As told by Mateo Lombardo,
When I left Canada on August 25th, 2019, I had no idea just how enlightening a journey I was about to go on. Little did I know that I was to be awakened from the fantasy land that I was fortunate enough to be born into.
When we arrived at Nairobi airport, all the passengers were herded into the arrival centre where the Kenyan customs agents were. With no direct lines or a clear method to the madness, it was chaos. I was surrounded by an unfamiliar setting and almost overwhelmed by the volume of people crowded into a single gathering area. Once we had cleared customs and arrived at our hotel, this marked the beginning of an awakening into the realities of our new world.
The true journey began the next day, when we had to catch another flight to reach our final destination in the Massai Mara. Flying into the Kenyan Massai Marra was an absolute privilege with the undeniable natural beauty Kenya offered us from the sky. Yet despite this, it was still impossible not to notice Kibera, the largest and poorest slum in Africa. I have had the privilege of growing up in a middle-class family, attending private catholic school my entire life, and until this moment, I hadn’t fully understood the true reality of how millions of people live day in day out.
As we came to grips with the unimaginable living conditions that we had just witnessed, our guide explained that not only do more than one million people live within the boundaries of Kibera, but that it is one of the most dangerous areas in Kenya. Hearing these words silenced us all, as we reflected on just how different the lives we had left behind were from the ones facing these people.
Arriving at our new home, we were greeted and accepted into the beautiful property of Bogani, where we would meet the rest of our facilitators and guides. Over the next week, we would obtain a plethora of knowledge about ourselves, one another about how we operate both as individuals and as a community.
There are countless memories and moments that have stayed with me to this day, that I draw upon when I find myself confused and conflicted about my own life. Some of the most impactful moments from the trip include visiting the elementary and high school just down the road from Bogani, meeting Mama Jane and visiting a future community in which we would be implementing their key pillars.
On one of the first days, we were taken to an older school built for the children of the community – this was where I saw the harsh conditions that these children endured just to have a chance at an education. This experience really made me reflect on all the times that I had dreaded going to school or having to do homework. It made me realize that although these kids have to walk for dozens of miles in intense heat, they still show up to school with a smile on their faces. From the dirt floors to the tin roofs over the classrooms, the school was barely operational to a North American standard, but the students considered it a blessing.
The person I met next is to this day one of the strongest human beings I have ever had the opportunity to meet. There are no amount of words that could ever convey the true impact and strength that this person holds in both her community and further afield. Mama Jane is one of the strongest people I have ever met, not just physically but mentally and has put her community on the map.
To build her house, Mama Jane needed water, but despite being over 1km away from the nearest river, she walked there and back with a 70-pound water jug balancing on her neck and head. It might be hard to imagine the reality of how this feels, but I can tell you having had the opportunity to do this trip myself, it is nothing short of brutal. I only did this trip once and only carried the water jug on the way back – Mama Jane did this trip more than 25 times a day! She is a total inspiration to me.
Finally, one of the most impactful moments of the trip came on one of the last days when we took a bus for hours to visit this small community on the other side of the Massai Mara. This was one of the prospective communities that the charity we were working with were looking to support. Upon arrival, we were greeted by hundreds of students and their teachers, both young and old, to welcome us into their school. One by one, we unloaded the bus and kids would run up to us and grab our hands to lead us to their school grounds. On this road to their school, we were engulfed in a crowd of song and dance, and we felt the overwhelming welcoming energy of the students. We sat with these children, heard their stories, and got the opportunity to view the conditions of their old school, which were heartbreaking to see. Much like the previous school we visited, this school had merely the bare bones and did not provide much for its students. With that said, that did not deter their happiness or willingness to learn in any way.
Even though this school had dirt floors, half-broken tin roofs and holes in the walls, these students were so proud that they got to call it their school. This moment broke my heart because it really put into perspective how fortunate I was growing up and that I had so many self-inflicted “problems” – problems that meant absolutely nothing after witnessing the level of gratitude and joy these kids had.
After the tour of their school grounds, the children had a performance ready to present to us with a surprise no one could have expected. Following their songs and dances, we were all clothed with a traditional Massai blanket, which was a symbol of being welcomed into their community. Next they offered us a goat as a symbol of appreciation, which in Kenya, is a symbol of more than just food. In these smaller villages and communities, a singular goat can be the difference between dozens of people eating and not eating. But a goat can also represent a level of wealth, and this really hit me, because in North America, a goat is merely just a livestock animal and can be seen as a source of food, but in Kenya, it represents much more than that. The generosity of this community who offered us something that was so valuable to them touched me in a way I did not fully understand at the time.
As we loaded the bus to return to our camp, I was overwhelmed with so many emotions that I began to cry – the reality of the week and all that I had experienced hit me. This trip made me realise just how blessed I am to have my family and the life I live in Canada. I am so incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity to gain a better understanding of our world – it completely changed my whole perspective and outlook on life and I continue to use these experiences as motivation to give back to others.