Sunday, March 6, 2011

Taking a break from the grind

Today we took a break from our work schedules to spend some time in the communitiy of Nyeri. We spend time at the Allemanos Special School for mentally disabled children, and the Mweiga Orphanage, both of which are only a few kilometers from our hotel.
The conditions we met may have been shocking from an American perspective, but they were in line with much of what we have seen around Kenya, and the kids all seemed happy and well cared for. Once one reorients their vision to a country without building codes (at least outside the major cities) and with minimal material possessions (allowing that most of what we stock up on in the States is without regard for a need/want/just to have it distinction), you begin to absorb the actual experience of the people instead of their superficial surroundings. And in both cases, the first person experience of the kids seemed superb.
At Allemanos, we were prepared to not really have any interaction with the kids since so few of them are capable of communication. But from the moment we arrived, it was clear that standard verbal communication was not going to be required. We parked the cars, and walked down to the sports fields where the students were having Physical Education. Immediately a wave of at least 100 kids of all ages, identically dressed in gray jumpers FLOODED towards screaming at the top of their lungs. Within moments, there were multiple kids leading us around by the hands, kicking soccer balls, dancing, and just generally making clear their unrestrained glee at our presence. In some ways, it was the least foreign experience that I’ve had since I’ve been here. These kids, deprived of speech, were like similar kids anywhere in the world – unburdened by the knowledge of their own limitation, and absolutely satisfied, even ecstatic, within the boundaries defined for them.
We started up an IBMers vs. Allemanos soccer game, which basically consisted of the 6 male IBMers versus about 30 mixed-gender Allemanos students. They had seemingly boundless energy, but we had precision. After giving up an early goal in part due to amazement, I took a perfect feed from John and tied it up with an open goal. Rami would have been so proud. Alex, our DOT liaison, joined us and scored the next goal despite his inappropriate alligator shoes. And Francesco put us ahead for good. I let up a late goal, but we triumphed 3-2… our hosts did not seem put out.
After the kids had some lunch and we some tea with the school administrators and teachers, we got a short tour of the facility – a simple kitchen where the aptly named Charity cooks the 400 meals per day that the school requires, a nicely outfitted physical therapy gym, a garden that the more able kids help maintain, a cow pen where the half dozen oxen provide milk for the school again with assistance from the pre-vocationally functional students, the laundry, the dormitories and the classrooms. Most of the buildings were donated from societies in Europe, though all of the staff is constituted of government employees.
My colleague Francesco brought an extra laptop and provided Sister Jane, the school administrator, with the school’s first computer, complete with a USB modem which will outfit them with internet connectivity.
The kids put on a lovely presentation singing and dancing with full vigor, and most of the IBM team joined in the fun. All in all, an extraordinarily rewarding visit.
Our next stop was an orphanage in Mweiga. I was creeped out by the welcome we received, which consisted of well-rehearsed songs, dance numbers and a (weak) comedy routine. My allergy increased as the time went on as I asked myself “Is this another safari?” I got suspicious that maybe this was the donor shpiel that the administrators had the kids put on in order to extract more foreign money from visiting pockets, and I withdrew from the crowd to talk to some of the kids around the periphery. Fortunately, my impression seems to have been inaccurate, and the kids I spoke with were very well adjusted and not at all put upon by the proprietors to gussy up to visitors. I spoke with Theresa, a 13 year old girl who was caring for their newest orphan – pudgy 9 month old. She was self-confident, articulate and pleasant, talking to me about her desires to go to the University of Nairobi and study accounting, her satisfaction with her local school, the big-sisterly role that she plays with some of the other girls in the orphanage and the general litany of teen stuff. She was decked out in a High School Musical t-shirt, naturally, though I never got to ask her if she actually knew what that was.
I played some soccer (poorly) here as well, and then broke out some of the gifts we had brought, specifically the construction paper and massive bin of crayons that Bianica had brought. Immediately the kids converged on me and I was awash in children showing off how well they could write their names or draw a flower. It was adorable. I broke out my rusty origami skills and started doling out paper cranes and fortune tellers to much acclaim. Reka then graced the kids with some salsa dance instruction which they seemed to catch onto quickly (certainly relative to me). I got some face time with the 9-month-old who was initially quite shy, but the patented Sloan baby charm bore fruit and the international language of “Boop on the nose” was received with the requisite smiles and giggles. The skies opened and the rain started to call, which we took as a clear sign that our day was over.
The next day, we proceeded to Kimathi University, where I had the opportunity to address about 100 students on the general topic of why IBM is cool and why they should Think Big. I was bowled over by the reception, with some of my Swahili humor getting a rise and very positive views from students and teammates alike. I stayed after to talk Watson with a few of the more inquisitive students while most of the students went for an IBM career workshop and to do some hands on work building functional smartboards from about $22 of materials.

Half the team then departed to Mombasa for the weekend, but I stayed back for another restful, if largely solitary, Shabbat. Tomorrow, we’re off to hike a bit on Mount Kenya before returning to our productive grind.

1 comment:

  1. Dave CSC DC,
    I have closely followed your blog postings and was gratified to note the amount of life and enthusiam you injected to the entire IBM CSC tour that started in kenya.Thank you for your sincerity, your incisive blog contents on THE KNEWS YOU REFUSE and the superb comparative indepth analogy in TAKING A BREAK FROM THE GRID following your visit to the Allamano Special School for mentally handicapped Children and the orphanage.I was part of the team that founded the Allamanos school in 1996 and the FRIENDS OF ALLAMANO.Thanks alot, to you and your IBM CSC team.WELLDONE.
    John Patrick
    March 28th 2011 8:40PM Orlando FL USA