No Mother Teresa

The title should say most of it. I am no Mother Teresa, though I never thought or imagined I was or could be. My mom met Mother Teresa once, and she even wore pink roller skates the entire time. What I remember most of the stories my mother told me about meeting this incredible woman at the soup kitchen my mother ran was two things – that Mother Teresa carried a small purse the entire time—who would have guessed the woman in a white and blue habit originally from Eastern Europe and completely synonymous with the poverty of India would be so inseparable with her hand bag, but she was. The other thing I remember was how moved Mother Teresa was by the showers for the homeless at this soup kitchen. The showers are made completely of the same beautiful deep ocean blue tiles as are in our house, because my mother felt everyone was entitled to a moment of beauty in their day. But this post is not actually about Mother Teresa or the day she met my mom. I just wanted to clear the air that I am not Mother Teresa but nor is the woman who runs the orphanage where I am working in Kenya. I bring this up because it has been an unbelievably trying and hard week.

If the general life of Kenya in a small town is not hard enough, in the past seven days life has tried me, at times it broke me, and at times it has given me more hope than I could imagine. As I have said before, our orphanage mama, who will forever remain nameless for reasons that will soon be clear, has become more domineering, aggressive, flat out mean, and perhaps just misunderstood in some very strange “cross cultural misunderstandings”. I have spoken of the plight of these children and I will not rehash their sad living conditions, because how many times can I explain kids sitting in their own waste, eating scraps of garbage in hopes of something sweet, and very clearly being denied basic human living rights not to mention LOVE. But it seems last week on an especially trying day for me after a previously trying day I sent a simple message to my roommate who was in Nairobi trying to extend her visa. On that day to make her point that I was showing one child too much affection by holding his hand, the orphan mama snatched this young boy’s hand from me and shook the boy and his arm to prove how he had become attached to me. I worked another hour and then chose to leave for a short respite to collect my thoughts. As I walked 25 min one way home only to find there was no power, and then sit for 20 min, before walking 25 min back down the same dusty red road to the orphanage, I sent my roommate an exasperated, angry, discouraged, heartbroken, and I will admit it, a mean but truthful text message about the woman who likes to be called mama. I called her a name I am not proud of, but that I staunchly stand behind. My roommate replied only once with some also unkind words.

And that should be the end of the story of how I am not Mother Teresa, I don’t think she ever called someone names. But the sad part of this story is that actually the person who is not Mother Teresa is the orphanage mama, and now begins her snarly tale. It seems somehow this orphanage mama intercepted these two text messages, and by that I mean she went into my purse, unlocked my cell phone, and forwarded the messages to her phone. We arrived on Thursday to a very angry and even harsher Kenyan mama than normal. She called us into her office and proceeded to yell at us for 45 min along with her two grown daughters. All of the kids were outside watching through concrete windows, the images of their scared and horrified faces are burned in my memory to this day. She threatened to call the police or take us to court (neither of which she can legally do, we have found out). She accused us of abuse. She told us we were evil and said she received the messages from “GOD because she was a good woman and we were cruel creatures here to hurt her”. She seriously went this far. She called us lazy. She called us stupid. But the worst was when she called us racist and said we did this because she was African. My heart shattered. Kids cried, my roommate cried, there were harsh words in Swahili. She brought in a traveling nurse to take her side but the woman was unfortunately not swayed and our mama proceeded with the insults that it was because she was like us mzungu (foreigner). After a 45 minute tirade in which we never could voice our side we were kicked out of the orphanage for four days until we returned with our volunteer organization representative.

While all of this happened, the young 5 month old baby who has asthma and pneumonia, and who I have seen with a lollipop in her mouth from the care takers at this orphanage, was removed from the premises by the nurse. The children’s department was called. And the tears of workers, children, and volunteers continued.

I spent the long four days feeling ashamed for saying something in private which I know is preposterous. I called my dad and it was the first time I cried and on the phone at dusk behind a fence I heard the familiarity of the San Francisco street traffic in the background and the yelling of children peering over that same fence to get a glimpse of me. At times I feel like I am the creature in the zoo here and on this sad night I felt like the scared creature who only wants to return to its natural habitat. We met with our organization in Nairobi on Friday. I spent the weekend not traveling for the first time but at home with my French roommate. We made our comforting eggs with garlic and tomato. We talked and talked. She is empowering me with the facts of how to possess the French woman’s confidence. I cried. It is surprising but the way I have reacted to the RAvolution is nothing of how I expected to act. I have impressed and shocked myself with my strength, determination, willingness to change, adaptability, and openness. But this weekend alone for a short bit in my room under my mosquito net, I listened to music and felt the crushing depth of the past months and I sobbed.

We had our meeting on Monday where we endured more irrational tirades about things that didn’t make sense. We were never apologized to. We reexamined how we hurt this woman, by her invading our privacy and reading a personal exchange I may remind you. She contradicted herself. She actually made such harsh racial slurs that our organization started yelling at her in her mother tongue and then in a tribal tongue. I stared at the wall and a sign about stopping FGM (female genital mutilation) just so I could avoid her gaze. She stands staunchly by the fact that GOD sent her this message and refuses to show her phone and the way she read the notes. But we were allowed back! After much pestering, and a very long meeting that confused the heck out of me, somehow in the kindness of her heart she has allowed us back in. Her and her daughters are icy and cold to us, I would use other language but I have learned my lesson. The staff is overjoyed to see us and the kids who had their heads freshly shaved this weekend are ecstatic. Their hugs have been the one thing that have brought me to my knees in relief and have given me the courage, determination, and desire, not to mention appreciation to be back within the otherwise unwelcoming walls.

Sadly the 5 month old baby is back and the child department was not able to move her, despite the continued valiant work of the nurse. I have to call the nurse tonight to give her an update. Also sadly another child was delivered to the orphanage.

My time here is filled with so much it is hard to keep up or believe how fast it goes, let alone allow much if any of it to sink in. I am off to safari next week. And soon I will be back in the US. I don’t say home because I don’t know what home is anymore. I have found a home in myself, in my ability to adapt to a new place. I have found home in what was once shocking and now becoming familiar. I have found home with friends in Southeast Asia, Salinas, San Francisco, Ashland, New York, Brooklyn, and now Kenya. Mostly I have found a deeper truth in what my mother always told me when I was young, “if I look into my heart, I carry everything I have ever wanted or needed with me wherever I go.”



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06 2011

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  1. Beth Shirk #

    Ra- I do not think I have ever been moved as much as reading about your week of trials and the lessons for all of us. You have become so much a citizen of the planet. I love the quote that you carry whatever you want or need with you wherever you go. Your RAvolution is so full of raw truth and deep learnings. Yes, you will be off on safari next week in so many ways. Just remember, there is always a bucket waiting for you in Salinas (with hot water too!).

  2. Jessica #

    I am so sorry you had to go through that, but I am so proud of you for being there for those kids. Come on back. There is a soft mattress waiting for you. xxoo

    • ra #

      Thanks Jess, I am more looking forward to showers and sitting to go to the bathroom! Can’t wait to see you soon.

  3. Dusty the dog #

    I’m still wondering . . . WHERE ARE YOU??!!! It doesn’t sound like much fun to me. Not enough treats. And that business about carrying what you want or need everywhere you go. . . I’m so glad I took the time to train my people cuz now they carry whatever I want or need everywhere we go. Much easier for a little dog to avoid schlepping whenever possible. P.S. If you can, bring some of those kids home to play with. I think I’d like that. I’d even share my treats.

  4. Jason #

    Your dealings at Ars Nova may have prepared you for Ms. Hannigan over there! What a crazy week and the fact that you were able to articulate it and make sense of it in a post already is impressive to say the least.

    Happy to hear Safari is coming soon. I know you’ll hate leaving the kids but you’ve given them a great gift in the time you’ve stuck this out and I imagine they will remember your kindness for the rest of their lives.

  5. Mara #

    Ra-with every post I am more impressed and in awe of you and your choices in this life. Our insight and truth is what keeps us all moving towards self love and strength. You are a strong, loving, beautiful soul and I am proud to call you my sister!! LOVE you and wish you peace

    • ra #

      Thanks Mara! I thought of you so much on the trip and through the experiences! Have a little something in the mail to you from the road real soon.

  6. Maggie #


    Great post! Your best yet!

    *You* know that Tere―Mother Tere that is―would have guarded those texts in her handbag. This is your Anthony Weiner moment, in a way. You’ve been Breitbarted! How bizarre that Ms. Hannigan felt threatened enough by the fact that you were texting in her presence to check your messages. The crazy sad part for me is the message about human connection she was teaching to that little boy who wanted to hold your hand.

    Thanks for keeping us posted. Onto your next saga!

  7. Gwen #

    Your blog is so moving! You are an amazing person and the way you manage to combat all the triles and tribulations that come your way is testemony to that. I’m so glad that I met you, and I’m sending you huge hugs.
    Looking forwards to meeting again

    • ra #

      Thanks Gwen! I thought of you much on the trip. Kenya is fantastic but such a different place. Will have more about safari and all that soon. Cambodia is still remaining one of my top places traveled to. And Angkor beer is way better than Tusker!

      Also, the big thing at night in Kenya is to watch Mexican TV dubbed into English. Lots of Telenovelas (my fave is Teresa) but made me think of you.


  8. Sarah #

    Dear Ramona, the room is so empty without you ! Please come back ! I hope you are happy to be back home and eating regular food while i’m not ! I will start the dirty swahili lesson soon =) Take care of you and i wish you the best <3

    • ra #

      Asante Sane and Merci beaucoup! I miss you and the room (not the mosquito net) so much! Thought of you on layover in France as I used the Euro and couldn’t look at french people in the same way after our conversation at Casabanca. Can’t wait for the dirty swahili lessons. Will send some photos in e-mail very soon. Give hugs and kisses to the family. Hugs, hugs, and kisses to the kids especially my buddy, Sarah, Mercy, Sam, Samual, Moses, Esther, and ok yeah all of them. Miss you so. It is strange being back, to be in a place that is so familiar and filled with everything I missed (hot showers, toilets) and more than could be imagined and yet it all feels very empty now.

      Enjoy a hot chocolate for me and tell everyone I think of them non stop and send love.

      your room mate

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