Who were these people who had such gratitude with so little; who found happiness in giving what they could to others when they had almost nothing to give? As we left they handed us another thing that was a treasure to them, corn. It was their only source of food and they were giving some of it to us. Right before me was proof that happiness isn’t created by having. They thought their gift was the soda and corn but they gave me something more valuable than that.
I got off the plane in Mombasa, Kenya, Africa and braced myself for what I might experience over the next 10 days. I had never been on this side of the world and certainly never this far from home. Most of my travel until this point in my life was to see family or go sightseeing, this was anything but.
My vision of Africa until then was what I had seen in the pages of National Geographic and what I had been taught in elementary school. As a little girl I remember speaking to my dad after watching a video of the devastating conditions in Africa. I didn’t understand why some of God’s children were suffering while others had everything they could ever need and more. It didn’t make much sense to me. He taught me how God expects his children who have more to help His children who have less. I still didn’t know how a 7 year old in New Mexico could help someone in Africa.
When I was told that I may have the opportunity to go on a humanitarian trip with Thrive Life through their charity Thriving Nations I knew without question that I would do whatever it took to go. So there I was almost 30 years later doing what my dad told me to do. Though I stood there with my duffle bags full of needed donations and a wallet full of money to buy more supplies, I had no idea that I would receive more than I could ever give.
We loaded our van and traveled several miles outside Mombasa to the most humble villages in the area. I was excited but nervous that I would spend the week feeling so sad for these people that had so little. Our first stop was to meet with the village that Thriving Nations had helped by creating a way for them to collect water. Before then the women had to walk up to 7 miles to get water for their family and carry it back on their heads. As we walked towards the village I began to hear the most joyful singing. This was not the scene I was expecting.
The entire village had gathered at the water hole. They had set out homemade chairs for us to sit in, they draped us in their traditional clothing and gave us new names to symbolize adopting us into their village family. I was completely overwhelmed by the love and joy they showered on us. Though we didn’t speak the same language, love and gratitude was clearly communicated.
This was the scene over and over again. Villages gathered to welcome us in love and share their joy. My vision of a sad and deprived people was completely disassembled. These were among the most joyful and abundant people I had ever met. How could this be possible when the only “toys” I ever saw were made from scraps of trash and the only food I saw was corn?
Towards the end of my time there we traveled the furthest distance to the poorest village yet. Mungano was so remote that the children had never seen a white person. Due to the lack of transportation some had lived their entire lives in this village and had never even seen the city of Mombasa even though it was only 50 miles away.
We met at their school; if you could call it a school. The walls of the small classrooms were made from mud bricks that were crumbling apart. The roof was covered by tree branches and metal scraps filled with holes. I was surprised to find one classroom with homemade desks though they were in great need of repair. In the rest of the classrooms the children were lucky if they had a rock to sit on. No books, no writing materials, no colorful wall hangings.
I noticed my friend crying and I asked her why. She pointed to a tree with a rock under it, “That is one of the classrooms.”
It was overwhelming to travel from school to school in each village and see how little they had but until we visited Mungano we had no idea how lucky the other schools were. The odd thing was; though all the people we had met so far were very kind there was a depth of love coming from this village that I had not yet witnessed. Humility. That was it. They were the most humble people I had met in my life and I wish I could describe the beautiful feeling it was to be near them.
We gathered the children into groups for the fun activities we had planned for them. The children were timid at first having never seen such fair skin or blonde hair but they quickly began to laugh and smile as I let them touch my skin and hair. As I looked out at all the beautiful smiling faces. A feeling and knowledge of God’s love for these children washed over me. I was overwhelmed by that sweet gift from my Father in Heaven. I knew without a doubt that even though some of God’s children had less it didn’t mean His love for them was less. His love fills every corner of the Earth in the most remote of places.
Tears were threatening to spill over but I tried holding them back because I wanted to smile for these amazing children. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the teachers walking up with a crate. My jaw dropped as I realized they were giving us bottled sodas. There was no hope of preventing tears anymore. I didn’t want to accept the gift and I certainly didn’t want to drink in front of the children. Our guide let us know it would be offensive if we turned down their gift and they wanted to see us enjoy the sodas now.
I knew these children had never even tasted a soda. They were giving us something they couldn’t afford to enjoy themselves. Someone had to have made the long round trip into Mombasa to buy the soda. I looked back at the school that had nothing and wondered at the sacrifice that was made to simply show us gratitude for coming to their village. Tears ran down my face as I quickly drank down my orange soda as discretely as possible. The children and villagers were smiling as if they were the ones enjoying the drinks.
I opened up the bag of candy I brought as a sea of hands reached up to me. They were so delighted with one small piece of candy each and it was so fun to see the looks on their faces as they savored a taste they rarely if ever got to enjoy. I was so grateful I had something small to give in return.
A teacher walked up to me with a cardboard box that we had used to bring some school supplies. He kindly asked me if it would be possible for him to please keep the cardboard box to use as something to write on and instruct in his classroom. You would have thought I had just handed him $100 when I told him yes, of course he could have the cardboard box for his class.
I thought I knew those truths that parents try to teach their children from a young age. “It is better to give than receive.” “Money can’t buy happiness.” Most people would say they agree with these statements but when push comes to shove only our actions tell the truth. Would I ever save and sacrifice to buy something I couldn’t really afford and then give it to someone I didn’t know instead of enjoy it myself? Would you? We live in such abundance that I don’t know if we’d ever have the chance to make such a sacrifice. I believe we are missing out.
These genuine people thought their gift was the soda and corn but they gave me something more valuable than that.
I will never forget the rare beauty of pure love and humility.
I will never forget what it is like to be the recipient of the equivalent of the widows mite.
I will never forget the living proof that possessions don’t equal happiness.
I will never forget the joy that came in the giving rather than receiving.
The people of Mungano left such an impression on us that Thriving Nations raised enough money to return soon after and help the village build a new school. There was never a more deserving people.