Kenya! Diesel, Ugali and Lots of Zebras

When I told Tutu I was going to Africa, she hung up on me. Now I’m on Kenya Airways popping extra strength Ibuprofen. The ache of an abortion keeps me company and keeps me awake while I fly over the dark continent. But that’s another story.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, was going to stop me from taking this trip. I look down at little red bush fires that pepper the blackness and I know we’re somewhere over north Africa. The complete lack of lights surprises me. When I land at Jomo Kenyatta at midnight, and friend of a friend Mona drives me through Nairobi, racing through red lights like a deranged cab driver, I’m thinking, do they mean something different here? Does red mean go? 

When I turn to Mona and ask, “what do red lights mean?” she just laughs, throwing her head back but staring straight ahead.



I wait.

“You can’t stop at da red at night,” she says. Then she gets all serious and looks over at me.


“Cause if you stop, a man with a gun can come up to your car and take everything you got.”

“Oh.” I turn back to the open window.

It smells like diesel fuel. I spot some birds on the side of the road, but they’re more like baby dinosaurs. I mean I’ve seen twelve year olds smaller than these birds. When one lands on an electric wire, I stare and wonder if it will break.

Two days later, without my friend Dena (where is she? Why wasn’t she at the airport?? Am I doing this alone? Is she okay??) I am on a bus. It takes eight hours to get to Kiamokama where are supposed to be WWOOFing. Together. At a rural orphanage for the children of parents lost to AIDS, accidents and murder. I do not want to do this alone. But Dena is nowhere to be found and Mona’s phone brings no news, so the next day I board a bus for the 8 hour journey to the village.

Nairobi means something like “the high place,” and we descend from the city down into the Great Rift Valley. I see a lake covered in pink. Algae? No, flamingos! I stare though the plastic window that’s been cracked and lets the heat in. We stop to pee at a petrol station in Kisii. Years later I learn that Obama’s father is from here. Or near here. Whatever. Kids descend on the bus  with bags of roasted peanuts and soft drinks and ears of corn, yelling in Swahili.

I wait in line to hover over a concrete pit thinking, this is of course where I’m going to get malaria. Giant insects I don’t recognize drone around me like I’m in the sun. They’re loud, too loud. It smells like ammonia and it’s dark dark dark, which is fine with me because there’s nothing here I want to look at very close.

Eight hours later, the seats on the bus are almost empty and I’m starting to panic. I look out the window. Did I miss it? I am eight hours in the wrong direction? Women carry gourds on their heads before they disappear in a diesel cloud, limping dogs and mud huts. This is about when start to cry. Do I just get off in a random town? Where would I sleep? I have no idea what to do. I walk up the aisle to the bus driver and try to ask where we are, but he just shakes his head and smiles. I can’t tell if he even recognizes my plea, the village name Kiamokama. Maybe I’m not saying it right. I go back to my seat and stare. I have NO idea where I am. This goes on for a while. The whimpering. The staring. I spin scenes of being kidnapped, lost, hungry. When I see something strange on the side of the road. A white girl!? Yep, that is in fact Dena, standing next to a large man, waving. I wipe the tears from my face and leap up, yelling words that no one but me understands.

So basically we are very hungry in Kenya. We are lots of other things too, but hunger covers all those up. Tea and crackers for breakfast. Goat stew with mostly bones for inner. We buy 3 cent avocados at the market when we can sneak away to look for food. And feel guilty about it. We eat a lot of ugali. Ugali is ground corn (maize) but it’s field corn, not sweet corn. There’s nothing sweet about it. It’s mixed with water and boiled. When you eat it, it expands in your stomach and makes you feel full. Yay. It’s the staple food of Kenya.

We hang with the kids at the orphanage but it becomes clear that our mission is not to care for children. Everyone wants to know what the Americans can tell them about their dwindling crops, their soil and their bodies. We go around the “town,” explaining why these heavy sacks of ConAgra fertilizer and pesticides are short term solutions. Kenyans tell us about this new thing called diabetes, high blood pressure and fainting. All that has started in the last fifty years. Which is when the sacks of chemicals starting arriving. Everything is changing. We explain compost. Companion planting. And I feel ridiculous. One generation of Fix it All chemicals nearly wipes out a bagillion years of agricultural wisdom, and a white girl from America sips chai in a mud hut, explaining the past back to a culture whose bones know more about this land and how to grow food that I will ever know.

The owner of the orphanage, who dies a few years later, organizes a field trip to visit the Masai Mara game park. We see lots and lots of zebras, which makes me really happy! And giraffes. They’re a dime a dozen, which just makes me shake my head. We find a mother lion resting in high grass. A bird picks the nose of a water buffalo and feeds him his boogers.

Hey, have you ever wondered how women carry those giant gourds/buckets/heavy shit on their heads? Cause I have! An old woman explained it to me. Well, not in words because we didn’t have any of the same ones, but she showed me. Take a dry banana leaf, wrap it in a circle (mine looked like a five year old’s, but she made a nice tight ring) and place it on your head. Then, place heavy item on top of banana pillow. Balance and go.

So one day we’re walking home down a dirt path, and we come up on a group of men deconstructing a cow. First the head comes off. Then they grab part of the innards and start draining what I think are the intestines into a plastic jug. “What are you doing?” I ask. One of the men gives me a big smile and says, “good for malaria!” Oh. Right. Of course.

Anyway here’s how it went, picture style:







Comments 5

  1. Julieunado

    Good post! I read your blog often and you always post excellent content. I posted this article on Facebook and my followers like it. Thanks for writing this!

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