Another Day in Kenya – Chapter 6
Fire in My Bones
In the throes of culture shock, I started saying, admittedly with a certain amount of sarcasm: “Expect the unexpected.” But on the day I missed the bus, something inside me snapped. I realized with absolute certainty that I was not in control; and therein lay an invitation to freedom. Even as I bemoaned the lack of predictability, I started to lean into God in ways I never knew possible. Did I truly believe God’s purposes prevail, even in a place where I understood little and could control even less? I wrestled with this question, even as I felt certain our trip was about much more than bringing Jedd home. What? I did not know; but I sensed seismic shifts in my soul.
I longed to understand the place where my son was born. I soon realized opportunities for relationships with Kenyans were few and our schedule too full as we navigated bureaucracy to take Jedd home. All around me every day, I observed the outcomes of Kenyan cultural values, but I felt as though I watched Kenya through a thick plane of glass. The underlying reasons for how people acted and why remained blurry and mysterious.
Trying to gain insight, I took advantage of every opportunity to engage people in dialogue in the dining room of the university. Although the school was on break with much fewer students around than usual, we talked to those who were available at meals. People were overwhelmingly kind, gracious and welcoming. Many times, Kenyans expressed their wish for us to stay longer so we could visit their homes and churches and enjoy a meal with them. An American who worked at Daystar noted Kenyans’ value of relationships. As an example, she explained that the university offered few extra-curricular activities so students were free to simply spend time with one another or visit their families. “In Kenya,” she said, “who you are with now is much more important than keeping a schedule. Time is a loose concept.”
This cultural perspective tripped us up more than once. One day our family traveled on the free bus service to Nairobi. We showed up for our return trip at the bus stop with plenty of time to spare before the bus’s scheduled departure at 3 pm, only to learn it already left at 2:30 pm. A Kenyan bus service employee admonished us, “You can’t work so tightly with time! You Americans need to relax!”
We waited an hour and a half for the next one with two antsy one-year-olds and an almost-four-year-old, never knowing when it would arrive. When it did finally pull in, the bus stop worker kindly let us board first. By the time the vehicle left, it stretched at its metal seams as people crushed into aisles.
During one conversation in the dining room, two students introduced a sliver of insight into the under-side of some Kenyans’ feelings towards westerners. One expressed disdain for Americans who believe if they work hard, they can do anything. This freedom, he felt, leads to disrespect for elders, who are highly valued in Kenyan culture. He also described frustration with the lasting impacts of British colonization in his country. Another student sitting beside him seemed particularly aloof and never met my gaze. I suspected he was assuming certain things about me based on the color of my skin. As the only white person in the cafeteria besides Justin, I welcomed the discomfort I felt, knowing it is the experience of many minorities in America, even as it broke my heart.
It would certainly have been much easier to go with the flow of Kenyan culture if we had not felt the constant pressure to navigate it in order to extract our son. I knew on the day I missed the bus that the miss-hap would most likely delay our trip home. But it was actually only the first of several bumps in the road.
One day soon after, David and his dad took the two hour round-trip bus ride to Nairobi plus taxi service for a scheduled appointment to pick up Jedd’s completed Kenyan travel document, only to find the office locked up tight for the day. We rejoiced when we finally secured the document and delivered it to the American Embassy for Jedd’s visa; but when David went to pick it up as directed, he waited three hours at the Embassy only to learn the file was lost.
Sickness remained a challenge throughout. Dave’s mom ended up needing an IV due to dehydration. We joked about playing a game called “last person standing” to see who could resist the terrible stomach virus longest. I “won;” but it certainly wasn’t an accomplishment I wanted. Near the end of our time in Kenya, David’s clothing hung loosely; we discovered later he lost 20 pounds. We worried about Jacob, almost-four-years-old. At that age, he typically allowed about three foods on his approved list on any given day, and none were available in the Kenyan cafeteria. Between lingering red flea bumps as well as other bug bites and some weight loss, he looked positively haggard.
On the Monday morning of our scheduled departure, June 11, three weeks after arriving in Kenya, we called the Embassy. Our file was still nowhere to be found, they reported, and the officer for Immigration and Naturalization Services was in a meeting. They suggested we call back at 2:30 pm. Simultaneously, we contacted our airline to post-pone our flights; and they directed us to appear in person at the airline office in downtown Nairobi. Checking the time, we realized we couldn’t afford to wait until 2:30 pm to call the Embassy and still make it downtown before the airline office closed. We needed to catch the infamous 1 o’clock bus.
We hurried to the bus stop, almost half an hour early, only to find a bus already there and packed with people, but no driver. We asked the passengers if it was the 1 o’clock bus to Nairobi, and they said they hoped it was. At 1:15, still no driver; but another bus pulled into view. People poured out the door of the first vehicle and pushed and shoved to board the second. Flailing in the mosh pit again, but without a baby on my back this time, I was determined to make it on. But after almost falling several times, I stepped back in frustration. David, 6′ 2”, shoved through. I spoke to him through an open bus window, and he said he would go alone; but in the press of the crowd, he was unable to let the bus driver know he needed to get off at the Embassy. I went back to the front of the bus and yelled over the mass in front of me that a man needed to get off at the Embassy. The driver poked his head out the window and hollered, “Are you together? Did you want to go too?” I nodded and motioned at the crowd. He yelled at people to let me get on the bus; and miraculously, I soon found myself jammed in tight next to David.
Once at the Embassy, we discovered with relief that they found our file and Jedd’s visa was approved, but the travel document stamped with Jedd’s visa would not be ready until Wednesday afternoon. After a taxi ride to the airport offices, we learned there were no available seats until Saturday.
We decided to send Jacob home that night with his grandparents and uncle. Saying good-bye to our oldest son was painful, especially knowing we would miss his fourth birthday the next day. David and I and our twins watched them disappear down the long dusty road, waving until they were out of sight. We felt terribly alone as we returned to our dorm room. At the same time, there was an end in sight; and we remained resolute that it was worth whatever it took to bring our newest son home.
In a final dramatic stroke, we picked up Jedd’s travel document stamped with that coveted American visa on Wednesday as planned. We contacted the airline and discovered seats unexpectedly available that very night. In a flurry we threw our belongings into luggage and whirled from Daystar to the airport.
We left Kenya feeling like survivors, as if we somehow escaped by the skin of our teeth. We managed to extract one of our dearest gifts, our son; but Kenya itself remained an aloof and mysterious stranger.
We left haunted by the suffering we witnessed. We knew our son’s big brown eyes would never let us forget the children we left behind. Scenes from the sprawling slum around the orphanage lingered in our minds. Could we un-see what we saw, un-feel what we felt? Only by denying our very own hearts. Somehow, this strange passage through Kenya that felt so far removed from our everyday lives in America, that already felt like a dream in the never-world of an airplane high over the ocean, could not exist as a parallel reality. It would have to be integrated.
And, a new fire burned deep in my bones. On the night the sisters sent Jedd with us, a flame leaped from their hearts into mine. It found ready tinder and crackled steadily in the deepest part of my being. I wanted what they had. Never before had I met people like them. They immersed themselves in the poorest of the poor, into overwhelming oppression and misery, and yet stepped lightly, buoyed by an other-worldly joy. How? Why? What did they know that I did not? And how could I find it? With all my heart, I wanted to know their secret.
Yes, I was on an airplane returning home to our old lives; but my new son would never let me forget that I no longer recognized my old self.
During our last visit to the orphanage before taking Jedd home, SueAnne invites us to visit the “Crippled Kids Ward.” Images flash through my mind from the video she sent to us in the US before we came for Jedd. Along with footage of our son, it captured a visit to the disabled children’s ward. Just watching the video, before we even came to Kenya, overwhelmed me with grief.
With dread and conviction, I know I need to experience for myself what is there.
We cross the sun-drenched courtyard outside the baby and toddler wing. We approach a large blue metal door. A little boy kneels on the ground, propping it open with his body. SueAnne pats him on the head and greets him by name. He doesn’t reply, but his face lights up at the sight of her. As I step around him, a din of noise encompasses me. My heart pounds. We turn a corner.
On a cement floor covered only in thin mats, children sprawl with every imaginable disability and malformation.
My friend instructs me to slip off my shoes. The mats are spotted with scraps of porridge and drool. The smell of urine hangs in the air. My stomach turns. Cacophony swallows me as I follow her into a maze of limbs. She pauses and greets many children, introducing me. Many grunt or squeal in response. Some smile. Some, with dark vacant eyes seem oblivious to our presence.
In the far corner of the room lays a boy, his head swollen to twice the normal size and his body bent and distorted. When my friend greets him, he responds with fully articulated sentences. I smile and talk to him for a minute, shocked by his intelligence, trying to hide my trembling. My heart breaks for him, again and again.
My friend leisurely laces back towards the door, but I head straight for it, fighting panic.
As I stand there at the edge of the mat, willing her to walk faster, my gaze shifts to the Sisters. Gracefully they move from child to child, faces alight, hands gentle and loving. It is as if each discarded child – truly the poorest of the poor, the last and the least, lacking even the gifts of physical health and mental lucidity, much less a family – is their most beloved family member.
The stench of urine and food, the groans of misshapen bodies, fade away.
Suddenly the scales fall away from my eyes, and I see clearly.
Like roses, the Sisters pass hand-to-hand, trailed by the ethereal fragrance and breath-taking beauty of Jesus.