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From City to Country

Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn

Written by Claudia Dessanti, 2015 East Africa: Discovery

On my third day in East Africa, I found my mantra: Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.

I found these words graffitied on the wall at PAWA254, an art collaborative that empowers local artists to use their work as vehicles for social activism. For PAWA254, activism through art, or “artivism” as they call it, is a daily struggle. Sometimes they win, and their work fosters tangible improvements. And sometimes their art is wiped off the walls by the Kenyan authorities – both literally and figuratively.

Artwork by PAWA245

Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.

Although it needs no context, this phrase rings particularly true when it comes to traveling.

During our week-long stay in Kenya, we collected a number of “wins”: meeting wonderful people, eating delicious food, planting trees at a school in Kimende, and so on. But intertwined amongst these wins were a number of challenges. Not losses, but lessons.

After visiting PAWA254 that day, the other program participants and I got pulled into a local crafts shop. Surrounded by wooden giraffes and handmade sarongs, it was time to put our bargaining abilities to the test. The shopkeepers around us overwhelmed us with their insistence. I left the shop $60 USD poorer, with souvenirs far too small to justify my payment. I learned that bargaining is an acquired skill and one that I was far from mastering.

After planting trees with KENVO

The secret to learning while traveling, in my opinion, is to find the boundaries of your comfort zone, be honest to yourself about what they are, and then take one small step outside.

That step, regardless of how small it seems, tends to go a long way.

Whether we were navigating our way through the bustling streets of Nairobi or devouring a plate of warm, homemade chapatti, we were learning.

With Homestay Hosts

During our short stay in Kimende, we had the opportunity to live with local families while volunteering for KENVO, an environmental conservation organization. The cultural barriers between our hosts and us were striking. Yet, ironically, it was also when many of us felt most connected to Kenya. Despite our obvious differences in lifestyles and customs, we were in many ways the same as our hosts. Preoccupied with laundry, cooking, friends and family. Taking care of children in the best way we know how. Sleeping in on weekends.

Visiting the slums of Kibera and Mathare was another eye-opening moment. We walked through streets filled with burning trash, passed wooden houses that seemed to be minutes away from collapsing, and shook hands with children showing signs of malnourishment. None of this surprised us. On the other hand, we did not expect the happiness that emanated from those same streets. In their laughs and in their voices we heard a serenity that I didn’t think possible for people struggling to survive each day.

Entering Kibera

We spoke to the staff at Carolina for Kibera, an organization that works to improve the living conditions in three villages of Kibera. We learned that, among other things, they organize various sports tournaments to present local youth with positive ways to pass their free time. I was immediately reminded of my childhood, when I too played organized sports in my community. Again, the kilometers between us suddenly seemed less significant.

None of these experiences would have been possible had we chosen to spend our summers within the safe boundaries of our comfort zones.

Because sometimes you win, sometimes you learn, and sometimes you do both.

what are you waiting for?