Mei Bai: Teaching in an African Orphanage

Mei Bai, a physicist in the Collider-Accelerator Department, is used to a fast-paced, high-tech world working at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. While on vacation this summer, however, she learned about a completely different way of life. Through an organization called Global Crossing Road, Bai volunteered to teach children at an orphanage in Mlolongo, Kenya.

Mei Bai with tour guides

Mei Bai with tour guides in Kenya.

For two weeks, Bai stayed in the home of a local family, where her showers consisted of buckets of water shared with six children and their mother, and meals such as goat stew, corn meal, and scuma - a type of cabbage - were eaten without utensils. As a paying guest, Bai was privileged to have her own bed, but many of the children slept on the floor.

The children Bai taught were poverty-striken; she noticed that many had no shoes. Many of the children may have been HIV-positive because their parents had suffered that fate. The children's English-speaking skills were poor, and, it became apparent to Bai, so were their math skills.

"I'd tell them a rat has four legs, and I'd draw a picture of a rat with four legs and count them," Bai said. "They counted the legs with me, and they would answer, 'Four legs,' when I asked them the number of legs the rat had. But when I asked, 'How many legs do I have?' they answered, 'Four!'"

Despite their numerous hardships, Bai said the children were generally in high spirits. She made sure they had fun, buying them lollipops, organizing soccer games, and taking them on a field trip to a giraffe center.

While in Kenya, Bai wanted to go on a safari. She joined a group traveling through some of Kenya's national preserves, where she saw numerous wild animals close up, including lions and cheetahs.

Bai said her African trip was both enlightening and fulfilling. "I bonded with one six-year-old boy, in particular, and I had a fleeting sense of being a mother, which I never experienced," she explained. "Also, I saw the vast, seemingly untouched land of Africa - the way land is supposed to be. And I saw shocking poverty, which makes me appreciate what I have."

Next year, Bai is planning a trip to China to visit her family. But in 2009, she would like to go back to Africa to volunteer again. And if any BNLer wants to join her, you are welcome to come along.

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