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Author Topic: There and Back Again; a journey to Kenya  (Read 33 times)
Rev. Elizabeth
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« on: October 11, 2018, 06:10:57 AM »


 A tune that lingers, an image that returns, questions with no answers; Kenya is on my mind
Twenty four hours after leaving Burlington, Vermont; after 4 airports, and three plane rides we arrived in Nairobi, Kenya for our journey, into a brave new world of virtual communication, a world  that would link our students in Fairfax with students in both rural and urban Kenya. No tourist trek,this was to be an adventure using technology to connect youth to youth, culture to culture, idea to idea, over space and time.
Ours was a trip of meetings.  I am not much of a meeting person, quickly losing attention and patience, but I have to admit that much was accomplished at these meetings, and the plans to create a virtual connection amongst various Vermont schools and several Kenyan schools blossomed into actuality. Like all trips, the ostensible purpose and the actuality were not quite the same.
I saw only a small part of Kenya, but nonetheless my impressions-- my sense of the country is  both powerful and subtle, tied to the people and landscape and small experiences that bear witness to large concerns.
I couldn’t quite understand the architecture of our hotel, TrippleO’s which is  in an area called Ruai, about 15 minutes from the airport and at least an hour from Nairobi proper, depending on the traffic.  There were stairs, stairs going here and there, for seemingly no reason. Stairs of marble and stairs of stones set in cement, somewhat like small cobblestones. Be careful! The risers for the stairs were not always the same; they varied from flight to flight, from stair to stair. It took me a day or two to remember that to get to breakfast I went down two flights of stairs, then up one!
 There were dining areas and playing fields that we chanced upon; there was a beautiful swimming pool that  was always full and burbling and empty of people.  Water fountains appeared in random  places. Parts were old, and parts were brand new. This was a magical building and I was in a castle in a fairy tale.  The food was very good and all the people were friendly and helpful. There  was a guard at the gate and  one couldn’t and shouldn’t go out alone.  This was no  place for an early morning walk. In fact the entire compound was fenced in.
Ruai, which is on the outskirts of Nairobi, though you couldn’t call it a suburb, seemed to be an industrial area, though this was perhaps because there was road construction and the attendant heavy machinery.  Along the ro was an assortment of buildings, some half built, with skeletal cementblock second floors waiting for completion; some new but shabby, and some the typical one story cement store with a door and a window and a handwritten sign above the door.  That this was the end of the dry season and dust was everywhere only contributed to the sense of disorder and general dishevelment. 
These excursions into a different culture and country are about standing in another world, listening, watching, feeling, reflecting.
It was getting late;we were at the end of a long day. We had met for three hours with representatives from Heifer International, and then went to try to  purchase the right SIM card for equipment we were going to use to connect schools. After an hour or so in an elegant mall complete with shops of imported French finery and security at the entrance, we finally left. The driver chose what he deemed a short cut so he could avoid end of the day traffic.
Was  it really a short cut to avoid traffic when our driver took us through the winding and crowded and narrow streets of Kibura, one of the largest slums in Kenya?  Or did he want  us  to see a side of Kenya and Nairobi that staying in a gated hotel or lingering in a high end mall would never reveal to  us. Row on row of Tin shacks tightly packed together. Crowded streets filled with people in all manner of dress.  Small shops of tin or concrete  with hand painted signs selling all manner of things, from cell phones to dresses.  Vendors selling things from kiosks made of tin and tarps or saplings and tin, occupied the space between the stores and the streets. The occasional Masaai  his red blanket draped over his shoulders,  carrying his herding stick following  a few cattle along the road, no one giving him any mind as his cattle meandered through the kiosks and vendors as though they knew where they were going.
Perhaps the driver  wanted us to know that this too, is Kenya, as much as is the elegant malls, and the towering glass buildings of Nairobi, or perhaps,  that it is closer to Kenya’s reality than those five star hotels and office buildings are.
But the people.  Women, if they were professionals, dressed with great class, and most had their hair done in sophisticated braids and buns. Many women regardless of their status,wore what we used to call sheaths,  though some young women wore typical tight pants. And of course, some women wore brightly colored traditional garments,wrapped around their bodies. Professional men wore jackets and ties.
 
I became  annoyed because my camera’s battery died, and I was left taking photos with an ipad, an awkward thing to do in the best of circumstances.  I convinced myself that the photos  I did have were adequate, and anyway, I had the images I had seen and wanted to capture on technology, firmly planted in my brain. And, did it really matter if I didn’t have pictures, anyway.  Wasn’t the  important thing was that I saw those grotesque vultures, stared after the Masaai herders,and was saddened by the vendor selling second hand clothes from Europe and America on tarps along the road?
There were some things I couldn’t photograph.  I felt it was rude to photograph the Kibura slums with its crowded streets; tin shacks packed together in abject squalor. Somehow it was a violation of the dignity the residents might have.
But I did photograph the animals in the Mara Masaai, despite the awkward nature of the ipad. Really, though, the photos can’t capture what it felt like to see that sturdy zebra grazing placidly whilst two birds busily pecked bugs off his back.  Seeing the grace and delicacy of the gazelle, the fine lines of its body, the smooth beauty of its movement couldn’t be captured by any photograph.  So, though I can only share mediocre photos of these creatures, I hold them in my minds eye.

Finally, though, it is about the young people.As always when we first arrived at the schools the youth attended, the young people gathered  in a large semicircle to greet us, and each of us spoke a few words to them.  At both St. Charles Lwanga and Rodi, the students we met who were to participate in this grand virtual adventure, came  from challenging circumstances at best, but were unfailingly bright, engaged and fun to watch and be with.  They all speak very softly, and with a curious accent, so one must be very attentive to catch everything they are saying.  They were interested in what we were doing, and ready to talk about the SDG’s and their meaning in their lives. And they were typical silly teens.Taking a break from work, the youth from St Charles were playing vigorous football on a field we had discovered in front of the hotel. But after a goal, or while taking a break they would  cluster together and dance; or hustle around me for a photo op!
My only chance to engage directly with the young people  taking thg SDG seminars was when I led stretching mid morning before tea.  It seemed that it was something totally alien to them, but they were all good sports and tried. There were some, of course, who got befuddled by cross body exercises, but they were good humored about it.
One thing of gentle intimacy and  youthful curiosity stays with me.  I was sitting with my back to the door as the students were arriving. Suddenly, a hand softly stroked by hair several times, and  then a smiling face bent in front of me.  I smiled back. Certainly, my hair was so very different than hers; she must have wondered what straight gray hair felt like! I was pleased that she felt sufficiently comfortable to stroke my hair.  The next morning she did  it again; it was a way to communicate with each other, and we shared smiles.
 
At Rodi, the school out in the countryside of Homa Bay county, we visited  the extensive gardens that Thomas, a young man who lives and works at the school as its resident gardener, has cultivated.  Hard work is evident everywhere.  Proudly he showed us the  corn and beans that he had grown. Enough food had be raised to meet half of the school’s food needs. He is the main reason why the Fairfax Farm to School is connecting with the Rodi: to support Thomas, share ideas, share experiences, and encourage each other in the sustainable production of food. The youth who will be participating in the virtual link with Fairfax spent time at the Homa Bay Tourist Hotel learning about the SDG’s and preparing for the internet connection. 
At the  Rodi school, deep in the countryside, we met with the woman’s group; some came late because they were getting ready for the market where they would sell, but they did manage to come despite the challenges they must have faced to do so. .  The group is very important to them; it has, over time, become a support and a community for them.  We had a great conversation about the role of their male partners in their lives.
 We went to visit a third school, new to Mary Lynn, which had a connection of some sort with someone she knew.  I  can’t tell you where the third school we visited was  as the town named isn’t on the map.(Nyagoko)  But it was a pleasant, well kept campus, and the teachers and principal greeted us warmly. The school, though a public school, gets some support from the Anglican church.On arrival,two little boys came running up to me, full of smiles and spirit.  As with the two other schools, the students in their uniforms stood in a circle and sang for us, and then a young woman performed a poem for us.  She was quite gifted and her presentation, though a bit overly dramatic, was powerful engaging, and when it came my turn to speak, I complimented her on her skill. We had planned on leaving after this, but the school staff had prepared a splendid luncheon for us of chicken and vegetables and ugali and fruit.  Their hospitality is always graciously given, and  a delight.
Let me  now tell you  about weaver birds. We were staying at the Homa Bay Tourist Hotel. Set away from the main road this hotel has spacious grounds, many meeting rooms, and a country ambiance.  Late afternoon it was pleasant to sit outside and look and listen.  By happenstance  one lat afternoon, I sat at a table under a tree laden with weaver bird nests.  I only knew they were weaver birds because Charlie Wolcott years ago had told me about them.  Anyway. 
They clamor; they are raucous; they all chirp and twitter at once, raising a rather pleasant din. And then, for about 30 seconds, they stop. It is silent. They the chirping starts all over again.  I could never determine what it was that made the stop-and then start again, in unison. I found it rather amusing.  No one else seemed especially interested.  As I looked up at the bottom of the nests, I noticed--- I could see sky! There was a hole in the nest! How could the baby weavers not fall out? From my seat it was hard to see how the nest was made and why this hole was there, though I assumed it was some sort of way for the parent birds to keep the nest clean,but still, what happened to the babies? Quite by chance I noticed a grass-like  mound on the parched lawn, and got up to look, and lo and behold a weaver bird  nest.  What an amazing work it is. Yes, it is actually woven. Upside down when I found it I turned it over and discovered that it was a two room nest.  One circular section was solid, with a nice soft woven bottom, and the other was open at the bottom, so I suppose, the parent bird could keep the nest clean.  It was indeed clean.  I marveled at the woven grasses that made the nest.  It was  a wondrous thing to that I held in my hands. I stopped being annoyed at the clamor of these birds, and continued to look up in wonder at the hanging nests, so beautifully made.
There were other birds, not as pretty.   In a field beyond the hotel’s fence stood a gathering of the most grotesque birds I have ever seen.  I think, from what I remember, comparing my memory with photos on the internet, they were Ruppell’s vultures. Large and grotesque.they were fearsome birds that looked as though they were put together from disparate and leftover parts.  I watched one high on a tree, trying to kept its balance, its broad wings fluttering as it stepped back and forth on the branch, managing to stay in place. Ugly as it was, there was a grace to its efforts to stay balanced.
And another bird.  It had the hop hop hop peck movements of a robin, had a body shape like a robin, but obviously it wasn’t a robin.  Its back was an electric blue, and its breast a vibrant red-orange.  A white collar circled its neck and there seemed to be a ring of white around its eyes.  They were numerous and unintimidated by the people walking about. It is called a supurb starling.
From my examination of the maps we drove to the Masaai Mara Reserve through the southwest of Kenya, through Narok towards the reserve. Some of the roads were newly paved, and some were dusty and filled with axle breaking potholes.  We passed fields of wheat and barley being harvested with giant John Deere combines.  At one point we were on the escarpment and looked over the vast and seemingly endless expanse of the Rift Valley as it stretched toward the horizon.  The land  was the gold of dried grass, but dotted darkly  with trees, and here and there  streaks of green indicated a stream bed or a swampy area.  The land cried out for rain.  We saw cattle and sheep and goats  with their Masaai herders foraging  for bits of greenery. The land waited for the small rains of October. The occasional hawk or vulture drifted overhead.
The Mara was parched; but there were many foraging animals. Wildebeest, zebras, gazelles, topi, warthogs all made an appearance.  We got glimpses of lions, and spotted elephants from a distance. The stop at the Masaai village with it attendant curio shop was a bit of an embarrassment.  A group of young men came out to dance for us, and then we were herded through the curio stalls, each of us with a Masaai who wanted to jolly us into buying more than we wanted.  I felt embarrassed for both of us.
Our last adventure was a visit to the Elephant Orphanage. Dust orange elephants were paraded out and announced as to age and name, and the attendents bottle fed them.  They were bright, amusing creatures; one young elephant seemed to know he had an audience and stood still on a small hill and flapped his ears, turned and looked at the audience and waggled his trunk.  And then we had one more meeting and we left.
I engage with people by sharing tasks and stories with them. I had little to do; did not feel that I could intrude myself into any of the activities that did involve the youth. The absence of real contact  with the children, with the people, has left me with a sense of detachment from the trip.  Engaging, interesting, strange, special. It was all those things, I lack emotional attachment to the place or the people, except on a very superficial level.  The things I remember: the girl stroking my head; the little boy running up to me; the animals on the mara; the graciousness of all the hotel workers; the young elephant performing for the visitors; the grace of the gazelle; the sturdiness of the zebra; the horrid ugliness of Kibera slum; buildings half built, skeletonlike with empty windows and walls that went nowhere. The little boy and girl, no more than eight ahd ten herding sheep along the road; these things shift and drift in my mind. None are Kenya; all are Kenya.



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