Handsome Kenya Man

In December of 2006 I traveled to East Africa with forty women from the U.S. and Canada, guided by a non-profit organization based in Northern California that works to fund humanitarian projects in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.  After the first week of visiting villages and projects, we were headed to a women’s conference in Bondo, Kenya where we would be joining 450 rural African women to listen to their issues of health and welfare and to celebrate an international gathering of women.

We were traveling in an ancient school bus, bumping and grinding towards Bondo. My favorite saying from the trip is that when old school busses die they go to Africa and live on forever. It was raining again and the dirt roads were ruts turned to rivulets of caramel-colored mud.  To us the bus drivers were heroic and crazy at the same time.  We were giddy in the paradox of our trust and fear of their driving as we held on, bouncing, teeth and bones hammering up and down.  I kept thinking if I could just sit a certain way, maybe tilt to one side or something, then on the next big bump I might get a good chiropractic adjustment.  We turned off the main road and pulled through sort of a “business district” of a rural village.  I didn’t know why the change of direction and didn’t ask.  I was sitting alone at this time, content to be a silent observer surrounded by the rows of jubilant women.  I had never been this far away from home. I had never been in so different a country and culture.  I knew on this trip that I would mostly observe, just take it all in and learn.  I have never had my eyes feel so wide open and my mouth, uncommonly shut.  I experienced being in the present all day, every day and night for fourteen days.  To make judgments, to try to fit people, places and things into my previous categories or definitions was futile and really a waste of mental and spiritual energy.  Presently, the reason for the stop seemed to be on the opposite side of where I sat on the bus.  I supposed a problem with the tire; but I think it was just to fill up with gas.  Our driver stepped out of the bus and as is customary, the villagers gathered around to help.  Unconcerned, I turned my attention to the activity outside my window.

The rural business districts are often just two or three small, wooden shacks, the first buildings just off the side of a road.  It was hard to comprehend that these were places of business; retail or maybe a service.  These buildings were dull, gray wood with sagging porches, windows without glass, doors dangling from hinges. One shack appeared to be a store selling clothing with shirts, caftans and t-shirts hung across the front on wire hangers.  Women were sitting on the porch, heads wrapped in their native, vibrant colored fabric and dressed in plain “Western” attire of skirts, blouses and broken shoes.  Out in front of the stores, young men fussed over rickety bicycles and children played with plastic containers in the mud.  When I think of the African people we met and spent time with, I remember their warmth and generosity; how they would always give us something and embrace us over and over.  There were always women, children and some young men waving and smiling as we drove along.  But, also, there were always young and older men, who kept their distance and didn’t smile or wave.  Often they seemed to size us up and held our gaze with looks of disdain or mocking us. I knew the men lacked jobs and work and mostly just hung around on porches, roadsides and in cafes.  If I flip-side and stand in their broken shoes in the mud, wouldn’t I see a lot of well-fed, visiting white women with good intentions but no real sense of what this African life is all about?  Wouldn’t it hurt their inherent, human pride to have us see them in their present fate?  Not one person that I met on this trip was dull or stupid.  No one is immune to feeling shame. And then I took notice of one young man among the others.

Usually everyone in the bus was waving, calling out to children, smiling and talking to anyone and everyone.  But it was rainy, wet and muddy, so this time we didn’t tumble out of the bus to shake hands, do some shopping or play with the kids. We had several Kenyan women on the bus this time, bound for the conference, so everyone was engaged with each other. And so, for some reason, none of the other women were taking in this scene on my side of the bus. It seemed it was just me looking at the Kenya man.

I made lots of assumptions as this young man turned and staggered a bit.  I assumed he was in his early twenties and from his beverage concealed in a crumpled, brown paper bag, I assumed it was the universal symbol of alcohol abuse.  Then he looked at me looking out my window at him and he decided to approach our bus.

He sidled up under my window, smiling in what I presumed as devilish, and spoke to me in Swahili.  I also assumed he would speak in English, at least a few words. Most children make it to some primary school and learn English from the start; English being considered the first language, with Swahili the second.  But this young man was not offering any English, and I know very few Swahili words.

He was lean and handsome, as many Kenyan men are.  They have beautiful, wide smiles and eyes.  But this man’s right eye was damaged; cloudy, milky, scarred and off center.  I mentally analyzed his fate, “He’s disfigured, maybe not so handsome to some, no work, dejected, so he drinks. And there is an air of cynicism and maybe a bit sinister too.”  Being a good white lady from America, I politely kept eye contact with him and gave a smile.  I was not going to insult him by turning away, and I was drawn in and curious.

As he smiled languidly, posturing back and forth under the window, he continued to speak to me, I think sort of asking questions, sort of making remarks.  I smiled back, nodded, didn’t really know what to say or how to say anything.  Then, from the seat behind me, one of the young Kenyan women rose up and leaned over my shoulder to see who was there.  The young woman’s name is Julie; she’s about thirty years old and married with children.  She works with a village outreach program near Bondo, Kenya.  She is brilliant and committed to making changes to better the lives of women and children.  I had enjoyed talking with her earlier, listening to her beautiful command of English.  She is playful, also driven and direct, and now she had a few words for the young man outside my window.  She came around to my seat and half-stood with her knee on the seat, leaning beside and over me, craning to address him.

“Jambo…aye”, she started out in Swahili.  He looked up at her with a coy smile.  Then they began their exchange in Swahili, over my head, back and forth.  She asked him questions; he countered with brazen smiles and challenged her in return with sarcastic tones.  They ignored me.  She talked for awhile, him nodding or shaking his head.  He’d look at her, and then look away, sort of squirming with shoulders twisting in uneasiness.  She continued to speak; not sounding as if it were a stern lecture, but firmly conveying information that he alternately listened to intently and then he’d break away with sly smiles or what appeared to be flippant answers.  She pressed on with him, and he didn’t turn and walk away.  I sat, elbow on window frame, supporting my chin, with my mouth pressed into my hand, an attempt to look nonchalant, not taking sides, not butting in.  When either of them glanced at me, I felt they accepted that I was “in” on the conversation.  I didn’t know what Julie was saying to this man.  I had assumptions, maybe a gist of the conversation.  I figured at any moment he would just walk away from her, but he didn’t.  Then I watched as something unexpected happened.  He rubbed his hand over his face, as you do when trying to rub off sleep or confusion.  As he dropped his hand from his face, he straightened up, squared his shoulders and then looked directly at Julie.  With a respectful tone he said, in English, “I understand”.  She smiled and nodded.  He nodded and repeated, “I understand”.  Then he turned and walked away, back to the group of people near the shack.

I looked up at Julie, and she down at me.  She sat down next to me and I asked her what she had said to him.  “I told him to stop drinking,” she said.  We just looked at each other for a moment.  I didn’t need to ask for more.  I understood.  Her words and her intention sunk into me, as they had sunk into the young man outside my window.

Our bus was rocking again, jostling everyone again, slogging through the mud and pulling away from the village and back onto the road.  Now all the others turned in their seats and waved out the windows.  Julie returned to her friends behind us.  A powerful, emotional, but fleeting moment had passed and we were on our way again.  As I sat alone, contemplating and absorbing what I had witnessed, my heart swelled with love.  Love for Julie, for the Kenyan women and their pride, determination and commitment to family and community.  I have lots of stories to tell, and photos to share, from my trip to Africa. But while there or upon my return, I didn’t tell this story right away.  I was unsure of my feelings surrounding the story.  It was a private and intimate encounter suspended in its short duration of time.  It seemed to be a particularly personal story.  At first I thought, not personal to me exactly, but at the heart of it, it did indeed affect me.  I was witness to a spontaneous but intimate exchange between two strangers, and I sat right in the middle of it. I felt honored to be in their presence and to have shared this incident with Julie and the handsome Kenya man.


Impossible Blue

In this one you are showing me off to Mom and the camera.  You are so proud to have me, your chubby little toddler, stuffed securely in your backpack, ready to roll, bouncing along on your shoulders.

I don’t remember being that small up at Donner Lake.  But I remember several summer vacations there, after that.  The Sierra Club lodge; so old, with heavy wooden beams across an enormous dining hall.  Pancakes and strangers; sharing breakfast with other families.

I go to Donner Lake every summer now, with my loving, comfortable husband.   Just coming over the grade, the first glimpse of the impossibly blue lake, shimmering and welcoming, is my thrill.  Donner Lake, the mountains, the pine trees, the sandy families all over the place – this is another home of mine.  Here I breathe better, my skin feels better.  We brought you back with us in 2004 and in this photo you are frail and old; 90 years old, sitting on the lakeshore, not splashing in the water with me.  But watching me, and I’m still calling, “Daddy, look at me! Watch this!”

The lake is the same, our rolls are reversed.  I make sure you are secure in your chair; I shake the sand from your shoes.  But even with this twist of time it feels the same.  Your bright blue eyes reflect the shimmer of the lake.  Your smile is wide, as wide as in old photos.  Somehow you do still carry my on your back. – August 2007