Archive for January, 2012
I learned the sad news this morning that Simeon Mwanga, a man who helped care for my family in Kaimosi, Kenya, back in the mid-sixties, passed away this month at the age of 97.
I had the wonderfully moving opportunity in December to visit with mzee Mwanga at his shamba in Chepsonoi. It was my first time back to Kenya in 45 years, and I was amazed and deeply grateful to see him again and to be able to say thank-you for taking care of me so long ago.
My heart goes out to his entire family, and especially to his grandson, Josphat Lime Jiveti, who so kindly brought us together.
Down to the Galagoli River (then up to the Hill of Vision)
What a relief it was to start feeling healthy again!
On Thursday, the day after my reunion with Simeon (my family’s cook and gardener back in the sixties), I received another visit from Silas Vidolo, my number-one companion in Kaimosi. He stopped by to see how my visit with Simeon had gone, and told me that the next day he’d take me on another walking tour. He also told me that he had inquired about Musa (my family’s first cook), and had learned that Musa had lived for some time in nearby Shamakhokho but had since died. The news of his death, while not surprising, was upsetting.
Hesbourne, whose class I’d spoken to earlier in the week, stopped by to get contact information for me in the States, and he also asked why I hadn’t been attending morning chapel. It hadn’t occurred to me that people would notice my absence! I told him I hadn’t been feeling well, but that I’d be there in the morning.
The rest of the day I spent mostly writing up notes, reading a bit, and putting down some thoughts about my novel.
Some thoughts about my novel
A couple of realizations about my writing had started to bubble up. One was this: my memories of the mission from 45 years ago – both factual and sensory memories – were proving to be quite accurate. Although I was learning some things about the history of Quakers in Kenya that would require some adjustments in what I’d written, to a large extent I felt I’d gotten things pretty right on.
The second realization was that my thoughts were increasingly moving beyond my current novel to ideas for its sequel.
I have long envisioned the story I’m creating as having two grand plot lines: the main character’s childhood in Kenya (the first novel), followed by 40-plus years of wandering in the “wilderness” of the U.S. before eventually returning to Kenya (the second novel).
Now…I need to stress that these novels are NOT about me or my own story. The main character is not based on me. The other characters are not portrayals of real people. The locations, situations, actions, encounters, conflicts, resolutions, are all fabricated. It’s FICTION.
That said, however, the novel’s premise – of a young American boy coming of age in a young African nation – certainly holds echoes of my own childhood experience. And the writing of that novel has inspired ideas for its sequel – an odyssey, in effect, that follows the adult character’s efforts to return to the remembered home of his African childhood.
Again, NOT MY OWN STORY. A work of fiction. Yet I was finding that the deeper I immersed myself in Kenya on this trip – both its modern-day reality and its reality within my memory – the more deeply I felt the pull of a second novel that might draw from this same source. Considering how much the first novel has already demanded of me, I don’t take the idea lightly.
Okay, enough about novels – let’s watch some movies!
Before I left for Kenya, Nancy surprised me with a wonderful present: a little Flip video camera. I won’t bore you with the many two-second bursts of nothingness I shot as I learned to use it.
Instead, I’ll bore you with a couple of long segments I shot while on a walking tour of Kaimosi Road!
On Friday, Silas invited me to join him for another guided stroll. The videos below were a way for me to start getting on tape some of Silas’s memories of Kaimosi Mission from when he and I were boys there. These are the first of a small number of video segments I shot while in Kaimosi.
I’m sure that many of you will find these videos distinctly uninteresting. They are long and so poorly shot that you may get seasick watching them. I’m also confident, however, that at least three people will find them utterly fascinating: my brothers John, Rob, and Erin. They walked this very same road with me 45 years ago, and they continue to walk it with me every day in spirit.
These, then, are for my brothers:
Next: a walking tour up the Hill of Vision
I learn extraordinary news (and I don’t mean about the rat)
Ruth arrived early morning again with a pan of hot water and a thermos of boiled milk. This time, however, I was already up and feeling much better. I asked for eggs and toast.
I also finally asked about the sounds I was hearing in my room at night.
“Oh yes,” she said. “You have a rat.”
It was such a simple statement, yet so disturbing.
“Don’t let it bite you,” she added on her way out, “or you will need strong medicine. They use this place to store maize, you know. The rat is looking for food.”
I was still mulling over the rat business when Ruth returned, moments later, to announce, “The dean of students will see you right now. I will take you there.”
She waited while I got dressed and gathered my gear: paper, pens, tape recorder, digital camera, Flip video camera, and my borrowed cellphone. It felt quite strange to have access to all of that technology in such a remote area.
Meshack Musindi was waiting at his desk when I arrived, and when we were done with the interview, I returned to my room where I had arranged to talk with Ruth about her experience as a student. When I concluded my conversation with Ruth, I considered myself finally finished with my interviews. I didn’t know yet what I was going to write, but I was feeling pleased with the source material I had to work with, and I was also looking forward to turning my attention to my own work.
I was feeling much better physically, too, and hungry for the first time in days, so I fixed myself a real lunch – some cheese and crackers, dates, leftover rice and chicken from when I’d first arrived, a chocolate bar and digestive biscuits, plus two more glasses of that magical, fluorescent orange liquid.
More discoveries await
I had arranged with Silas to go on another guided walking tour of Kaimosi that afternoon, this time all the way down to the Galigoli River and dam. I went to his office to meet him, and got to talking with his boss, Josphat Lime Jiveti, the finance officer, about memories from when I was a kid in Kaimosi. I told Josphat I had lived in the house directly across the road from the College. When I asked about my old neighbors, Rose and Rufus Adede, I was told that both of them had died some years back. The news was quite a shock.
I told him I remembered two people who helped care for my family back then. One was a man named Musa. Both Josphat and Silas shook their heads; didn’t remember him. The other person, I told them, was a man named Simeon.
A jolt of electricity seemed to crackle through the room
“Simeon,” said Josphat, “is my grandfather! His name is Simeon Mwanga, and he used to take care of families in that very house where you lived!”
It seemed miraculous to make such a connection after all of these years. Then it got better.
“He is still alive, you know,” said Josphat. “He is 97 years old! He has been at the hospital for a foot infection, but he is back home now at his shamba in Chepsonoi. Would you like to see him?”
Of course I would! But I told Josphat that I was only going to be in Kaimosi a few more weeks. Did he think it would be possible to coordinate a visit in that time?
“I am taking you to see him tonight,” he said.
From Kaimosi to Chepsonoi
Silas wanted to get lunch before we headed out on our walking tour, so he took me first to the dining hall to join the rest of the school. I had already eaten a large lunch and I was feeling quite full and still a bit queasy, so I told Silas I didn’t need any lunch. He wouldn’t hear of it. He returned from the kitchen with a metal plate stacked with a huge mound of rice and large chunks of tough, fatty beef. We weren’t leaving until I ate it all.
But finally we were off on our walking tour, this time down to the Galigoli River, where there used to be a saw mill and power station, both of which have long been out of commission, destroyed by neglect after the government took them over from the mission. We visited the Teacher Training College,
the chapel, the Kaimosi Friends Primary School (now a large day and boarding school on the site of my old two-room mission school),
the Kaimosi Hospital (picked up a package left there for me by Eden Grace, and visited with a nurse who worked at the hospital when I was a boy. I told her I had spent a night in the hospital for a broken collar bone back then, and she said yes, she remembered that. Possible, I guess – people I’d met so far have had extraordinary memories of those days.)
I talked with people all along our walk (including a retired minister out with his cows and grandchildren), and nearly everyone who heard my story said, “God has brought you home to Kaimosi. You have come home.” It certainly felt as though I’d come home.
When I got back to the college, Josphat was ready to go. Evidently “tonight” meant “this afternoon.” We took the College truck and after less than an hour on a paved road we turned onto a very narrow dirt road down a very steep hill that eventually landed us at Simeon’s shamba with cows and chickens wandering the yard.
While I sat in the front room – dirt floor, mud walls – Simeon’s wife, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren gathered to sit with me while Josphat went to dress his grandfather and bring him out to visit. His wife led us in prayer while we waited, again when Simeon arrived, and again when it was time to leave.
The visit was short but emotionally powerful. Simeon was clearly tired and in pain, but he was also alert and communicated through his grandson his appreciation that a child he had cared for so long ago had come back to say thank-you.
For most of the drive back to Kaimosi I was silent, greatly moved by the ever-deepening sense of homecoming that has filled this trip.
Next: I go to the Hill of Vision
With the FTC Church Administration class
Tuesday, Dec. 13 – I drink a magic potion!
I missed morning chapel again, not able to get up and dressed in time. I did make it down, though, for my 8:30 interview with John, academic dean of Friends Theological College who also taught Christian Worship and Systematic Theology 1. My head still felt wrapped in a blanket of pain and exhaustion, and I had to concentrate on each step I took to keep from tripping or falling, but the interview went well and I hoped that its momentum would help carry me through the day.
From there I went straight to Hesbourne’s class on Church Administration, and ended up talking with his students for nearly three hours, with a break in the middle for tea. It’s hard to know how useful any of what I had to say might be, but they certainly were fascinated by a glimpse into western un-programmed Quaker practice, both the religious and business aspects.
The lack of a pastor in charge, the acceptance of ministry by anyone moved to speak, and the idea of decision-making by committee and consensus all appeared to be quite baffling. When I told them there was no collection plate passed during service, they laughed in disbelief. They were eager for ideas on how to raise support for their churches, but I ended up feeling that little of my U.S. experience in fundraising had much relevance in a setting where a generous donation might be a chicken. Still, the discussion was fun and spirited, the students were very sharp, and the time passed quickly. Then it was back to bed.
A little before 3:30 I got up and made my way up to the hill to the home of the principal to interview her. I was originally going to talk with her and the dean of students earlier in the day, but when I got to their offices all the power was out and no one was there, so I rescheduled. I was feeling even worse after my nap, but Ann served me some tea, which seemed to settle my stomach a little. We had quite a wide ranging and interesting conversation, touching on the history and challenges of the theological college, Kaimosi hospital, and other institutions at the mission.
I hadn’t been able yet to reschedule an interview with the dean of students, and he was leaving the next day for term break, but by the time I was wrapping up with the principal, I was so worn out that I just went back to my room and fell asleep again. At some point I heard knocking at the door. I knew it might be the dean, but I found I didn’t have the strength to rise or answer.
I had become quite concerned about my health, and was beginning to fear my stay in Kenya could end up in jeopardy if I didn’t start feeling better soon. When Ruth arrived at 6:00 to ask about dinner, I again told her I wasn’t hungry. She asked if I was drinking the juice she’d told me about.
I didn’t remember her telling me about any juice. She went into the kitchen area and pulled down from the top shelf a plastic bottle that held some liquid that was a violent, metallic orange.
“You must drink this! Put a little in a glass and add water.”
After she left I studied the bottle’s label. It hardly looked promising. The product was called “Excel Quencher Orange Flavoured Drink Dilute to Taste.” It looked precisely like radiator or wiper-blade fluid. At the bottom of the label read the words, “Manufactured by Excel Chemicals, Ltd.”
I diluted a bit and drank it down. It tasted just like the orange flavoured chemical concoction it was. I fixed and drank a second glass and went back to bed.
Except for the return of whatever animal continued to rummage through my bags in the night, I slept soundly and awoke in the morning feeling better than I had in days.
Next: an extraordinary surprise visit
Okay, first off, spoiler alert: I’m actually writing this from Philadelphia, so now you know I made it home safely.
Happy New Year to all!
Sorry to leave you in the lurch for so long after my last post. My time in Kaimosi ended up becoming quite filled with activity and I couldn’t keep up with posting. So now I’m going to reach back as best I can to reconstruct over the next few weeks the remainder of my trip. I’ll try to do this chronologically, but I have a feeling things may end up becoming a bit more impressionistic as I go along. Here goes:
The news from Kenya part 5
December 12, Kenya’s Independence Day. I’d made plans with both Silas and John to go visit a local Jamhuri celebration, and although I’d awakened feeling even worse than the day before, I was looking forward to getting out of my room.
When Ruth brought the morning milk she also had news about the crowds and police I’d seen my first day. It was related to Jamhuri, she said. At first the crowds had been celebrating independence, but when a government official arrived to make a speech, the crowd began protesting against fuel prices and rising inflation, and the police had chased them down the road and into the forest.
Plans for seeing a local Jamhuri celebration quickly fell apart, but I arranged with John to get a tour of the Friends Theological College campus instead, including the library, chapel, and his office. On the way I met Hesborne Apida, another faculty member. One of the classes he teaches is church administration, and when he learned I have graduate degrees in both education and business, he said, “You must come speak to my class!”
So my schedule was beginning to fill up: an interview with John at 8:30 the next morning after chapel, then a visit to Hesborne’s class at 9:30. I had also started arranging interviews with others before the term ended that week, including Ann, the principal, and Meshack Musindi, the dean of students. I also hoped to interview a student, but wasn’t sure what the sensitivities might be about that, so I put that on my list of questions for Ann.
I was arranging all of these interviews in connection with writing articles for Quaker and other publications in the States. Ann had started to define “these wonderful articles you are going to write about us” as my payment for housing, which was a great offer, but feeling as sick as I did, I was also starting to feel under some pressure.
I also was trying to arrange for someone to go with me into the forest, which I’d been told I shouldn’t do alone, plus I wanted to explore the mission more, get down to the Galigoli river, and also get inside my old house once the current residents were back from holiday.
Just the thought of all I was planning was exhausting me, and I felt too weak and nauseous to do much besides sleep. Still, I continued on with John on our tour of campus. Along the way he became the first of what would turn out to be quite a number of people who would ask me to give them a computer. I told him, no, that was not something I could do.
We eventually headed toward the dining hall for morning tea. Tea time in the dining hall was just the way I remembered it as a child! Tea leaves, milk, and sugar all boiled together in a huge vat and ladled out, steaming, into mugs. Delicious!
The TV in the dining hall was broadcasting the Jamhuri celebration from Nairobi, and we pulled up benches to watch what ended up being HOURS of processions of military personnel and marching bands, along with political speeches and entertainers that included singers, comedians, rappers, dancers, and children’s choirs. Both President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga spoke, and at least 20 minutes were filled with simply marching the original Kenyan flag, which looked quite worn but also quite moving, around the stadium. The local favorite, though, was a performance of traditional dance and music by students of the Tiriki Friends School, just down the road from Kaimosi.
Throughout the broadcast, a banner news headline crawled across the bottom of the screen that read, “48th Jamhuri Day. 2nd since new constitution. Inflation stands at 195%.”
As soon as I got back to my room, I collapsed again into bed and slept away the rest of the day until nearly 6:00. When Ruth came to ask what I wanted for dinner, I told her I still wasn’t hungry. I went back to bed, thinking about the Kaimosi Hospital just down the road and wondering if I might end up needing its services.
Next: a magic potion!