Back to the Bush: Midpoint Reflections
It’s strange to remember back to the planning of this trip, the imagining of the arrival of these 14 interns, mostly university students, with their bright minds and kind hearts. It all seemed so plausible. So possible, that they could define objectives and lay out plans. They came armed with workshops, lectures, and packing lists. They were loaded with immunizations, travel insurance, and malaria meds. There was only one thing I’d forgotten about being here: nothing works.
It is the simple rule of thumb in this land: nothing works. Our door falls off the hinges when we try to enter. Our new internet server, supposed to be able to keep us “connected” from anywhere in the world, only seems to work at about 3 am, obviously not a conducive time for coherent thought. Copying student records must be done by hand, since the nearest copy machine is 45 miles away. The new bikes we purchased 6 months ago often break down before we lose sight of home. There have been days when there is no water to help us get rid of the layer dust caked on our skin. The main line burst a leak, spewing hundreds of gallons of water straight in the air.
“When will it be fixed?” we ask our hosts. They chuckle. What a silly question. “We don’t know,” they say. Last time it took two weeks. Nothing works. The 250 solar-powered Mighty Lights that finally arrived in Nairobi sit in customs. Because we refuse to pay the $3,000 bribe they want for us to claim them, we may never see them make it to the children we had hoped they would serve. I must resist the temptation to slide into either resignation or anger. It’s another day in Africa.
Another day in Africa. Today I return early to what I now call home. My head awash in images of the day, I brush the rat droppings off my bed and pull out a pen. The last of our interns arrived yesterday, bleary-eyed and disheveled. They arrived at the Mombasa airport, the air dense and heavy with moisture the parched soil covets. We are now minus an art teacher, Mama Shelley, who left an indelible mark on the community. The children are singing the songs she taught them. Imagining herself an African version of Julie Andrews, she had them singing Doe Re Mi and following her around, basking in her smile, her laugh, her utter joy in being part of their stark world. Two weeks later, children who had never even seen a paint brush now are illustrating walls of classrooms. The digestive system. Units of measure. African countries. You can see it all, boldly announcing itself on walls once bare.
Kelsey, an intern studying social anthropology, has now brought order to one of our fledgling libraries, where students rush to line up over the lunch hour, sifting through books never seen before, let alone touched, held, and read.
Angie, Jana, John, Sara, and Taylor return from visiting a work site where over a hundred women had been working for months. Stunned, they tell me the story of women carrying 60 pound sand-filled buckets under the equatorial sun, building an earthen dam. Bucket by bucket, babies secured to backs, they do what a tractor could have done in a day. “Inch by inch” is the motto here in this parched land. It is how we build schools and libraries. It is how these women are building their dam. Not for wages. Such a luxury exists only in other worlds. They do it for the food they receive at the end of the week, enough to keep their families alive for yet another day in Africa.
On the way home, our driver John tells me that he longs to someday buy a machine that will pump water from a well on his land. “It could increase our harvest so much,” he says. But there is little chance. He makes $5.50 per day when work is available. He works far from his family as many Africans do. He begins the day at 7:30 am. And sometimes, like last night, he finishes at 10:00 pm. The thick black soot belched by the east African highway sits heavy in his lungs. Still, he’s grateful for work. His smile sits gently on his face.
Driving from Mombasa yesterday we heard Sara tell us about her plans for her July wedding. I picture it, as she describes. Bright colors, bridesmaid dresses, flowers. I’m transported, imagining the warm summer evening, the beauty of it all, the handsome young couple awash in joy and anticipation. A young boy runs up to our van, holding out a jerry can, hoping our driver will let him siphon a few milliliters of diesel from our tank. A practice that is both illegal and dangerous. I am reminded of the accident just six weeks ago when villagers poured out of their homes to try to scoop up gas from an overturned tanker. All it took was one spark to ignite the inferno that incinerated 130 of them.
It’s another day in Africa. I live, breath, and awaken to witness the juxtaposition of her beauty and her pain.