Friday, May 04, 2007

april fools

waithaka and kamande turned 26 on april 15th, and i wanted to do something for them in celebration. i've grown very close to them and their family in the year and a half that i've been here - i visit several times a week for tea or dinner or just to relax and talk with whoever is there - and consider their house my home away from home. every time i visit mama will invite me for dinner, though usually i decline. mama teaches at a private primary school nearby, but since she's not registered with the Teacher's Service Commission (TSC), she earns a pittance. before her husband abandoned the family, she used to belong to the TSC. he forced her to quit. re-joining the commission now, after a decade of absence, is proving very difficult. since their father provides them with nothing in terms of financial support (in spite of his relative affluence as a retired cop), the children rely solely on their mother's income for food, clothes, and school fees. waithaka will occasionally get work with the electoral commission, registering voters, but virtually all of these earnings will go to support the family. although he's one of the brightest, most intelligent people i've ever met, long-term employment is depressingly elusive. business in kenya is built on connections rather than ability, and it's difficult to meet people in positions of power when you live in a village like mabanda. the member of parliament for our area strung waithaka along for two years with the promise of getting him a placement in the military, but abruptly changed his tune about three months ago and told him there was nothing he could do. through it all, waithaka somehow remains upbeat and optimistic, always looking forward with a smile. kamande, waithaka's twin brother, is epileptic, and fell down their 30-foot well two and a half years ago in the midst of a seizure. he dislocated his spinal column and hasn't been able to walk properly since. on top of that, mama spent all of the family's money on his hospital bills, so their younger brother njoroge was unable to start secondary school. susan, the only daughter, just graduated from secondary school this year, so had previously been unable to help with the household chores. mama does all of the cooking and cleaning. in spite of these difficulties, late last year they took in wangui, the 5 year-old daughter of the eldest son martin, who lives in nairobi and was unable to support her. in january njoroge was finally able to start school, albeit a year late.

kamande, the older of the twins (by several minutes), hasn't been able to leave the house since falling down the well almost two and a half years ago (he is epileptic and had a seizure while drawing water). he has been confined to the house for the vast majority of that time, save for early trips to the hospital and, more recently, infrequent treks to the main road, which lies barely 200m away. when i first met kamande it had been about a year since the accident, and he was exercising daily in the yard with his crutches. he was very optimistic about being able to walk again. lately, though, he seems to have lost much of the optimism that first kept his spirit buoyant.

waithaka is a gentle giant - at 6'2" he towers over the vast majority of his fellow Kenyans - and is heavily into underground hip-hop. i first met him outside the library with a book (i guessed aloud that he was probably into romance novels), and he has since become the best friend i have in my village. one of the most attractive of his characteristics was that he never once asked me for money, or for assistance, nor did he ever insinuate that he was interested in getting anything out of me. it was incredibly refreshing - even to this day he has only ever asked to borrow anything, which he repays promptly on the day he promised. to many of you, this may not sound extraordinary. after a week or two in this country, however, surrounded by people who wear their need on their sleeve, it is approaching a miracle.
aside from his independence, he is smart, and devours every book i've given him with relish. he is also one of the few village kenyans i know with whom i can joke and laugh - his jokes are actually funny. he dresses well (to western standards) and gives me cultural and lingual advice. he has a weight bench and some quarry stones that we use regularly, and we used to go running together in the mornings before he hurt his knee. in short, he's a really genuine guy and a great friend.

for their birthday i decided to take them into thika for the day, mostly as a surprise for kamande, although it is a treat that even waithaka is denied for most of the year when he hasn't been working. i wasn't sure whether kamande would agree to the trip, since he would have to do more walking than he was used to, and since he would have to board a matatu to get into town. when i casually told him, that sunday afternoon on the family's small lawn, he got visibly agitated and blustered "oh, well, i should bathe." during his bath - which he takes outside in a chair, wearing a pair of shorts - he had a short seizure, which his mom said she knew was coming. "it always happens when he gets excited." it didn't seem to phase him for a second. he just went right on bathing without pause.
so kamande got dressed up as smartly as i'd ever seen him, in dress slacks and a long-sleeve button-down, and waithaka came out wearing baggy windpants and a heavy wu-tang sweatshirt. i was dressed somewhere in between. kamande was too flustered to talk for most of the trip, but gazed intently at everything we passed, looking around nonchalantly after it was by as though he couldn't care less and were just out for an afternoon stroll. thankfully, the matatu didn't prove to be a problem at all, as waithaka just lifted kamande up and set him in the seat.
in thika we took a cab to Craver's, strictly for non-vegetarians, and ordered a goat leg to be roasted and shared between the three of us. waithaka immediately ordered a tusker. kamande on the other hand, who doesn't drink alcohol, went through about five juice boxes while we were there. he had a few more mini-seizures throughout the evening and was obviously ecstatic in his own subdued way. he kept telling me how much they were going to miss me when i left. "i have a while yet before i go, kamande," i would say. "but i'll miss you too."
there was a one-man kikuyu band performing and we had a great time drinking beer and juice and eating a goat's leg and chips and sausages and talking and laughing. they also had some hilarious kids' games, which included a dance competition! i got waithaka and kamande to vote for my favorite girl, who wore sunglasses and thrashed around with unbelievable energy (who cares if she couldn't follow the beat!), but in the end some boy won whose whole family was at craver's for the day.
it was well after dark when we finally decided to leave, and headed back to the village. mama and the family were waiting for us when we returned, awake and anxious, and kamande treated them as if they were making a big deal out of nothing, sighing at their attention, but grinning uncontrollably all the while. waithaka, drunk by this time, was talking nonstop and poking fun at his mom and his other siblings like an adventurous uncle home for the holidays. i stumbled home in the moonlight and fell asleep in a contented stupor.

1 comment :

  1. Hi,

    I'm erica, currently serving as a SED volunteer in Burkina. I am trying to plan a trip to kenya with a friend from the states, and of course we want to hit Kilimanjaro. I would like to know what you know about it (i.e., guides, trails, time it takes, etc.)? Or if you can put me in touch with a volunteer who would. Also, do you have any other recommendations of must-sees while we're there? Thanks so much for your help. Please let me know if you have any questions about Burkina (not that we have too much here). You can read my blog at and email me at

    Thanks again!



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