Archive for December, 2011
Things take a downturn
Early on December 11, my first morning in Kaimosi, I was awakened by a knocking at the door. I struggled to get untangled from the mosquito net and into some clothes. Ruth was waiting for me with a pot of hot water to use for washing. She also brought a thermos of fresh milk, straight from the cow and boiled. She tried my water spigot, found it spitting a bit, and put a large garbage pail beneath it to fill. I suspected unreliable water was going to be the norm.
Caring for guests is part of Ruth’s work-study responsibilities as a student at the Friends Theological College (FTC). She asked me what I wanted for breakfast, waited while I retrieved the ingredients, then left and came back a short while later with scrambled eggs and toast. Electricity was back, so using an old Mr. Coffee machine left in the room I heated drinking water, spooned in some of the instant coffee I’d gotten in Kisumu, and added some boiled milk. Excellent!
There was another knock at the door. A man with a broad face and even broader smile introduced himself: Silas Vidalo, who works in the finance office. He grew up in Kaimosi, and already knew that I lived here as a boy, so we started talking about who used to live in what house and what has changed over the years. I learned that my old mission school is now a Kenyan primary school, the old Industrial Center is now a technical school, and other bits of information. His memory is phenomenal and, as I would find out, he knows practically everyone in Kaimosi. He said he’ll take me on a walking tour one of these days.
Out and about
In the meantime, I decided to go out and explore on my own. I wasn’t feeling any better that morning. In fact, I was feeling rather worse, but I didn’t want to stay inside. I greeted the guard at the FTC gate on my way out, and then slowly wandered down the road taking photos and short video clips of houses as I went. I felt very conspicuous – as, of course, I was. A picky-picky driver offered to take me somewhere and didn’t want to accept my no-thank-you (“Where are you going?! Why are you walking!?”) When I began filming the technical institute a guard started to move toward me. I took a few photos at the teacher training college, but stopped when another guard started to approach. Everything felt much more protected and much less open than when I was here as a boy.
I could also definitely sense the country’s economic stresses. Kenya in general is having a horrible economic time. The government is funding a war, and its own people are suffering. They’ve even stopped paying the hospitals, including Kaimosi hospital. Friends United Meeting may have to decide it can’t keep covering the losses. Much at Kaimosi felt run-down and under-funded. At the same time, new buildings and new institutions had been started. There was a definite mix of progress and stasis, but at the moment the stasis was depressing me.
I made my way back up to FTC where I had planned to join Ann Riggs, the principal, at her home for silent meeting for worship. I’ve been told that Ann’s living room hosts the only un-programmed Friends meeting in Western Province, and that the only other one in Kenya is in Nairobi. With my participation, there would have been a total of two of us for worship, but when I got to Ann’s house there was a note on the door telling me she had to make an emergency trip to Kisumu, so there’d be no meeting at all.
Eden Grace had explained to me that many Kenyan Quakers are quite suspicious of the western form of un-programmed silent worship, with its ministry by anyone who wishes to speak from the silence. Some doubt that God would actually speak through an ordinary person, and they fear it could be the Devil speaking instead.
I was sorry to miss meeting with Ann, but I had found the short trek down the hill surprisingly exhausting and I needed to lie down. I had hoped I would be feeling better after a night’s sleep, but I was actually feeling quite a bit worse. Intense nausea. Worsening headache. Loss of energy.
Back to bed
I went back to my residence. It was starting to smell worse, which didn’t help. The toilet wasn’t working, but that wasn’t the source of the smell. I couldn’t tell whether something was rotting somewhere, or if the smell was something in the structure of the building itself, perhaps rust, decay, or mold. But I resolved to adapt and not say anything, since it seemed quite rude to complain about a place where I was a guest.
I was feeling too weak and sick at this point to do much, so I crawled back under the netting and went to sleep. I woke occasionally during the day, tried unsuccessfully to read or write, then went back to sleep until I awoke and started the cycle over.
At some point I heard a voice calling my name and a knocking at the door. I slowly rose to investigate. It was Ruth, come to get ingredients to prepare for dinner. I knew I should eat something, but I doubted I could keep anything down if I tried, so I told Ruth I was fine without dinner tonight. I asked her if she knew anything about a large crowd I had seen on the road the night before, beating drums, chanting, and eventually being chased by police into the forest. She said she didn’t, but would ask. Her guess was that it was related to Jamhuri Day – Kenyan independence day – which was the next day. When Silas had stopped by earlier in the day, we’d made tentative plans to go see a local Jamhuri celebration tomorrow. He also said I could watch the national celebration and speeches on TV in the dining hall.
I was pleased my trip had coincided with Jamhuri Day and I was eager to see the celebration, but I wished that I was feeling better. I also needed to start scheduling interviews for the coming week as it was my only chance to reach people before the end of term. The way I was feeling, though, it seemed a daunting challenge to muster the strength to conduct a single interview, let alone several.
The water had stopped running again. My camera battery was dead, and my computer battery nearly so, but the electricity was still out so I couldn’t recharge . The smell had worsened and I was constantly nauseous, but at least I had identified the front sink room as the source, and I could shut that door, which helped a little.
Overall, I was feeling pretty low. After all of the effort over the past year to finally get back to Kaimosi, I didn’t want to end up sick! I was concerned about what I’d do if I became seriously ill. I pulled out my travel insurance paperwork to check my coverage for medical evacuation. That was too depressing, and I crawled back under the net to sleep some more.
Next: Jamhuri Day
I arrive in Kaimosi!
On December 10 I finally made it back home to Kaimosi Mission after 45 years away.
As you might guess (particularly from my previous post), my emotions have been pretty close to the surface this entire trip. That was certainly true when I arrived at Kaimosi.
Eden Grace, my host in Kisumu, drove me out to Kaimosi and was thoughtful enough to forego the paved road that now runs near the mission, and instead brought me up the same dirt road I would have traveled all those years ago.
If you’d been in the truck with us, you’d have seen my eyes wide with wonder and my face lit by an astonished grin – from the moment we arrived at the Galigoli River at the base of the mission throughout the entire slow drive up the rutted road to the top. We passed one memory landmark after another, many nearly unrecognizable now yet somehow still completely familiar– the hospital, the teacher training college, the Lung’aho house, the Kindell house, the Dorrel house, the Adede house, and finally (I could barely remain in my seat!), my own old house up on the hill – looking a bit worn and tired, but then, who doesn’t after 45 years?
It’s hard to convey the complex emotions running through me at that moment of return. In a way I was feeling my years, amazed that I’d let so much time pass before returning. Simultaneously, I was feeling so young and excited, truly 10 years old again, bouncing in my seat and pointing there, and there, and there, and there…!
My perspective kept shifting. One moment the modern Kaimosi looked cluttered and frenetic. Fences and walls and gates stood where there’d once been open space. Lorries and cars and a steady stream of motorbikes (the ubiquitous picky-pickies that serve as a primary form of public transportation) revved past on a dirt road that once was filled only with people and their animals.
But the next moment, my perspective shifted again, the clutter faded, and all I could see was the pure beauty of the place and people exactly as I remembered them from so long ago.
We pulled up to the gate of the Friends Theological College, directly opposite my old house, and waited for the guard to open for us. Then we slowly drove up and around through the campus to the staff housing. Eden was on her cellphone letting the principal, Ann Riggs, know we’d arrived, but Ann was already walking toward us. Others appeared and helped with my bags – John, one of the teachers, and Ruth, a work-study student who would be helping me with food and water.
The FTC guest house was currently occupied by a minister visiting from the States with his daughter, so I was to be housed in a vacant staff unit for a week. At the end of the week, the term would be over, the American pastor would depart, and I’d move into the guest house for the rest of my stay.
The staff unit was simple and inviting. It had a front area with a chair and table, a back area with a sink, a room with a toilet and spigot, and a room with a bed. It appeared quite fine and cozy, and I considered staying there for the full three weeks once I got settled.
A dinner invitation
All afternoon I was hearing drums beating in the forest and up the road out back. I set up my notebook computer, and was relieved to find that the dongle I’d borrowed did indeed give me web access – slow and uncertain, yes, but nonetheless amazing to me out here. I started writing an email to Nancy to let her know I’d arrived safely, and as I wrote to her, the drums out back got nearer, and the voices – chanting now – got louder. It sounded as though a crowd was gathering, and I went out to investigate.
A crowd, indeed, was gathering! Not just gathering, but filling the road, marching and chanting. Then they started running, as though being chased or chasing something, I couldn’t tell which until I saw the arrival of men in blue shirts – police, I guessed – running after them with batons raised. The crowd ran off to the side of the road and slowly dissolved into the forest. I had no idea what that was about.
A little before 6:00 Ruth returned with an invitation (in honor of my first night there) to join the minister and his daughter for dinner. But after that, I’d be eating in my own unit on my own.
I wasn’t feeling particularly well – a bit nauseous with a building headache – but I appreciated the invitation. It was a very pleasant meal and conversation. Father and daughter had been out at the Kakamega Forest preserve earlier in the day, but they seemed a bit disappointed somehow. The father talked about his ministry, and his daughter remained silent. I felt there was some tension in the air, but also figured it might have just been normal teenager-ness.
When the conversation turned to Philadelphia, however, the daughter brightened and began talking about favorite restaurants she’d been to there. I’m always happy to talk about Philly restaurants! Nearly every restaurant she named was one I’d been to, and we took over the conversation for a while.
Into the night
The night had gotten dark, and I didn’t want to infringe any more on their family time. Ruth had already disappeared, so I bid goodnight and set out for the walk back to my residence.
My first blunder: I didn’t bring a flashlight with me to dinner.
My second: I didn’t leave a light on when I’d left my residence.
The night was dark like it never gets in Philadelphia. There must have been heavy cloud cover, because there was not even moonlight or starlight to guide me. I really hadn’t walked far to dinner at all, just past a row of housing units, down a path, through a hedge, and down a hill to the guest house. But in the dark the route back seemed surprisingly challenging, and I felt each step with my toes first, hands stretched before me, to avoid walking into anything.
I also hadn’t paid attention to which unit was the one I’d left. Since I hadn’t turned on any lights, I approached everything that loomed as a dark shape in the night, felt for a door, tried my key, and worked my way down the path until I finally found a match.
And just in time, too. As soon as I made it inside, a sudden rainfall crashed down onto the metal roof, heavy and thunderous as though I were directly beneath a waterfall. I went around turning on the lights, and then settled into a chair to read. I looked about me and felt quite pleased that this was going to be my home for a while now. Except for some vague, sort-of-sour, sort-of-metallic, smell that I couldn’t locate, I was feeling pretty cozy.
Then the power went out. Total darkness again.
I had been left a rechargeable electric lamp just for this situation, but of course in the dark I couldn’t find where I’d put it. My fingers brushed a box of matches on the table top. Problem solved! By match light I found the bag with my candles. By candle light I found the flashlight in my backpack. And by flashlight I finally found the lantern on the floor by the bed.
Mosquitos and other insects began buzzing around my light, so I prepared to get into bed beneath the netting. There was no water in the pipes, but I’d been warned not to brush my teeth with untreated water anyway. So I brushed with a little bottled water, then crawled under the mosquito net and was soon asleep.
At some point in the night I was awakened by a loud hissing sound and the sudden appearance of a bright light directly above me. After an initial panic, I realized that it was just the return of water and power. I heard another sound, too, some kind of movement near my bags. I got out from under my netting and started to investigate, then decided it might not be a good idea to go poking around when I didn’t know what might be there.
I went around turning out lights and closing spigots. I stood by the sink in the front room and gazed out the window into the night. The sky had cleared and was a deep blue-black. The full moon hung low and heavy above the forest. Thin clouds stretched above the moon like fingers, their knuckles dark and their undersides lit silver by the bright disk below them.
I stood for quite a while looking out with awe on the moonlit night and listening to the distant drumbeats, until the mosquitoes finally drove me back to bed.
NEXT UP: My first days in Kaimosi take a downturn
I arrive in Kisumu
Is there anyone more appropriately named than Eden Grace? She has gracefully provided me with steady help and reassurance since long before I left for Kenya.
And on that bright, clear afternoon of Dec. 8, she was there, as promised, waiting to welcome me at the Kisumu airport.
On the drive to her home she said, “I’m going to apologize this one time, and then I’ll try to forget it. The house is a wreck.” It turned out that her family was in the final stages of a major and lengthy house renovation that her landlord had surprised them with. The construction and cabinetry was largely finished, what remained was a repainting of the interior and re-varnishing of the floors.
Her home is right near the old Sunset Hotel and swim club, which I think might be where my brothers, Rob and John, would go back in the sixties as a farewell outing before taking the train to Nairobi and the Rift Valley Academy (they’ll need to confirm or correct that). Eden’s house has a distant view of Lake Victoria, and it’s also very near the Braeburn Kisumu International School, where her two sons, Isaiah and Jesse, are students. I’d already been told that her sons’ school was holding its Christmas program that evening, and that not only were her sons performing (singing, rapping, and playing guitar), but her husband was accompanying them on the electric piano and Eden was singing with a community choir she’d helped to organize.
Preparations for Kaimosi begin
Eden still had work to do when I arrived, so after a light lunch she left me on my own for a bit to start a list of what I might need for my stay in Kaimosi. A cell phone was near the top of that list, as Eden informed me that there are no land lines at all out at Kaimosi. Fortunately she had a cell phone at her office to lend me; I would just need to buy some time for it. She also had a dongle I could borrow (a Safaricom flash drive with cellular access to dial-up Internet service), and I would need to buy some time for that as well. I also needed to purchase food and supplies to last me for three weeks at Kaimosi. I was told there was a roadside market in Cheptulu, a short ways from Kaimosi, that opens on Tuesdays and Fridays, but for the most part I would have to bring everything I’ll need for my stay.
So, I began to make plans for the next day: lots of shopping, a visit to Eden’s office to pick up equipment, a bit of sightseeing as we drive around Kisumu, plus a visit to the Braeburn School for the final school assembly of the term.
Before I could get very far in my planning, however, Eden’s sons arrived home from school. We chatted a bit, and then they left to play video games in the living room. When Eden’s husband, James, arrived home from work, the house kicked into gear, as everyone began packing up musical instruments and sound equipment for that evening’s show.
There was much about my environment at that moment that was feeling quite foreign. Outbursts of African voices and laughter erupted from beyond the home’s latched gate. An earthy array of unidentifiable scents surfed in through the open windows on the breeze coming off Lake Victoria. A housekeeper washed clothes out back. A guard slept in the garage. And then there was the rat….a large corpse that stretched out on the pavement just outside the front door and that no one had yet mentioned nor even seemed to notice.
But the family bustle of getting ready for a school Christmas performance had a comforting normality to it. I felt like part of any busy family with teenagers trying to pull it together to get somewhere on time.
Saint Nick visits Kisumu
The evening turned out to be a delight. It was obvious what a warm, diverse, and caring community of families is united by the Braeburn School. On stage, the youngest children sang Christmas songs and accompanied themselves with hand gestures (“Up on the rooftop reindeer pause, out jumps good old Santa Claus”), while their parents waved from the audience and took pictures. The daughter of what I was told was the only Jewish family in Kisumu sang a Chanukah song. And one very young, very cute little girl, Japanese I believe, constantly wandered down to the front of the stage to steal the show.
Eden’s sons performed a rock number with vocals and electric guitar, with their father on an electric piano that he managed to keep going even with technical difficulties. The younger brother, with short curly hair and a wide open face, powered through the vocals despite an only sporadically working microphone. And the older brother, with a thin face and intelligent, probing eyes, pulled off his bandana to reveal a haircut he otherwise keeps hidden out of respect for the school’s sensitivities: one side of his head was shaved and the other side sported shoulder-length hair dyed bright purple.
The social club that hosted the show also occasionally doubles as a restaurant, and this was one of those nights. We stayed for some excellent Indian food and ginger soda, while around us parents chatted with one another as their young children tugged at their arms, older kids ran around chasing each other in the night, and flashes kept going off in the darkness as more photos got taken.
It was a scene that could be taking place almost anywhere in the world. But a voice inside kept reminding me: This is not anywhere. This is Kenya.
Early the next morning the house painters, four or five of them, showed up to continue their work. To Eden’s surprise, they planned both to complete the walls and varnish the floors, which meant that EVERYTHING in nearly all of the first-floor rooms had to be moved out immediately. Somehow Eden, James, and I emptied the rooms within minutes, packing boxes and moving furniture onto the porch, into the hall, and mostly, it seemed, into my guest room, which soon became a jungle of boxes and furniture towers leaning precariously over my bed.
By the time we got the house emptied, it was time to leave for the Braeburn School end-of-term assembly, which featured slides of events from the year, each of which was greeted by hoots of recognition from the students packed into the science classroom. Afterward I was given a short tour of the small campus. It felt amazingly similar to Pacific Ackworth, the Quaker school my parents co-founded in Southern California long ago and on whose grounds my family grew up. I don’t, though, remember goats roaming the P.A. campus.
Rumors were flying of the pending arrival of a special visitor, and finally a truck pulled onto the school grounds and out stepped “Santa Claus,” a very skinny man – maybe African, maybe Indian, I couldn’t tell beneath his Santa costume – who had a very fake white beard and a very lumpy fake belly and was dressed all in red and carried a large bag of gifts for the students. Eden and I watched for a bit as the children excitedly gathered around to receive their presents, then we left to get on with our full schedule of errands and shopping.
Gathering equipment, food, and friends
Eden took me on a wandering route through Kisumu to see what I might remember, some of the buildings painted entirely bright pink or lime green, others still stately old stucco. Like a small-scale Nairobi, Kisumu has both office towers and open road-side markets, modern plazas and sprawling slums. Much of the city is new since I was last there, but in some of the older neighborhoods, particularly the Indian ones, I had a vague sensation of recognition as some particular building or street came into view.
Much of my time, though, was spent in Nakumatt, the local chain of shopping malls. There was a large, open hangar-like building with two floors (and a tiny display of books on a few shelves that I was told is one of the only Kenyan bookstores west of Nairobi). There was also a separate, dense warren of small shops tucked onto two levels. I bought food, water, and supplies at the first (plus took a look at fabrics; Eden is also a quilter); then I got phone and computer access at the second (a month of unlimited web access and a bunch of cellphone time).
I was pretty sure I had bought more than enough food and supplies to last me. But whenever I asked Eden whether I should get something else, she would say yes. After a while I began to suspect that she was also assisting me in putting some money into the local economy. I was happy to comply. It’s hard to know just what I’ll need, but I figured it would be a more serious error to bring too little than too much, and I’m sure I can give away whatever is left over.
So here’s a partial list of what I bought: powdered tomato soup, powdered chicken soup, a loaf of bread, a box of guava juice, a box of orange juice, a box of hibiscus juice, a box of “fruit” juice, honey, rice, crackers, fresh chicken pieces, muesli, granola, canned tuna, marmalade, powdered Indian spices, two kinds of pasta, three chocolate bars, dried pineapple, eggs, dish detergent, bleach (for sterilizing rinse water), mayonnaise, margarine, canned tomatoes, plum jam, peanut butter, ginger tea, instant coffee, chocolate powder, canned corn, canned chick peas, canned lentils, canned kidney beans, dates, dried salami, dried pork, frozen beef cubes, Cheddar cheese, Gouda cheese, digestive biscuits, crackers, cashews, macadamia nuts, ground nuts, a small bunch of small bananas, a large bunch of large carrots, onions, fresh tomatoes, fresh green beans, garlic, matches, candles, toothpaste, and two five-liter bottles of drinking water (one of which broke in the back of the truck).
Then it was off to Eden’s office at Friends United Meeting in Kisumu to pick up her cell phone and dongle for web access. On the way she’d gotten an overdue call from a young American woman she’d been waiting to hear from. Cassidy was to have arrived in Kisumu much earlier in the day by matatu, and Eden was concerned she hadn’t heard from her. But all was well, and we set off to go pick her up. Cassidy has been in Kenya doing a research project for the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington on how to support peaceful elections in Kenya next year. She became another stray guest at the Grace house, a situation, I have learned, that is much more the rule than the exception.
(In the “small world” category of global connections – which always seem particularly acute when traveling – Eden and James know Jonathan Vogel, a Friend and friend I grew up with in California. Jonathan’s father, Bob Vogel, was my father’s colleague for many years at the American Friends Service Committee in Pasadena. I knew John and his brother, Russell, throughout childhood, going to many Friends meetings and retreats together. In the 1980s, after my parents stepped down as Resident Friends of Cambridge Meeting, Jonathan became the new Resident Friend there. The Graces know him from their connections to New England, and were happy to carry my greetings to him when they see him next.)
The past is ever present
Eden, Cassidy, and I got back to the house to find that the floors were still sticky with varnish, so we ate leftover Indian food on the back patio. The rat was still stretched out by the front steps, but I learned that it was there as a gift from the Graces’ cat. Their cat is a very pretty black-and-white sweetheart that knows how to open my bedroom door and join me at night (the next morning I discovered that a trail of ants had also joined me, getting inside my new bags of food). Eden told me that they’d found their cat as a kitten, nearly dead from having all of its black hair shaved off and being thrown off a roof. Evidently black cats are considered by some here as demons, and even cats with just partial black hair are frequently killed.
After a quick dinner it was already past time to leave for an evangelic worship service that was scheduled for that evening. It was the last meeting of the year for a regular prayer service held in the home of a charismatic couple who were also Braeburn parents. The husband is pastor of Lakeside Calvary Chapel there in Kisumu, and the couple offer these private prayer meetings for missionaries who feel the need for ministry themselves.
I had earlier asked Eden what to expect, and she said, “You know, we haven’t really talked about your faith.” She knew that I was a life-long Quaker, but she told me un-programmed Friends worship in the U.S. is a very different animal from Quaker Christian faith in Kenya. I explained that, while I was a Christian, I considered Jesus a great teacher more than a personal savior. She said, “I recommend that you don’t have this conversation with anyone tonight.” I asked her if people would be upset. “No,” she said. “They’ll just want to save you.”
As it turned out, the evening proved to be a beautiful, welcoming, and powerful experience for me. Although it was quite foreign to my own spiritual practice, I was nonetheless very moved by the service. The music, the prayers, the sermon, the testimonials. At one point I was suddenly, and wholly unexpectedly, filled with thoughts and memories of my parents, Ed and Marian. I felt an extraordinarily deep connection to them, and at the same time, I was nearly overwhelmed by a sense of loss and grief.
It now seems strange that I hadn’t anticipated this. From the very start of my planning for this trip I have defined it as a literary adventure, an opportunity to return to Africa to complete my novel. Of course I’ve also considered it an important visit back to my childhood when I was just ten years old, a personal odyssey as well as a creative one. But somehow I didn’t make the clear link to a re-connection with my parents.
I was very fortunate to have had great friendships with both of my folks. They both passed years ago, yet their deaths still feel like recent events. I’m now older than my parents were when they packed four of their kids up and brought us to live in Kenya. That experience as a young boy truly redefined my life. It’s easy to forget, though, that the experience was life-changing for all of us, including my parents.
So there I was, sitting with the Graces and a handful of other families in a small chapel in a private home in Kisumu, Kenya, listening to the sermon and the prayers and the readings and the songs of praise and the carols of Christmas…and all I could think of was my parents and how immensely I missed them.
That’s when I found myself crying. Heavy tears of remembrance. Of appreciation. Of loss.
And I felt like a ten-year-old again.
Next: Onward to Kaimosi
I’m writing this from Kaimosi mission in Western Province, where I’m about half-way through my month in Kenya. I have electricity at the moment, so I want to post some notes on my trip while I can.
Electricity and water have been quite erratic since getting to Kaimosi, more off than on it seems. It’s Sunday night, December 18, and I’ve been staying at Kaimosi Friends Theological College for a week now. My first week here was both thrilling and challenging. I was quite sick for most of the week. Intense nausea, headache, very weak – perhaps altitude sickness, perhaps some lingering effects of the malaria medication, perhaps something I ate or drank, all exacerbated by my living situation, which I’ll write about later.
Still, the past week was my chance to meet with people and visit classes here at the college before the term ended Friday and people left for the break. I’ve committed to writing several articles for Quaker and other publications in the States about my trip, so despite barely being able to get out of bed, I arranged a very full schedule of interviews and appointments for early mornings and late afternoons, and then collapsed in the middle of the day to sleep.
But I’ll write a lot more about Kaimosi at another time. What I’d like to do now is go back and share some of the first portion of my Kenya trip – my stay in Nairobi – and then I’ll work my way forward chronologically in later posts. I had hoped to upload some photos, but my Internet connection (basically cellular dial-up via a flash drive) just doesn’t want to let that happen. So I’ll start with text, include some links, and if I can figure something out about photos later, I’ll add some then.
My flights from the U.S. all went smoothly, everything arriving and departing on time. On the flight from London to Nairobi, my seat mate was an Indian man who lives in Toronto. He’s a trucker who makes a monthly round trip all the way from Toronto to Laredo, Texas. He was on his way to Mombasa for a month to visit his mom, who was not well.
Once I arrived in Nairobi, it took well over an hour to get my visa, clear customs, and find my bag. But Bernard Ngamau, my ride, was there waiting for me at the end of the line, my name printed large on his card. Bernard is the driver I had hired for my two days in Nairobi. The ride from the airport took another hour or so (Bernard told me that Nairobi has a red light rule that says after 8:00 pm you don’t have to obey red lights if no one is coming – my kind of rule!), so it was about midnight when we finally arrived at Chris’s house.
My host while in Nairobi was Chris Steel, who handles the education programs for USAID in Kenya. Thanks to a freelance assignment earlier in the year, I had written an alumni profile of Chris for Penn’s Graduate School of Education. When my original plans for the trip fell apart with the cancellation of the SLS program, I decided to continue with the trip anyway, so I asked Chris for advice on hotels in Nairobi. Instead, he invited me to stay with him!
I could not have asked for a more gracious, interesting, and generous host. Despite my getting in so late, Chris was up and waiting and we had a glass of wine and got a bit acquainted. I was pretty dead tired, though, so Chris showed me to my room – exceptional! Second floor of the guest house, it was a big open room with bed, sitting area, and work area, plus a bathroom with a big shower. Heaven! Chris provided a cell phone while I was there, and also access to a US government phone line. I got in a short message to Nancy before retiring.
I was awake the next morning before 6:00, ragged with jet lag and lack of sleep, but feeling so happy! Had a large breakfast with Chris, prepared by his cook (a different Bernard). Not only eggs and toast and fruit and juice and yogurt, but also a double cappuccino!
I had scheduled a meeting in the afternoon with Billy Kahora, editor of Kwani?, Kenya’s leading literary magazine, which was founded by the writer Binyavana Wainaina (go right now and get his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place – I just finished it and it’s beautifully written and beautifully moving). That gave me all morning to wander with Bernard (the driver Bernard), whose immediate response to most of my questions and requests was a spirited, “Oh sure, oh sure!”
A day about town
Traffic was extreme all day. Lots of cars and trucks and matatus, the colorful gypsy buses brightly painted with dramatic images and slogans, all stalled in lengthy backups and navigating the many areas where the roads are torn up and construction equipment blocks lanes because of the China-funded construction of a vast system of fly-overs (elevated roadways) that one day are supposed to alleviate congestion on the roads below.
Bernard seemed fearless, which, it turns out, he was, having previously been a race car driver for the famed East Africa Rally! Bernard told me a running joke in Kenya: because there are so many Toyota vehicles, there is a saying in Kenya that “Every car in front of you is a Toyota.” Then, he said, after Toyota had to recall its cars for brake failure, people joked, “Thank god the Toyota is not behind me!”
The traffic is so bad that many people, including Chris, may start their work day at 5:00 or 6:00 am just to avoid the worst of the traffic jam. Internet traffic is another problem; there’s not enough capacity to handle the load, so I was told that during business hours between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm, Internet access speed is cut because of all the web traffic.
At one point Bernard took a short cut to avoid the worst of the city traffic, but that instead dumped us into a long line of cars backed up behind an official sign that read “Friendly Police Stop.” We were never stopped, however, by any police, friendly or otherwise, and I never figured out why the backup. The traffic is truly amazing, but at least the matatus provide some entertainment. One cheerful looking matatu had the words “You are going to shut up” painted in beautiful lettering on its side.
Our first destination was the Sheldrick elephant orphanage. On the way I got a running commentary from Bernard on sites of interest (mostly shopping malls and hotels, of which he was quite proud). Once we escaped the traffic at the heart of the city, it was a pretty smooth ride out past the Ngong Forest, which is adjacent to Nairobi National Park, to the elephant orphanage. The orphanage was very moving – the place, the people, and the amazing abandoned baby elephants who are rescued, returned to health, then returned to the wild. When I can, I’ll try to add some images from my visit.
Next up was the giraffe feeding tower of the Nairobi game park. The tower is in a corner of the park where you can climb up to eye level and feed the giraffes, who all know to wander over for a steady supply of food. Some warthogs also tagged along at their feet to root out the food the giraffes dropped.
From there we headed back into the city to the offices of Kwani? (the name means “So what?”) Kwani? was to have been a major partner in my SLS Kenya program before the program was cancelled for security reasons. I had a very good, relaxed meeting with Billy, the editor, and with another visiting American writer, Ming Holden, who was part of last year’s SLS program and was back in Kenya to lead a workshop with abused women. The meeting was so relaxed, in fact, (and I was so jet lagged) that I forgot to take any photos, which I greatly regret, since I will be writing an article about Billy and Kwani? when I get back to the States.
We sat out under a tree in the side yard, talked about our work, I got some leads on Kenyan writers and books, left behind a couple issues of Philadelphia Stories magazine (which just happened to include an excerpt from my novel…), and made arrangements with Billy to interview him by email once I get back to the States.
Then it was back through the heart of Nairobi with Bernard, past fancy new homes and the great Kibera slum, past high-rise office buildings and single story roadside markets. All of it– the high and the low – exists tightly packed side by side. Then Bernard took me up to a vantage point where I could look down over the city and see the famed Uhuru (Independence) Park where they have a big Independence Day celebration for Jamhuri Day on Dec 12.
Then my last stop was a craft cooperative that Chris recommended, where the proceeds go to benefit women who have suffered abuse, and after buying some fabric pieces and small carvings for gifts, it was back “home,” where I promptly dropped off to sleep.
A night out
That evening Chris took me to dinner at a nearby café. He described it as a pizza joint in a mall, which is technically accurate, but the description hardly does it justice. After being admitted into the mall by an armed guard who checked Chris’s credentials (security is a big concern in Nairobi, particularly with current threats of terrorism and bombings in retaliation for Kenya’s war with Al Shabaab), we proceeded through the mall to the café, which was a wonderful combination of pizza joint, high-end bar and restaurant, jazz club with live music, and outdoor patio.
The malls here seem to be a great source of pride for many, a sign of progress. Bernard certainly felt that way. They represent major developments in a place and system where development seems particularly difficult. Both Chris and Bernard had horror stories of developers (and even individual home builders) who lost everything they’d built because a new government administration came along and said that the old deeds for that property were no longer valid.
It was a lot of fun hanging with Chris. He’s a very sharp and engaging guy – very committed to doing good work, very happy with the life he has created here, but also looking ahead. We hit it off quite well for such a short visit. He has some great ideas for getting Nancy and me back to Kenya on USAID’s roster for a program called Storymoja Africa, a big literary festival and reading series in September. Coming back in 2012 seems a bit ambitious, but maybe the following year? He has already sent me information.
By the time we got back to his house – a beautiful, guarded compound in a northern neighborhood of Nairobi – I was again practically asleep.
Time to move on
Bernard was back the next morning to pick me up (after I’d had another big breakfast with two cappuccinos) and take me to the airport. He gave me his card so that I could hire him again next time I’m in Nairobi. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second, and will be happy to give anyone his info if you’re headed Nairobi way. I gave him a Philadelphia baseball cap as a thank-you gift, which looked pretty fine atop his head there in the Nairobi airport parking lot.
I got to the airport with plenty of time before my flight, so I went to the Kenya Airways waiting area to wait to board. When I checked my bag (Chris said not to count on it arriving in Kisumu, and he gave me his USAID business card to put inside so that he could help me get my bag back in case it got lost), I was told the plane for Kisumu would leave from Gate 1 and that I should go wait there. But on the way I passed a small glass room labeled Gate 2, and I noticed a small sign in the window that said, “Kisumu.” When I got to Gate 1, a small sign there said, “Mombasa,” so I went back to the empty Gate 2 room to wait.
Eventually others began to show up, and with departure still an hour away, it became filled with people, including African businessmen, American and German travelers, and young mothers with babies. A man came along and handed me a card that he said was my boarding pass, which I soon handed back to him when I walked through a glass door out to the tarmac.
I followed the crowd between painted lines down past several planes until we reached one that we climbed aboard. Then we sat for a long while until, finally, the pilot came on the intercom to announce: “We are delayed for Air Force operations in our air space, which has prohibited all flights. It is not in our control, and we apologize.”
But soon we were in the air and climbing. And soon we were descending. And there, spread out below me, were rolling fields and shambas, then the dirt and paved roads of Kisumu, and there, beyond, the enormous waters of Lake Victoria.
In the Kisumu airport there was a long wait for bags to arrive. The two baggage carousels looked as though neither had moved in a while. While I waited I went to find a bathroom, and once inside all power went out, forcing me to feel my way to the facilities in the dark. When I’d finished, the power came back.
I returned to the baggage area, where still neither carousel was moving. But now a crowd had formed near a closed door, and sure enough, the door eventually opened and someone started carrying bags in, one at a time. Mine was nearly the last one off. I left the baggage area for the waiting room, and standing there was a woman I recognized from her photograph: Eden Grace, my host in Kisumu and, as I will soon learn, my great guide and facilitator in preparing me for Kaimosi.
Next up: My stay in Kisumu
I’m about to head out for the airport for my flight to Kenya. THANKS TO ALL who have given me such wonderful support and warm send-offs! I don’t know when or whether I’ll be able to post while I’m gone, but I’ll try. If not, I’ll be in touch with tales and photos when I’m back in January.
Thanks again, everyone — and all the best for the holidays,