As a child growing up in rural Mississippi, I always dreamed of traveling to Africa. My mother and father used to tell my siblings and me about how our ancestors came from there long ago. I wanted to visit that distant place from which our ancestors were stolen. Books and films did not satisfy me. I wanted to see Africa with my own eyes.
This May, I got the chance. My niece Farah Stockman founded Jitegemee, and for the program’s 10th anniversary, she invited me and 19 other family members and friends to visit Kenya. The journey was more rewarding than I could have imagined.
We flew from Atlanta to Amsterdam, where we converged with cousins, sisters, nephews and family friends for the 8-hour flight to Nairobi. Most of us had never been to Africa before. Some of us had never left the United States.
From the moment our plane touched down in Nairobi, we were met by a whirlwind of colors and sounds. We visited the Masaai market—a vast, teeming place of exchange. Then we went to the Go Down, a community of artists in Nairobi’s industrial area where we saw sculptors, painters and dancers. We also met Jitegemee’s children and teachers there for the first time. They had made the hour’s journey on a school bus from the rural town of Machakos for a day of art activities. I was so impressed with the children, who painted and acted out short dramas based on their interpretations of the art around them. They seemed to hang on to every bit of instruction, their bodies often leaning forward so as not to miss a single word.
Two days later, we set off in Star Travel vans for the town of Machakos, where Jitegemee’s new school was waiting for us. The children welcomed us with clapping, singing and dancing! I was overwhelmed. Inside the school building, the youth in vocational training assembled and we shared greetings and information about our lives in America. The children stood to tell us their names and the trades they were learning. Their faces shone with enthusiasm as they vied for our attention. They filled my heart. These youth had not been as fortunate as many other children, yet they were eager to share all their best with us. I felt so welcome. Later in the day, we set off for town to see the shops where the students trained in dressmaking, hairdressing, knitting, cabinet making, furniture making and mechanics.
But I had grown tired and began to lag behind the group. Immediately, a tall slender girl slowed her pace and looked back at me. “You are tired” she said. “I will help you.” She linked her arm with mine and entwined our fingers as we trudged up the little hill leading from the school. Suddenly I no longer felt tired. This is how I met Cecelia, a student dressmaker. Moments like that defined this trip for me.
The next day was the long-awaited celebration. Everyone seemed bright and shiny as we gathered for breakfast. There was a hush about the school. A giant tent had been erected in the school yard with chairs underneath. In the back, mothers and guardians of Jitegemee children had prepared enormous pots of stew for lunch. The children arrived in colorful new Jitegemee shirts they had been given the day before. We were joined by a group of children from an orphanage near Mount Kenya and nearby visitors from the Christian Children’s Fund. As more children and guests arrived, the hush gave way to an air of excitement and anticipation.
Mike Kimeu, the program director, and Terry Mutuku, the chair of our advisory board, soon took the microphone, introducing the day. Teachers Alex and Elizabeth led the children in poems, songs and dances. Local dancers donned beaded black outfits, pounding drums and singing songs that called each one of us out to dance. I took the microphone with my two sisters and our brother to sing an old gospel song that we used to sing as children in church. We sang one verse in Swahili. The crowd fell silent with listening.
A few days later, a plane lifted us out of Africa, back to all the American cities that we came from, back to our ordinary jobs and ordinary lives. But I had finally made it to Africa, and I knew that I had left behind the spirits of my ancestors who had now traveled, full circle, back home.
By Pearlie Hemdane