Wednesday, September 4, 2013

I'm A Visiting Dignitary. Whether I Like It or Not.

Living here there’s a lot you have to be ready for, to brace yourself for, but it’s pretty predictable: mosquito bites, sun burns, malaria, kamikaze road traffic, a plethora of requests for assistance...

But something you may not be aware of is that you also should be ready to play the role of visiting dignitary at a moment’s notice.  The correct assumption of your relative wealth means that you’ll get lots of invitations to various functions -- school graduations, clinics, rural homes, funerals, weddings etc…  It’s equal parts warm hospitality and possible fund-raising effort.  You will have to remain poised, dignified and have a gracious speech at your back pocket.

Case in point:  A brother of a friend of ours recently invited us to visit the school he's the principal of.  It’s one of only 4 government-supported schools for the physically disabled in Kenya.  Walter was effusively friendly, easy to connect with and genuinely passionate about his work.  He breezily mentioned we should visit “whenever we had time.”  “I’ll show you around” he said off-handedly.

So, always keen to learn more about the country, we settled on a date, piled in the car and drove the nearly 3 hours to meet him at his new school.  You know, to be “shown around.”   

When we arrived, dusty and road worn, sweaty and cranky children falling out of the car, we were greeted by the school board and principals, clad in suits and ties, creating a kind of enthusiastic receiving line.  We were ushered into the administrative building – a concrete block of offices under a tin roof – where a plate of mandazi (donuts) and a steaming kettle of tea awaited us. Everyone sat formally and a bit uncomfortably as the tea was served and an honest-to-goodness typed out meeting agenda was passed around. 
One member of the welcoming party poses in front of the entrance to the school.

To fill the awkward silence, we started to ask questions, “Where were the children from?”  “How many kids attend school here?”  

“Relax” we were told with a smile. “First things first. We’ll get to all of that.”

And they did. Eventually. After drinking some chai, the opening prayer was conducted and formal introductions were made around the table. Then the group took turns explaining their part in the school and providing a bit of history.  So, we settled back into our role of visiting dignitary, allowing our hosts the rigid formality they expected, nodding patiently at their presentations, and asking polite questions only when they were through. 

We were then ushered out to tour the facilities, encouraged to snap pictures and ask some more questions.  They kept referring to our small family as “the team” from IPA, as if we were representatives from a large charity or inspectors from some lofty government oversight agency. 

The not so subtle fund-raising push was understandable. The place clearly struggles for money. But they were proud of what they had accomplished with little, showing us certificates the children had won in musical and academic concerts. 
Pretty soon they are going to run out of room to display all their awards!

Our fearless tour guide shows us the boys dorms.
Oh yes. The children.  Where were all these children?!  It was a Saturday, but this was a boarding school, so we knew they were around.  But we hadn’t seen a soul other than our suit-clad tour guides and their secretaries.

We walked a bit further and got our answer.  The children, hundreds of them, were huddled patiently in the shade of some trees on rows of wooden benches patiently awaiting our arrival.  But it had been hours and they were starting to stir.  We noticed that some chairs – the fancy plastic kind with arm rests – were positioned in front of the children.  These were to be our seats.

Tour completed and questions answered we were marshaled to honored seats in front, facing the crowd of expectant faces.  

We were introduced, waved a feeble but earnest greeting at the overwhelming crowd and sat back down to enjoy the performances.  And they were remarkable.These children, many of whom are severely physical disabled, sang, danced, played music, and recited poetry.  A boy with no arms wrote his name for us holding pen with his toes. 

When these unbelievable displays were finished, the crowd turned to us, for our response.

So, once again, we find ourselves in the unwitting and completely underserved role of celebrated guest.  We are humbled and a bit embarrassed. But somehow when you are there, thrust into the role in front of children who spent their Saturday awaiting your arrival, you summon something.  I wanted to say something encouraging, something supportive and even uplifting. I wanted to somehow connect with all these earnest and hopeful children who were up against serious odds.  So, I rose and made a short speech in Swahili. 

I doubt it was the inspirational encouragement I had hoped for, but at least I got them to laugh. 

I said in Swahili how honored we were to be there and how we see so clearly that they have so much strength and are so clever.  But of course I said it wrong and in the silliest possible way, something akin to “you all is so clever” which erupted the crowd in hysterics. 

I didn’t care.  They were laughing.  And I was glad it was at me.  It pulled me down off that pedestal I didn’t want to be placed on in the first place and broke down some barriers.

After we were through the children shyly approached, asked for pictures and erupted in more smiles when I showed them their images.  They took turns holding Emmet and finally walked us out.            

This role – that of the visiting bigwig – is something we’ve gotten used to. It’s an uncomfortable role and one we know we don’t merit.  We’re always awed by what we see and gain more from the immediate exchange than our hosts do.  We’re always humbled.

But if we don’t play the part, the whole script falls apart.  We are expected to be patient and gracious and then leave to remember them, tell our friends, send money. 
You can hardly blame them.  Money is what they need. We’d do the same in their shoes.  But I doubt we'd do it with such an incredible combination of pomp, finesse and heart. 

[If you're interested in learning more about the school - their story, their struggles and their incredible accomplishments, please see my post "Disability Is not Inability" in the World Moms Blog.  And do please contact me if you are inspired to help this seriously inspiring school.]


  1. What an inspiring school Kim - I'm so glad you had the opportunity to visit even if you did have to play the part of visiting dignitary!

    1. Me too! And I actually detest public speaking but these opportunities are giving me much needed practice! Anyway, it was a great visit, as always, and I'm getting used to the role we're expected to play. : )

  2. Been there, done that, usually do my magic trick. :)

  3. I'm glad I'm not the only one surprised by these "visiting dignitary" moments...and equally uncomfortable! I had a very similar experience at a school in Bomet where I thought I was just tagging along with a local Community Development team, but it turns out the school had put an entire program together for me, the "donor" of their water tank (my husband and I are volunteers and hadn't donated any tanks), but the CD team told me to play along! Very awkward, very funny, very endearing. We've been in Kenya for eight months, and I've been quietly reading your blog when I can for the last few months and really enjoy your perspective on life in Kenya. I've especially enjoyed your posts about missionaries as we are officially missionaries, but it's a role I'm often critical of. Thank you for encouraging me to give myself some grace. :-)

  4. As a Kenyan i started the article thinking how much i was going to hate on it after reading it, but i found myself laughing instead. I travel around quite a bit and Ive had the same experience on a number of occasions, though clearly not to your extent!