Becoming a Listener - Guest Interview with Shyanne Halalilo
After a fantastic week of art camp with eighty bright, incredible, fun loving kids, we concluded with a talent show. Camp talent shows are an American tradition and the leaders of art camp wanted to give the Nairobi children this same experience.
The campground hosts wheeled out a massive sound system. The list of performers was scrawled to the very edge of the page. I settled in for the longest talent show of my life, happy. The first performer was a seventeen-year-old girl who stunned everyone with her amazing slam poetry. I do not remember more than that, the next performance is the only thing that stayed clear in my memory of that night. A group of three small girls got up on stage and danced.
The way their little bodies twerked and gyrated and thrust in the air numbed me. One American leader stood up to cut the music, but the Kenyan leaders and children seemed unbothered. Many of them were clapping and cheering for them in an approving manner. To watch these tiny girls, the oldest no more than eight, was disturbing despite their talent and love for dancing.
Coming from a country that shames mothers who enroll their girls in pageants or dresses them in skimpy clothing and makeup, I groped in the dark trying to understand this display. All six American leaders sat silent and pale. A more understanding Kenyan leader noticed and told each of us, “please smile at them and tell them they did a good job dancing. These beautiful girls do not know any different because this is all they see in their lives. We have brought them here so they may know a different life, but it cannot start with them feeling embarrassed or ashamed.”
The slums of Mathare and Kibera expose thousands of children who live there to hard lifestyles. Since 2016 I have returned to Kenya and I stay close to many of the children from our first art camp. I tether myself to the supporters of these children who live in Nairobi with them because I believe in what they are doing to change their lives. One very special advocate for the girls is Shyanne Halalilo.
Shyanne is an expert listener which makes her crucial to these girls’ stories. When she first volunteered with She Has a Name (SHAN), her main job was to listen to the needs of each of the six girls living under her care. Each girl came to her broken down, emotionally and physically. Shyanne offered care, protection, and loyalty by waiting and listening.
Now it is our turn to listen to Shyanne’s story. She spent a year deep in the heart of Nairobi living with six young girls, aged beyond their years. Her focus was to get the girls to school, create relationships with them so they were less likely to return to prostitution, and hold them accountable to the standards of the program. She has since returned to the US and applies her skills and passion to helping at risk youth in Oregon.
MK: What got you involved with SHAN?
SH: One day my twin sister ran up to me and said “Mrs. Sharp (her professor at Colorado Mesa University) is on the board for this organization in Kenya. They help girls out of prostitution. They want an American to live there and be the middleman. I told them you’d do it!”
MK: Your sister really pushed you out of your comfort zone! During your time in Kenya, did you form any habits or personal quirks that add to the wonderful person you are today?
SH: My sister knew I was already planning to volunteer abroad, so her willingness to sign me up and ship me off to Africa was all out of love. She teases me now because I say Kenyan phrases like “Me, I don’t want to.” Or “Me, I’m just ok.”
Since coming home, I am an expert bargainer. I can talk anyone down from their price. And I am not uncomfortable in cultural situations that I may not understand. The biggest change though, I am more patient, grateful, understanding, and strong willed. I have a lot of Kenyan friends to thank for that.
MK: Let’s talk about the girls in the program. Can you share a personal story about one of them?
SH: Sharon is a hard case, but I tell people about her so they can know removing girls from prostitution is not an easy fix to their circumstances. Sharon got pregnant after entering the program and becoming a resident of the house.
Before talking to any of us, her fear of being removed from the program led her to attempt abortion. Abortions are illegal in Kenya. Sharon’s health and safety were compromised. After the abortion failed, she finally came to me. Her shame was so great, she wanted to run away and dismiss herself from the program. I was with her no matter what, and she saw that my loyalty to her was consistent with the whole SHAN organization. Sharon never had care or stability like that before, and it was very difficult for her to trust us.
Sharon’s pregnancy was a miscarriage and she decided to leave the program. Blythe, the founder of SHAN, has been in contact with Sharon and convinced her to agree to a probation period. We are all rooting for Sharon, but the reality is, this may not be a victorious story. Life in prostitution or pregnancy at a young age is a reality for girls in the slums. Help can only be taken advantage of, if the person is willing to accept it wholeheartedly. I think back to my year with Sharon, and although her story is still being written and we do not know the ending, the times I had with her, laughing, joking, and crying, I believe those were precious and healing for the both of us.
MK: As you came to know each girl and her story, were you surprised most by the similarities or differences in their experiences?
SH: Their stories were not much different not only from each other’s or a lot of girls in the area. It is not uncommon for girls to have sex for money. Prostitution is an easy source of income for them, but they do not realize the costs to themselves. After seeing the environment and culture in Mathare and Kibera, I was surprised that the girls in the program were saying no to the lifestyle, and yes to education, comfort, love, and security.
MK: Now that you have moved back to the US, how is your time in Nairobi fitting into your personal story? What are you dreaming about for your future today?
SH: It is difficult for me to fit Nairobi into my personal story. My family members and friends are so happy I am back, they forget to ask the important questions. And I am so happy to see them that I want to focus on catching up with their lives and filling in what I missed.
The kids I work with understand me a little bit better. We are all trying to deal with tough transitions. I work for an organization that helps at risk, minority youth in Portland, Oregon. I love my job because I know how to help adolescents with cultural barriers.
Some days, I wish I could be in both places at once. I wish to continue the type of work I did in Kenya, but I am not sure what that looks like yet. I hope to go back soon, to see the girls and all the people I created friendships with. It is heartwarming to think about reuniting with them.
MK: Shyanne, I know how you feel. Every time I come home from Kenya I want to get right back on the plane and return. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. Thank you for listening to each of those girls’ stories and helping them to know their value. We cannot wait to hear about your return journey!
Listed are a few of Shyanne’s recommended reads. Follow the links to purchase a copy today.