My youngest daughter is far braver than I ever was or ever will be.
For the past five months, she’s been living in Nakuru, Kenya, where she volunteers with Start Small, a nonprofit organization that educates children, provides meals and water for schools in the slums, raises funds so families can have meals and supports “under the radar projects.” Jennie worked, saved money and paid her way there.
Another month, and she’ll return to the U.S., and perhaps I’ll breathe a bit easier. I wasn’t exactly ever wild about her returning to Africa, for the third time, to Nakuru, described as “one of the hardest hit towns in the 2007/2008 post election violence with families still living in IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps years on.” In the area where she lives, people have little. Jennie, to her credit, has become a shrewd bargainer, often trying to buy things for Start Small’s educational efforts with her own money. She used some of the money we sent her to buy supplies so she and others could build desks for a small school in the Rhonda slum. The children, she said, were super excited at the prospect of being able to sit down at desks during school.
My daughter has always been fearless. She was just 5 years old when she took part in her first Polar Bear Plunge in Idaho and dove into a 40-degree lake. She has a spirit that won’t stay behind doors, but is always soaring out windows. She is one of those people who are a joy to be around. Like I said, she has more courage than I, because at her age, early 20s, I would never have had the guts to leave my home and travel to a country where I knew no one. But she goes. No doubts. She has developed a heart for helping others, especially children. I believe it came from her uncle Mark.
Still, while I trust in her decisions and know she is smart and careful, I begin to worry when I haven’t received a text message after several days and wonder if everything is OK. Then, a message arrives, like the one this morning: “Had a great hour run tonight. Gorgeous evening. Killer hills. Loved it!”
One thing Jennie did get from me is a love for running. So there are mornings and nights, before or after her volunteer work, she runs, much to the amusement of some Kenyans who are surprised at the sight of this slight American woman bounding along the dirt roads. Sometimes, she shares her thoughts about those runs, and I am uplifted. There have been other notes from Jennie that have lightened my days since she’s been gone:
w “Ran 45 minutes in the dead heat of the day. Thought I would collapse. No pain, no gain!).
w “Finally rained after a month of no rain and dead heat! Felt so nice! Smelled wonderful. Running slow but thoroughly enjoying it.”
w “Ran for about an hour tonight. Smelled like rain but it never came. Dusty, dusty, dusty in this dang town! Inhaling it the whole time. I think it’s in my teeth.”
w “Beautiful out. Found this enormous hill full of Kenyans exercising! You would have just died! Men boxing their way up the hill, jump roping at the top, high knees on the way down, it was awesome.”
w “Waking up to a neon orange sunrise coming through my bedroom window is something of a fairy tale. Sunshine, a bed and the ability to go running every morning = pure happiness :)”
I am inspired by Jennie. She sacrifices, with no complaints, so others who have so little can have more. I find pleasure and pride, not just in her actions, but in her words — words she writes so well. In my office, hanging on the wall, is a poem she wrote and presented to me years ago, painted, decorated with a shoelace and framed. It was one of the items I brought with me from the Mainland when I moved here. I treasure it, draw strength from it and am emboldened by it. Here is what it says:
you step out your front door
inhale for preparation
exhale and let it linger
feel the air on your skin
crack a smile at the sunrise
give a friendly wave
to the tree across the street
then it begins
pick up your feet
bend your knees
your arms take a similar action
and your lungs expand
it’s all so natural
a familiar feeling of strength
surges through you
the wind wraps you in its arms
of empowering freedom
locking every inch of you in its grasp
flowing straight through to your core
cleansing you of any hindrance brought on
throughout your daily doses of chaos
oh, that perfect, selfless freedom
it pushes you up the hill
and sends you barreling
down the other side
All you are is in this one moment
everything you have is focused
on one action
and you can finally breathe
because at this point in time
you are in complete control
every stress, every worry,
everything, simply dissipates
and you are left with simple freedom
and all you have to think is
step after step
breath after breath
Each night, I read this poem before I go home. I think of our daughter running in Africa, strong and fast into the dark or the light somewhere out in the country on an endless road of rocks and dirt. Fearless. Sweating, smiling, driving ahead, legs eating up the miles, passing trees and shacks and people, charging ahead into the beauty of the Africa she has come to love.
Ah, to know such courage, to feel such freedom.
Perhaps, someday, I will join her there.
Bill Buley is editor-in-chief of The Garden Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org