped at getting to have brewed coffee instead of instant!), fruit, and homemade donuts. We all get refreshments and quiet down so Jenny can announce who came in what place in the Amazing Race. My team came in fifth. About halfway. I’m happy with that. We did our best, and boy did we laugh a lot. Stephanie and Beth and a few others who sponsor here get their last photos with their sponsored kids, and with a full and sad heart, we begin saying goodbye.
The next fifteen minutes is all hugs, some tears, and still a lot of laughter. Even though I just met these people six days ago, they already feel like family, and it’s almost time to leave them and go back to the opposite side of the world. I hug Sammy and Michael and Alvin and Laban and Grace and Stacy and all the rest of them- they all very quickly wiggled their way deep into my heart. As I hold Esther tight and give her one last hug before I get on the bus, I feel deep in my heart that, as cliché as it sounds, this isn’t goodbye; it’s a see you later. I know I will come back here. I know it.
Finally everyone is back on the bus, and we go back to Little Sisters to get most of our packing done and get a little bit of shut eye. We still have one more thing to do tomorrow.