Trip Report, January 2015
By Jim Cederberg
Over the course of six visits to Kenya, we have started as strangers and become friends with people we met. This trip, more than anything, turned that up a notch. We have become family.
I was accompanied again this year by Eric O'Brien, a high school senior from Douglas Freeman High School in Richmond, Virginia. Ralph Ogden had recently visited Kenya for his sponsoree Norah's graduation and some other humanitarian work and so he did not make the baseball trip. We flew from Dulles to Brussels, Belgium. The flight from there to Nairobi had a stop, unknown to us, in some place called Bujumbura. I asked the gate agent at Brussels where Bujumbura is. She didn't know.
We arrived in Nairobi Friday about midnight with all eight of our duffle bags. We were met at the airport by Dr. Karambu Ringera, director of an incredible community development center in Meru sponsored in part by International Peace Initiatives, of which I serve on the board of directors. We stayed at Amani Guest House, which is operated by Dr. Ringera's organization and is a mercifully short ride from the airport. Dr. Ringera herself fixed us a very late dinner. Dr. Ringera, seriously, should be winning a Nobel Prize. It felt strange to have such a remarkable person feeding us in the middle of the night.
Something about Amani Guest House makes it a great place to meet and interact with people. We were met there by my sponsoree and our great friend Margaret Obura, fresh from graduation from college, and her sister Phelisters. Margie insisted on coming to Nairobi so I could take her shopping for professional clothes in Nairobi and she could enjoy the ride to Ahero with us. Phelisters was along for the ride.
On Saturday morning, we were joined by our do-everything host, long-time guide and counselor Grephus, and Norah. Grephus has become a friend to Norah through their travels with Ralph and is looking out for her while she studies in Nairobi. Also staying at the guest house was Patrick, who was a high school football teammate of my son Luke in Boulder. We had a lot of fun chatting and kibitzing among the bunch of us.
Then it was time for the shopping trip. We started at a computer store in downtown Nairobi and bought two lap tops and modems, one for the college-age daughter of one of the pastors in Ahero, and one for Angela, the young volunteer teacher out in the rain forest. We also got Margie a smartphone. Still in downtown, we found a cluster of small, cubicle-type clothing shops crammed into a single building. Dressing rooms consisted of a curtain on a clothesline strung across the back corner of the cubicle. Patrick had enough sense to disappear before we got into the serious shopping and Eric, Grephus and I did our best to kill time while the girls did their thing. Norah, having been spoiled by Ralph earlier, was evidently acting in a consulting role. Margie selected sensible, professional-looking outfits that were good for her, and I wasn't going to let Phelisters go home empty- handed. I guarantee you nobody taken these girls shopping before, and their delight in the whole operation showed that. We ate chicken at a jam-packed fast food place, did some other errands gathering some school supplies for Angela, then went to Grephus' home for supper.
On Sunday morning, we packed up and dropped Norah off near her school at what seemed like the other side of Nairobi. We got a call from Everline's (Margie's older sister) husband, who is a police officer in Nairobi, wanting us to come visit him. Unfortunately, he was all the way across Nairobi and it would have taken hours, so we could not make that happen. We headed for Ahero with Margie and Phelisters on board. It was a fun group and Grephus' interaction with the sisters was nice to see. They have only met through us, but you would think they were life-long friends. Grephus shared with them the tour guide information about the Rift Valley, geographical, agricultural and other facts about Kenya and they were fascinated. Margie became pensive at some point during the trip. The issue was she wanted to give something to Everline, and had decided to give her the cell phone.
We stopped for lunch in Nakuru, at an American-style cafe which, honestly, in Kenya I could do without. We found another phone for Margie at the adjoining Nakumatt (think upscale Kenya Walmart). We arrived in Ahero about 6:00 and dropped Margie and Phelisters off at the kiosk store where Drew and I first met Margie working back in early 2010. There we were greeted by her older sister Everline, and Everline's boys Clifford and Junior, 3-year-old daughter Shantel, and a bunch of neighborhood kids who spontaneously appear every time we go over there. This place is a tiny shop that serves customers through a barred window in the front. At the back of the shop is a small apartment where Everline, the three kids, Margie and the occasional visiting sister live. Nobody passes through the door and curtain into the shop. That is, except us. They not only invite us in, they insist that we come in.
Outside the shop, where the blistering afternoon heat yields to cool, pleasant evenings, we get swarmed by the neighborhood kids. Eric entertained them with his assortment of bullpen past-times, flipping bottle caps and such. His use of the selfie to amuse kids, and himself, was masterful. It was amazing watching Eric on these trips. Here is a young man who had never been around little kids in his life, and he is an absolute natural. When we would sit down, kids would immediately sit right up against us on both sides. Clifford, who is about 10 now, was a bit reserved in the past, but he became a shadow to us. My favorite neighborhood kids have got to be sisters Rose and Valentine. When Drew and I first arrived at this place in 2010, we saw these two little girls with braided hair and big smiles playing in a mud puddle and saying “How are you?” “We are fine” because when they see a white person, they want to practice their English. Today, Rose and Valentine are about 10 and 8. Whenever we were at Margie's, Rose and Valentine would appear. They would sit right next to me on either side and just look fascinated like I was some kind of a big teddy bear. Once, Valentine walked around me and whispered something in Rose's ear. Rose then turned to me, very importantly, and said “we'll be back.” Grephus and Margie tried to show us how they could ride two-on-a-bicycle. It was like a family reunion over there, so we went every chance we could get.
While in Ahero, we stayed at the same house where we have stayed for the previous four trips. There are comfortable beds, showers that are sometimes hot, electricity, and wholesome, home-cooked meals. There is also plenty of space to spread out, sort, and reorganize our gear. An occasional chicken finds its way into the house. There are roosters crowing and geese honking out back, and cows graze in the yard. There is a scrawny house cat that loves being petted, until he doesn't, at which time he will let you know by clawing your hand off.
I find myself waking up early in the morning in Kenya, despite the fact that my mind is usually swirling at night. On Monday, I woke early and said to myself what I say every day in Kenya: “God help me, I do love it so.” We got the day's supplies ready, ate breakfast, and went by Everline's to pick up cases of bottled water for the day. When we got there, they were all excited and couldn't wait to show us pictures of Everline's reactions when Margie gave her that phone. On the first one, she had burst into tears. On the second, her arms were raised in jubilation. Later on, I learned more about the significance of this gift.
On Monday morning, it was time for baseball. In recent years, we have invited several former students to travel around with us and help with the clinics. Since we were a bit short-handed this year, help from former students was especially important. We had Jombo, Kasman and Samuel, who are veterans from previous years, and newcomers Evance and Violet. These are all kids who stood out when we met them. With those five, Grephus, Pastor Joshua, Eric and me, our nine-passenger Land Cruiser was packed.
Violet first greeted us way back in 2011 at St. Boniface Magare Secondary School. Back then, she must have been a Form 2 (sophomore). She was effervescent and bounded up to us like a big puppy. I mentioned her delighted (and delightful) greeting on a return trip in a previous report. She is one of these kids who is unforgettable, and I asked one of her former schoolmates to recruit her for this year's trip. I learned that Violet has a remarkable life story so far, and she deserves a chance to achieve her full potential. I have shared her story with folks on my contact list in the hope that someone will make her part of their life.
For reasons related to the recent expansion of accessibility of public education, the schools in Kenya seem to have a teachers' strike every January, which is the start of their school calendar. This year, the strike delayed the opening of school until January 19, which happened to be our first day of baseball. We made a few adjustments on the fly and visited three primary schools on Monday. Some of the kids in primary school are about fifteen because they have fallen behind in school, usually due to forced absence from inability to pay fees.
Pastor Joshua schedules our visits to schools well in advance. When we arrive at a school, typically we drive the Land Cruiser through a gate and right onto the school grounds. They don't have parking lots because nobody drives there. Sometimes there are livestock roaming the grounds. The arrival of the vehicle immediately attracts the attention of every kid in the school. Most of the buildings have no glass in the windows and, if there is no teacher present, the kids will come over to the window for a better look. Sometimes kids are already outside at recess and I think sometimes the teachers just give into the distraction and let the kids out.
We will wade right into the middle of the kids at the first opportunity, or go visit with them if they are leaning out the windows. Some will speak a little English and start a conversation. We usually show them a high five and within seconds we are high-fiving all of them. At many of the primary schools, especially the really rural ones, the kids had never seen a white person and certainly not close up. At first, they were afraid to touch us. Then one or two bold ones would come up and take a swipe to touch us, then others would try it and soon everybody needed a turn. Sometimes they pinch or rub you to see if that whiteness will rub off. They want to feel your hair because it is so strange. After we have been there a little while, if we walk anywhere, we will hold hands with one or more kids on each side. We interact with hundreds of kids at each school.
One of our objectives and practices is to take every opportunity to model behavior that honors, respects, appreciates and validates girls and women. Girls in Kenya have a hard time, in ways that I could take many pages just to outline. Kenya is a place full of promise and problems, and it is not going to solve its problems and achieve its promise until women are empowered and lead the way.
Protocol is to begin a visit with a brief meeting in the principal's office to exchange pleasantries. Sometimes they have to pull us out of a bunch of kids. We ask the principal or designated teacher to bring us somewhere between twenty four and thirty six kids, an equal number of boys and girls. We find a shade tree, get out the equipment bags, and get every kid a glove. It usually takes a few minutes to make sure they all have their glove on the correct hand. Next, we get them into two lines, facing each other, about 40 feet apart, and match them up with a partner in the other line. We give a ball to each kid in one of the lines. We do a brief demonstration of throwing technique: grip on the ball, bring the ball back, elbow through first, follow through. We demonstrate basic foot work: shift your weight to the right foot, step with the left. Back. Step. Throw. Then we turn them loose and see who is doing what, go up and down the lines and work on mechanics with those who need it and praise the ones who have it right. We can usually get many smaller kids involved retrieving errant balls. We also work a little bit on glove positions so the ball does not hit them in the face. If there is a kid with particularly good throwing technique, we will tell the other kids to copy that kid, especially if that kid happens to be female. If a kid is really gunning it, we will have one of our guys throw with that kid and egg him or her on. If I have a chance, I will partner with one of the girls and throw with her for awhile. Once they get going, we will increase the distance a couple of times. Then we call time and have them throw ground balls to each other. We work the lines on basic technique: move your feet, get in front of it, get your butt down. Groundballs are a total adventure because the fields are uneven, the grass is long, there is manure, and so forth. After it looks like they have had enough ground balls, we demonstrate catching a fly ball, then have them throw pop ups to each other (“high ball, high ball”).
One of my favorite moments this year was when Eric was demonstrating chasing a fly ball, and one of our helpers called out: “Watch out, there's a bull coming!”
Next, we get back under the shade tree and try to explain the basics of the game: the field, positions, advancing around the bases, strike zone, outs, swinging strikes. (We do not deal with balls or walks, and we use many other simplifications). This is a lot of information, and there are language issues, so we have been experimenting on who gives these briefings. Often Grephus will do it because of his multiple language skills. We use home-made charts for illustration.
We have a baseball field set up with makeshift home plate, bases and pitchers mounds, cut out of lightweight material that we can easily pack.
Then we will break into two or three groups and everyone gets a turn at bat while the other group fields. Most of the time, our guy will pitch to keep things moving. Eric is unbelievable at this. If we see a secondary school kid who looks like he or she can pitch, we will go with that.
I work with the batters, often with help from Grephus or one of the former students. We have the rest of our crew position the kids in the field and try to keep them positioned and making plays on the hit balls. We introduced two things this year that really helped with the batting. One, when we demonstrate hitting form, I will talk it through and use Eric to demonstrate and we explain everything he is doing. We stay very basic with the swing and don't get into hip mechanics. When we demonstrate this, we get a kid to do the demonstration, shadowing Eric. This seems to get the rest of the kids to pay a lot more attention because they want to see what is happening to their buddy. The other innovation was made to address the problem of kids being confused about what to do with their feet. We cut out a stencil from a painter's canvas drop cloth with a home plate and footprints for the batter's feet. We stencil the ground with white cake flour (easily purchased anywhere). This has saved hours of repetition in the course of a week. However, we did get accused of wasting food.
Eric would hit a soft toss or two to convey the idea that the ball can go a long way. Kids would ooh and ahh as Eric's batted ball would soar over trees beyond the makeshift outfield, while Eric and I joked about how these “bombs” would be routine outs in high school.
We had our Kenyan crew position kids in the field and work on recognizing and executing plays throughout the time the other kids were hitting. This was pretty effective, but we could really improve on it with more volunteers familiar with the game to work on it as well. Defense was very basic.
While all the students get a chance to bat, I try to work in a teacher or principal or two, since I can get away with it at my age. Prime targets for this are really macho coaches or female teachers. Teachers that we have seen tend to be pretty strict and formal (we have seen kids getting caned), and the interaction that putting a teacher up to bat evokes is pretty funny. The students always get a big kick out of it, laughing loudly when the teacher invariably swings and misses, and the teachers have always been good sports. They also usually get a pretty good ribbing from their fellow teachers.
These clinics take about 2-1/2 hours. We do two or three a day. We did find that cancelling the midday clinic made life a lot easier. When we are finished with a clinic, the kids are ready to talk, goof around, take pictures and spend a little time with us. If there are little kids around, and there almost always are, even at the secondary schools, we will visit with them and then hold hands walking back to the principal's office. Invariably, students, teachers and principals say they really liked it and implore us to come back.
We typically drive anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour between schools. They aren't that far apart, but the roads are bad and the ride is very bumpy.
There is always a lot of chatter in the car, somebody getting needled for something. This year the kids were calling me “Grand Pa-pa.” There is serious talk as well. This interaction is priceless for us and for the crew, and I don't know how a visitor could find that kind of opportunity in any other setting.
Finally, on Tuesday we got to do something I had been looking forward to and thinking about virtually every day for eleven months—visit my sponsoree Hope, whom I have spoken about in my previous reports. We wanted to visit on Sunday, but we got to town late and had hours of work left to organize the gear. Monday we were swamped with the three clinics. Tuesday we put everything else aside and took a noon break to visit Hope.
Last January, Hope was attending the University of Nairobi - Kisumu Campus and living in a shared townhouse in Kisumu. This was about 20 kilometers from her mother's home in Ahero, and the highway between was a total mess under construction. Her two young sons, Ian and Emmanuel, were staying with her mother, but this was not working well for the boys and it was heart-breaking for Hope. When I saw the boys last year, they seemed a little distant, reserved, afraid. As the year unfolded, the road project was nearly completed and Hope determined the boys needed a better situation. She thought she could find a place to rent in Ahero and a person to help her, have the boys stay with her and she could commute to school. Her classes are in the evening, and going anywhere at night is a scary proposition, but Hope has never lacked courage, and she can commute on buses or in matatus.
Now, she lives in a rented house in a small compound with three or four other houses. The house is comfortable, has basic furnishings, running water, a flush toilet, a shower, a kitchen, a large living room and two bedrooms. It is off the highway but only a short walk away. The boys look like completely different people. They are out-going, extremely curious, engaging, bright and adorable. One day we walked over to Emmanuel's pre-school, less than a kilometer from the house. There were about 35 kids there. We were pure entertainment. We would crouch down and get all the kids to come close (this took some doing at first because they had never been up close to white people). Once they got in close, we would make a fierce face with eyes bugging out or growl at them. They would shriek in mock terror and go running away and then immediately come back for more. It was not hard to amuse them, or us. The teachers were sitting nearby, taking a break and watching all of this, laughing hysterically.
Somehow they got the kids settled down and invited us in to watch a class. They were working on basic letter sounds and phonics, with lots of class repetition. The teacher did part of the lesson with a suckling infant at her breast. When a kid gave a correct answer, he or she got to do a cute little congratulatory dance and all the kids chimed in. These kids have nothing, and this early education is great. Emmanuel was so proud that he brought us there. They finally let us go and begged us to come back anytime.
One day at lunch time, we were over at Margie's. The kids were in school except for two boys who were wearing beat up clothes. One was wearing a girl's shirt. Eric and I started tossing rubber balls with these two. They were tireless and had great fun. They were bright, enthusiastic little guys. I asked Grephus to find out why they weren't in school, so he questioned the older boy. He got some information and then we dispatched Margie to investigate further. She found out there was some disruption in their family and they were visiting from elsewhere.
On Friday afternoon, Eric started feeling a little sick. He managed to make it through the afternoon but was feeling pretty rough by the time we passed by Margie's little store. Margie had just completed her studies to become the equivalent of a nurse practitioner, and she was immediately on the case. Twenty minutes after we got back to our guest house, Margie appeared with four packets of prescription medications for her patient.
I asked her how she got there. She had taken a motorcycle taxi. It was starting to get dark, so I offered to walk her home. When we got back to her place, she wasn't quite ready to stop walking so she insisted on walking back the other way. This began a series of walks like this that gave us precious time to share.
Saturday is the day we have a tournament in downtown Ahero. This is a big deal for the kids. Since they have had all of 2-1/2 to 3 hours of baseball experience, the tournament is a bit chaotic. In the past, we have had as many as eight teams. This year, because we went to more primary schools and fewer secondary schools, and the tournament was only suitable for secondary kids, we had four teams. This made for a much easier day.
We knew Eric was in no shape for another day in the hot sun at the tournament, so we called Margie over to the house to keep an eye on him while we were gone. When we got back, a bleary-eyed Eric complained that she had woken him up every half hour for most of the day. I later asked Margie why she did that. She said, “I was here by myself.” She did constantly interrogate him on his symptoms, and got a little exasperated with his repeated “I don't know” responses. Eric later told me, “I did start to feel better the moment she walked into the room.”
To give Eric a break, I went on a walk with Margie and Phelisters. About halfway between the guesthouse and Margie's place is a quarry with water in it—an ideal place for throwing stones. I could not resist throwing a few stones. This is when I found out something about Phelisters and Margie: these girls can wing it. Every time after that when we got anywhere near the quarry, Margie would start picking up stones.
These walks were an opportunity to talk about all kinds of things, like religion, like how our paths only crossed because Drew and I were trying to avoid our missionary cohorts. I asked Margie how she decided to approach me for educational support. I told her how when I first saw her working at that store being rudely ordered around by male customers, I was thinking if I had anything to say about it, there is no way that kid was going to spend the rest of her life being treated like that. We talked about the fact that getting an education in Kenya makes a young woman an automatic social misfit because she will no longer accept the role of doing all the work. I told her that I could tell from the way she got along with co-workers at the clinic where she did her internship that she would have the opportunity to meet nice, competent young men who appreciated an educated woman. I told her this: “When you become involved in a serious relationship with a young man, you make sure he worships the ground you walk on.” She repeated, “Worships the ground I walk on?” I said “Absolutely!”
Margie told me of her family background. She has four sisters and two brothers. Their father died in 2004. The family had to try to survive on what her mother could earn doing agricultural labor. Her older sister Everline (still only in her late twenties) got married and had the little shop, and Margie came to stay with her. Everline put her through secondary school. Margie worships Everline and says “She is like my Mum.” I understood the significance of the cell phone gift.
Sunday is a day for visiting. Eric was even sicker than the day before so I made the rounds with Grephus. We visited the village kids at Joshua's homestead where we sponsor a “feast” for the children. Grephus and I dished up the rice, cabbage and small amount of meat. The adult men then ate at Joshua's house and I threw balls with about 25 kids for a while.
After that I got to spend part of Sunday afternoon visiting Hope and the boys. Ian disappeared with my camera, and I was playing in the living room with Emmanuel using a rubber ball, baseball caps and a water bottle. We kept each other occupied for the longest time, and Hope and I talked about plans for our dream of building a home for orphans. Ian eventually reappeared and started showing me his school books. I began reading one of the books aloud. I kept trying to excuse myself, but he insisted that I finish the whole book. He listened intently. At the end, there were seven questions about the substance of the story. He could not answer a single one. He was just absorbed listening to my funny-sounding American accent. I later found that, while he had my camera, he had gone around and posed everyone in the neighborhood and taken their pictures.
Margie, Phelisters and I were out walking at dusk on Sunday evening. This is an area of small agricultural plots served by dirt roads. The heat of the afternoon had dissolved into a very pleasant evening. People were passing by with small herds of cattle, goats and sheep, with an occasional donkey cart bearing large containers of water from a community well. It was lovely, peaceful. Rather than worrying about the hardships these people face, I was overcome with a blanket of serenity, of appreciation for the beauty of the place and its people, of the resilience and companionship of human beings. It was sublime.
When we got back to the house, our hosts and Grephus were somewhat alarmed about Eric's condition. Mama Grace said he had been talking nonsense—which Eric later denied and which at some point I probably quipped was normal. In any event, there was a consensus that we should take him to Aga Khan hospital in Kisumu to get him checked out. So we piled into the Land Cruiser. Not a word was spoken but the understanding was unmistakable. We would drop Phelisters at home, but Margie would go along on the half-hour ride to the hospital to look after Eric. This was one of the events that made me understand we have come to function like a family.
One never really wants to see, but it is always nice to know what the medical facilities are like, just in case. Aga Khan Hospital in Kisumu was quite impressive and a lot less chaotic or intimidating than some of the ER's I have seen in the U.S. It was certainly light years better than a rural ER nightmare we once experienced in Nebraska. Margie helped us navigate through the check in, exam room visits, laboratory work and pharmacy. We actually managed to find some humor in certain aspects of the lab sampling. The diagnosis was that Eric had picked up an intestinal parasite, which sometimes happens to travelers in Kenya. They gave him IV antibiotics and pills to follow up. (Our options other than a hospital visit would have been to give him a Z-Pac which U.S. doctors commonly prescribe for travelers). He started feeling better almost immediately. After taking it easy on Monday, he was pretty much back to normal by Monday night. Eric suffered through about two and a half days that weren't any fun, but he hung in there and bounced back.
When Eric was feeling bad, it was stifling hot in the house. Nevertheless, the Kenyan remedy for him was “You must take hot tea!” One after the other, Grephus, Pastor Joshua, Nettie (the maid), and Margie, all said the same thing: “Has he taken hot tea?” Mama Grace inquired into the situation, and when she asked if he had taken hot tea, someone responded in a scolding tone that he was drinking cold water. Mama Grace declared: “That is the problem!” Even Mr. Abongo, who usually stays out of such matters, pronounced that the boy must take hot tea.
On Monday, Hope and I had some work to do on our dream of starting an orphanage. In speaking with our host, Mr. Abongo, I learned that he is assisting a group funded by a German benefactor that has a community development center in Ahero. They teach people how to be tailors and hairdressers. They also sponsor some school children. Mr. Abongo graciously accompanied us to visit with these folks. I asked how many others in the county were doing similar work. They looked at me like I was crazy. They explained that the government comes to them wanting them to provide services.
After that, we went to an orphanage closer to Kisumu run by a remarkable lady known as Pastor Helen. In 1991, while working as a banker, she began taking in orphans and in 1994 quit her bank job to care for orphans full-time. She now has some 300 orphans and hosts a school for another 300 kids from the community. She is building an impressive secondary school a short distance away. She told us the same thing as the others had told us about the lack of other such services and the lack of government help for orphan children. She told us there is huge unmet need for places for orphans. She advised us to start small. She gave us a brief tour of the kitchen, some classrooms and some of the facilities.
Grephus and I took Hope and Margaret over to Kisumu. The purpose of the trip was two-fold. Hope had been asking for a refrigerator for well over a year. This is something we take for granted, but it is a big deal in an area where electrification is relatively new and such an appliance is far beyond most people's means. Hearing her talk about what having a refrigerator would mean was cause for reflection. I am not sure how many weeks it took her before she was able to get the boys to quit opening and closing the refrigerator door for the fun of it. This is a luxury I felt Hope had earned with her dedication, triumph over hardship, and hard work.
The trip to Kisumu also gave us a chance to go to the edge of Lake Victoria and eat some fresh Tilapia. We shared a huge fish covered in dark green vegetables. You just eat it with your hands. I was eating vegetables along with the fish, but Hope and Margie were pushing the vegetables aside and going straight for the fish. They know about subsisting on vegetables, but the fish was a treat. I was fascinated being at one of the great natural features of the world that mystified me in geography class in elementary school. Sharing the experience with locals who have become like family boggles my mind.
Tuesday morning was time to move on to our next location—the Kakamega rain forest. This is about a two-hour drive from Ahero, heading west through one corner of Kisumu and then north past Kakamega town. The hardest part about Tuesday was saying goodbye to friends in Ahero.
Kakamega is Grephus' home area. We would spend two days in Kakamega, during which we played ball at three secondary schools. We visited a pre-school run by a young woman named Angela, whom we met last year. I have been sending her to teacher's college. She demonstrated a lesson that included her use of numerous techniques she has learned, showed us her various activity corners set up per her college courses, and proudly showed me her meticulously written lesson plans. We presented her with an array of school supplies that we had purchased in Nakuru and Kisumu. We also gave her the laptop computer we bought in Nairobi. Angela was speechless. With a modem, she now has access to the world. In an amazing scene, Grephus sat down on the ground with Angela on the edge of the school grounds, in front of a thatch-roofed cooking hut, under a banana tree, and showed her the basics of how to use the computer. Two wide-eyed agricultural laborers watched intently.
Angela had made arrangements ahead of time to invite us to her parents' home for a huge late lunch. Her little village is near Grephus' childhood home. We arrived there on footpaths through sugar cane fields. The village consisted of thatched-roofed houses and cooking huts, out of some story book. Her mother and relatives had prepared a feast of the best Cajun fried chicken I have ever tasted, cooked greens, cooked bananas, ugali, and chapati.
For our baseball activities in Kakamega, we were without the former students who were so helpful in Ahero, but we were joined by Grephus's brother Jeff and their friend, a local pastor named Josphat. There was some confusion at one of the schools where we were scheduled, so we chatted with the principal for a little while, then went down the road to a girls' school where we arrived on very short notice. The girls and their coach were very welcoming. The principal was a formidable, seemingly stern lady who couldn't mask the fact she has a big heart. Later, out on the playing field in back of the dorms. The girls were doing great and there was just one thing left to do. We sent one of the students to the principal's office—quite a hike away—to tell her she was urgently needed at the field. When the unsuspecting principal appeared, I put a batting helmet on her and handed her a bat, eliciting cheers and laughter from the students. She put up a mild, insincere protest. She missed on her first swing, bringing more laughter. On the second try, she hit the ball pretty well, and responded with a celebratory dance and a little victory lap behind the plate. That school joined the list of those insisting that we come back.
At one of the Kakamega schools, there was a lefty, Cedric, who despite coming across as perhaps a bit sullen, stood out for his enthusiasm. I could tell he was going to swing and miss because most of the really athletic kids get ahead of themselves and forget to watch the ball. After I was able to convince him to keep his head on the ball, he hit a screaming line drive. Working with him on his basic starting position (left elbow up, right arm relaxed, head steady), I noticed that this kid must spend his time doing some serious hard work because he had muscles like rocks. I told Eric to pat this kid on the back because he wouldn't believe how ripped he is. I mean, this kid was strapped. Eric was amazed. Once he hit the ball, Cedric was really excited. He hung around afterwards to talk with us. Grephus made arrangements to get him an email account so we can keep in touch and take him along as a helper next year. We gave all the kids at this school baseball caps, but we had a really nice sleeveless practice jersey that we had been saving for the right opportunity. We found some official reason to award the jersey to Cedric. The principal chimed in and said that when Cedric left the school, the jersey would stay. Good luck with that.
Cedric is a great example of how playing a little baseball is such a magical opportunity to make friends. I don't know what Cedric's future holds, but I look forward to seeing him next year, getting to know him a little better, and seeing what happens.
One of the things we do in Kakamega if we have a chance is visit the rain forest. Grephus is a highly educated naturalist who created the rain forest naturalist program in a previous career. He is a legend with the experienced local guides. He usually manages to use that background to gain us free admission to the rain forest preserve. This year, the person in charge of the tickets was a stout, officious woman who was having none of Grephus's explanation of his stature. Grephus was duly annoyed with the woman's insolence when, after some intense discussion, we paid full price. I couldn't help commenting, “Wow, you really sweet-talked her!”
While taking an early afternoon walk through the rain forest, Grephus suggested that we take a night-time rain forest walk and perhaps see the elusive Aaardvark, a large, burrowing, pig-like animal. Eric and I could tell that was something Grephus really enjoyed and he did not often find willing accomplices, so we said sure. The mandatory guide who accompanied us had obviously been drinking and insisted on making some kind of bird call noises that Eric and I later realized sounded most like blowing across the top of a Tusker bottle. Nevertheless, the night walk in the rain forest was really fun and unique.
We spent Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday morning in Kakamega. We always try to include some wildlife viewing in the trip, and customize this depending on the experience of our traveling party. This year, we decided to visit Lake Nakuru wildlife preserve, which is basically en route from Ahero back to Nairobi, and a private wildlife preserve, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, located near Nanyuki town, some two hours northeast of Nairobi. Grephus also wanted to show us a plot of land he is buying in Nanyuki. One of the ironies that is hard to swallow is going from working with kids who have nothing to staying at expensive lodges. So, we asked Grephus to put us at less fancy places. This is an experience in itself. We stayed at a hotel in downtown Nakuru that was basic, comfortable and fine. There was a mixture of Americanized and authentic food, cold Tusker, eggs and Canadian bacon for breakfast and a pleasant staff. One thing I cannot get my head around is the reaction we get when we treat hotel staff with courtesy and respect, which we always do, and leave a decent tip. You would think we gave them a million dollars. This makes me wonder about the behavior of other guests, and of westerners in general. It doesn't cost anything to treat fellow human beings the way we would want to be treated.
It was very dry in Nakuru. We saw many hoofed animals but no felines. Lake Nakuru is famous for the hundreds of thousands of flamingoes that literally blanket the lake in pink. However, due to high water levels in the lake, the flamingoes could not access their food supply of crustaceans in the shallow waters, and had migrated elsewhere. We had better luck in Ol Pejeta. They have a very large chimpanzee rescue facility, which provides sanctuary for many chimpanzees rescued by Jane Goodall and her organization. They also have a large rhino population. We also saw, up close, a pride of twelve lions on a morning hunt. There are many choices, and you cannot go wrong on a wildlife safari in Kenya.
In Nanyuki, we stayed at a new hotel that is located along the highway, with a spectacular view of Mt. Kenya in the background. The hotel advertises that it has an amazing view of Mt. Kenya. However, the dining facilities and lounge face the highway and the only thing on the Mt. Kenya side is the laundry room where bed linens and towels are hung out to dry. The hotel has a rectangular shape with an interior courtyard with a paved parking area on the first floor, clanging metal doors at the entrances and on the rooms, and three tiers of rooms on all sides. I promptly noted that it was reminiscent of a CIA interrogation prison from Zero Dark Thirty.
The plan for Saturday was to tour the wildlife conservancy in the morning, go see Grephus's property in the afternoon, then travel back to Nairobi, have dinner at Grephus's house, and go to the airport for a post-midnight departure. The traffic approaching and going through Nairobi was horrendous, and our progress was so slow that we had to cancel dinner and go straight to the airport. It is impossible to describe the Nairobi traffic on Saturday night. Picture a Los Angeles freeway without streetlights and with pedestrians running in and out of the traffic. Picture vehicles of all sizes jockeying for position in multi-lane roundabouts within a few inches of each other. You can tell from the scratches and gouges on the bumpers and corners of most of the vehicles that they mean business. Eric and I were apoplectic. Grephus just said with a shrug, “That's Nairobi.”
We pulled off by some dark, unpaved parking and waiting area somewhere outside the Nairobi airport and re-packed our stuff, leaving behind the remains of the baseball gear, first aid supplies and other items that Grephus will store for us. By the time we got to the sweltering airport departure area, we were physically and emotionally exhausted. We found some temporary resuscitation in a burger, fries (which I never eat otherwise), and a Tusker. There was a nine-hour flight to Zurich, a five-and-a-half hour stopover in Zurich, and an eight-hour flight to Dulles.
I began by talking about family. After we left Ahero, I received a string of messages and phone calls from Margie and her sisters, saying how they did not want us to leave, how everyone was crying after we left, that they felt somewhat like they did when their father went away, and how they would sit in front of the shop dreaming that our vehicle would reappear. I would be lying if I denied that the feelings are mutual.
After a short layover in Dulles, the final leg of my journey was the flight to Denver. I have said before that at some point after each of these trips the emotions run over. That happened on the flight to Denver.
In the two and a half months since the trip, I have received a call from Margie nearly every day. Of course I have exchanged countless emails and messages with Hope. I also frequently exchange messages with Phelisters and Violet. I have gotten the latter two started on computer classes as a prerequisite to attending college in the fall. I will strive to find sponsors for them.
Hope and I have taken a major second step in our creation of a home for orphans. This will be a long and challenging road.
But I know what I must do.
I welcome help from any and all quarters.
In the fall of 2013, we hosted a young woman from Kenya, Fredah, who was studying at the University of Colorado. When she decides to risk inflating my ego, Fredah sometimes refers to me as a mentor for her. In reality, I have learned a lot from her. One of the things I sometimes get asked is what good does all of this do. It doesn't exactly put food on the table. Fredah provided me a pep talk. She told me that when she was a teenager in Kenya, reeling from several personal setbacks, she met a white visitor, a professor from Stanford, who said, “I see potential in you.” Fredah told me that there is no way to describe what that meant to her to hear that, how much it lifted her up and inspired her. It changed her life.
We have the opportunity to do that every time we give a kid a high five or toss them a baseball. I still don't totally understand it, but I have it on good authority.
To receive more details about my efforts to start the orphans' home and find sponsors/mentors for Violet and Phelisters and more like them, please contact me on this web site.
I continue to try to understand my fascination with Kenya and its people. I am awed by this observation: When we go to Kenya, offering kindness and a game, we have the ability to make a basic connection between human beings with something as simple as a facial expression. This is despite all the senseless divisions among us that mankind can conjure up—race, economics, culture, politics, religion, etc. I find that transcendent human connection fundamentally reassuring.
Like everywhere else, Kenya only seems to get publicity when something terrible happens. The recent atrocity at Garissa University, with lunatics senselessly destroying promising lives, was heart-breaking for me. All I could think of for weeks was the lovely campus (thankfully not Garissa) where I visited Margie and met her earnest, sweet classmates and teachers. Ultimately, this destruction makes it all the more important that those of us who would build young lives redouble our efforts. We see nothing in the headlines about the countless Kenyans like Pastor Helen, Dr. Ringera, and Angela who strive to make life better. Terrorist incidents are isolated occurrences that occur overwhelmingly in locations far from our itinerary. The places we go are not inviting targets.
I say a lot about what baseball does for personal relationships. But all of this deepening of relationships with persons in Kenya has a reciprocal effect on our baseball efforts and on volunteers who join us. Travelers with us have the opportunity to jump in on a level of comfort and familiarity that has taken years to develop. This enhances the experience immeasurably over any other opportunity to travel to this part of the world.
Jim Cederberg, April 2015