What is the next step for my writing career, after my contract ends next month? I wondered, as I lay in bed wrestling with sleeplessness two weeks ago. Did he ever love me? I asked myself next, indulging sadness about a relationship from the distant past. I had been trying to sleep for the past 1.5 hours, but fear and sorrow played a repetitive loop. Though my body was exhausted, my mind showed no signs of planning to rest.
The phone rang. 10:45. Who would call this late? I recognized the country code: Kenya.
Three years ago, I took my first two-week trip to Kawangware, a slum in Nairobi, to work with primary school children on personal story writing. A year and a half later, I made a return trip for another two weeks, for the same purpose. I have remained in touch with the children’s teacher, who asked me a month ago for my cell phone number, saying she wanted to send me a text sometime.
When the phone call came, I temporarily forgot her name, having been pulled from my fog of half-anxiety, half-sleep. Eleanor? No, not Eleanor. Something like it. I picked up the phone. “Hello?”
“Hello, Katie!” Suddenly, her name came to me. “Evelyn!” Her lilting laugh felt melodious and light, weighing nothing as it shone through her warm, low voice.
“The children want to sing something to you, Katie.” “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU,” bellowed 59 voices, in a Kenyan accent derived from England. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEAR KATIE … HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!”
“Oh! I love-” I began. They continued, “HOW OLD ARE YOU NOW? HOW OLD ARE YOU NOW? HOW OLD ARE YOU, KATIE? HOW OLD ARE YOU NOW?”
I sat up in bed, shocked. These children are preoccupied with survival. Lacking food in their 10X10-foot, corrugated tin dwellings, most of them eat only the porridge they have for lunch at school – nothing in the morning or evening, or at any time on weekends. But when Evelyn suggested they call me for my birthday, blaring their musical wishes became a priority.
My students live in my heart every day. In the face of their daily suffering, I’m sure my past visits, ongoing support, and letters do little toward making them feel valued. They can’t possibly know how deeply they touch me. I see them, or at least I think I do. I am sending them love all the time.
And I thank them for brightening my birthday with their surprise phone call and song. Their call restored my sense that the world is good, and reminded me that a life treading its ordinary, daily path can unexpectedly be infused with meaning.