Wednesday, October 17, 2007


In the home stretch - one more month of work and for all practical purposes it's over. I never expected to last this long, save for a brief surge of optimism before I left the states. At at least two points I was prepared to pack my bags and leave Kenya; on one occasion I actually went to the market to buy gifts for everyone back home, and spent my entire monthly allowance at a go.

But here I am, sticking it out til the (bitter?) end. Only a handful of volunteers are staying until our "official" COS (close of service) date, November 30th, and I am one of them. Likely due to poor planning and procrastination, this last month will get pretty hectic between the peer education program, soap-making project, setting up the library's board of directors, and finishing the boys2men manual, on top of applying to grad schools and planning a travel itinerary around Europe. But I can't complain, and I won't - for so long I was desperate to go home, sick of living here and sick for friends and family back home. Yet as sure as I became comfortable in my homesickness, my idea of home changed. I learned to love the lazy, boring weekends doing laundry, cleaning my house and listening to narrated plays on the BBC. I found patience to deal with closed- or small-mindedness, to deal with tardiness, to put up with stares and taunts and beggars. I learned to appreciate small things that go well, and shrug off things that go poorly. I got comfortable with inane greetings and holding hands with men and cooking from scratch. I learned not to assume I know a beggar's story and to hate him because of it. I discovered how to walk in the mud during the rains without covering my clothes in it.

Things began to fall into place. I can't say when or how, only that change flowed by and I fell into the current and was swept away.

Near the end of PC service, volunteers tend to start talking in "lasts." The last visit to a particular school; last harambee; last time to draw water from a well; last anything. During September I had my last visit - Mom, her friend Becky, Leah, and Becky's granddaughter Megan flew in for two estrogen-filled weeks (Leah for 9 days). Due to lack of space in my own house, I had arranged with my supervisor Sebastian for Mom, Becky, and Megan to stay with him and his family. His two daughters, Pauline, 8, and Nancy, 12, were really excited for sleepovers with Megan, and his wife Esther was preparing to make dresses for all of the visitors in a traditional African style.

The morning of their arrival Sebastian was supposed to pick me up at 5am in order to make it to the airport by 6, when their flight arrived. Instead he slept through his alarm, woke up and 5 and didn’t pick me up until 5:30. By the time we hit Thika Road towards Nairobi it was packed with traffic from the morning commute. At around 6 we were still stuck in traffic, 30 minutes from the airport even on clear roads, and I began to feel…tense. It was an experience I haven’t had in a long time, and it didn’t feel good. I’ve been immersed for two years in a culture of laxity with respect to time, surrounded by people who don’t mind making others wait, just as they don’t mind to be made to wait. And I realized that that tense moment was caused by nothing more than my expectation of the people who were expecting me. Kenyans expect to wait, so being (reasonably) late doesn’t bother me. Americans do not expect, or know how to wait, so I was tense – I pictured Mom and Becky arriving in the airport, exhausted with Megan in tow, annoyed that I wasn’t there and trying to call every five minutes to see where I was. I was hoping beyond reason that their flight was delayed.

In the end my expectations were proved to be unfounded, and I got one call from Becky checking to see where we were. I told her to give us 30 minutes, and when we arrived an hour and a half later (I’ve also adopted the particularly frustrating Kenyan habit of waaaay underestimating time), they were not mad at all, just happy to see me.

Leah would arrive four days later, so in the meantime they met everyone in Gatanga, took naps, went to the market, visited farmers & friends, and drove with Sebastian and his family up to the tea zone. There we met Elizabeth, who farms tea on a precipice piece of land with wild pineapple in cultivation at the base. We spent an hour or so trekking through her property, picking the ripe fruits. I kept getting confused by the sunburnt yellow pineapples, thinking they were ripe, only to discard them a moment later. After hiking back to Elizabeth's house she brought out a knife and sliced up the freshest ones, doling out the juiciest slices of pineapple you can imagine.

Afterwards we visited my friend Benson and his family's homestead for a feast of spaghetti noodles, rice, chapati, greens, cabbage, avocadoes, bananas, pineapple, loquat, and i can't remember what else. Throughout these three days (as well as the rest of the trip), Megan spent the lion's share of her time playing slap games with Pauline and Nancy. It's amazing how easily culture is spread and shared among kids.

On the day of Leah's arrival we traveled to Nairobi for some city sightseeing; a visit to the elephant orphanage (where Megan adopted a baby elephant named Sinya), the giraffe center (to feed giraffes from a raised platform), and around Nairobi city. We dropped our bags at my friend Teri's house in the American Embassy compound, where we were staying for the night (picture a neighborhood in southern CA, patrolled 24/7 by security guards and surrounded by 10ft. walls and razor wire). They were having New Orleans night in the café, so after some delicious sausage & shrimp jambalaya and a hurricane, mom & I took a cab to the airport to pick up Leah. She was tired but happy to arrive, with enough stories to carry us back to Teri's, where everyone collapsed, exhausted.

The next morning after coffee and bagels we headed out for Kitui to visit my mama and baba from my homestay during training. No one was looking forward to the 3-hour matatu ride, but I was excited for mom to meet mama, who I had told long ago that they would meet when mom came to visit. In spite of their apprehension of the trip, it is a beautiful journey, which crosses from Nairobi's temperate climate of the central highlands into the desert climate of eastern province, towards Somalia. Giraffes, gazelles, and other wildlife is often seen on the drive, though we weren't lucky enough to spot any on this occasion. Their trepidation proved to be warranted, however, as the driver had clearly dismantled the speed governor and was traveling over 120km/hr (the governors cap the speed at 80) along the potholed roads, swerving around and off the road to avoid them. I've rarely been as scared on any of the matatus I've ridden over the last 25 months as I was during that trip, but I tried not to show it to avoid freaking out the others. Luckily we made it alive.

When we arrived I found out my baba was in the hospital. The last time I had visited - about a month ago - he had just recovered from a 3-month long illness, so I assumed this was a continuation of that disease. Hospitalization is not something that is taken lightly in Kenya, though, so I knew it must be more serious that I previously thought. My mama escorted us to the hospital upon our arrival, and led us into the ward in which by baba was admitted. I have never been into a sick ward in a hospital in Kenya, and it was as depressing a place as I could have imagined. Everything you would expect a hospital in Africa to be, this was. With no private rooms or even privacy, every other bed was occupied with decrepit bodies, some young, some old, with flies buzzing around the room and crawling on the patients' wasted faces. A light, heavily worn blanket covered the bodies on the light aluminum beds. A few patients were struggling to eat mashed maize and beans, the rest staring blankly into space or watching us pass. We passed two columns of beds before arriving at my baba's, which 30 or so people had surrounded in support and condolence, silently shuffling and whispering to one another. Mama led me through the crowd of people to the bed where my baba sat in the corner, while Mom and the others waited slightly behind, watching. Mama had told us that the drugs he was given were making him weak, but I was unprepared for the sight before me. Baba was propped up in his bed, supported by his best friend, another older man that I knew and recognized. I greeted the friend first, then turned to baba. In the month that had passed since I had last seen him, he must have lost about 40 pounds - he was a shell of a man, his ribs clearly visible through his thin hospital clothing. His face was gaunt and his eyes were bulging, staring ahead, uncomprehending. His thin frame was shaking and he could barely move his bony hands in recognition of me as I said hello and lightly hugged his tiny body. His breath was shallow but labored, as if it took every ounce of strength in his body just to breathe. I introduced him to Mom, Becky, Leah and Megan, and then greeted the rest of his family and friends that I recognized before leaving with mama. We were quiet as we left, as uncomprehending as baba seemed to be of what was happening. Mama assured us later that he would be fine, that the drugs were just strong and that the doctor had told her that baba would be able to walk again within the next few days.

I was concerned that baba might have AIDS, and that with the stigma surrounding the disease mama would be afraid to agree to a test, meaning he would never get the treatment he needed to overcome it. I asked mama later that day when we were alone - I expressed my concern for her and asked whether baba had ever been tested. She surprised me when she said he had, twice. "These days people know about the risk," she said. "It's better to know than to die."

After the hospital we dropped our bags at the ‘Kitui Tourist Hotel’ (likely some of the few tourists that Kitui has ever seen) and drove with mama to her house for lunch. Given everything that had happened over the last week I felt bad imposing on mama in this way, but she had already made the preparations for us and seemed to be in good spirits, considering the circumstances. She was as good-natured as I remembered her, laughing and smiling profusely between her rotund cheeks. Some of baba’s relatives had arrived to help mama with her household chores, and she had apparently hired a house girl about six months previously, to assist her while baba was ill. They had prepared a lunch of chapati, fried cabbage (a favorite of everyone), stew, and rice, so we sat down and ate and talked with mama in the sweltering Kitui heat. Mama mentioned three or four times how hot it was before Leah finally suggested that she take off her coat (she was dressed in heavy polyester fabrics – her Sunday best – to greet the visitors at baba’s bedside). “Oh thank you,” Mama gasped in reply, getting up to remove her coat while the rest of us looked at each other and chuckled. “Do you mean you would have kept your coat on if I hadn’t said anything?” Leah asked. “Of course,” said Mama, smiling brightly above her light black sleeveless shirt.

We ate and talked, and I showed them around the house. I introduced them to Gloria, mama’s eldest daughter (10) who has a severe mental and physical illness to the point where she can’t speak or function on her own. She sat outside on the stoop and laughed when we swung her arms around and tickled her. Vicky – Mama’s 8 year-old daughter – wouldn’t get home from school for another hour, so we took a walk down to the seasonal riverbed near the house, where we watched local boys wade into the stagnant water and dredge the mud for fish. Mama said she had never seen anyone fishing there before, but the boys seemed to know what they were doing as they pulled fist-size fish out of the muck and tossed them in a bucket. “For eating,” they said.

We walked back – slowly, because it was so hot, and the women talked on the way, about crops and climate and Kitui. When we returned we sat down again to eat mandazi (finally they would get a taste of what I was forced through during training) and drink chai and wait for Vicky to return. Baba’s mama came over and chatted, she and I in the little Kiswahili that she knows, and she laughed at the dainty bow and arrow that I had made for Megan. When Vicky finally got home, we gave them the presents that Mom & Becky had brought for them (t-shirts from VA Tech, crayons and markers for Vicky, a book of pictures from Virginia), and Vicky and Megan ran outside to play with the neighborhood kids. Around 5:30 we began the hour-long trek back to the hotel, along the path I walked every day to reach ‘the hub,’ or Peace Corps training center, two years ago. It seemed so long ago that I had been there but so recent at the same time – a strange dichotomy of memory that left me feeling like my time there was an anachronism of a parallel life.

The next day we hiked back to mama’s house for breakfast – we found her awake but exhausted, having spent the entire night at baba’s bedside without sleep. She seemed to be expecting the worst but outwardly projected only confidence in baba’s full recovery. We had a short meal of eggs, bread, and chai before heading back to the hotel to pack up. On the way we stopped by a friend’s, who had just given birth a week earlier. She had spent only a few hours in the hospital and returned home the same day as her child was born, but was healthy and in good spirits, as was the baby, who we woke up to play with. She had tiny little threads tied on the outside of her pinky fingers to cut off circulation to the boneless sixth fingers growing on each hand.

After packing our bags back at the hotel we took a taxi to the hospital to check on baba before catching a bus back to Nairobi (after the ordeal with the matatu ride to Kitui, everyone agreed on a bus trip back). We found most of the same people in baba’s ward as the previous day, including mama, who had somehow beat us there. We didn’t get to say goodbye to baba, who was asleep on his bed with his best friend still by his side. Baba didn’t appear to have improved at all – if anything he was only getting worse. His breath was raspy and dry, his eyes half-open and his body contorted as if in pain. But he looked peaceful, and we left, hoping that mama’s prediction of recovery was correct. The next day we would find out that it wasn’t. Baba passed away at 10pm that evening.

The ride back to Nairobi was cramped and hot, but at least it wasn’t speeding. In the end that almost turned out to bite us, as we arrived in the city around 7:30 – well after dark – in a seedy part of town. I argued with the driver for a while over the drop-off point but finally just arranged with another passenger to help us locate a taxi. I rushed Mom and the others off the bus, again trying not to show my agitation, and we located a taxi fairly easily. He gave us a really good deal to the other side of town, where we finally sat down to eat before heading onto Teri’s house again where we all collapsed in exhaustion.



  1. good stuff jonny, sounds like you have come a long way! wonder how bad culture shock you will have once you are back? sorry about your baba, although it sounds as though you helped make the last years of his life a little better

  2. Anonymous3:18 AM

    Jonny, you tell the story so well. You are a fabulous host, and I'm sure we amused the Kenyans as they watched you lead your female entourage along. Now hurry home...

  3. Anonymous12:24 PM

    I love your story telling and detail. I was sad to hear of your baba's passing when Leah told me about it. Hope you treasure the moments and memories you stretch out of the rest of your time. I'm sure it will stay with you for long time to come.

    Love Always - Popsicle


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