Updated: Sep 20, 2022
Emily Moorefield Mariola
Almost a month ago, my son Ian and I were bumping through the Masai Mara in a LandCruiser, eyes peeled for a leopard our driver had heard was hiding beneath some Acaia trees. The radio often crackled as the safari drivers talked back and forth, sharing information about the location of rhino, elephant, giraffe or lions. We had just seen a family of lions eating from a bloated wildebeest in a stream as all terrain vehicles juggled for position and tourists with long lens cameras snapped photos of the kill and feast. Our guide, Danson, quickly grew frustrated with the commotion, and we decided to leave the touristy frenzy in search of something a little more tame. Being on safari has been one of the more surreal experiences of my life. My son and I were in the very back of the truck we shared with four other women and I felt shaken to my very bones at the end of each long day. He and I often stood, hanging tightly to the bars of the roof canopy for miles on end. I have never seen anything as soul shockingly beautiful as the Masai Mara. Giraffes walk with the lightest step I have ever witnessed, and the immense beauty of an elephant herd will stay with me forever. It was all I had hoped for and more.
I will also say that the rest of the country was equally beautiful and equally haunting. I don’t mean this is a negative way; only that I doubt that the images will ever leave my mind. This trip was a high school graduation gift to my son Ian from my husband Mike and I. It was hard to know what to do to celebrate the high school graduation of a child who hated school with such reliable enthusiasm. A happy child in elementary school, our son fiercely despised school ever since. It was a constant battle for our entire family, and his graduation felt more like a relief than an accomplishment. Ian was diagnosed with ADHD and ODD as a sophomore and although this diagnosis (and my own identical diagnosis) helped us to understand Ian in a different way, we never did find a way to get through a single school day without distress.
Seeing Ian in Kenya however, reminded me of just how incredibly wonderful he is and how he thrives in environments like Kenya. Kenya is a country of extremes. It feels a bit lawless at times, and at other times, a bit too strict. Personally, Kenya felt like a country of artists and risk takers, of the strong and the broken, in a country full of rich history and diversity. Ian has never been interested in doing anything in the traditional way, and his insistence to challenge the status quo has been difficult to parent. At the same time, I admire his way of thinking. And Kenya just felt like a place of opportunity instead of a place of restriction. Ian and I were both thriving in Kenya.
In addition to the safari, and the reason we chose this trip in particular, was that there was an expectation that we would “give back” in some way. The responsible tourism company we traveled with is led by an American woman living in Kenya named Kelly Campbell. Born in Indianapolis, Kelly has been traveling all over the world since her early twenties. Her company: The Village Experience and its tagline, Moving Forward by Giving Back, was introduced to me by a dear friend and fellow yoga studio owner, Caroline Gronowski. Our trip was life changing and life affirming. Philanthropic travel is one thing, participating in the give back is another.
Our trip ended with a visit to the island of Lamu, just off the eastern coast of Kenya. Here, Ian and I and our group assembled essential food kits for the 30+ children of the Ubunifu Lamu Initiative. These kits included cooking oil, rice, beans, sugar, tea leaves, chapati mix and ugali flour. We also brought hand soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and other hygiene items the organization requested to distribute. Ubunifu Lamu Initiative is led by Nyambura Wahu, a local artist, entrepreneur, and a true inspiration. During Covid, Nyambura was forced to close her own retail shop and art gallery and to begin making art from her home. As the pandemic wore on, she began to invite the local children into her home to make art. Her house was soon overflowing with children, and she realized she had stumbled upon a beautiful idea. Her generosity and enthusiasm for expression through art has grown into a thriving Community Based Organization. A recycled art community center is now in the process of being built so thel children in the program have a place to go to express themselves through art, dance, music, yoga, cultural activities, and environmental programs. Nutritious meals will be provided and a new opportunity for learning will now exist on the island.
Ian and I were both instantly drawn to the concept. I spent a good deal of my own childhood in a local art center as a child of a pottery teacher at the Wayne Center for the Arts, and I am currently the past president of that board. I believe that art, art centers, and art schools are about the best places on earth for creative souls. Art tells stories, allows us to bend the rules, express ourselves, and lets those with creative hearts and minds experience being “home.” Of course, none of this is free and as funding for the arts is a challenge in our own country, you can imagine the challenge for such initiatives in Kenya. This particular project IS however, literally, off the ground! The foundation is in place, the walls and roof have been constructed, and now we are on to the finishing phase and need to raise funds to help complete the plumbing, electrical, doors, windows, plastering and more.
Having been there, I promise you that this project is worth supporting. The children we met, the enthusiasm they shared with us, and Nyambura’s personal commitment to the children and to art is contagious. She is a woman of immense love and compassion, and she is a force within the community. Together with Kelly and her network, I am committing to raise funds to make this dream a reality for Nyambura and the kids.
As we stood on the steps to board our boat for the airport, Ian turned to me and said, “before we leave, I am going to tell Kelly that we will help her.” I quickly agreed. This made sense for us. We didn’t know how just then, but this project felt particularly special to both of us, so we knew we would find a way.
As a small way to help from Wooster, Ohio, Ian and I are working together to sell raffle tickets for an 8 piece handmade stoneware dinner set. Each place setting will include a dinner, lunch and bread plate, a pasta, soup and dessert bowl and a coffee mug. All proceeds from ticket sales will go directly to the Ubunifu Lamu Initiative for construction and operational costs. The 8 piece custom dinner set will be handmade by me, and I will work one-on-one with the winner to create a stoneware dinner set of the winners choosing. The winner will be randomly chosen by Kelly and Nyambura on September 30.
Tickets are $20 each or 5 for $100.
See the Ubunifu Lamu Initiative IG page: @ubuni_fulamu
Let’s celebrate art all around the world together.