We didn’t leave as early as we had hoped. Kisumu was a 4 hour dirve and although we hoped to be there by noon, it was much closer to 2. We drove through the tea fields of Kericho and no matter how many times I see them, their beauty still takes my breath away. It was Sunday, so there was little activity in the bright green fields. Usually you’d see the miles of green spotted with specks of brown and red that were the workers picking the leaves. Today it’s simply the leaves waving at us as they yield to the wind. Leia, Caleb and Tati joined us for the ride. They’ve never traveled to Kisumu and, therefore, have never seen Lake Victoria. Their first view was a drive by as we climbed Busia road to Maseno. The city is always crowded and incredibly hot. It felt like an easy 10 degree difference from Narok. Even after the climb to 5,000 ft above sea level into the hills didn’t cool it down at all. The humidity hung in the air. Our first stop would be at the Chuolembo junction. We’ll turn onto the dirt road to head toward Mbaka Oromo but first we’ll stop at a cyber kiosk to see Job.
Ah, yes. Job. Job had worked for us for many years before I relationship became so strained that we had to cut ties. He’d become increasingly unreliable halfway through last year. When I left him in 2016, I gave him enough money to get two projects started. They were simple – 50 desks, a teacher’s desk, and gutters and a tank for Agulu Primary School. I also left him with money to pay for some paintings that I commissioned from Edward Orato, an artist at Masai Market. He let me know that things had begun and 25 desks were delivered, albeit much later than they should have been… months later. Things slid rapidly after that. It’s important to note that we brought him to the US for 6 weeks. We treated him like family, but 6 weeks of him seeing our country was too much for him. I believe that he found a strong sense of entitlement. He would eventually say, “You have no idea what I am going through.” In the absence of information we can only try to connect the dots.
Communication with him broke off. Unanswered emails, phone calls and text messages pushed me to my limits. Ultimately, he lied and although I’d like to think he didn’t steal from us, we would soon learn that he did. Remember the paintings I commissioned, we were stopping to pick them up. I gave him the money for them so I assumed they would be in the cardboard tube I’d left behind. The plan was to have them brought back with a mutual friend when she returned to the states. That never happened. Nobody was looking forward to the “reunion.” We don’t wish him any ill will, but I’m much more comfortable with him at a distance. To make matters worse, I had heard that he was slandering me an our organization. Fortunately we have enough friends and a strong enough reputation that it fell on deaf ears, but it still angered me. I stopped into his shop and said hello then took the tube from him. I turned and went back to the car. Standing two doors down was one of the teachers from Agulu who came over and gave me a big hug and said hello to everyone else in the car. While I talked to him, Job said hello to the van’s occupants and slithered back into his shop. That verb was not a mistake, and I didn’t need a thesaurus to find it. We turned around and headed to the clinic.
The polar opposite of Job is Dan Otieno who was waiting inside the clinic as we arrived. With a huge smile he gave us all big hugs. Our reason for being here was three-fold. The most important one was to visit Helen Angugo. A couple years ago, our dear friend Sam died – Sam was Dan’s brother, and I had returned to Kenya for his funeral. Another dear friend, John Angugo, passed away last September. He was a pillar of this community and the church in addition to being a dear friend to my entire family. In the end, cancer took him from us, but at the same time we remain with wonderful memories contained in a small piece of him that resides in our hearts. I was unable to attend the funeral because of the atrial ablasion I had performed in the same month.
The doctor was at the clinic and contacted Violet (the head nurse) to come over. She was in the residence next door resting – there was a mother in the clinic waiting to deliver a baby. Despite the nurses across the country being on strike, Violet was working. Like she said, “To some, this is a profession, to others it is a calling. What am I to do? I have been called.” During my last trip she asked for a space heater for the labor ward. The heater was delivered and she was very grateful.
Dan brought us into the clinic where we signed the guest book and had a soda and some cookies. We went back outside and waited for Esther to appear with her children, Susan, Emmah and Danton. Susan and Emmah hold a special place in the hearts of Andrea and Karen. They first met during Jim’s funeral many years ago, and this would be the first time they’ve seen them in several years. Susan was now a tall slender teenager, and her siblings weren’t frozen in time, either. Karen greeted them first giving Susan a big hug just outside the gate to the clinic. I heard her say, “Guess who else is here?” As her eyes turned towards us she gasped out loud and ran to Andrea. It was beautiful. They embraced for a long while as Ann showered her with praise over the young woman she had become. She was a typical, shy
Andrea and Karen tried to re-enact the picture we have of them when they met. She picked up Susan and Karen picked up Emmah. It wasn’t easy to hold them at this age. You see, in Kenyan culture it’s not customary to pick up your child when they’re young. Once you’re walking on your own, your feet remain on the ground. The consequence of that is that when you are picked up, it doesn’t occur to you to open your legs to bend them around the person holding you. Instead, there’s an awkward rigidness to it. It didn’t stop Andrea or Karen from doing it. Andrea asked Susan if she’d like to try picking her up, and without answering, she bent down and scooped her up as if she were a bag of feathers. Everyone laughed as they continued to exchange greetings and updates.
Soon, Dan said, “We should may our way to John’s home.” His house was just beyond the clinic. We walked up the short hill behind the building, then down the dirt road, sneaking through a tree line to his compound. I’m most familiar with his son George. I know he hs many children, but George is most like his father – funny, smart, and charismatic. George lost his leg below the knee after a car accident, but it hasn’t changed him in the least. He approached me on his crutches (his prosthetic has been giving him problems) and we gave each other a big hug. I apologized for not being here for his funeral. His response – “Are you okay?” They all knew the reason why I was not there, and it was humbling and warming to hear them asking about my health while they are still grieving. The other brothers emerged from the house along with John’s wife Helen. We walked quietly up the hill a short distance to where John was buried. Karen told George to go ahead of her. George responded with, “You go. You only have two legs. I have three.”
|Esther and Dan in the foreground|
Nurse Violet in the background
We went back to the clinic and talked more with Dan, the doctor and nurse. The labor pains continued with their patient, but they weren’t close yet. He estimated the birth to be around 7pm; unfortunately after we had to leave. As we walked back to the clinic, Dan asked me about Job, and I told him. He said that although he had attended John’s funeral, that was the only time he had seen him since I left last year. That just means that his betrayal did not end with me and my family – it extended to this community that also treated him like family. I found no solace in that. Not all misery loves company.
As I said earlier we talked about the primary school. Things had changed dramatically after the previous headmaster died. Charles was the deputy under William Kabis and took his position after he passed. Things did not change for the better. Charles was also the choir director under William. I would often say that William ran a school that had an award winning choir. Charles has an award winning choir that attends the school where he is headmaster. The last time I spoke with Charles, I expressed concern over the student’s marks as well as the condition of the classrooms. One in particular was very dangerous while another was being used to store unused timber and broken wheelbarrows left over from the construction. His response when I pointed out my concern. “I wish you would build me a veranda so that I can watch the children while I’m working.” Super. It never dawned on him that he’d be watching his enrollment fall along with their grades. Jim is watching… and he’s disappointed. So am I. To add insult to injury, the site where Jim’s remains lay is between the primary school and the clinic. During a trip a couple years ago we cleaned up the site and fenced it in adding a bench for reflective times. The children were using it as a playground and the stone had broken which is why we had a bronze relief made. I would have hoped that they would be telling stories about Jim and what we accomplished in this area. Instead, Charles cut down the trees surrounding the plot and took the money form another NGO that also worked in building this school, and put a fence around the compound… and around the plot. Now, nobody can sit with Jim... not even me and my family. We tried to pay our respects, and we did; we just did it from the wrong side of the fence. I’d shake him by his lapels if I thought it would do any good. We find peace knowing that John and Jim are back together again, laughing and smiling regardless of what happens on this earthly plane.
We said our goodbyes and got back in the car to head home. We wanted to stop at the Masai market to see Edward Orato and pick up our other painting. As we drove down Sereba Road, Isaac asked if It looks like we’ll have to change plans again. The one thing you have to learn about Kenya is that when you’re here, schedules need to be fluid. Our intent was to spend the night at Isaacs home. We wouldn’t get back before 10pm, and packing everything to head over to his house just didn’t make sense. Isaac agreed so we headed for the lake. The lake is lined with restaurants that sell tilapia taken from the lake. As you pull in, they have women hawking at each storefront trying to get you into their place. The truth is that some of them are better than others. I’ll never forget the first time I came here with Jim. We got out of the matatu and a woman wearing a Nebraska shirt was pleading with us to come in. As he approached he said, “Hey, you must be a big cornhusker fan!” No response. Kenyans do not understand sarcasm. It’s completely lost on them, which is sad because that is one of my strengths.
Isaac asked if he could stop at the lake so his family could get a closer look.
On this day, we weren’t having dinner, just looking at the lake. We walked past the hawkers with fish sitting on tables behind them (you get to pick your dinner as if they were lobsters sitting in a tank). We took pictures and shooed away people trying to sell us boat rides. All part of the ambiance. Now, back in the car and off to the market.
I love the Masai Market in Kisumu. Love it! I know most of the shop owners that line each side of the 100 yard market, and most of them know me. Andrea, Karen and I got out of the car and made our way down the right hand side stopping only to look inside, NOT go inside each shop. You see, it’s a 100 yards of 6 foot wide, lean-to shops selling wood and soapstone carvings, belts, jewelry, sukas, spears, knives etc. Each person asking you to go in just wants you to take one step “inside,” breaking the plane of the opening. Each shop has only three sides, so you can’t call it a door. They items inside are the bait, and the shop “owners” who all say, “Costs nothing to look” or “It is free to look” box you in once you break that imaginary line in the sand. They stand there placing things in your hands telling you what they are and how they’re made and how they’ll give you a good price. You really have to push your way out most of the time. We moved quickly down one side and those on the other called to us. We only stopped to say hello to the friendly faces we recognized and look at something that the girls were interested in. A couple stone pieces caught their eye so we entered a couple shops to make some purchases. That’s the best way to do it. Most of the shops have the same items, so you scan quickly and if something jumps out at you, than, and only then, do you step “inside.” We turned before reaching the end because the further away from the road you get, the more soapstone you see – and the carvings get bigger, too. Karen and Andrea saw a stone hippo that Kevin would have loved, but it had to weight over 100lbs. Edward Orato’s shop is on the opposite side and he stepped toward me as soon as I got to his storefront. We smiled, shook hands, and he immediately got out the painting of Mary that Job never paid him for. We paid for it a second time and Edward appreciated it. He then showed us some other pieces that we also bought. He really is a marvelous painter. We continued on stopping to say hi to more familiar faces before getting back in the car and beginning another 4 hour ride back to Narok.
I was right. We didn’t get back until 10:30 and just to make sure we had something in our bellies, we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before going to bed. Sleep came easily for all of us.