From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

African Eyes

The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

Marcel Proust

Those eyes. I’ve seen them before. The pleading stare from the child on the TV screen is so familiar. Her swollen belly peeks out from beneath the tattered shirt that she has long outgrown. Her face is soiled with a mixture of dirt and remnants of food. The commercial begins to fade as I close my eyes. The emotions return, and I am again in Africa.

Those same eyes looked into mine just months earlier. It was our last night in Samburu, Kenya, and we had been working all day. We had spent the week in this village through the CHOICE Humanitarian program working alongside the villagers in building schoolrooms, making bricks, hauling dirt and teaching lessons in the schools. The preparation for the trip had begun almost a year before, however. It was an inaugural student trip. Sixteen students were chosen to travel to Africa. The program emphasized “helping locally to help globally,” so each of us had chosen a place to render service throughout the year. We each completed one hundred hours of service. I had worked at a local elementary school helping tutor children and reading to them three times a week. So here I was, an admittedly sheltered girl from Utah, in the middle of Africa. In addition to helping with physical tasks in the village, we had also been involved in cultural exchange activities—learning about the Kenyan culture while they learned about ours. Since it was our last night, some of the villagers had invited us to their homes for dinner— a huge honor—and we accepted. As we reached the end of the long walk down the dirt road to their collection of huts, the sun was just setting on the African horizon. We stopped as we turned the corner to see all of the children of the village running toward us with wide smiles almost fighting to hold our hands. One young girl in particular stood out. She stood about waist high and looked at me smiling shyly. She reached up her hand and took mine. Wordlessly, we walked into the village together.

Some time passed as her mother prepared dinner. It had grown dark. We sat outside the mud-and-stick house that the little girl and her family called home. It was a one-bedroom hut that held the mother and her nine children. The little girl could only speak Swahili, and I could only speak English so she looked at me, studying my white skin and touching my straight, blonde hair. I set her on my lap and looked at her. Her tattered dress was hanging off of her body. She made no attempt to swat at the flies that constantly buzzed by her head frequently landing on her nose. Yet, as I looked at her, her eyes sparkled against her beautiful black skin. There was something there I had never seen before—a sort of genuine happiness. It puzzled me. This little girl lived in a house that barely kept out the elements. The other villagers often scraped together food for her family when their father who worked in the city to support them had not sent money, but when they invited us to eat, they offered to kill their last goat to make a huge meal for us. Of course, we refused and just told them to bring what they had, but it amazed me. This family was willing to give up everything they had to feed us and show their appreciation for what we had done for their village. They had nothing and were completely happy. I was on the verge of tears when the music began. The little girl slid from my lap, flashed me a smile, and pulled me from my chair onto the dirt floor outside the hut. Underneath the African moonlight with only a lantern to light the darkness, we danced. I held her little hand in mine as the music filled us both. We may have danced differently, but the feelings we felt were the same. We were one—me, the little girl, the music and Africa.

The music subsided, and I relaxed back into my chair. My new friend twirled my ring between her delicate fingers and laid her head on my lap as I stroked her soft, fluffy hair. Her mother announced dinner and we went into the hut cramped together but enjoying it all. They brought us all the food they had—a few chapatis and some sauce to dip it in. They denied us nothing and kept nothing for themselves. We politely ate and thanked them profusely for the dinner. I was touched and yet saddened. They had given up their dinner in feeding us. The children would most likely not get to eat, and I knew that this wasn’t the first time it had happened. I also knew it wouldn’t be the last. We sat in the hut talking as the light of the lantern began to grow dim. The villagers walked us back to the school where we stayed.

As I scooped up my little Kenyan friend when we said good-bye, I could see the sadness in her eyes. I felt the same. We had not spoken a word to each other, but I knew I was forever tied to this girl. Her wide eyes stared into mine, and I saw the dreams she held for what she could become. I had these same dreams when I was her age, yet I knew my circumstances had been much different and the opportunities afforded to me much greater. Coming to Africa to live and work with the people that make the country so beautiful was priceless.

Through the hours of service it took to get there and the hours of service rendered while there, I had come to see what I could become with a little work. I had seen the hero inside of me—the best part that resides in each of us that just yearns to get out. I had looked at service, at Africa and at myself through those African eyes—eyes full of hope for a future that I may not see, eyes searching for whatever good may lie in things, eyes that see a need with arms that reach out to help, eyes that have seen sadness and boldly dared to hope against hope.

The commercial ends and I switch off the TV. If only everyone knew what I knew. If only I could show everyone else those eyes.

Stephanie Sheen

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For information on Choice Humanitarian, contact 7879 S. 1530 W. Suite 200, West Jordan, UT 84088; 801-474-1937; fax: 801-474-1919; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site:]

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