Rafael’s house. I sleep for perhaps 4 or 5 hours and then lie dozing for another 2 or 3. Cocks crow loudly, starting well before sun-up. I’m in a bedroom with Hubert and Lois; Rafael and his wife and three children share the other bedroom.
When I get up the day is already hot. The closest town is about 5 k away and in turn, about 30 or 40 k from Lake Victoria, one of the Great Lakes in the region. Rafael’s house sits on a slope that gently drops to a valley floor far, far below. Across the distant way, another hill rises, and more beyond. Rafael has numerous neighbours, whose places I can see both down and uphill from his place. The beautiful view is lush and green and everywhere evinces agrarian activity.
Rafael’s wife, Momma Rosie, works non-stop, primarily preparing food. One meal finished, prep for the next begins. The modest house is comfortable and cool, constructed of brick and concrete, and perhaps 70 metres square in size. There is no running water or electricity. The toilet is about 7 metres away, a small shack with a raised, rough concrete floor and a squat hole.
Today, Rafael’s house is a hive of activity. Stone workers are building the foundation for a new, larger kitchen, while carpenters are building a deck off the living room. Hubert pays the expenses. The materials to build the house have cost perhaps €1,000, while the labourmen work for roughly 100 KES each per day. This translates into an entire crew for less than $20/ day and represents in microcosm the economic power of the west in rural Africa. By evening, the deck will be finished. It is roughly, sturdily built of blue gum wood, which Hubert thinks is akin to eucalyptus. It is cedar-coloured and hard as oak; the planks have no knots and few checks. The new foundation is well on its way too. With a week’s worth of work, the family’s living conditions will be noticeably improved.
Interestingly the kitchen will have no countertops; everything is done at floor level. Kitchen-work also extends to a grove of slender trees and so the interior and exterior flow one into the other. Save perhaps for a few short weeks of rain, the outdoor kitchen can be used year-round. In the sheltered bower, Momma Rosie and Beati sift dried peas and grain, and cook using a low brazier.
Kitchen bower: note the brazier, upper left.
From this simple arrangement, they make delicious food. Beati’s kale dish is as good as anything I’ve eaten and with fried bananas and a freshly killed and cooked chicken, makes an excellent lunch.
Beati walks me around Rafael’s garden. As the family has planted only a short while ago, the lemon, orange, mango and avocado trees are as yet immature. In time, they will give prodigious fruit. At the moment, banana—two varieties, one for cooking and another, smaller type for eating raw—and papaya trees are yielding, as are numerous pineapple plants. To eat this freshly picked fruit is divine.
The garden is beyond the stone fence.
The garden is at least ½ hectare, so once the crops are all fruiting the family may well grow enough produce to have a surplus to sell.
For me the day proceeds languidly. I am a guest, to whom hospitality is most graciously extended. The workers are diligent and make visible progress, despite the heat. I make small and more or less useless efforts to help but there is no expectation on anyone’s part that I should do so. Rafael’s children all work steadily, carrying rocks to solidify the floor of the outdoor kitchen, doing the mountain of dishes each meal generates, pitching in wherever they can. Rafael is gone for about 3 hours, fetching more building materials from town. Eventually he arrives with a truck, which backs down the severely rock-ridden, torturous trail to his property.
Lois, John and I decide to catch a lift with the trucker back to town. We are after shoes for all 3 adolescents, nails for the carpenters, bottled water for the mzungus and, to fulfill my and Lois’s hankering, some cold beer.
Town is a pleasant adventure. The road runs through what appears to be the main merchant area. There are no concrete sidewalks and the tarmac is separated from the numerous storefronts by broad ditches on either side, which no doubt in the rainy season run thick with muddy water, sewage and garbage. Small bridges span the gap. Perpendicular to the main road are many sidestreets, none of which are paved and so appear provisional, although I know that is deceptive. The town is crowded. I’ve quickly come to learn that this main street is typical of Kenya outside downtown Nairobi. Its variety of animal life (usually goats, sheep, donkeys and/ or cattle, with the odd stray dog and occasionally, a cat) and a lot of people jostling with the slow moving boda-bodas, bicycles, cars, trucks, human- and donkey-powered carts, erratic matatus and larger buses, all contribute to a busy, frenetic atmosphere. Many people are curious about us and stare at me with intensity; my prosthesis must seem very strange. I am stopped for conversation more than once. People are friendly, interested to know where I come from and whether I’m staying in their town, etc.
At the Bata store, one of the young clerks, a slight, pretty woman, perhaps 22 or 23, with gaps in her teeth, is fascinated by my arm. She wants to know what happened and tells me she’s never seen anything like it. She chats easily and smiles readily and eventually asks for my phone number. I tell her in all honesty that I’ve not memorized it. I was given the phone by Christine the day after I arrived, we prepaid for time on it and I really haven’t had to memorize the number. So the young clerk takes my phone and keys in her name, Eunice, and her number. She says she hopes I’ll call her. She turns away, suddenly shy, and perhaps is recuperating her status with her young male colleague, who’s been watching our exchange. I didn’t ever phone Eunice, in case you’re wondering.
Outside, our shopping done, we wait to get a taxi back to Rafael’s. I see an elderly, white nun waiting in a shiny new S.U.V. I approach her to say hello and she smiles broadly and shakes my hand warmly, but she speaks only Italian and Swahili. My English and French are useless to talk with her.
The 5k cab ride to Rafael’s costs 350 KES. Lois says we’re being overcharged and tells the driver that he’s making us pay the “mzungu price”. The cabby laughs at this and repeats, “mzungu price, hah!”
Our ‘quick’ trip to town has taken roughly 2½ hours. Time and space, maintains Hubert, are among the great challenges when the west meets Africa. Time can’t be counted on to mean the same thing, as I learned on my bus ride, while space measurements are often difficult to trust. Hubert says an African may tell you that where you’re going is “not far,” and perhaps it isn’t, but you can’t know for sure that his notion of far is the same as yours.
Once home, the beer is most welcome. The Kenyans make excellent beer (did I mention that?) The rest of the afternoon I spend sitting, chatting, watching the carpenters put the finishing touches on the deck and drinking the ‘malt’ while it’s cold (without power, there’s of course no refrigerator). When the deck has its last nail in place, Hubert promptly puts some of the living room furniture outside.
Some children from the neighbourhood have gathered to stare at us, the strangers among them. (This part of Kenya apparently is off the beaten tourist track, so locals don’t necessarily have a lot of contact with whites.) I ask the children if it’s okay to photograph them. They grant their permission and I show them the stills I take, then have Beati take one of me among them. A local woman has approached and signals that she wants me to take a picture of her with her child, who is perhaps 18 months old. The child howls in terror of me. Mom laughs. I take their photo and show her; she laughs again. The child clings to her leg, looking up at me with fright.
The children eventually, timidly, come up on to the new deck. We sit among them and have them give us their names, which are long and musical-sounding to my ear, but which each announces in a whisper that I can barely hear, they’re so shy. Hubert expertly puts them at their ease. He clowns about and we even manage to persuade a couple of them to shake hands with my prosthetic arm, to show I won’t hurt them.
Hubert then gets out his laptop and shows us his space montage: NASA documentary footage, mixed with excerpts from Star Trek (the original, ‘James T. Kirk’ version) and Star Wars. These seem laughable and ridiculous; perhaps it’s the setting we’re in. Next up is a Buster Keaton short that, despite its age, seems much more human, real and genuinely funny. Lois fires up the internet (with a USB data stick) and we show the children an ice hockey training video. This is as far removed from Kenyan experience as it’s possible to be, yet still amazes for the speed and sharp turns the skater makes.
Before supper, Rafael gets out the video camera Hubert gave to him and takes footage of us, introducing Lois, Mr. Hubert and “Baba Max”, that is, me. By that epithet I am identified as the father of Max, my firstborn, and so as not to call me by name, Mr. Ross. Once married with children, men and women become Baba and Momma, and use of their given names is thereafter limited, out of respect. So Rafael is properly known as Baba Rosie, Rosie being his firstborn daughter’s name, despite that she died in infancy. I realize I don’t actually know Momma Rosie’s given name. Sometimes this naming convention appears to be inconsistent, as when Rafael refers to my wife, Jennifer, as Momma Lulu (Lulu is our daughter), rather than Momma Max.
Rafael and Hubert tell me a little of the story that brought Rafael here to Kenya, as a political refugee from Tanzania. The government there denounced him for participating in Hubert’s previous documentary film, which was interpreted as critical of Tanzania. The authorities claimed that Rafael was merely acting in the film, was given lines of dialogue to recite, and that the whole thing is a pack of lies. He was interviewed on state-controlled radio and told to say that Hubert should properly be executed, hung, in fact. Then, absurdly, the interviewer stops and says no, repeat that, and say rather that Hubert should be executed by electric chair, it being more modern than hanging. The irony of being given lines to read calling for murder, ostensibly for appearing in a film in which he was purportedly given lines to read, was I guess lost on the Tanzanian officials. All of this, tin pot dictator-comedy notwithstanding, of course exerted enormous pressure on Rafael. Indeed the government eventually destroyed his house. (The following day, Rafael shows me a picture of the wrecked dwelling.)
Eventually, with the help of Hubert and others, Rafael was able to find refuge in Kenya and set up a new life here, although his status remains somewhat unsettled and he cannot yet legally work. At the very least he has a good house, a big land plot to grow food, his family around him and thanks to a monthly stipend arranged from among (Hubert’s) European friends and family, enough money to educate his children. Hence the complex, continuing relationship of friendship, obligation, mutual fascination and, in fairness, love between the two men; one a prominent, privileged, European artist and the other an aging ex-soldier from Tanzania, who is gentle, generous, knowledgeable and hardworking.
We eat outside, sitting at table on the deck. It is another excellent meal, with potatoes and creamed dried peas and the leftover chicken.
I make a long phone call home, wandering the dark garden (cell phone rates from Kenya to anywhere presently amount to 3 KES/ minute, or a half-hour conversation for under $1; are you listening Bell? Rogers?). Jennifer and Max and Lulu are ever-present in my thoughts and so it is emotional and sustaining to hear their voices. The stars are myriad overhead and the constellations unfamiliar, but the fine warm night is like many we have at Grippen Lake, except in July, rather than March.
I bid Rafael grateful thanks for sharing his home and meals with me and tell him, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“If God is willing,” he says.
Sunday didn’t improve on Saturday but it was certainly no worse, which is to say it was perfect. A heat haze hovers above the hills to the east, facing the front of the house. Eventually the temperature will reach 28o or 29o C. Beati makes morning “tea”, i.e. more heavily-sugared instant coffee. To eat, we have garden-grown bananas and papaya, accompanied by small, unsweetened donuts.
Labourers arrive to continue the work on the kitchen foundation. Rafael and the ‘fundi’, or craftsman, in this case a mason, consult periodically with Hubert about design. Everything during construction is more or less done by eye; level, or straight, or 90o, are all roughly approximated, although a tape measure is one of the available tools.
Among the first tasks in the morning is to kill the small, brown and white goat that is tethered to a tree by the deck. While eating, it bleats plaintively. Both Lois and I find the resulting sound comical: “baa-munch-ahh-munch”. Sunday and two younger boys lead it deeper into the garden, next to a low stone fence. They stretch the goat out on its back, securing the stick-like limbs and tilting its head back to expose its neck. Rafael carefully and quickly draws a knife 3 or 4 times across the goat’s throat, so that the head remains just barely attached. Blood sprays and the boy holding the head receives a red mist on his arm. Forgive my saying that the crimson shows pleasingly against his loam-dark skin. The goat squirms a little but obviously can’t put up much of a fight. It’s a minute or so before the boys are able to relax their grip.
I wander over to talk with Rafael about the slaughter. He says that not to have killed an animal to eat while he was hosting guests would be disrespectful. He will feed his neighbours too, some of whom are crewmen working on his house. I imagine there won’t be a scrap of the goat left uneaten, or in the case of its hide, unused. One of the day labourers takes over from Rafael and sets about skinning and gutting the goat. The next I know of it, 2 or 3 people are carrying pots to the kitchen full of the freshly killed meat, which is immediately set cooking.
Women arrive periodically throughout the day, signalling the party that will happen later. One large Momma, who is direct and forthright, brings a baby and a toddler. He appears to have a problem with his back; his chest thrusts out inordinately, making his tiny shoulders sit oddly beneath his head. He is perhaps developmentally delayed too. He stares agape at Hubert and I, with a vacant look and rheumy eyes. He plays with his younger brother however, so is somewhat engaged with his surroundings, and hopefully will overcome his early problems.
His Momma takes a bit of a maternal shine to me and of course wants to know what’s doing with my arm. Her English is good, so our exchange isn’t quite so stuttering and superficial as many conversations have been due to the language barrier.
I decide to remove my prosthesis and show her my arm. She reaches over and grasps my stump and closely examines it (I have a tiny, incipient bud with what would have been fingers, had they developed). She is gentle and firm. “Mmmnn…” she says, a characteristic sound Swahili-speakers make. She is interested to learn what happened and surprised that it is congenital. She wants to know the price of my prosthetic arm. At roughly $4,000 CDN, or, say, 350,000 KES, it represents an amount beyond the reach of all but well-off Kenyans (it’s worth remembering here that the estimated average per capita income in 2008 was under 400 KES/ day). There is no government program available in the average Kenyan family’s life, as there is in Ontario, to pay for such a contingency as I experienced.
Kenya has recently introduced a national health insurance plan, payments for which are to be taken in deductions from employment cheques. The major impediment to ensuring this is a universal health program is the enormous army of unemployed in the country, plus the millions of off-the-book farmers, small-time hustlers and vendors, goat-herds, under-the-table taxi drivers, etc. The plan is perhaps a start, but it is far from ready to assist those who are arguably most in need.
Momma laments none of this to me. She is a rural Kenyan, doing the best she can to feed her family and lead a decent life. At least she has the benefit of living on land where she can grow some of her own food, with a large and supportive community around her. And her people arguably enjoy one of the better climates in the world. My thought drifts back to her older child, wandering in his curious, staggering way around Rafael’s deck. He faces significant challenges; with virtually no access to health care, who knows if his physical and developmental problems won’t be permanent?
Hubert has an ambitious plan to use some of Rafael’s unused bricks from the house construction to build a ‘shower’ beyond the outdoor kitchen. I actually do pitch in on this project. I fetch bricks and set a stone or two in the cement, ferried to us in a wheelbarrow by a couple of men seconded from the kitchen foundation work. They are impressed that Hubert seems to know as much as he does about creating a cement floor and starting to erect the brick enclosure, although I think that he’s improvising, just as I do when I work on our cottage. We set the foundation stones for a snail shell-like entrance that curls around, to provide privacy within. Naturally, in the absence of running water, it won’t actually be a shower so much as a bath house, where you will bring your own water.
In the late afternoon clouds crowd in and a deluge commences. We scramble to cover the fresh cement, then Rafael insists I retreat into the house, where most of the workers have already gathered. Hubert uses the rain as a chance to bathe and wash his hair. Rafael comes into our room, where he keeps a large suitcase that serves as a dresser. With his shirt off, in soaked pants, he looks to weigh about 90 lbs., a tiny sprite of a man.
We’re caught relaxing when Beati appears in our room with plates heaped with rice, cooked goat and more of the delicious kale. We go into the living area, now jammed with people, including several quite elderly women. They greet us warmly, each one wanting to shake hands. Hubert plunks himself down beside an elderly Momma and soon has her laughing her head off at his antics. Hubert’s playfulness seems to break down all barriers, even with traditional, elderly Kenyan women who have obviously seen much, but perhaps not a white man as seemingly child-like as Hubert can be.
The food, as usual, is very good. Men arrive in shifts and everyone is fed. They particularly focus on the huge platter of ugali, a bread-like, crumbly loaf made from corn flour; it is a Kenyan staple. The ugali is broken off by hand and used to scoop up food and sauce from one’s plate. Most eat with their hands, ritually washed before eating, although I admit to using a fork for my vegetables. One of the elderly women uses a spoon, I notice. But the ugali is what most are using.
Evening. The majority of guests have drifted away. One of the women has stayed on. We have seen her arrive in the morning, as each day she brings a large pail of water carried on her head, for which she is paid a few shillings. She has formulated the hope that Hubert will be able to help her. Her son has a congenital problem with his foot, which turns in at close to a 90o angle from his leg. She has been anxious to put her case to Hubert, Rafael tells us, but is shy because her English is limited and so, of course, is Hubert’s Swahili. He asks how much money will be necessary to ensure the child can receive some medical attention. About 1,000 KES is the answer, which if the child’s father is one of the labourers Rafael has hired, perhaps represents better than a week’s earnings. So it is clear that the amount of money, modest as it is, represents too large a sum to set aside from the family’s meagre budget. Hubert says of course he can help and perhaps Ross has some money he could donate too? Together we give the woman 2,000 KES and she beams widely, grateful for this arbitrary gift. Sporadic assistance from liberal-minded whites certainly can’t be counted upon, but is apparently welcome when it does come.
It’s our last night at Rafael’s. We plan to make our way either to Nairobi or Naivasha, Hubert and Lois in Sputnik, me by cab, matatu and/ or commercial plane, depending on destination.
We gather in the family room and take a series of digital stills, clambering over each other to find position. Everyone is relaxed and eager to see the resulting photos. Momma Rosie and Rafael don their Sunday hats; his is an orange fedora. To have people come from so far away and stay in their home is an event in the family’s life. It would be the same for my family, if ever Rafael and co. came to Toronto.
The children return to school tomorrow, although Beati will delay her return until the afternoon, in order to help rectify the maelstrom of our visit. She tells me the rough order of the day for students at her boarding school: starting at 7:00, they break at 10:00 for tea, then more lessons from 11:00 until 1:30 and after that, lunch for ½ hour. More lessons follow, and then physical activity for the rest of the afternoon. After the evening meal, they study from 7:00 to 10:00. Lights out. Occasionally, they have dance lessons that require them to rise at 4:00 a.m.(!)
The boys have to rise at 5:00 the next morning and Lois and Hubert are eager to be up before sunrise too. The best time to fly the ultra-light is early morning, before the day’s heat has a chance to stir the wind.
Before we retire for the night we are unexpectedly served more food, rice with goat liver. I feel guilty at not being able to finish mine. I think the proper thing in a family that lives so close to the bone is to finish all the food one is served. But I thought we’d already had supper, and this meal is more than I can handle. We retire to our beds for a few short hours of sleep, our stomachs groaning.