Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Mekatilili Wa Menza
"Mother of the Resistance"

I don't want to read these same pages again. 
                 Look in the mirror and imagine me.  (Kirk Franklin)

     Nairobi is waking up early this morning. The dewy air, kissing my skin and rolling through my hair, asks me to sit and place my agenda aside. Accepting this invitation, I sit with my cup of coffee, relinquishing everything to the bloom of the morning, watching as she frolics with amusing potential. I close my eyes and inhale this offering, content—just me and the Divine.
     While the sun promises a terribly hot day, for now, felicity abounds as Mother Nature plays. I am entertained with shimmering droplets of water dancing across banana leaves and mango trees, accompanied by the melodious chirps of the speckled mousebirds acrobatically rolling and hopping over the grass. It is a luxury, to be sure, having the option to pause and witness the unfolding of a beautiful day. I am aware that in a few hours, I will exit this sanctuary.  I will walk passed many who are not afforded this same luxury. Scarcity is their motivation of the morning, like most mornings, with the goal of surviving one more day.

     This last week flew by. I never realized until now the impact time has on my state of mind, as well as my emotional well being. In stark contrast to the seemingly endless drudgery of the week prior, resulting in a tiring and blue disposition, I ended this last week happy and fufilled. A change of scenery is often the antidote for stagnation. I was grateful to be part of a group asked to cover a different  hospital, one that none of us had worked in before. While the destination was much farther than the usual 45 minute walk we had grown accustomed to, the feeling of adventure and curiosity made this fact insignificant.
     The hospital was built during the British occupation, to serve as a hospital for infectious diseases. As I looked around, acquainting myself with my new surroundings, I kept thinking of the movie The English Patient. The architecture—one story stone buildings painted in a cheery pale yellow color with large open windows framed by heavy wooden shutters painted evergreen—lends itself as a perfect backdrop for a romanticized World War II movie.
     As we walked along the cobblestone pathway that meandered through luscious tropical foliage, connecting the various hospital wards, I thought to myself, "What a serene and spacious place for an ill person to recuperate." Unlike the public hospital that feels like an enormous block of dirty concrete stifling any opportunity for freshness, this hospital felt spacious and airy.
     My revelry in the nostalgic feel of the hospital was mercilessly quashed as I took my first step inside the patient wards. As in the other hospital, I can't imagine how anyone could think an ill person could recover in this dismal and unsanitary environment. The patients lie in beds so close to each other that privacy is impossible, much less any chance of infection control. The rooms are cluttered with  archaic medical equipment scattered in pieces and haphazardly thrown in corners, dirty floors with bugs feasting on old pieces of food dropped on the unswept floor, copious amount of flies buzzing around and landing on the patients faces and bodies, and odious smells of waste and old food. I felt dirty just standing in the doorway.
     Interestingly, I have recently noticed my ability to work in these dire environments without the abject disgust and raging emotionality experienced during my first 7 weeks of work. Admittedly, I am unsure how to interpret this. Could my assimilation be a sign of growth, crass denial, or errant complacency? Honestly, I think it is more a survival technique.

       Saturday, I escaped the compound with an energized and adventurous spirit. I had 3 goals for the day: sip on a  good cup of coffee, successfully navigate my way to the infamous outdoor market, and spend the afternoon at the African Cultural museum. Tucked inside these goals was the ever present desire to end my day with an icy cold beer.
      I completely ignored the warnings from friends who heard I was heading to the outdoor market by     foot, advising me instead to go with someone who knew the safest path to the market and could act as an informed buffer between me and the aggressive merchants who equate white female from the West with a walking ATM.  Believing myself invincible and brave, I casually waved them off with a slight tilt of the head and shrug of the shoulders, "Nah, I think I can handle it just fine,"–internally translated as, "I do not want to go with you or anyone. I need alone time."
     Within the first 30 minutes of my hour or so walk to the market, a fairly well dressed man crossed the busy street and rushed towards me. He accompanied me a few steps before he introduced the small talk—"nice day," "where are you from," "where are you heading to," and so on. Being co-dependent as hell, I did not want to offend, or hurt his feelings by rudely ignoring him. So while my inner red flashers were rapidly pulsing, I repressed them by making small talk in return. Instead of saying, "Please leave me alone," like a wise woman not from the South would say, I babbled on and on as if he was my best friend. Surely there are studies analyzing this pathological phenomenon —when one disengages so completely from the appeal of her higher functioning brain that is screaming, "Warning, warning," just to feed the deeply dysfunctional fear of hurting the stranger (who obviously picked me out as gullible).
     No, I did not get mugged or robbed. No, he did not throw me into oncoming traffic...all those    possibilities streaming through my mind while simultaneously carrying on mindless chat with this total stranger in a strange country. After remaining by my side until I arrived at the outdoor marked, he simply bowed his head and said, "Don't think me a poor African man, but I have 10 orphans at home needing food."
"Hmm, here it is," I internally mused.  I handed him 1000 shillings, thinking that was pretty damn generous. He looked at me with a raised eyebrow of expectation and said, "But they need medicine as well." Mustering my courage, I replied, "Thats all I have." Frustrated, I turned and walked away.

     I made my way to the gates of the outdoor market, agitated and befuddled by the stranger exploiting me for cash. Before my body fully cleared the entrance gait, I was bombarded by merchants pushing their wares in my face, all the while screaming, "I give you a good price." When I learned the market was "cash only," the vendors literally encircled me, each offering to escort me to the ATM across the street.  I quickly became overwhelmed, exacerbated by the relentless heat and shoulder to shoulder crowds of sweaty people screaming at me. Exasperated, I turned toward the merchants clinging to me like baby birds pecking for food, and yelled, "Stop following me!" I rushed toward the exit, hid behind a shade tree, and texted an Uber in hopes I could escape the scene unscathed.
     I almost gave up for the day. My initial goals set in the nascent morning hours seemed far off and impossible.  As I sat gathering myself together in the air-conditioned Uber, I thought about going back to the compound, taking a cool shower, and spending the rest of the day in bed with a good book. However, a small voice reminded me that my time in this country was rapidly coming to an end. I requested the driver take me to the museum. I promised myself a leisurely, unencumbered walk through the exhibitions.
   I purchased my ticket and walked through the gate, happily anticipating a quiet, informative afternoon by myself. Entering the first hallway, a very tall Nigerian man stepped in my path, forcing me to stop.  With a childlike smile he loudly announced, "Welcome. I am to be your guide for the day." "Great," I half-heartedly replied;  all the while my inner self was screeching, "Just say no!"
    Granted, he was incredibly informative. He supplied stories for me that I would not have surmised perusing the exhibits on my own. I did not realize that Kenya gained its independence as recently as 1963. As my guide led me through the portrait hall, he told stories of the lore surrounding the insurrectionists, the prophets, and the leaders who fought against the powerful and oppressive British. While used to viewing American history from an awe-filled passage of time, the Kenyan fight for independence continues to be with in reach.
     The Kenyan culture is ripe with traditions that fortunately, and unfortunately, continue today. The tribal sense of community remains foundational. While modernity is beginning to eek in to most areas of the country, many long held tribal customs and rituals maintain an unyielding hold. Children are cared for by the community—encouraged to run around naked and free. After chores, they spend the day playing with handmade  toys sculpted from banana leaves and olive wood. At 15, however,  all the play things must be forever abandoned. Fifteen is the age of circumcision, the rite of passage in to adulthood. In many tribes, boys are taken away from the community for a week or so, where they are instructed by "aunts" and "uncles" the rules of being a man. This includes warrior techniques,  hunting rituals, and lessons on how to be a good husband. In some communities, young women are brought to them to assist in learning the "ways of sex." At the end of the week, the boy is circumcised in a festive tribal ceremony. He can no longer play like a child; nor is he permitted to ever cry.
     Girls go through a similar ritual. They spend time together with "aunts" and "uncles" learning how to be wives, mothers, good cooks and housekeepers. When my tour guide added the caveat, "They are taught how to take care of their man," I had to roll my eyes. Although female circumcision is outlawed in the country, it unfortunately continues to be a rite of passage in certain tribes.

The best part of my day? Hands down, it was sipping an icy cold beer in the museum cafe.



  1. Loved reading the account of your day. You are a gifted storyteller. I was right there with you. Love you. Be safe.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I can envision the scenes in your illustrative writing. Peace, Stephen


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