Thursday, 15 June 2017

What I Got Up To In Kenya

The Great Rift Valley
It was dark when I arrived in Kenya. “When you get off the plane,” my father had said to me, “you’ll smell the heat and the dust and you’ll know you’re in Africa.” He was right. The night was hot and the moon was upside-down.


The first two weeks were a time of flux. Lots of people do fortnight-long mission trips, two weeks of work before heading home. I can’t imagine. By the end of those two weeks we were only just finding our feet. We were burgled during that time, and had to move out of our flat just when we’d settled in, but in the end this was a blessing: in our new home, we became a lot closer to our Kenyan hosts and to each other. But the first two weeks were bewildering. We were a team of eight girls, and it was strange for me to find myself living so close with seven others. I rather felt like an animal that had been captured and put in a zoo. But from the start we loved each other, and that love would only grow.

If you don't know which one I am, the hint is that my fave colour is orange.

Work started, and with it came routine. We worked in a place called Rafiki (which means “friend” in Swahili; see also the monkey in The Lion King), a boarding and day school that helps HIV/AIDs orphans as well as educating children from the community. Sometimes we taught, but mostly it was washing up, laundry, bread-making and kitchen work. These tasks sound menial, but they drew us together: what else can happen, when you’re alone with one person, two huge outdoor sinks, some dubious hessian rags, and 190 plastic plates? 


The conversations sorting lentils in the sun were conversations to be treasured. And the school welcomed us with open arms. We became great friends with the baker, who on the first day he met me asked me, “If a Kenyan man asked you to marry him, what would you say?” (I don’t think it was real love, though. He kept forgetting my name and calling me Evelyn.)


The children were marvellous: exuberant and exhausting. They taught us games and plaited our hair. Teaching them was often a joy, though difficult. Normally we wangled for CRE lessons: Christian Religious Education. In Britain, religious education is pluralistic, covering every belief and lauding none. In Kenyan schools, the Bible is proclaimed as truth. This was wonderful, except that often the curriculum wound away from the Bible, pulled into wrong theology by the tug of culture and tradition. We tried to pull it back: find a way into the gospel and run with it. Who knows how much the children took in? They’ve spent their lives learning by rote: maybe some of them never managed to think for themselves. We prayed for them.


A couple of times I wasn’t so lucky, and ended up doing Maths and Biology. A fellow English Lit student and I found our grasp of primary school arithmetic to be lacking, and there was the memorable occasion when my friend Sally told the fifteen-year-olds that ducks have talons. I think they enjoyed having us, though: everyone loves a student teacher. But I felt bad. They deserved better than some unqualified, clueless eighteen-year-olds. Thankfully, we were able to stick to CRE nine times out of ten.


My memories of Rafiki (which we affectionately called Raffers) are suffused with sunshine and laughter. It was always hot. Each morning a ramshackle mini-bus – the children always greeted it with cries of, “the Nissan, the Nissan!”, and we did the same – took us to school. 

I've never had so much affection for a vehicle. Ever.
They were simple days, mostly spent outside, splitting into pairs to do our mundane but somehow lovely tasks. There is something liberating about simple work: standing scrubbing those 190 plates, knowing you’re doing something necessary. At 10:30 each morning we’d break for tea and bread rolls, and the reunion was always joyous, as if we’d been a long time apart. Lunch was the same, debriefing over a plate of rice and beans. They were the best meals ever. Would I love my girls quite so much if it weren’t for Raffers? Definitely not. The two months I worked there were some of the happiest of my life. Best job I’ve ever had, for sure.

#throwbackthursday to when I had normal hair ...


I loved the uncomplicated pleasures of Rafiki: the warm bread rolls, the laughter, the drive to and from school through the green hills. Our route took us over a trainline, and the Nissan, the Nissan! always groaned and faltered crossing the rails. Is this the day, we wondered every day, when the Nissan, the Nissan! breaks down? But it was a valiant bus and it never failed us. Every day, morning and afternoon, I’d look eagerly up and down the railway line in case of a train. I love trains, and missed them desperately. Once, we left school a little late, and we stopped when we came to the railway line. What was that magical sound? What was that glorious shape, growing in the distance? “A train, a train!” the children shouted, and I may have been shouting with them.

Once I was working in the dark, smoky bakery when music floated to me. I stepped outside. Along the red road beside Rafiki a man drove his goats through the russet puddles of just-fallen rain. Each one wore a bell, and the sound was like some melodious sea. A sound for a life spent working with animals and the land. It moved me, the sight and the music.

When I got home each day I’d take my tea in a plastic mug and go upstairs to write. Those were happy times, Nina and JBH and me, and I love that I’ll always remember that first draft of LesMisBook, crafted on a lumpy bunk bed, in a small, darkish room. I loved that bed and that room. A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction, Virginia Woolf wrote, but I wrote that novel in a room shared by four. It was tiny, and you can imagine the mess, and often the desire for solitude was so great I wanted to bang my head against a wall, but I loved it. The way we would talk as we fell asleep, voices floating in the dark. The way my best friends were always right there next to me.



I loved Zambezi, too, our town. The high street was lined with makeshift shops, boards nailed together, where dresses hung or mangoes spilled onto the road. It was always noisy, haggling looping back and forth. The clothes they sell are often charity donations from the UK or US, so it was like secondhand shopping at home: I came back with a long green coat and some excellent shirts, feeling pleased with myself. Our favourite things to buy were packs of six round sponge cakes, called Marylands, 30 Kenyan shillings*, far and away the best snacks in the world.

*23p or 29 cents


Along the streets of Zambezi, donkeys pulled carts and chickens wove in and out of the cars and motorbikes. That was a fascinating thing, to see how western and traditional culture fused. It is best epitomised, I think, by the men I saw in the north: a traditional shuka round their waist, a staff in their hand, and an English Premier League football shirt. Amazing, how football permeates everywhere. I once saw a man in a Crieff Juniors shirt. Crieff is a little town in central Scotland: how did the strip of their junior team make it to Kenya? It made me smile. 

We got good at handwashing. It's another thing that brings you together; when you meet someone's eye across the soaping bucket and say “I'm currently scrubbing the crotch of your pyjama trousers", how can lifelong bonding be avoided?
In a lot of ways, life was stripped back. I had no Facebook, no blog, no make-up, no city, none of it. Life took on a slower pace, a warm rhythm. And this was wonderful, because it let me study the Bible more than ever before. We read through John, and Jesus’ humility struck me. I was trying to learn to love sacrificially, to have a servant heart, and there He was: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet." (John 13:3-5) Jesus, God of the universe, washed His followers’ feet. In a country where I’d come home each day and remove my socks to find a line of dust around my ankles, I understood why this was a big deal. He was the ultimate servant; He went to the Cross to prove it. I am so thankful for this trip, because it showed me more of the world He’s made, and it allowed me to grow closer to Him.


~***~

If you missed it (seriously, how could you miss it), I was in Kenya from January until May on a mission trip. I have a lot more stories to tell! The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted that this narrative only went up to the end of March. In April, we went north to share Jesus in the rural county of Samburu. That really was going back to basics: no electricity, no running water, et cetera and et cetera. And then May happened, with the dreads and the ostriches. So, if you're interested, there will be more of What I Got Up To In Kenya.

Also, I'd like to know: when I was working at Raffers in February and March, what were you doing? What were the highlights?

26 comments:

  1. This sounded like such a wonderful trip! I went to Africa for a week, and it was way too short. I wish I would have had the chance to immerse myself in the culture more. Thank you for sharing this! Your pictures and words are lovely.

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    1. It really was! Wow, where did you go?

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  2. This is like a novel, it's so beautiful. Your way with words is enchanting, it really it is! I felt like I stepped into Kenya for just a moment. When you finish this series of Kenya stories, you'll have to tell me what the best thing about the trip was, or the best thing you learned. (I get asked all the time about college, so now I'm taking my revenge on someone else who had a life-changing experience. ;))

    What was I up to in February and March? I was up to my neck in day camp prep, which I recall writing about in my letter to you. :) It was an intense couple of months, but so rewarding.

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    1. Aww, that's such a nice thing to say! <3 I will tell you that, I may well do a What I Learnt type post. Why You Should Take A Gap Year?? I might well do that!

      You did write about it! I loved that letter, by the way, a lot! <3

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    2. I'm looking forward to it already!

      Aww, I'm so glad. <3 I worried that it got lost in the mail on its way across the world. XD Glad it didn't!

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    3. It did not! I loved it so much <3

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  3. So Emily, if a Kenyan man DID ask you to marry him, what would you say?

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    1. Hahaha, what I said to the baker was, “the average for marriage for women in the UK is 32, so I must wait 14 years!" He was amazed ...

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  4. Absolutely fascinating! Sounds like your group had a wonderful time! Really looking forward to the next part of your story. :)

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    1. Thanks, Lauren! I look forward to posting it :)

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  5. Sounds like an awesome trip and experience! Teaching must've been really cool. I had my fourth semester of University while you were away. I'm not sure that I can parse February and March out of that time slot, haha. Well, I could tell you some really specific things, but I'll just leave it at that.

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    1. It was! Thanks for stopping by, Patrick. I hope the fourth semester went well!

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  6. I love the details and descriptions of this incredible experience!
    I'm looking forward to more stories of Kenya (and hearing more of LesMisBook)!

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  7. Wow this sounds like an amazing experience! In February I went up to Canada. That was my biggest highlight. I can't wait to hear more about this. ^ ^

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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    1. It really was! I would LOVE to go to Canada. Jealous!

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    2. Pssst, someone else would love for you to visit Canada too! ;D

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  8. your writing, as always, is so beautiful. just through this little snippet of your time in Kenya, I can really tell that this experience meant so much to you, and that you learned and grew through it. I've never been on a mission trip before, but I can tell that it always brings people back changed in a really good way. (*cries because I probably won't be able to go on most missions trips due to health issues...*)

    what did I get up to while you were gone? school. lot and lots of school. but I'm at a new college now and I really love it--even got acknowledged as a distinguished psychology student and felt oh so honored. but yeah. other than that and my new job, my life has been pretty boring lol.

    SO GLAD YOU'RE BACK! <3

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    1. Thank you, Ely! That's so lovely of you. I really hope you DO get to go on a mission trip sometime!

      So glad you're enjoying college? Distinguished? Sounds fancy, go you!!!

      SO GLAD TO BE BACK, THANK YOU <3333

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  9. I love how even when you write a post about a trip, you still tell it in a way that renders it a bewildering, exciting story. You're a born story-teller, that much is so obvious. First up, yes to orange, it's my favourite also lmao. I can imagine the uncomplicated life in Kenya would be a massive pleasure, and I'm not going to lie, I've always wanted to try living without water and electric, I feel like it'd be such a pure experience.

    We must know all the other details, posts like this are literally the best. I'm sitting in my new house in Wales with a macaron reading this post, and it fully transports me to Africa. I have spent the past few months choosing universities, moving, and finishing exams and the like. I think you win.

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    1. AMY YOU ARE SO NICE. SERIOUSLY WHAT A COMPLIMENT!!!!!! (Hope it wasn't toooo bewildering though! XD ) I just love orange, man, I'm wearing an orange hoodie right now. The uncomplicatedness was lovely, though being without electricity and water was really hard. Because it got dark at 7 every night, so every night at 7 I'd be like right well bedtime, nothing is going to be fun from now on because HEAD TORCHES SUCK. (They do. Trust me.) So we just used to go to bed before 9 every night?? #wildgapyear

      I'm so glad you enjoyed, I can't wait to post more! Ooh a macaron?! How fancy! Also WHERE ARE YOU GOING TO UNI AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! SUPER EXCITING!

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  10. Emily this was absolutely gorgeous. I absolutely loved reading about your slow afternoons, quiet pace, friendship-filled trip to Kenya. And the pictures! The pictures were beautiful! If I may make a request, I"d love to see more of the school and the students in pictures. I was totally transported to Kenya for a few minutes and now I reaaaaly want to go for a trip there. Thank you so much for sharing and I can't wait to read more!!!

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    1. Thank you! Can't wait to post more! Not sure how many more Rafiki pics I have -- truth be told, I didn't take most of these, I barely got my camera out! Also, not sure about posting pics of children online w/o their permission, you feel? But I'm so glad you enjoyed! I'll be posting the next part of my adventure very soon :)

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  11. Wow, it sounds like you had an amazing time (as I do know already XD). I love how you and your friends were able to go so close. And through the simple things of ordinary life. That happened a lot during our Europe trip. Late night talks are my fav.

    Also, love the orange dress! :)

    Teaching a math does not at all sound fun. I can teach 2+2. . . yeah, that's it. It is a funny thing though how the Christian education classes would wander from the Bible and incorporate things from tradition and culture. I think it's like that in the western world too (prob even more so). And I'm always surprised when I recognize something that is a common "Christian" belief but it is no more than an echo of tradition or of today's culture (to completely different things XD). It surprises me 1) how prevalent it is and 2) how hidden it is. I'm coming to the point where I continually reanalyze what I'm taught and what I believe to know if it's actually something that God has asked of me and if the motive behind it is pure and not simply because it's something that I personally just want to believe.

    Love, love that photo of you (I'm guessing that's you writing? your head is down so I'm not sure XD) in the bedroom. It's so obviously occupied by girls and I love the cherished chaos of the atmosphere. Things like that always make me think of the Bennet sisters from Pride and Prejudice.

    It also amazes me how far-reaching football is. I really don't get it.

    And that one of you guys washing clothes! I did that in Bath. I took a day out while everyone else was running around like maniacs. I washed everyone's clothes either in the washer or by hand. But there wasn't a washer, so I had to get creative when hanging them to dry (the whole flat was decorated in clothes XD). And when everyone returned, Jimmy's cousins came too which was unusual. So my friend was very careful about keeping them out of the flat because of the clothes everywhere. And after going in, she finally asked me "Where is *it*?!" I guess, she didn't go into the bathroom? Because that's where I put all the underwear.

    Can't wait to hear more!

    PS -- That Saturday was the BEST! Hopefully we can do it again, and we'll meet in Glasgow or . . . the US? Have fun in Ireland!

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    1. Love your insights about culture vs Christianity, the constant battle to learn from the Bible rather than the world! In Kenya, cultural belief was so deeply ingrained as to be almost inseparable from the church.

      That is not me writing, I am in the bed underneath! I read this comment to my friends and we all loved the “cherished chaos" bit. We endeavoured to recreate it in our hostel in Dublin ... !

      That underwear story made me smile! One time someone accidentally left a pair of knickers in the bottom of the rinsing bucket! (The water got so gross you couldn't tell what was down there ...) And Macharia, the guard, was helping us empty the bucket, and his face when the pair of pants came flying out with the water! XD

      That Saturday was the best. Yes, one day! <3

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Thanks for commenting! :)