Out of the Bush: East Meets West
All day I’ve tried to sit and write, hoping to capture images and stories that already dance into the past. But my mind refuses to cooperate, as it continues to march to the rhythm of life as I was living it five days ago, on a small patch of earth in western Kenya. After much consideration, I traveled there at the invitation of the community of Chwele—on the far western side of Kenya—to share the training that would enable them to start a sponsorship program and girl empowerment project based on our Kenya Keys models.
After a week of being there, Brent and our home team from Taru, on the far eastern side of Kenya, were to join us for the training. East meets West, the distance a 21-hour, harrowing drive on roads that make you wonder how anyone survives.
My years of working in Kenya have all been on the sun-baked desert of Taru, so I couldn’t imagine the lush, verdant hills that embrace Chwele, gently rolling to the base of Mt. Elgon, land of mystery and unspeakable beauty. This wasn’t the Kenya I knew! Rain every single afternoon. Corn taller than I. Bananas piled high on the women’s heads. Vegetable stands with their glorious array of color and texture, all set against the backdrop of African life, buzzing with a teeming chaos that somehow seems to work.
When seeing this Western land of seeming opulence, I couldn’t imagine how our Taru team would fit in, arid dwellers that they are. Coming from the land of abject poverty, haunted always by starvation, how would they feel coming to this? Like countless Africans, most of them had never left their home area. It felt like I was bringing the humble country folk to train the more sophisticated town folk. How was this going to go over?
And when they alighted from their vans, all 18 of them, I wondered even more. There was Brent (who had been in Taru for 10 days) and our Kenya Keys staff and board members. Those faces that I love had aged like mine had, in the two years since we were last together. With them were three excited and nervous girls from the Taru Save Our Sisters (SOS) group. Road-weary and displaced, they alighted in their parkas and ski hats, in what felt like cold to them. They piled their dinner plates high, stunned at the variety of offerings; sweet potatoes, boiled bananas, beef stew, beans, carrots and groundnuts.
But as the next day unfolded, with our sponsorship committee training the highly qualified Chwele community leaders, I started seeing the beauty unfold. The differences began to fall away. All were united in their love and dedication to education. And the Kenya Keys team knew their stuff! They had come well prepared to share the program they have spent 10 years perfecting, the program that had such depth and breadth as to have changed the lives of over 400 students, giving them mentorship support, leadership training, and experience as volunteer interns. The Chwele team eagerly sat through the two days of training, asking question after question, their respect obvious. The Taru team swelled with pride. They might not have food, refrigeration, or water in their area, but they had a heck of a sponsorship program to share. They stood tall. “We are all educationalists,” said Taru teacher Raphael Mangisi. “We are here because education is the center of our lives. And this program has totally changed the Taru area.”
I listened on the sidelines, proud as any mother could be. We discussed how the Chwele team would start by choosing five qualified students, and launch their program from there, just as we had launched our program with 14 students in 2006. Each student that is carried from illiteracy to enlightenment is another spot of light in the world, each generating an emanating circle of influence and vigor. They sponsor others. They mentor others. They never forget their allegiance to the Kenya Keys family. Beholding this never ceases to amaze and humble me.
What else did I learn from the exchange of East and West? Much that will be contained in other blogs, but mostly I saw, in contrast, what I had already sensed—that if you have access to water and food, as they do in Western Kenya, you have a big jumpstart on life. A VERY big jumpstart on life. Right there you are freed from the daily, desperate urgency that dictates life for people like those in Taru. All else is sublimated to the human need for food and water, without which we can’t begin to reach toward a larger sense of growth and realization of potential. This defining struggle for food and water I never think of, until I intersect with these people who live so on the edge of survival. They teach me so much.
I also love the complex brew of religions that mingle in the Coast region where Taru sits. But I have seen how that complexity balances on a pinnacle in today’s world; that what for generations has been a peaceful coalition of various Christian sects and Muslim moderates can suddenly become a steaming caldron. I felt the “steam” of it last time I was there, and it’s not pleasant.
In contrast, Chwele sits squarely in Quaker country. Who would know that the largest Quaker population in the world is in Kenya? Brought by the missionaries in 1920, the faith has solidified and unified the region. All pray the same prayer. School and community meetings—all gatherings—begin and end with a prayer that reflects the strong Quaker reliance on God and dedication to peaceful living. The unity of belief, so rare in our world, doesn’t solve the larger problems of corruption or poverty. But it certainly makes life simpler and can bring a beautiful cohesion.
But then, I’ve seldom chosen “simple.” In this wide, wondrous world of ours, there is much to learn from any exchange of belief, culture, and humanity. As I sift through my disoriented fog, where my spirit still straddles two worlds, I emerge most grateful for the meeting of East and West, to which I was lucky enough to be witness.
Special thanks to Paul and Grace Kuto of the Chwele Community Resource and Peace Center, for being such gracious Chwele hosts, making all of this possible.