Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Homa Bay

I drank the water.  I had no choice.  After eight hours on a sweltering hot bus from Nairobi to Homa Bay near Lake Victoria, then a 45-minute cab ride to rural out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, and finally a 40-minute unsuccessful walking detour to try to find bottled water at the nearest street vendor, I gave in.  I was so dehydrated and tired that I considered asking for fruit just to suck the juice out, but I knew that wouldn’t be enough to sustain me through the night.  

My host scooped out some rainwater water from a giant jug sitting in their concrete & mud house that was lit by a single lightbulb, whose life was dictated by how much sunlight the solar panel was able to collect during the day.  As Paul handed me the cup, I thought for a second about the cholera outbreak that the US Embassy in Kenya had warned about the week before.  I made a mental note to take some probiotics before going to bed, and I drank and drank and drank.  Then I sat staring at the four Kenyan men that were lounging next to me and listened as they laughed and talked to each other in Luo, one of the tribal languages in Kenya.

Paul and his wife Debora (and their three adorable but chaotic kids), started a school for orphans and underprivileged kids in their village, and I had arranged to stay with them for a week teaching in the school through, which allows travelers to exchange a few hours of daily work for accommodation and meals.  They live on Paul’s father’s homestead, along with his father’s two wives, Paul’s two brothers, and Debora’s brother.  There’s no plumbing, no paved roads, only a few hours of electricity per day (we had to hike to their neighbor’s house to charge our laptops), and no privacy.  

The latrine was in a shed around the back of the house that was built of corrugated tin roofing.  As you got closer to it, the buzzing of the flies just inside the door would get increasingly louder.  Inside, the roar of the flies made a nice contrast against the audible slithering of the pile of maggots and larvae that were teeming in a huge pile in the latrine pit.  At night with my headlamp, I would always peer reluctantly into the shallow pit, watching the perpetual movement with equal parts disgust and fascination.  Well, guess I’ll pull my pants down and decrease the distance between these guys and my bare bottom to about a foot and a half.  Nature’s calling!  I spent the first few days learning how to aim, and the last few days trying to hold it in because the toilet paper ran out.

Since time is money in the US, I felt like a great do-good-er giving half of my day to helping others.  One tiny problem, though.  Kenyans have a saying: There is no time in Kenya.  Paul and Debora were appalled that we work 8-9 hour days here.  We were consistently an hour and a half late to everything.  I only saw the men work for a few hours on the farm in the morning, but not much else after that.  So, what do you do when you are offering your time, yet the culture you’re in doesn’t associate time with being very valuable?  You know what they do find valuable?  Money.  And sponsorships.  And crowdfunding.  And handouts.  And charitable aid.  And anything I owned.  

Paul spent the first few days trying to convince me that God had placed it on my heart to start a clinic in their village.  The spiritual manipulation caught me off guard, resulting in the first few days being quite a struggle to defend myself.  Then I went to their church on Sunday and was enlightened.  The pastor preached that if you have a small business or really really want something, make a covenant with God and pray a lot and He will give it to you, just as God promised 99-year-old Abraham that he would be the father of many nations.  And do you know how God gives you what you want?  Through visitors and their charity.  In the social studies curriculum at the school, there’s a whole section of a chapter about how your school needs friends and visitors to donate supplies and money so that you can have a better school.  Asking for and needing things is so ingrained in their culture that it’s skewed their theology.  I attempted a spiritual conversation with two of the brothers after church, as I probed around “What if what you think you want and need isn’t what God wants you to have?”  They didn’t seem to grasp the concept, so I dropped it.  

I started to feel like a grinch after saying no to every long-term project Paul asked me to start, and every cause he wanted me to donate to or find sponsors for.  I explained how student loans work, to show him that I’m not rich, and that my friends on Facebook aren’t rich, either.  I kept telling him that I was there to offer my hands, my time, my work, and my prayer.  It was exhausting.

After a few days, the culture shock wore off and I learned how to steer Paul's conversation toward other topics.  I struggled through Luo, to the amusement of everyone around me, learned how to cook traditional Luo meals over an open fire in their kitchen structure, and taught at the school every morning, teaching them songs and letting them pinch my skin and run their hands through my hair as I sat and played with them.  Debora and I were the dynamic duo, constantly corralling kids and doing laundry and dishes by hand every day.  

We would get caught in the rainy downpour on most evenings, stuck inside the kitchen, watching the dog and the chickens huddle under the roof of the house for shelter.  One of the younger brothers would stand behind Debora while she cooked with firewood at the ready.  In the dim light, I could only see the pale white of his teeth and of his lazy eye looking at us and smiling as he listened to our jokes.  The three brothers and Debora and a few of the older kids would play checkers constantly.  After playing a few rounds with them, I'd stand behind Debora and undo her hair weave and watch as they played 10 or 12 more games.

On the last night of my visit, I searched the yard for a bar of soap to wash the blood that had dried in the creases of my hands and under my fingernails. Davis had killed a chicken for dinner by cutting its throat.  The knife he had used was dull, I had to turn away after his third attempt (Davis had taken over after a younger brother couldn’t quite finish the job).  He reassured me by saying, “Tonight, we will cry for the chicken.  With our teeth.”  Debora and I spent an hour and a half cleaning and preparing the chicken, laughing and giggling as Davis kept coming back to the kitchen with more funeral analogies for the recently deceased chicken.  

Yes, it was hard going without a real shower for so long, and not having plumbing or toilet paper.  But I also have never felt more relaxed.  Time seemed to become more meaningless as the days slipped away.  We got to enjoy each other's company, sitting and talking for hours on end.  We ate well and were never bored.  I left feeling emotionally full and very loved; they really had made me a part of their family.

That night, we did cry for the chicken with our was delicious.

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