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I woke up to the sound of roosters crowing and the distant murmur of voices. Thank goodness the rooster was timely because I had forgotten to set my 5 am alarm. I crawled underneath the bug net that draped over my bed, put on my hiking clothes, laced up my shoes, and groggily made my way out of the hut. The anticipation of the coming adventure fuelled me with excitement and gave me the exact boost I needed to overcome the fatigue that comes from waking up at such an hour.

I made my way over to the boys’ dorm where I was greeted by the group I’d be hiking with that day. The boys were on time, which was a rare occurrence when planning an outing with such a large group of teenagers. Their timeliness signaled their eager anticipation for all they would see and experience over the next couple of hours. 

“Alright, are we ready?” asked Ben excitedly. “It’s time for the caves.”

The Shangilia Children’s Home 

The Shangilia Children’s Home is a children’s institution located in Western Kenya. Shangilia supports children and youth who have been orphaned, abandoned, neglected, and/or abused. Through substituting the parental role, Shangilia changes the lives of children and youth through ensuring their rights to basic needs (i.e. education, food, shelter, clothing, etc.). The children and youth receive emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual support, reinforcing their futures with hope and opportunity. 

Many of the children at Shangilia formerly lived on the streets and/or lived in unfavourable living conditions, though you would never know this upon meeting the kids for the first time. Many of them perform at the top of their class, participate in sports and dance, and lead worship at their church.

Once characterized by despair and neglect, they now identify as strong, resilient, and capable individuals worthy of having a positive future. 

In 2019, I spent two weeks at the Shangilia Children’s Home conducting research for a partnering Canadian non-profit organization. Though the purpose of my stay was to help indigenous leaders see their vision for the program come to life, I made real connections with many of the children and staff living at the home. Since then, I’ve visited Shangilia numerous times and have continued to grow in the relationships formed during my initial stay. 

The Shangilia Boys 

The boys that live at Shangilia are your typical teenage boys: rowdy, full of energy, a little cheeky, and eager to experience new things. When the boys discovered that I am an avid long-distance hiker, they instantly suggested hiking to a nearby cave system.  Over the next few days, I was continuously pestered with questions about the hike.

Their excitement was evident. Most of the boys had never been to the caves because of their busy school and home schedule. Thankfully, there was a lull in programming the week I had visited, providing the perfect window for a grand caving adventure. I received the greenlight from the Shangilia manager and soon alerted the boys. High fives were exchanged and cheers of excitement were proclaimed. 

The hike was happening. 

A Hiking Feast

We began the hike at 5 am in the hopes that we could dodge the imminent heat that would soon swallow the day. As we walked down the red dirt road through the village, we passed by tea fields and banana groves, dodged bodas that zoomed past us, and greeted locals as they were tying up their animals at the start of their day. The sun began to rise and we were able to catch a view of the valley below us, perfectly complemented by the orange hew of the sky and the blue mountains that rolled in the distance. 

By 7am, we were hungry. Because we left so early, we missed morning tea and breakfast at Shangilia. Our stomachs began to growl as we passed by a small shop that sold a selection of sodas and staple foods. I had 2,000 KSH in my pocket (approximately $16 USD), which was more than enough to feed a group of ten hungry teenage boys. With money to spare, we purchased eight loaves of white bread, two large paper bags filled with mandazi, and sodas for everyone. We sat on the porch of the shop and dug into our feast. 

With the sun now high in the sky and temperatures increasing quickly, we packed up the remainder of our food and kept trekking towards the caves. 

Under the Surface 

We made it to the edge of the village where we stepped foot onto singletrack trails and continued to trek upwards towards the hills. We walked through lush farmland and around peculiarly placed boulders. The boys would climb on top of the boulders, outstretch their arms, and let out a triumphant cheer. Despite having walked four hours already, they were so full of life, energy, and increased excitement for the caves that we were still yet to find. 

Soon after, we arrived at the top of the hills and at the end of the dirt trail: “We’re here!” Shekel proclaimed. 

Before locating the entrance to the cave, we had to pay an entrance fee. Shekel escorted me to a small concrete home placed behind a grove of banana trees. A woman was sitting on her cement porch cutting kale when she noticed us. She stood up with a smile, quickly entered her home, and returned with her young son and a well-used notepad in hand. Shekel explained to me that the caves are located on her property and so they charge a small fee for those who would like to enter. We paid 200 KSH for the group’s entrance fee and another 100 KSH for her son to accompany us through the caves. After signing the guestbook, she saw us off with a smile and nudged her son on the back to lead the way. 

The child led us to a collection of boulders piled on top of each other where he shimmied his way through a small opening between two boulders and disappeared.

Without question, the boys followed. I could hear their laughs and chatter of astonishment as I stood from the outside. I sucked in my stomach and made myself as small as possible as I shimmied my way through the tight slot as well.

I’ll never forget the first look I had of the boys standing in the large opening of the cave: everyone had smiles on their faces and looked around in wonderment. 

The young boy then got on the ground and crawled under another small slot. We each took turns laying flat on the dusty ground, wiggling our way through the tight opening, laughing and letting out small yelps of nervousness along the way. We made it to another large pocket within the cave where light shone through the crevices between the boulders. The boys waited for me so I could take their photo, forever capturing a moment they have been dreaming of for years. They wrapped their arms around each other and proudly posed before the camera. After a few clicks, they stood up and quickly made their way to the next section, eager to see what they would come across next.

The cave felt like we had entered into a different world. It felt as though we were walking through an untouched location that few have had the opportunity to explore. The echo of their laughter and constant chit chat surrounded us, warming my heart and putting a smile on my face for the remainder of the day. 

To the Top 

We soon reached the deepest part of the cave. We laid our backs against the rocks for a moment of rest, appreciating the cool temperature of the cave before ascending back to the top. From the bottom looking up, we could see a small opening of light. “That’s where we go,” the young boy said in Swahili as he pointed to the top. 

One by one, we scrambled up boulder after boulder towards the light. The backs of our shoulders scraped against the gritty rocks, leaving us with scratches that signaled a successful caving adventure. We each ascended to the top of the boulders and were rewarded with a view of what felt like all of Western Kenya. We sat in silence, appreciating the beauty below us and proud of the cave we had just conquered.

“I’ll never forget this,” Shekel said as he wrapped his arm around my shoulder. 

The Power of Nature

Living in a children’s home isn’t always easy, especially when 40+ children all have lived experience with violence and/or neglect. Like all siblings, children and teens fight. The Shangilia boys are no different: some friendships are stronger than others, some are jealous of the others’ football skills, and some simply have contrasting personalities.

But when the boys were in the caves, everything was bliss; they were united by a surge of deep curiosity.

When sections of the cave were scarier to move through and the risk of injury was prevalent, the boys hoisted each other up and ensured the safety of each other. They exchanged high fives and words of encouragement when completing certain sections of the cave, patting each other on the back for a job well done. 

The boys learned valuable lessons about problem-solving, teamwork, and perseverance because of their time spent in the caves. Nature has the unique ability to draw out specific emotions that we previously didn’t know we were capable of feeling in a given moment, whether that be happiness, anxiousness, or wonder. I felt proud of the group, as it was clear they set aside their daily stresses for a collective experience that will bond them for life. 

The Adventure of a Lifetime 

Hours later, we made it back to Shangilia: sweaty, exhausted, and so full of life. The boys ran back to their dorm, eager to share about their adventures. I stood on the porch of the dorm watching the boys share their stories with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude.

At that moment, I was thankful for nature and its ability to create a lasting impact. I was thankful for Shangilia and the opportunities they have given these kids. I was thankful for the promise of a positive life they continued to build.


December 16, 2023

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Kendra Slagter

Craft beer enthusiast, thru-hiker, adventure-junkie, & aspiring journalist. I have a passion for the outdoors and immersing myself in wild space. When I'm not travelling and documenting my adventures, I'm chasing stories about inspiring individuals and sharing them with the world through the use of storytelling and videography. From the tip of Mount Kenya to the trails on Ontario, I believe there are stories across the globe worthy to be shared.

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