Wednesday, May 28, 2008

All the endings are not happy ...

Jonas and Livingstone
... a story of what happens when children are uneducated ...

It is Saturday evening and I've finally had supper. The day was anything but blissful. Blissful implies harps and angels and somnolent postures on a lazy river or under a scarcely moving cloud filled sky.

Today began with three sets of visitors: a man selling bougainvillea; a woman wondering what had happened to her LIFA interview and two boys in their late teens. Marie and Sarah dealt with the bougainvilleas. I explained to the woman that she had been an excellent candidate but out of our league in salary expectations. Then Sarah and I spent the next several hours dealing with the boys.

They had never known their father and lived with their mother, at first alone, and then with a stepfather. When the mother died in 2000, the stepfather told them they were not his children and they had to leave. Out on the street they sought help and were rewarded by the attentions of a man who agreed to take them in. He kept them with him for two months and then locked them up and told them that he was a devil worshipper and they were to be sold as sacrifices to devils in Nairobi. He left for Nairobi. They screamed loudly enough to attract attention and were released by a neighbour woman who suggested they come to seek help from us.

Now anyone from our background finds herself thinking, "Yeah, sure, devil worshippers and human sacrifices. Right."

But when we asked Elliot the replacement askari about devil worship he was quite clear that this exists here; that they go into churches in the dead of night, and make terrible sacrifices and drink the blood … and that they are incredibly lucky people financially. They drive big cars with smoked glass windows. Anyone who gets linked up with them has to stay or die. Elliot doesn't believe. He's a Christian. But he knows it exists here … and he's not at all sure that the sacrifices don't work.

I asked Livingstone, the older of the boys and the one who spoke quite passable English, to take a note and go see Sister Augustina who runs the children's home. Elliot gave them directions (with the help of the husband of the lady who'd come to ask about the interview results) to Sister Augustina's. I gave them 40 shillings to take a boda boda.

An hour or so later, I was at the computer working on a proposal for SAIPE, when Sarah informed me that the boys were back. They had my note with a note to Father Lubanga on the back. Sister said she couldn't help but perhaps he could. They had no idea where Father Lubanga could be found. Elliot called to a woman on the road and asked if she was Catholic. She was. She suggested a most difficult way to find the good father. I decided to call first.

A telephone call is never a simple thing in Kenya. We tried the number we were given and got a high pitched scream announcing it was long distance. We hunted all through the phone book for area codes and could not find this one. I phoned the post office for information. They directed me (after a five minute wait) to a 900 number that was busy. At that point Wycliffe Kibisu arrived.

"Are you Catholic?" I asked. No ‘Hello.' No ‘How are you?' Just a demand for his religion.

He looked a little taken aback but responded. "No. But Catherine is."

"Can you phone her to find out where we can find Father Lubanga?"

Wycliffe has been around enough Canadians to know that we are not as polite a people as we should be; that we often forget the formalities of handshakes and queries about health before getting down to business, so he picked up the phone and called his girlfriend. A few minutes later we knew how to find the good father and Wycliffe drove us to the Catholic Mission.

The parish office is an oasis of quiet set back in from the market stalls and frenetic activity of the main road. We sat in the shade awaiting our turn to enter the office to tell our story to the young priest looking after things in Father Lubanga's absence. He questioned the boys closely about their parentage and about the possibility of finding relatives who might help. "We can't take them here," he said. "We only take high school boys." Livingstone has grade 4 and his brother, Jonas, grade 3. They are 17 and 18 years old.

"What are we going to do?"

"I think they should return to Mbale and stay with the neighbour who helped them escape. Then all three can come back in here to try to sort this out on Monday," the priest said quietly.

"Will they be too frightened to return to Mbale?" I asked.

He spoke to them a moment in Kiswahili. "It's okay."

"What do you think?" I asked Sarah.

She nodded. "It's the only way."

We each dug 50 shillings from our pockets to pay their fare back to Mbale and to bring them in again on Monday.

"God bless you," Livingstone said at the gate.

"If things don't work out," Sarah said, "You come back to us. Don't end up on the street." They nodded.

Our conversation on the way home was subdued. Even if you solve one of the problems for these kids, another one pops up. If they find someone to look after them in return for board what future do they have? If we could find them a home in Imbale they could attend a LIFA centre to get their primary education. Then they'd have to get the four years of high school including just staying alive during all those years.

We stopped in the market for fruit and vegetables on the way home.


I know that people who read my last account of lost boys and devil worshippers have probably dismissed me as either a complete flake or as incurably naïve, but yesterday the saga continued, and so too, do I.

Livingstone and Jonas arrived just as we were getting ready to leave for Isulu where we were opening a new LIFA centre. I looked at them with dismay and said, "But you were supposed to go to the Catholic church today with your neighbour."

Livingstone nodded and said, "We went, but he sent us here." He handed me a note that read like any cop-out.

"I have listened to the two boys but I get no solution. Their age is beyond the children's home. They want a course of which this parish doesn't have. I hereby request you to see what to be done if possible. Thank you. God bless. Yours in Christ, Father Lubanga"

Christ is right. I'm leaving in five minutes. What in Christ's name am I supposed to do now? I told Everlyne, our office manager, whose heart is much bigger than the rest of her, a condensed version of Saturday's tale. When I climbed into the overloaded taxi she was deep in conversation with the boys.

Later ...

We think we have managed to do the impossible, thanks to Everlyne.

None of the children's homes we approached seemed to be the answer. What we needed was some way to feed and house these children long enough to get them some kind of skill, but, because they have no education, most training routes were closed to them.

Everlyne scouted around until she found a jua kali welder who is training boys to weld. These roadside fundis or tradesmen make a living for themselves with the smallest possible expenditure. He was willing to train Livingstone and Jonas for KSh 2000 per month. Since the training will lead to a job, they fit into the CIDA part of our scholarship programme so ACCES is able to pay for them to get this training.

Everlyne then went looking for appropriate lodging. Titus, one of our students, lives in a very small place, probably a room measuring about 8x10, but when Everlyne asked if he would take the boys in for a year, he said, "Of course. You have been so generous to me, I must be generous too." His face became grave, and then he continued, "There is a problem though. My mattress is very small." Everlyne assured him that we would purchase mattresses and sheets for the boys.

We will give the boys enough to cover their food and they will pool their food money with Titus' so that all can survive less expensively.

Everlyne had thought of everything including the need to sit down together, all of us, so that Titus and the boys could work out a harmonious living arrangement. The meeting is to be held on Wednesday afternoon.

I hope that these boys are mature enough to make this arrangement work. The younger of the two tends to sound like a teenager anywhere. "What I really want to do is drive. I want to take a driving course." No thought of what car he would drive. No idea of how few cars exist in Kenya. No concept of how limiting their grade three and four educational levels are. Most of the time you can listen to kids being stubborn and say to yourself, "Oh well they'll grow up one day." With these kids they can't afford to make any mistakes. They have to grow up now.


Eventually we were forced to admit that our trust had been misplaced; that too many years of neglect had done irreparable damage; that the boys could not adjust to the discipline of an apprenticeship. Despite the good will of people like Titus and the welder who wanted to train them, despite the real efforts everyone made to convince these boys of their role in making this last chance work, despite the best of intentions, these two fell through the cracks. They goofed off. They lied when they were asked to account for irresponsible behaviour. They hid letters they were asked to deliver to people. We could not help them. It was too late for Livingstone and Jonas. I was forced to write the following letter to the first woman who had attempted to help the boys when she made another attempt to get help.

18 March 2003
Anne Nawire
P.O. Box 20

RE: Agiza Mizilet, Livingstone, and Jonas

Dear Mrs. Nawire:

As our office manager, Mrs. Everlynne Musalia, has explained, ACCES sponsors students in post- secondary or trades training. It does not sponsor secondary students. Please do not send us any more requests for help for children or young people we are unable to sponsor.

We have just washed our hands of Livingstone and Jonas. We went far beyond our normal scope of activities in our attempts to help these boys, but they have proven to be dishonest, lazy and ungrateful.

Initially, we were touched by their plight and exerted considerable effort in an attempt to find them an organisation which would provide shelter, food and possibly training. All four of the organisations we approached on their behalf refused them or were unable to give them any chance at a better future.

At that point we looked at our own resources within ACCES. Despite their low level of education, we felt that we could get them some kind of apprenticeship training under a jua kali fundi if we were also able to provide accommodation. Mrs. Musalia approached one of our sponsored students and asked him if he would share his accommodation. Titus very generously agreed to take in the two boys. Mrs. Musalia arranged with a welder, who was training other young boys, to have Livingstone and Jonas taken into his programme. ACCES paid their fees for six months, gave them a living allowance, and bought them shoes, clothing, mattresses, and sheets. This was, of course, in addition to all the smaller sums for transport already given to them. In all we spent almost 17,000 shillings, enough for a full year's fees and accommodation at a university for a promising student.

Imagine our concern when the trainer arrived to tell us that the boys were not attending classes. We sent a letter to Titus with the boys asking him to explain clearly that they must attend class or be discontinued as sponsored students. Titus never received the letter. The boys had lost it. Jonas complained of illness. When he was examined by the nurse at ACCES, he was found to be perfectly healthy. He complained about his eyes and was sent with a note to the eye clinic. They agreed to provide sun glasses for KSh450, but Jonas came home to tell Titus that the doctor had told him that further work as a welder would cause him to go blind. When I interviewed the doctor I was told that was a complete lie; that he had told him the cost of sunglasses but had not even examined his eyes nor made such a statement.

All of us who have dealt with these boys in good faith have been disappointed and we have told them to leave Titus' home, taking with them the clothing we have provided. The welding trainer has been paid for six months' training, and should they find a way to survive, they will be able to continue their welding training until that money runs out. I doubt very much if they will do that, because they seem to want a free ride rather than an honest chance to improve their lot.

I have gone into such great detail so you will have a clear picture of what has happened here. Should they return to Mbale and to you, you will be aware of exactly what has transpired.

Yours faithfully,

When I wrote off the boys, I felt as if I had failed ... failed to judge accurately, but also failed to do enough. My best wasn't good enough for these boys.

George, Bainito and Geoffrey

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One Boy Leads to Another

Bainito Omusebe

I was introduced to Bainito's situation by Gerald Bulinda, the headmaster of Butere Boys High School. He recounted the story of Bainito's struggle to get an education, and explained that his own staff had done everything they could to help Bainito. Could we help in any way? Our office staff members immediately offered cash to help Bainito go to school, and we Canadians followed their example.I was the lucky one who found herself accompanying Bainito on his school shopping excursion. I came away from the experience enriched.

One Boy's Struggle

Bainito's entire life has been a struggle. No one knows who fathered him or his brothers, not even his mother. She is mentally unsound, and has been most of her life. She is known throughout the district as an unbalanced woman given to wandering the roads, tearing off her clothing, and generally behaving in bizarre ways.

When Bainito and his brother were toddlers, neighbours would find them eating dirt and drinking from puddles. They would rescue the babies and take them into their own homes, only to have their kindness rewarded by abuse when the mother came back from one of her rambles and decided to reclaim the children.

Throughout primary school, Bainito worked for different people doing odd jobs in return for food, shelter and school fees. Despite the problems he faced continually, Bainito did not give up. He knew the importance of an education, and told me later that school was "a place where he'd always found solace and happiness ... where teachers and some pupils showed him friendliness and warm company". Mr. Bulinda shook his head and said to me, "I wonder how he managed to study. There was not even paraffin for the lamp. He would have struggled to read by the light of the wick alone."

Bainito did graduate from primary school at age sixteen. He attained 73% and stood first in his class. Butere Boys High School called him, gave him some bursary money, scrambled to get him a used uniform and some exercise books, and then called me.

At the ACCES office, Bainito wrote an autobiography in which he described his family situation as "unpalatable to imagine and talk about", but he showed considerable generosity of spirit as he explained that his mother was deserving of his sympathy because "her mental capability is poor" and she "is not able to comprehend anything". Bainito is, like many of the Kenyan young people I met, wise beyond his years.

Our Shopping Trip

We began with shoes, secondhand, spread out on tarpaulins. The third pair he tried fit and were packed into a bag. The next stop was the stationery store to buy dictionaries, textbooks and a Bible. I picked up the first Bible I saw, the cheapest, and asked if it would do. Bainito stroked the soft leather cover of a zippered Bible. It cost eighty cents more, and I said, "We'll take that one." The look on his face was one I'll not forget. The uniform shop was next. Here Bainito informed me that he needed only one pair of pants and one shirt; that he had the ex- student's uniform. Nor did he need athletic shorts, just the t-shirt. By now it was noon and I asked if he was hungry. He said nothing. I made some comment about boys always being hungry, and suggested we go to get a meal.

Across the road at the restaurant, known as a hotel in Kenya, Bainito had to be coaxed to order anything. "You decide," he said. When I pointed out that he knew the different menu items better than I did, and he should choose whatever he wanted, he said in a low voice, "A chapati." I asked if it came with anything. The waiter shook his head and I ordered stew for us. Bainito's eyes flickered around, looking for clues. Then he reached across the table to get the glass of the woman sitting opposite us. He was on his way to the water tap where people wash their hands, to fill it when the woman and I stopped him. "It's dirty," I began. "They will bring you water," the woman explained. Bainito hung his head and said softly, "I've never been to a hotel before."

When the food arrived, I asked how often they ate meat at school. "Only on Tuesdays," he said. "A good thing you came on Thursday to do your shopping," I quipped. "You get to have meat twice this week." He laughed and began to open up.

As we ate and afterwards as we finished the shopping, stopping to buy shoe polish, towels and bedding, I learned that he was a runner, already running at the national level; that the M.P. whose financial help the headmaster had hoped to enlist, was not proving very helpful; that a local businessman who had promised Bainito a trunk if he graduated, was now avoiding him. "Africans are not generous," he said.

I thought of all the Kenyans I knew who were helping family members, neighbours, and virtual strangers every day, and pointed out that the money we were spending on his school shopping had come from the meagre salaries of people in the ACCES and LIFA offices. I reminded him that his headmaster had contributed money and had also gone out of his way to find help for him; and that his teachers had been concerned and caring. He agreed, and amended his comment. "Some Kenyans are generous," he said with a smile.

Bainito had likely discovered early that Kenyans, like everyone else in the world, cannot be easily categorized, and he had probably, in his sixteen years, encountered more hardship than I had in my sixty-two years.

Bainito Today

I returned to Canada May 1, 2003. When I left, Bainito and several other children I had met, were safely ensconced at high school. At the end of April, Bainito had come to the office to show me his first term report and to give me a sack of fresh peanuts and eight eggs.

On May 6, he wrote me a letter thanking me for the spending money I had left for him, expressing concern for my health, which had not been good just before I left Kenya, and telling me how he was doing in athletics.

Two days ago, I received an e-mail from Everlyne, the ACCES office manager, telling me that Bainito was having trouble because of money. Had I received her e-mail? I hadn't so she sent it again. It consisted of a message from Bainito and a short note from Everlyne herself.

Bainito's Letter

Dear Madame,

It is another good time that I take to write to you this letter. I hope you are fine. Thank you very much for the 500/= ($10) you left for me at Kakamega office. It helped me acquire the basics. Second, I am writing this letter from Kakamega office. I have been sent away from school. I was given a bursary of 7230/= ($144.60). I have been chased away becasue of 12,770/= ($255.40). It is because of this I am writing to kindly request you for assistance. I pray God will help you to be able to find someone to help me. Yours faithfully, Bainito Omusebe Clifford

Everlyne's note was simply a reminder that she still had about $90 of my money.

Needless to say, I sent the necessary funds. Two hundred dollars is impossible for a Kenyan orphan to raise, but not for a Canadian.

Bainito will need some help with his third term fees and will need about $350 for each of the next three years if he is to complete high school. If he doesn't complete high school, his future is bleak. There are no relatives in Nairobi to help out; no one to give a primary school leaver a job. Of all the children I know, Bainito is the one who is most alone.

Update on Bainito

Bainito was taken on by CAAA ... the alumni asssociation of young people who had been helped by CHES or ACCES ... and he moved to Shikunga Secondary School where he completed high school. I saw him there with other students for whom I had found help when I was in Kenya in 2006. He was in his final year of high school. I will post a photo later.

Nelson Omondi at Butere Boys Secondary School

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The Boy Who Touched My Heart First

Nelson Omondi

Nelson arrived at ACCES one day in December with his two half brothers, Edwin and Japheth. Edwin did all the talking. He had just completed high school, and spoke on behalf of the two brothers for whom he was now responsible. Nelson's mother had died. The father of all three had died. Edwin and Japheth's mother (Nelson's step-mother) was dying. No one said it. No one had to. Anyone who has lived in Africa recognizes the trail left by AIDS deaths, a trail that almost always ends in orphaned children who now face a life filled with often insurmountable barriers.

Edwin brought out an envelope filled with neatly organised papers. The boys' primary school reports were all there. Throughout the eight years, Nelson had been a superior student, and had placed third on the national exams with 420 marks out of a possible 500. Japheth's primary school performance was average, but he too had managed above average marks on the KCPE exams: 376/500. I looked at the three of them and felt the tears welling up, my throat choking my words.

I felt sympathy for Nelson and Japheth whose schooling must now end. Without further education these bright boys would find themselves doing manual labour for a subsistence living. I thought of the hundreds of boda boda drivers who were desperately trying to get enough passengers to make their 50 shillings ($1) each day. I thought of the men pushing huge wooden barrows through the streets. I thought of the ragged street boys warming their hands over charcoal fires when I arose early at dawn. They too had been boys whose chances to get education had been snatched from them.

But the prickle I felt behind my eyelids was only partly caused by my sympathy for the hardships the boys now faced. It had much more to do with my very clear understanding of the life Edwin, their older brother, would have. He was eighteen years old and responsible for a family. And, like so many Kenyans I knew, he was taking on the responsibility without a murmur. There was no resentment, no sense of injustice, no desire to break and run. If you are Kenyan you look after your family. You look after blood relations and you look after the others you inherit, the extended family members that sometimes seem to me more like clusters of incomprehensible undergrowth than family trees with discernible branches and connections.

I couldn't continue the conversation much longer, so I took the envelope of papers from Edwin and said, "I will do my best to find someone to help. ACCES does not fund high school students, but I will try to find someone who will."

That is how I began my file of primary school graduates who need and deserve help. Most are boys, and most of the boys are bright, keen students like Nelson.

Nelson Goes to School

Nelson was one of the lucky ones. He still needed help, but he had been given a chance to get his first year of high school.

I approached Nora, part of the group starting up BEEF (Boys' Educational Endowment Fund). She looked at the files of the small group of boys then in my folder and said, "This one is the best bet for funding. He has stood first and has attained excellent grades from a poor school." She was not pointing to Nelson's file. Nelson's primary school had a better record than Daniel's, and Daniel's marks were as high as Nelson's. We discussed how to help Daniel and then I was left, once again, with the conundrum of how to help Nelson.

I sat in my office the following day, the file folder open in front of me, and let the tears roll down my cheeks. Francis came in to use the computer, and asked what was wrong. I shoved the Nelson's file toward him. "I can't do anything to help him. Look at his marks. And he won't even get to high school."

Francis looked carefully at the reports, at the KCPE results, at my notes. "He could have been me," he said finally. "I was lucky, but without CHES, I would never have gone to high school." We talked a bit more, and he suggested trying the Aga Khan people. I tried but I kept running into blank walls.

"Any more suggestions?" I asked Francis the next day.

"What about trying CAAA (CHES ACCES Alumni Association)? We support a student every year. I'm not sure whether we have one right now."

This time I was able to make some headway. CAAA met each Sunday in our office, and Florence, our accountant, was its most active member. CAAA sent someone out to check on the boy's home. When she returned she reported that the boys were living in abysmal conditions, far worse than I had envisaged. Their house was only partly roofed. Their mother was in the last stages of the disease and would likely not last more than a couple of months. This family certainly needed any help they could get. CAAA agreed to fund Nelson's first year. I was to try to find alternative funding for his last three years.

Nelson began his studies at Butere Boys' High School in January, 2003.

Nelson's Education

Less than a month went by before we received a sad letter from Nelson. He hated school. Couldn't we send him to another school where the students were more concerned with their education? Florence wrote a letter and assured him that things would get better, and it would be impossible to make a change now anyway. I pointed out that Bainito was also there; that he should make friends with him. Nelson settled in, and we didn't hear anything more until the school break in April when he brought his first report.

His average was in the high seventies, he had stood third out of 101 students, he was involved in volleyball, and the comments were complimentary. In typical Kenyan fashion, the headmaster's comment was understated praise. "Good, but aim for A in all your subjects." Nelson told me that Bainito was his good friend, and it was clear that he was most impressed by Bainito's sports ability. Later Bainito praised Nelson's academic success. An interesting friendship, one in which competition played no role.

The next time I heard from Nelson was when I returned to Canada. One envelope: two letters; one from Bainito, one from Nelson ... both thanking me for the spending money I had left for them. Nelson's made me chuckle. He is at the stage where he writes with thesaurus and dictionary close by.

Dear Barbara Scott:

I am writing to thank you fully for your sponsorship. I am compelled to say your strategical attitude towards me can barely be underestimated. I was entangled in turmoil after being rendered helpless, but you managed to pick me up. Thanks for your marvellous work.

I am at school desperately fighting to achieve the best academically irrespective of my step-mother's deteriorating health. I also thank you for the pocket money you left behind to be handed over to me. May you continue with that spirit. At home my brothers and sisters have been greatly captivated by your kindness and they wish you an eternal life in God's kingdom. May God grant you his blessings so that you can continue to help the needy further. Thank you very much and may God bless you. Amen.

Yours sincerely,

Omondi Nelson

What Next?

First I had to find someone to fund Nelson's last three years at Butere Boys'. Then it would be nice to find someone to help Japheth too ... but there are others in the files who also need help, so Japheth may have to wait.

The Last Note at This Time

I found the necessary funding and Nelson finished school. Nelson graduated with an average of B+ and was invited to a university. He approached ACCES for help to attend university and received a scholarship. He is now attending university. I saw him the last time I was in Kenya and will post his photo as soon as I find it.

Market Day in Kakamega

The air just rests against my skin ... neither hot nor cold ... just there. The only time I am aware of temperature here is at noon if the sun is shining and I am walking quickly or carrying a load, and once, yesterday in fact, when rain teemed down from a grey sky, the wind blowing it in sheets past the rondavel in which we sat to eat lunch.

Someone in some book wrote of the flavours of Africa rather than smells. Whoever it was captured it well. It is like a symphony of odours, some subtle, some rising in great crashing crescendos. Or a fabric woven from many different strands of thread, some thick and deeply shaded, others fine and light. And it isn't just the smells that weave themselves together into a fabric that immediately conjures up Africa. It is also the sights, and the sounds that are unmistakeably African.

Weaving its way through the whole fabric is the warm sweet smell of the wood and charcoal fires, and the meat cooking over them. There is one alley way I pass each day where someone roasts chicken over an open fire and my mouth waters.

The most penetrating smell is that of the pigs rooting about in the rotting produce. They feast at night and are joined in the morning by an old man whose stick turns over patches of garbage, seeking something of value they haven't yet devoured. A strong wind blowing in the wrong direction makes me hold my breath till I pass the mound. Later you see the same pigs lolling about in the sunshine sleeping off their gluttony.

After the rains the air is clean but the ground turns into slippery red sludge and I make my hesitant way hopping from one rock to another, avoiding the freshly wet green cow dung whose odour rise from the steaming mud.

My waking hours are filled with sound that begins with the birds that wake me at 5:30 and ends with laughter and music from the surrounding neighbourhoods to which I fall asleep at night. Everywhere I walk music accompanies me, lifting my feet and my spirits in a way I cannot describe and which doesn't happen anywhere else in the world that I know of. And always the background murmur of Luhya and Kiswahili. In town every mode of transport adds its own raucous noise to the cacophony of the streets. Matatu horns blare. Bicycle bells jangle. A truck roars as it struggles up a hill belching out black smoke and leaving in its wake the stench of petrol fumes that slowly dissipate to be replaced by perfume wafting from nearby flowering trees.

Someone sells tiny vials of perfume on the main road and a man dabs some behind his ears. Mostly people just smell like clean bodies in open air, but occasionally the sharp acrid smell of stale sweat overpowers me in an enclosed space.

The streets are alive on Saturday morning as people come to buy and sell at the markets. Women sit sideways on boda bodas, their legs sedately crossed, perfectly balanced. A troop of nursing sisters parades past, their black faces framed by white head pieces. Another woman walked past balancing an enormous clay cooking pot on her head. So many bicycles, matatus and pickups bursting with people on the move. Goods are carried on heads, on the backs of bicycles, in wooden wheel barrows, on the tops of sagging matatus. It is an entrepreneurial society ... thousands of small business people selling everything from batteries to second hand clothing and linens to fresh produce to plastic bags. I wonder how they all survive when so many sell the same thing. There is some sense of order in the market ... specialties like dresses or shirts or pants or linens ... but still so many vying for the few shillingi available.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

First Impressions

My First Week in Kakamega

Just as you can never be a virgin again, you can never recapture exactly those first impressions of a country. My very first trip to Africa was as a volunteer teacher working with teachers in Swaziland in 1992. I was fifty-two years old and had traveled very little before that trip.

That was the trip that caused me to wake up in the middle of the night worrying about flies laying eggs under my skin, scorpions nesting in my shoes and snakes ready to attack everywhere. Every sense was heightened by discomfort and fear.

I kept a journal for myself and a doll my art student daughter sent with me. I had difficulty choosing a voice and I eventually called it Wish's journal. "I" , "we" and "she" simply blended into Wish, and, since everything was viewed through my lens, I wrote in the first person singular.

Wish's impressions encompassed the freshest view I will ever have of Africa or of travel in the developing world. Unfortunately that journal disappeared, and all my later impressions have been tinged by memories of other places and dulled by familiarity and comfort. Each new experience becomes part of an on-going and ever-growing understanding of the world.

The following is an excerpt from the journal I kept my first week in Western Kenya in 2002. I was to be the new agent for a Canadian NGO. By then I had traveled and worked in Malawi, Namibia, Jordan, and Mongolia. Africa exerted the strongest tug on me and I was looking forward to working and living in Kakamega for the next six months.


November 1, 2002

The drive from the airport to Kakamega was a trip down memory lane.

How quickly and easily I return to Africa with its red earth, brilliant green foliage, surreal purple jacarandas and vibrant red bougainvilleas. We even had our obligatory flat tire which Joseph fixed with alacrity. Lots and lots of bicycles and boda bodas ... and matatus and the vans I've forgotten the name they give them here. Women carrying everything from wood to bananas on their heads. The landscape here is spectacular ... hills and valleys ... people working tiny patches of garden along the roadside. A beautiful wall of flowers that hides a depot for large machines. Lots of schools ... and a hospital ... and a mortuary with the sign "cold rooms available". Lots of drumming, singing and yelling as convoys cheer for their political parties. Karen, the outgoing agent, tells me that two people were shot dead by over zealous police during a demonstration near Kakamega a couple of weeks ago.

The buildings range from grass and mud huts to corrugated iron dwellings to solid brick houses.

Huge ads decorate many buildings and AIDS Awareness is well advertised through billboards.

Goats everywhere, and Brahmin cattle with their great humped necks. A cow lives close by and grazes near the fence within sight of the wall embedded with glass.Tonight the dogs howl and bark to one another and the guard sits outside my livingroom window protecting me.

I am really beat ... Karen asked me to go out for a drink with her to meet the CHES people at 5:30 and out dancing at 9:30 ... but I am just too too wiped out to consider partying today. I was awfully glad to eat the grilled cheese sandwiches she prepared for lunch and the chicken she made for dinner.

I want to get my own stove and oven working properly and start getting myself organized tomorrow ... banking and shopping ... it is market day. All I have done all day is unpack and sort out the kitchen.

The apartment is certainly habitable now ... under furnished but spacious and clean ... and I will do things to make it homier. I think I shall just take it one room at a time ... and start with the essentials like kitchen and bath necessities.

The living room is a hodge podge of mismatched chairs and couches that are neither comfortable nor attractive. Brown striped drapes almost cover the front window and a telephone that I cannot access sits on a small table, a world radio that doesn't work is on a stool, and a book shelf sits in another corner. The whole thing is a challenge and one I am not up to just now.

There is a master bath ensuite and one of those split bathrooms as well ... a shower room and a toilet and wash basin room. Doesn't this sound grand? In reality neither is very attractive.

(... and I was to find out later, prone to malfunction... )

The kitchen is large but has its own set of anomalies. Cupboards are designed for 8 foot tall giants, but there is plenty of drawer and counter space and lots of lower cupboards. The stove is not yet hooked up to gas and is not completely put together.

I am too tired to give this the kind of attention it deserves. More tomorrow.


The next day: Boda Bodas and Banking:

We arranged to have the signatory changed at Barclay's Bank this morning ... my first boda boda ride. Lots of speed bumps and nothing to cling to ... and young men shouting and laughing about the msungu's hands on the boda boda driver's bum!

At the bank we waited in a sealed off little room and dealt with Ruth through a glass grill. It was a laborious process and since their photocopy machine had broken down we had to leave to get copies of relevant pages in my passport. We stopped to pay the phone bill (a sign in the outer office reads: "No hawking in the office or corridors" and Karen said there are signs around town admonishing drivers not to "hoot".

Then we went to the post office. I think one of the most unnerving things about Kakamega so far is the crush of humanity. Everywhere you must ease your way through a crowd. We got our photocopying done there and returned to the bank where we left everything in Ruth's hands, hoping that all would be done before Karen left in a few days.

On the way home I stopped at the second Foto store to buy chicken sausage and javex and at the second Mama Watoto's to buy yogurt, toilet paper and a capon. My butcher had forgotten my fillet so I have to go back tomorrow. I was laughed at in the butchery ... and felt a little ill from the smell ... reminded me of the smell when the goat was butchered in the ger in Mongolia.

The children answer, "Fine, thank you" no matter what you say.


Day 4

I am always amazed by what crippled Africans manage to accomplish. I watched a man crawl on hands and knees down the road the other day, and at the choir competition I saw a few people with severe disabilites managing very well. One was a tiny woman on two aluminum crutches. Another was a badly crippled man who sang the solo parts for his choir as he played the litungu, a green painted handmade banjo. Throughout the performance, he stood like a heron on one leg, the other one stuck straight out the side at a sharp angle from his body.

I am seeing interesting instruments I have either never seen before or only in Eleuthera at Junkanoo when the hardware and plumbing stores are the source of most instruments. A metal pipe set on the floor is hit with a second iron stick makes a metallic drumming sound. Another metallic instrument I saw for the first time was a tinkling ring and stick. There were several kinds of drums. Many of the larger ones are made from old steel drums. A deep throated drum of leather and steel sounded like my drum when both skins were beaten with his hands. I can only get that sound with a stick padded with soft chamois. One woman had one that looked like mine, but much bigger, slung around her neck by a sisal rope. I saw one shaped like a vase with skin on the wide mouthed end and the narrow end of the funnel left open. Another set was painted green red and white to match the choir gowns with wide frilly collars that made the men look a little like grannies in nightgowns. Each drum has a different sound. I am going to have to learn and listen a great deal before I choose my drum.


Mumias Sugar Factory .... November 7, 2002

My first visit to a company town of any kind ... and a real insight into Kenyan reality. Not because it was representative of the area ... but because it was so unrepresentative in some respects and alike in others.

This was an oasis of unreality ... management had homes set on three acre lots ... Kenyan houses ... cinderblock and concrete construction ... but set in an idyllic fairyland of tall trees and flowering plants, reached by following a serene red dirt road through checkpoints of saluting askari. We visted two schools attended by the children of management ... beautiful locations ... wonderfully appointed. We ate dinner at the club ... excellent meal ... swimming pool, tennis courts, beautifully kept grounds ... and then we learned that this was just one of many clubs. Each level of workers from apprentices to management had its own club.

I asked whether there was a sense of neighbourliness here and was told about the segregation that makes that impossible. We learned that there is an Asian section, a clerical workers' section, a factory workers' section, etc. etc. ... and then the row of shanties where the houseworkers lived ... still better than the homes of such workers outside the company town ... but decidedly different from the other homes around them.

At the plant I learned how sugar cane is weighed, ground up, washed with hot water once the sugar is exposed to release the sucrose. Then it goes through different sections of the process until as much sucrose has been extracted as possible and the squeezed out baggase is dried and used for fueling the steam furnaces that create power for the entire town ... and then some. The sugar water is spun centifugally (I think) and then evaporated until the sugar, molasses, then brown sugar are extracted. We even saw the packing plant.

Everywhere were safety notices ... when I asked about safety I was told that the company was very aware ... it cost them money to look after hurt employees ... but there were still accidents. I am surprised more don't succumb to the heat and fall ... often three stories. My own vertigo kicked in when I began walking along iron grill catwalks and ascending and descending iron grill stairs that over the years had been worn to a concave shape. By the time I emerged at the end my palms were black from holding tight to the thin pipe railings.

The workers work seven 8 hour days and then get a day or two off ... no more than two or three a month, and they have a union!

I have some notes on the history of the plant ... and on the decor of the man giving us the information ... a stern faced Moi ... the official photograph one sees in every office and public place ... and a large poster of a sexy broad wearing a silver jump suit by a motorcycle ... courtesy of some car company. On a bulletin board was a newspaper clipping headlined "The Idi Amins of this World."

Afterwards we had a very good chicken meal at the club and then toured the schools. Still later we went to Wycliffe's home with Catherine, his fiancee. Wycliffe's art consisted mainly of calendars hung at ceiling height. She served us cafe au lait and bananas and when we left gave us wonderful onions and sukumo wiki from the garden.

I cooked it last night but need more practice, I am afraid!

I think my most lasting visceral memories of the sugar plant will be the smells ... first of corn silk drying or of corn cooking ... and then later, as the sucrose is extracted, a stronger smell ... like molasses ... like what I imagine bootleg rum smells like as they make it. A close second will be my vertigo.

My memory that is a composite of everything sorted and analysed by my brain ... is of the class distinctions and of the company town mentality.