The cavernous baggage claim area became still and quiet as the empty conveyor belt came to a slow, groaning halt. Simultaneously looking at each other, we mouthed our most choice maledictions. The only ones left in the yawning arrivals hall and our bags nowhere in sight, we wistfully filed a claim to have them recovered. But, as we passed through the sliding glass doors to meet our driver, we were thrown into another dimension. With that first breath of fresh African air, and the view of clear blue sky, warm sunshine, and white, billowing clouds, a new chapter had begun. We didn’t even care that our bags were lost. We’d arrived in Kenya, finally. After eight months of traveling, Africa was our last planned stop, and it was a place I’d dreamt of going for years.
Riding up to our volunteering assignment near the town of Gilgil, about 140 km north of the capital city, Nairobi, we spotted multiples of warthogs, impala antelope, massive buzzards, a huge troop of baboons, and herds upon herds of zebra. Our driver, Simon, explained the lay of the land to us and a bit of history on Kenya and the place we were going, a small town located just off the main road connecting Uganda with the Indian Ocean. We were about to start a month of volunteering at the Restart home for rescued children, but this journey started long before setting off on a plane from India.
It began with a bond of friendship forged in the humbling humidity of the Micronesian island of Pohnpei some five years earlier. The special thing about my friend Becky was that I could have seen us palling around in high school, fifteen years earlier when I was a very different person, just as easily as we connected in the jungles and on the beaches of one of the most remote outposts of humanity. Where some people mistook her for hard headed or brash, I saw her as confident and authentic. I respected her, looked up to her even, for what she had accomplished at such a young age and all that she hoped to someday become. All of which made her passing all the more tragic.
In the moments following her death, just before I helped carry her body up the hillside and out of the jungle, I’ve come to believe, a part of Becky’s spirit found safe haven within me. It was her spirit that gave me the energy to persevere in Micronesia, to challenge myself to seek meaningful work when I returned home, and it was because of her that we find ourselves in the village of Langalanga, Kenya, volunteering at the same home for abandoned children that Becky worked at and had dreams of returning to. All these years later, a small part of her has returned – in spirit and in ash.
After returning to Micronesia last summer and visiting the waterfall where she died, I wrote Becky’s parents to let them know of our plans to visit Africa and if there was anything they would like me to do in honor of her spirit. Without hesitation, they requested that I scatter her ashes at a place as dear to Becky’s heart as any other: Restart. So, a few weeks later, my parents, who were meeting up with us in Vietnam, flew out with a small package, and we’ve carried it with us wherever we’ve gone. It’s been in the verdant rice terraces of northern Vietnam, the majestic beaches of southern Thailand, the highland of the Himalaya and the deserts of Arabia. And now she was home – in Africa.
After a couple hours of driving, Simon dropped us at the flat we’d be staying, located between the Restart facility and the home of the charity’s founder, Mary Coulson. One of her right hand men, Luke, took the baton and after showing us around the apartment we’d be staying for the next month, brought us to Restart. Walking us around the grounds of the newly built facility, young children came up to us, sometimes bashfully, sometimes with exuberance, and shook our hands. Luke explained the tragic paths each of these young souls had endured to make it to the arms of place that offered them asylum from the terrors that beset them in the streets. Some had no parents, others were abandoned, others still had been beaten or used in various iterations of slavery or forced prostitution. None had lived an easy life.
Even the youngest of the lot was found in the arms of a young street girl at the age of only two weeks. Abandoned by her mother in a dumpster in the middle of town, the child hadn’t eaten in some time and was quite sick. After a few weeks of treatment, baby Anna was on the path to recovery, and now is the sweetest 10-month old, crying only when she’s hungry. Her mother’s whereabouts are unknown, a fate not uncommon for many here. The stories of these children’s past were as heart-wrenching as the children themselves were adorable, and each carried with them tales of heartbreak and suffering, the next more horrific than the last.
Later, we were taken to the charity’s administrative offices, located in a building adjacent to Mary’s home, which is on a large, well appointed estate, down a long drive. After some brief introductions, we sat down with her and some of her friends and colleagues to share in an afternoon tea – only fitting for people of colonial British high society. Sitting in front of broad windows in her sunroom, the slowly rising ridge of mountains stretching out behind her, and the clouds splintering a setting sun into a hundred shards of light radiating through to the ground, Mary explained the tragic origins of Restart.
Recoveries and revolutions are often born in humanity’s darkest hours. Alcoholics harken ever back to their “bottom” as the moment they awoke to the possibilities of a different, better life. The social, civil, and political unrest of the 1960’s in the US was a period of great chaos and uncertainty, but it begot civil rights legislation enfranchising millions and helped bring an end to a seemingly interminable war. Such was the case with Restart Africa.
In early 2008, after Kenya’s contentious and unfair national elections, widespread violence erupted, forcing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. Because the army had established a number of facilities in and around the small town of Gilgil, many people fled there for refuge. With so many destitute migrants on the streets, children were being abandoned there on a daily basis. When Mary, a 30-year resident of Gilgil, witnessed the horrors facing those abandoned, she decided to act. Restart began in a small building near the center of town, taking in and caring for six boys. Later, it moved to a larger facility further from town, with the capacity to care for many more children.
Today, Restart Africa has taken residence in a newly built facility well outside of town, and employs nearly a hundred staff, most local, in addition to providing housing, education, and care to over a hundred children. These are children who otherwise would have been the victims of violence, or in many cases found death before they found the trailhead to a better life. It is an amazing place that has done wonders for so many children. But behind every child’s smile is a sad, or horrifying, or uncertain story from their past.
After a few days of getting settled in (and driving back to Nairobi to pick up our bags from the airport), we were finally able to interact with the kids. And boy, did they school us…on the soccer field, that is. I don’t know the last time I played – maybe 20 years ago in my last JV match. It showed. These little kids ran circles around us; playing in goal, they scored on me as seven little ones had gotten behind our defense. Seeing them playing and laughing, it was as though their collective tragic past had been washed away. They danced in their freedom, sang in their safety, and smiled with the confidence that life for them was now good. Surely though, all that had befallen them previously can never be entirely undone. These kids will carry the scars of their abandonment and trauma with them forever, each learning to deal with it in their own way. But the beaming expressions on these kids’ faces signified the resilience they all possess.
For all the appalling backstories, these kids personified inspiration. Despite their youth, the children at Restart epitomized the strength residing in the whole of humanity, like a phoenix, ever able to evolve and remake itself from the ashes. And the compassion and dogged devotion paid to them by Mary and the rest of the staff was nothing short of moving. To think that what began as an idea born from sorrow and outrage just nine years ago has blossomed into what exists today was equally inspiring and proves that one person, no matter where they are, can make a difference. I understood why Becky had spoken so highly of this place.
The following days and weeks would pass with us working in the office, library, or kitchen in the mornings while the children were at school, returning home for lunch and a rest, and heading back to Restart for the afternoon and evening to play with the children. We’d swing the kids in the air, exercise with them, trade haircuts with them, read them stories, play with them on the jungle gym, play sports and music and cards with them, shine their shoes with them – pretty much everything you’d expect a bunch of kids living together to enjoy, we joined them in doing. Our days there generally ended with us serving the children dinner, seeing them smile one last time, and then walking the 20 or so minutes back to our apartment with three other volunteers.
At nights, we’d hang with the three others – UK students, Ben, Henry, and Helena – who were all on their pre-uni gap year, and together enjoy the sumptuous food cooked for us by Mary’s personal chef, Thomas. It proved quite the paradox, being in Africa but surrounded by people who spoke better English (at least with prettier accents) than us. The contradictions continued with the juxtaposition of the regal estate on which Mary’s home and the charity’s offices were situated and the rough and tumble town of Langalanga next door, with it’s rolling hills and sun drenched fields – it was the epitome of colonial beside the definition of the bush, concentrated wealth and privilege against a milieu of poverty and depravity. Such is Africa – a land of enigmatic extremes.
Unable to avoid the inevitable, I got sick; then the boys, Ben and Henry, got sick. It took a toll on us physically and emotionally, but the children at Restart always picked us up. Unfortunately for Ben, it came near the end of his time here. For his send-off, we took a day trip to a nearby national park, Mount Logonot, a 9000-foot tall dormant volcano, in what was the young Brits’ highest ever ascent. It was the one opportunity we afforded ourselves for adventure in a month mostly devoted to serving the charity and the children.
After three weeks here in Langalanga, it was finally time to scatter the ashes of my friend to whom this place meant so much. It was only after coming here that I fully realized how much this place meant to Becky and how much she meant to it. I learned that she was the organization’s very first volunteer, that she lived with its founder, Mary, and that Mary saw Becky as someone to whom she could pass the torch, whenever Mary, now age 73, was forced to step away from operating the charity. I knew Becky had every intention to return here at some point, but I hadn’t realized the immense impact she’d had and that such responsibilities awaited her here if she chose that path.
With those revelations as a backdrop, we drove with Mary to the new Restart facility and scattered the ashes in the main courtyard, as children played in the grass and the sun warmed a slight breeze that reminded me, for a moment, of Micronesia. After the wind had taken her ashes into the embrace of a midday African sky, Mary and I recounted the time we’d spent with Becky and how her beautiful soul had impacted both of our lives. Bright, strong, compassionate – she could have done anything, we recalled, and then remembered that she had already done so much for someone so young. As her life defied expectations, her death defined tragedy.
Becky’s parents had also requested we pay tribute to her at the former Restart facility where Becky had worked when she was here. Now a shell of its former self, the derelict building with broken windows and fallen-down ceilings sits idle, even as neighborhood children play in adjacent fields. Before scattering the last of her ashes, I read a poem, getting choked up on the last line, knowing that she, in fact, would want us to, “smile, open our eyes, love and go on.”
That night, in the few moments I had to myself, I reflected on our day, the journey Jenna and I have shared since Micronesia, and the years since Becky had passed. It was then that I realized it was Becky who had led me here – she had been a whisper in my ear and kindling to the fire of my inspiration. But I also became aware, in that moment, that that whisper was gone. She’d found her way back home and was, once and for all, at peace.