Kenya Day 8- Departure
Our Boeing 767 has just departed Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. It is mostly empty on its way to Amsterdam. I gaze out at the small farm plots dotting the dusty plains below and ponder my last day in Kenya.
In the airport I noticed a bookshop just beside my gate. It is, of course, geared to international travellers, but the selection of books chosen for the window display is intriguing. On lower shelves are a couple of tomes on getting rich and being successful, including the new religious version of same by Joel Osteen. On the upper shelves are the US political books. Bill Clinton’s auto-biography and his book Giving on generosity towards the third world provide the bookends for the current editions about Hilary and Obama. Nothing appears about the Republican candidates. On the second shelf are a series of books about various African countries, mostly historically or politically inclined. But the most interesting thing is the center-piece. Pride of place is given to Shake Hands with the Devil, the account of the Rwandan genocide by the UN Commander and fellow Canadian ( and national hero) Lt. General Romeo Dallaire. My heart swells a little. I have avoided this book until now. Having read enough of Dallaire’s story in the papers and having seen the fictional account in Hotel Rwanda, I know it will be a rough ride. Placed so prominently it seems both like a bookseller’s prayer of hope and a warning to Kenya. Rwanda was a peaceful place where genocide erupted in 1994, killing 800,000 and displacing millions more. The display seems to say, “Let us be careful...this could happen here. Let us return to sanity.” I buy the book. I barely notice our departure for the tears filling my eyes and I haven’t even finished the Introduction.
In this morning’s papers, the Kenyan politicians seem to be playing at silly buggers again, but I have faith in the people I have met on the streets and in the restaurants. Perhaps they are telling the westerner what he wants to hear, but the light in their eyes suggests to me that there is a widespread and genuine belief in Nairobi at least, that Kenyans are better than that. There will be peace and a political solution, if not this week, then in time.
Still, this 767 heading to Amsterdam is empty. The economy is in chaos and the tourist trade is gone for this winter. There is a column in the Nation newspaper today. It’s one of those anonymously penned pieces by someone called The Watcher. Watcher relates a story. One or the other political leader (I think Mr. Odinga) spoke of the election in terms of having his cow stolen from him. But the Watcher quotes a wise head who commented, “They are arguing over who owns the cow and not noticing that they are trampling the grass on which the cow feeds. If there is no grass, there will be no cow.” I only hope they realize this truth sooner rather than later. The people have figured it out. Why can’t the politicians grasp it?
Yesterday was a free day for me. Earlier in the week Kevin Gesimba had asked me to come and visit his family about 30 km outside of town. I said I needed to do some gift shopping for my family. My wife had asked me to bring drums for my daughters. (I hope my ears don’t live to regret that!) So Kevin and Shem took me first to the Masai market, a sprawling colourful conglomeration of blankets and displays with crafts, fabrics, jewellery, paintings, woodcraft and pretty much anything you can think of...and drums of course. We westerners sometimes lament the lack of service in our stores. No problem here! As I entered the area I suddenly had a dozen new friends who wanted to shake my hand and take me to their stalls. With my real friends doing the negotiating I found my few purchases and departed with far more shillings in my pocket than I had anticipated.
We booked a taxi and headed east to Kitangera Estates. The trip took nearly 90 minutes thanks to Nairobi’s amazing and endless traffic. In today’s paper experts estimated there would be total gridlock in 15 years. To my eye they are being wildly optimistic. I expect that a dozen more new cars will produce total gridlock in about 15 days!
To a westerner the word ‘Estate’ suggests something a little majestic and well to do...or at the very least something pretentiously hoping to be majestic and well-to-do. Kenyan Estates are, to privileged western eyes, anything but. Please understand, that this is an observation of difference and is not tinged with disrespect or even pity. In fact, I sense that Kenyans are happier in general than westerners. When everyone is poor, they don’t suffer from the material lust and ‘gotta have it’ that plagues the west. They do have real wants and needs (unlike me with only my imaginary ones), but beyond that they focus on family, friends and mutual support.
Kevin’s house is off the main dirt road, down a narrowish alley and then down an even narrower alley. Because of mud holes the taxi can get no closer than 100 metres. In Kevin’s street, the alley is perhaps a dozen feet wide, each side lined with a solid wall of brick abodes. We push through the metal door into a meticulously clean and comfortable room. There are three sofas spread on each of the other walls. Each sofa is covered with an embroidered seat cover. I would learn that this is Divinah’s handiwork. She is Kevin’s wife and a participant at the conference.
There is no cooking area, no washing area and no toilet or running water. There are just two rooms with a small window in each. Kevin extravagantly buys Fantas at the tiny store across the alley. He then goes and gets his sons, his nephews and a friend from school to bring them to meet me. I am already being kept company by Happiness and her daughter Eva, although I am not quite sure of the relationships here. Eva is six. I show them pictures of my girls and there are warm smiles all around. I am entranced by little Eva and long to kiss my girls.
The boys come tumbling through the door. There are formal handshakes, a little conversation, many pictures and then off they run back to class.
Kevin and Shem then take me into the other room hidden by a curtain. It is a bare cement room for storage and work. There are two sewing machines, a lovely old treadle style Singer and a newer portable. This is where Divinah does her work. They hope to find financing to start a home based clothing business. We discuss details. It seems that the impossibly inaccessible sum of $200 US or so would get them started. I have read about micro-loans, but this is the first time I have come in touch with the reality of what one can do. I think we can make this work.
It is a hope of mine that we will find a way to connect UU’s from around the world in some way to help make these small subsistence dreams a reality. As I wrote in chapter 7, nothing is set-up yet, but I am hoping that will change in the months ahead.
Hours later after another long dusty drive, I connect with my remaining faculty colleagues back at the Guest House. For most of us this is our last time together until who knows when. We head out to a local restaurant for a final meal. We wind up at the Java Hut at the Nakumatt Center. Nakumatt appears to be the Kenyan Wal-Mart...perhaps is the Kenyan Wal-Mart. The Java Hut seems strangely out of place to me. Why? It’s Starbucks decor in a land where nothing else looks that way. But the Swahilli curried Tilapia is an absolute delight and the chocolate ice cream (my first sweet since arriving) is heavenly. I think my stomach is ready to go home.
I’ll close this blog this way: I know this journey has changed me, but for now the feelings, sensations and friendships are too fresh for me to venture a guess as to how that change will sort itself out. I do know it will be harder to dismiss the Third World as ‘them’ anymore. I do know I will pay attention when I hear the word ‘Africa’ from now on. I am more convinced than ever that we in the West and the North will have to be prepared to make material sacrifices in order to bring economic justice to the world. It will not be enough to simply nod when politicians protecting national interests say that their economic policies will help the Third World and that rising economies will float all boats. Instead, I believe some real redistribution of wealth will have to occur. If we don’t manage that change, it may just happen to us we run out of resources and as the rest of the world, led by China and India find their power.
Thanks for reading this, friends. Thanks to those of you who have written and thanks for caring about our ICUU leadership school. It has been a transformative and unforgettable experience for us all.