The news from Kenya, part two

Français : Kenya - Kisumu - La
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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


  1. Ah, the circle of life! What a great adventure – thanks for sharing it all with us, including your feelings of loss and appreciation for your folks – who are more than worthy of a good cry!

    Can’t wait for the next installment!

    Stay safe and well! Happy Holidays!


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