Another Day in Kenya – Chapter 3
After we boarded our plane, iced wings delayed our departure for a couple hours – on May 20! It’s true Colorado is renowned for snow, but never this late in the year. As we waited, I carried Justin, 12 months old and restless, to the almost-empty first class section to crawl; but a flight attendant quickly banished us back to economy with David, our four year old son Jacob, and David’s parents and brother.
At long last, the wings lifted us up over Colorado prairies and forests where as a child I begged God to send me to Africa; and we began our journey to a continent on the other side of the world.
Some twenty-four hours later, we emerged from the last of two flights on either side of a long lay-over in London, bleary-eyed but keyed-up with anticipation. Stepping out of the plane, I caught the first whiff of that unmistakable Nairobi smell: a mix of burning trash, petrol fumes, and masses of people. We walked down the tunnel, not sure whether or not to meet the eyes of airport staff conversing with one another in a lyrical language we didn’t understand. Stern border officials stamped our passports with visas. I didn’t know whether to interpret their demeanor as bored or intimidating. My mother-in-law and I ducked into a restroom to change into culturally appropriate dresses. We claimed our bags and passed through customs into a crowded, chaotic, noisy arrivals hall packed with people in brightly colored clothing. With relief, we glimpsed Tim and SueAnne amidst the multitude. They stood next to two women draped in crisp white saris with a cross pinned to their shoulders and the signature blue trim of the Mother Teresa order of the Missionaries of Charity. I felt positively starstruck to meet them, and incredibly honored they came to the airport. Sister Fidence, tall and African with twinkling eyes, greeted us warmly and said it was such a sacrifice for us to travel so far. We refuted her in disbelief, “Oh no! We are coming for our son!”
We eagerly scanned the views during the drive to a missionary guest house. After leaving open savanna surrounding the airport, masses of people crowded the road-sides; vibrantly dressed women stepped out of fields; found-material-structures sprang up beside more permanent drab-cement-block buildings. Lush, green, flowering trees filled the compound of our guest house.
SueAnne, Tim, and the sisters questioned if we wished to visit the orphanage that day, or if we were too tired from our travels, and would we prefer to wait until the following day? So close to him at last, nothing could keep us away now! We agreed to settle in and rest for a few hours. As our two young children napped, racing thoughts wrangled any sleep from my weary body. I felt I knew our son deeply, and yet I remained fully aware that I would drop into his world out of nowhere and change everything he knew thus far. For us, a long awaited fulfillment of dreams. For him, an unexpected, potentially catastrophic, certainly life-changing event. I envisioned a familiar but yet-to-be-experienced moment – at long last, gathering my son into my arms.
“We’re getting closer now,” the driver says. When we turn on a pocked dirt road, no one needs to tell me we are entering a slum of Nairobi. At first, my four year old son, Jacob, laughs out loud as the bumps toss us about. But, as we venture further, shell-shocked silence settles over us. Rivers of people part and stream past our windows. Children splash barefoot through mud, sewage, and garbage; threadbare cloth scraps hang from dusty bodies. Chickens and goats chase, pause to peck through trash, scatter at our vehicle’s “honk.” Behind the surging corridor of people, corrugated metal scraps shelter women washing laundry in buckets, children crouched in dark corners, and all manner of items for sale – produce piled on blankets, used shoes, bags of charcoaled wood, raw meat covered in flies. A sign on a blue metal shack proclaims, “House of the Lord.” People duck into narrow gaps labeled “Pool Hall” or “Beauty Salon.” Beyond these ramshackle structures, gray cement tenement houses stand like stern sentinels. Brightly colored laundry cascades from every window. Over it all hangs the putrid stench of burning trash and diesel fumes.
And everywhere, the people. Separated only by a pane of glass, in eyes staring into mine, I read curiosity, disdain, the obvious question, “Why are you here?”
With every turn of the wheels, the city-scape of people, garbage, cement and mud rushes into greater desolation. Leaving permanent structures behind, a mish-mash of shacks and piles of garbage crowd our jolting vehicle. Rapid-fire, desperate vignettes assault our senses. Beside me, my husband, David, openly weeps.
The disheveled crowd presses in ever denser as we approach a high-walled compound with a massive blue metal gate. The driver honks, and it creaks open.
In a split instant, our descent into darkness bursts into brilliant light.
Young girls sing and dance in unison in a spacious oasis. I, the stoic one, begin to sob.
Fighting for composure, we climb out of the vehicle. The Sisters greet us. Here, in their corner of the world, the ghetto casts its ominous shadow; but tended gardens, well-kept buildings, and, most of all, the hope of Jesus shove triumphantly back.
“Come,” Sister Fidence invites us, smiling brilliantly.
The echo of singing and chatter compel us down a sun-drenched hallway and into a starkly empty room. Twenty or so young children sit at a long wooden table, eyeing us eagerly. We hover in the doorway, unsure, until a few hurtle across the room and into our arms. Soon we are swamped in arms and legs and smiles – little bodies starved for touch. Jacob’s blonde-hair disappears in a multitude of hands reaching out to touch this novelty. We wipe away tears. We want to hold them forever. How can it be these beautiful little people are abandoned, alone in the world with no one to assure them of their beloved-ness except for the Sisters?
Sister Fidence motions for David and I and our family to continue. We tear ourselves away. My heart accelerates. Now we are so close to him, I can scarcely breathe. We have come so far and been through so much. Now the moment is here.
We trail Sister Fidence into a ward crowded with bright blue cribs. Another sister kneels beside a baby. As if in a dream, I walk between cribs, acutely aware of small brown eyes all around, watching my every move. The sister smiles and nods as I pick up my son, Jedd Josephat Briggs.
He studies me with big, confused, liquid brown eyes as we weep. We tell him how much we love him, how we have ached for this day. Then he cuddles close to me, cheek-to-cheek, the culmination and the beginning of a love affair that has forever captured my heart.
I clutch him close for the longest time, trying to believe he is finally mine, unwilling to relinquish him into the arms of other family members – new father, older brother, uncle and grandparents who traveled with us.
The others weave around the room from crib to crib, talking and playing, touching and picking up. So many little ones, about thirty, from sleeping newborns to jabbering one-year-olds. Jacob plays peek-a-boo and evokes gleeful giggles.
When David finally insists that it is his turn to hold his new son, I pick up another baby who is crying. He snuggles close and protests vehemently when I try to return him to his crib. He is comforted again the instant I pick him up. I pause for a moment beside a motionless baby, covered in flies. He is obviously very sick. I wonder how much longer he will live.
My heart breaks again and again.
As evening approaches, the Sisters bring us a bottle and food for Jedd. Reluctantly we tear ourselves from the ward to the cries of babies protesting our departure. We hover by the vehicle in growing shadows of night, fighting for words to express our gratitude. Sister Fidence interrupts our feeble attempts in her lyrical African accent, proclaiming that she is so thankful for us. She says we are giving her much hope, that in the midst of so much misery, we would come so far for one small child. She tells us that sorrow and despair threaten at times to overwhelm her. Her eyes darken with memories of children too sick, too abused, too broken to save. She tells us we are giving her courage to continue.
I gaze into the radiant brown eyes of this woman, burning with unearthly intensity, into the eyes of one who has abandoned all that she loves and all earthly comfort to “take up the cross and follow Christ,” to serve the poorest of the poor; into the eyes of a woman who has committed her every breath to the work that Mother Teresa described in her book, Love of Christ, “For the worst disease in the world is not leprosy or tuberculosis but the feeling of being unwanted, unloved, and abandoned by everyone. The greatest sin is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference to those on the fringe of the social system, who are exposed to exploitation, corruption, want, and disease.” I wonder in absolute bewilderment that anything I could do could possibly impact her.
As the ponderous gate yawns open, I cradle Jedd to my heart. Sister Fidence stands waving in the middle of the muddy road, until masses of people and gathering dusk swallow her back into the slum. Oblivious, Jedd drifts off to sleep in my arms.
In the murky night, I make out little except the periodic flicker of an oil lamp illuminating a dilapidated shack. These tiny lights defy the darkness, like the flame that saved my son’s life, like the flame that is now entrusted to me.