Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series on Father Dean’s recent trip to Africa.
I’m sitting in the simple home of a large family in Kisumu, Kenya. Harun, the student I support in Nairobi, met me this morning at the airport.
We bussed out west together, through the drought-damaged expanses of dusty farmland and sprawling shanty-towns en route for Nakuru.
Following this mid-point in the journey, we saw village after village damaged, not by the cycles of nature, but rather by the post-election violence which rocked the nation beginning December 28, 2007. Tent cities still dot the landscape in certain areas, while in others, people have resettled and struggled to rebuild.
The bus ride went on forever. When not talking with Harun, or Jesus, or just nodding off, I gazed out at the increasingly green and fertile valley.
And I remembered a few details of my last day in not-so-green Cairo.
Though our pilgrimage group of 33 had left for home on October 2nd (which is, for most of them, Modesto), the Lord took very good care of me.
I’d made plans to meet a young man who works in the American Embassy.
He got delayed three hours, due to a series of meetings. So I spent those hours returning to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. The young lady I’d met at the foot of Sinai lives not far from that museum. She taxied to the center. Ironically, even though the exhibit is next-to-free for Arabs, and she bears a Palestinian passport, the gate keepers gave her a tough time and ultimately sent her back to the ticket booth for a more costly student pass.
She muttered an expletive and shrugged her shoulders. Of all people, Palestinians rank among the most homeless, and often the least welcomed.
She’d appeared at the end of our long expedition up and down Mount Sinai, looking completely exhausted. I had long since dismounted my camel.
(Fr. Joseph had persuaded several of us to go camel on the descent for the sake of a new experience, not knowing how hard this can be on one’s rear end.)
Her father formerly served as the Ambassador of Palestine to Egypt. Now he’s stationed in Dubai. This didn’t seem to buy her any privilege in Cairo.
David joined us for lunch. We talked about the dilemma of people without a place to lay down their heads. He might help her get a Visa to the USA. Newly in charge of security measures at the embassy, he has some clout.
In Cairo’s overstressed airport, Charmaine of Zimbabwe was bargaining with the men who receive and tag our suitcases. They wanted to charge her $581 Egyptian pounds – that is, $116.00 US, for overweight baggage.
Charmaine is a delightful character who knows how to ration her money.
After twenty minutes, she tired the poor guys out and they let her baggage go through free. However, by way of revenge, they pegged her for $153 pounds ($30.60) for overstaying her tourist’s visa. She conceded defeat.
She must have missed the uncomfortable scene a few minutes before. An Egyptian trying to speed up the intake process began piling suitcases on top of each other, so they jammed the x-ray machine. As a security officer yelled at him, the fellow kept right on piling them on just to prove himself.
You’d think that, with all the military and police on the streets in Egypt, no one would disrespect the authorities. You’d also think that all these veiled Moslem women would be more docile and submissive. Think again, twice.
The situation is quite different in East Africa. In Nairobi, we reached city center just blocks away from the former site of the American Embassy. In 1998, it was destroyed in a terrorist attack timed simultaneously with the bombing of our embassy in Dar es Salam, Tanzania. Also, as I mentioned, the post-election violence which claimed roughly 1,500 lives and displaced over half a million still remains fresh in the minds of everyone in Kenya.
Back with Harun’s family, in a tranquil, lush green area called Nyahera, I was hardly aware of the riots that had claimed several buildings and lives in nearby Kisumu. Though his family lives without modern amenities like electricity, running water, or a vehicle, they are content. The four wives of Harun’s deceased father live together as sisters, caring for a diverse flock of grandchildren and orphans, each according to his or her needs. As the nights yearlong are twelve hours long, due to our location at the Equator, dark arrives very quickly. The family gathers around kerosene lamps and shares a late dinner of rice, ugale (corn meal mush, a staple), chicken, fish, and regional vegetables. They chat, and laugh, and the women praise God.
And now I’m writing from the edge of one of the world’s largest slums. Haru, Adelaide, and I have completed a long journey together, clear to Jinja, Uganda. Given the fact that my five room-mates are fast asleep. I’m going to offer just an outline of our experiences, filling things in later.
So let’s go back to Kisumu, on Sunday, October 4th, to the home of my friend:
First thing in the morning, Harun and I make a late run for Mass. He has heard that English services would be at 9:00. We walk the rural kilometer to a bus stop. Eventually, along comes a “Matatu.” These ten passenger vans normally are packed, not only with up to fourteen or more innocent human beings, but also with their cargo, infants, and even chickens. They also guarantee a late arrival, as they strive to maintain a systems overload.
At the transfer junction, no one stops for us. They’re jammed packed with church-goers, all dressed in Sunday best. We have to jump on motorcycles.
English mass, as it turns out, had begun at 7:30, and is still finishing at 9:45. The Luo mass, in the local dialect, scheduled for 9:30, will begin an hour late. I concelebrate with intense joy. Everything, from the long procession to the interjected songs of worship, to the physical participation of nearly everyone and the response they gave to the preacher, inspires me.
Adelaide has joined us. Her auntie, Sister Agnes Buluma, had been taking a retreat on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in 1983 when I first visited the Holy Land. There, she shared with me her dilemma. Her mother had just passed away, but she was not free to leave the formation program to return for the funeral services. The political situation of those days may have had just as critical a role as the rules of her congregation. What she didn’t tell me, so far as I recall, was that her sister had died tragically the year before.
Over the decades, Sister Agnes and I corresponded. So when I decided to visit Kenya in 2003, she put her internet-savvy niece, Adelaide, in contact with me. What I didn’t know until now was that Adelaide’s mother had been the one who died in 1982, and that the girl had been passed from home to home and school to school, eventually living with her brother in one of Nairobi’s slums. The first time I met Adelaide, she was hopping off the passenger seat of a bicycle in Kisumu. There, I visited the school at which Sr. Agnes was stationed. And there, I met Harun, later deciding to sponsor him for his undergraduate and graduate studies in the capital city.
Following Mass and lunch with the seminarians, we boarded a taxi for the town in which Barack Obama’s grandmother Sarah still lives. We should have known that the humble piece of property has become quite the tourist attraction – so much so that a woman sells merchandise near the front gate and one has to pass two police checkpoints before reaching the home. To our surprise, the guards were very jovial, and one showed me the long list of visitors who’d been signing in during the past week. The vast majority were from Kenya, with the second largest group from Europe, then the US.
Waiting quietly in a circle of wooden chairs, chatting with a young woman who informed me that President Obama is her uncle, we were appraised of the problems that have occurred due to people wishing to use their visit, interview, or photographs for ulterior motives. We promised to honor the right of Sarah and her family to a certain degree of privacy, and so limited our questions and our picture-taking. Through it all, I was impressed with Sarah’s self-possession and jovial, always-on-target, sense of humor. I left that place convinced she was Obama’s grandma, above all by her strength.
Here, in very simple circumstances a stone’s throw from the Kibera slum, I’m finding emails from Kenyans in Stockton to Kenya’s nearby, bringing light to the road ahead. As for the road behind, I only have time to report that the Lord was with us all the way. We explored a tremendous project for impoverished families and for orphans in Jinja, comprised of a medical clinic, two large schools, a training center and a growing housing program, all integrated together under the auspices of AOET, a non-governmental organization whose website I invite you to explore. It was they who had sent the “Chosen Ones” children’s dance troupe who visited August 15th.
Toward nightfall, having returned from an expedition to the beginnings of the Nile (recalling that Cairo represents, to some degree, its ending), we’d decided to go out for a walk. No sooner had we left the gates, then those very children who had sung and danced for us in Stockton, and whom we’d visited that day in their own classes, now had come to pay a surprise visit.
Once again, we shared laughter, song, and dance. Then we followed them into the dark, as they meandered their way to their own adoptive families.