In April of 2010 I skipped college for two and a half weeks and followed an odd instinct to Kenya to complete a freelance newspaper story about the Olooloitikoshi Girl’s Rescue Center. On one of my first days there, I found myself in a small cement dormitory, crowded with black bunk beds and the stuff of girls: some shoes, a few outfits, school books, combs, blankets. I had just finished interviewing three sisters who fled home to avoid being married and taken out of school. The oldest two were teenagers, but the youngest, Eunice, was still childlike at 11 years old. I took a liking to her, and she to me; I was one of the first people to ever hear her story. It was a secret we now shared, as I sat with her and another girl in the dorm. We were talking and joking and playing when they stopped speaking English and suddenly left me out of the conversation.
“Silantoi,” Eunice said, turning back to me after a few seconds.
Smiling, I asked her for clarification.
“Your Maasai name,” she said. “Silantoi.”
The girls at the OGRC are mostly from the Maasai tribe, which means their first name is a Christian name that they choose when baptized, their second name is a Maasai name that is chosen by their father’s mother when they are born, and their third name is their family name.
I asked Eunice what my Maasai name meant in English and she told me: courageous.
Courageous? Wasn’t she the one who faced threats of circumcision and marriage? Wasn’t she the one who had to leave home to avoid these and continue her education? Wasn’t she the one who took two younger siblings with her when she fled to keep them out of harm’s way? And me? I had never faced anything as difficult as her trials. Yes, I had seen people close to me face physical illness and depression, and, between suicides, drunk drivers, and school shootings, I was exposed to a lot of death at a young age. But I was always a bystander, a witness. Plus, she didn’t know any of this. How could she call me courageous? I didn’t get it.
After the trip, I passed the summer working in Yellowstone and constantly thinking about Kenya, and still didn’t get it. I finished my last year of college with multiple honors and still didn’t get it. I spent 8 months working and writing in the mountains…still didn’t get it. Three more months in the city..no new insights on this courage thing. Then, two years after my first trip to Kenya, I was headed back there to travel and do research for a writing project
. When I arrived at the OGRC, the girls remembered my Maasai name and occasionally called me by it. I still didn’t know why they thought I was courageous and, for some reason, I didn’t ask. I spent this past April in Kenya, and May in Tanzania. I’ve been home a month now and have felt culture shock work in me the way it did after my first trip to Kenya: subtly and gradually, with time. I don’t always notice every little thing as being a shock. It’s more that I absorb things and then become ridiculously overwhelmed and have inexplicable crying breakdowns, sometimes in public. I have days where I feel lighthearted and happy and so lucky to have the things and people and adventures I do, after seeing a lot of people who don’t have a tenth as much.
But I also have days when I am heavy-hearted because I know things that are difficult to think about. I have new knowledge, which means I don’t have the option to be accidentally ignorant anymore. And I am a more troubled person overall after two trips to Kenya.
Two days ago I was lost in thought after a couple of glasses of wine and, suddenly, I understood why the girls at the OGRC called me courageous. Both times I got on the plane to Kenya, I was in it for adventure and fun and to learn new things and teach others about them. I did not go into it thinking that it is brave of me to seek out knowledge and write about the difficult issues that the world’s women face. I was just being my curious self and doing what I enjoy; personally I don’t think I am all that brave of a gal! But what I realized was that travelling to a third world country, which so many in our generation do or want to do, takes courage. And I don’t mean the kind of courage required to get around on public transportation, poop over holes in the ground, eat weird food, or speak a different language. I mean the kind of courage it takes to enter deeply into the way other people live, to not ignore the sights and sounds and struggles of other humans, to hear firsthand what it’s like for a girl to be circumcised or beaten. I mean the kind of courage it takes when you’re trying to make sense of the world a little bit.