Drilling rain rattles the metal roof overhead. Flashes of light cast shadows over still forms of sleeping children. My two four-year-old boys stretch out in a bunk bed. The child I am in process to adopt, almost-two-year-old Lily, sprawls in a port-a-crib. Somehow, in the peace that only children know, they sleep through the tumult. Between flares of lightening and crashing thunder, the phosphorescent glow of a security lamp just outside our window keeps me company. Family members have come and gone to assist us through our unexpectedly long adoption process, and strangers have boarded in the hostel for a night here and there; but tonight we are the only inhabitants of the building except for the rats scuttling in the hallway.
The big news from the week taunts me, huddled under my mosquito net in the dark: a gangster apprehended in a flat nearby. Police raided his stock-pile of weapons and ammunition. Perhaps my children and I even walked by his home on our daily jaunts to the village vegetable stand. As we anticipated fresh avocadoes, mangos, and pineapples, maybe he peered from behind a curtain, curious about this strange white woman with a black baby strapped to her back in an orange khanga. Maybe he wondered about the two small boys racing ahead, same size but one black and one white.
The media assures residents of our little Nairobi community that the criminal is safely behind bars; but I wonder how many just like him evade under-staffed and under-resourced law-enforcement. How many broil in frustration and hunger, as corrupt government officials cheerfully sip sweet chai and ignore the struggle of the masses for daily ugali? Pondering these thoughts in the crescendo of a violent storm accomplishes little to quell my anxiety.
Then, abruptly, my only companion disappears. The reassuring glimmer of the security light extinguishes as the storm conquers electrical lines. With foreboding, I realize that the electronic security system is also disabled. The flimsy wooden student hostel walls close in tighter around me. I stare wide-eyed at the black square of our window, shedding sheets of monsoon rain. The storm, I know, can easily disguise any intruder brave enough to get wet. No one would ever know until it was too late.
Staff members admit that hosting us in the compound, guests who are assumed to be wealthy because of the color of my skin, makes them more vulnerable to robbery. A security guard still recuperates from an attack that occurred before we even arrived, prompting the installment of the electronic security system. They warn me not to tell anyone in town where we stay. But ragged women trail me home, begging to wash our laundry so they can feed hungry children. Turned back at the gate by the guard, they retreat dejectedly. To how many friends do they whisper our whereabouts?
A humble wire fence circles the compound. During the day, school children press against it to spy on these foreigners. While sipping evening tea, do they share their curiosity with their families?
I know that if just one friend of our neighborhood gun-and-ammunition-fiend finds his way as lightening blazes, there will be nothing I can do.
I breathe long and slow, trying to stifle rising panic, only to encounter other alarming thoughts slithering around another corner of my mind.
Also in the last week, a spitting cobra reared its ugly head at a security guard, spewing its venom into his eyes. Immediate medical treatment preserved the man’s sight, but the snake remains at-large somewhere in our compound. Residents warn me to keep my children at least ten feet from all bushes and trees. I try my best to explain the situation to two rough-and-tumble, active five-year old boys; and I keep a wary eye on their where-abouts.
Surely somewhere nearby, the snake seeks shelter from the assailing storm.
Fear ensnares my heart, as persistent as thunder, as searing as lightening, as suffocating as a long, dark night alone in a foreign country. My spirit claws at the darkness in prayer, scratching for just a crack of light.
Light, invisible to the eye and originating from an altogether different source, slowly and persistently responds. It presses through stifling layers of darkness and leaks into my mind. Vibrations of rain pelting metal, keeping time with a heart beating way too fast, fade in its presence. The Source of this Light assures me that He is the One who keeps watch.
I roll over on my side, close my eyes, and sink into a deep, dreamless sleep.
I wake to the sound of children stirring, sunlight streaming through our window. As alertness tugs me into a new day, I remember the dark watches of the night, banished along with the storm. Deep peace still abides. Only wet grass brushing my feet as I go to prepare morning coffee in another building validates that it ever happened at all.
Except that in the kitchen there is a flurry as staff process news that the bookstore in our compound was broken into during the night. The cash register stands empty.
Strangely, the peace in my heart expands as their frantic voices rise. He kept watch, and I know now as never before that He always will. I feel as though I have visited a strange new destination, where lion sleeps with lamb, where darkness is as light. Though I hold no concrete memories of this place, its essence lingers.
Several days later, my husband and oldest son join me and our three younger children in Kenya. We move from the student hostel to a newly-vacated flat in the compound.
The cobra still roams. “By the way,” a resident tells us, “we found a cobra in your bathroom last year.”
Within a few days, though, we return from a foray into town to a celebration in our compound. People gather in the central area, laughing and chattering excitedly. They relay the story to us. A security guard glimpsed the snake in an outhouse. They piled trash inside and incinerated the building. Now, everyone examines the torched carcass, looped over a stick, with a mix of fascination and horror. Our family joins “the-snake-is-dead” party. Every good African story must have a snake antagonist. Now we have ours.
Even now, eight years later, I can’t explain how I found the path through fear on that lonely night. I admit that multiple sleepless nights have hunted me down in the years since. Why, on that night, was I able to sink into the Father’s arms and sleep like a child? I can only say that it was God’s provision for a trembling soul. The memory of that night sustains me still, through many an anxious passage, whether asleep or awake.