I am a complainer. I almost always feel cold, hungry or tired—sometimes all three at once—and I am almost always vocal about it. Most of the time, unfortunately, I don’t even realize I’m complaining, but last weekend, waiting with my poor mother and sister for the waffle iron to heat up, I was aware that my whine of “I’m hungryyyy” had turned into a memory from my summer in North Kinangop, Kenya.
When I first arrived at the Kenyan children’s home I would be working at for the next two and a half months, I was offered a dinner of kale, meat, and sweet potatoes. This was a very special meal, and one of the only times I would be served something other than maize and beans. However, because I didn’t know what to expect, I was skeptical of the meat, which contained parts of a sheep I wouldn’t normally eat, and could barely finish my plate. The director of the home told me after dinner that she would be going to the store the next day and that I should let her know if there was anything I would need. The two other volunteers, one who had been living at the home for two months and the other for seven, were vibrating with excitement. Toilet paper. Coffee. Bananas. They quickly compiled a list for her while I thought for a bit before saying, “Um, a few oranges please?” I didn’t understand that trips to the store were infrequent. I didn’t understand that the bag of oranges that I was to receive the next day was the only fruit I would eat for the next month and a half.
Within a month, sitting through what felt like hour-long Kiswahili prayers before a supper of maize and beans after a day of fasting made me think that I understood a whole new level of hunger. I would have given almost anything for an Oreo, those nights. Anything for an onion. An orange. When the kids all received part of a banana on Independence Day and there wasn’t enough for me to have a piece, I nearly cried. When I traveled with the director and one of the volunteers to Uganda and we stopped at a convenience store to pick up some food, I downed three slices of plain white bread within about five minutes and thought it tasted like cake. One afternoon, after spending all morning nanny-ing 19 toddlers, I saw a plate of pancakes stacked outside of the director’s room. It took all of my strength not to steal a couple and blame it on the two year old hugging my legs.
I told all of this to my mom and sister through mouthfuls of waffle. My little complaint had become a huge story-long complaint. And as I was talking I realized a few things. One, that it’s easy to forget how hungry I was then and how privileged I am now. And two, that I carried my privilege with me to Kenya. The food I was served at the children’s home was always the same, but also always nutritious and always enough. Nevertheless, I allowed myself to get caught up in my perceived hunger when the only thing my body was lacking was the variety I had enjoyed in my diet back home. I had so many internal complaints that I didn’t stop and think about how lucky I was to eat anything at all. I found it hard to enjoy my time there sometimes because I just wanted some broccoli so, so badly.
I’m a complainer. And whether I’m in Kenya eating beans and maize or at the kitchen table eating waffles, it’s not a good look. But in my journey to improve myself, I’m beginning to see that it isn’t enough to try harder to appreciate what I have, or recognize my privilege, although that is part of it. It’s also going to mean examining why I have what I have while others don’t and learning to accept a bit of cold, hunger, or tiredness into my life some of the time so that I don’t let my complaints demand more than my share.