Another Day in Kenya – Chapter 11
A Great Exchange
Those early days of enfolding Lily into our family were filled with a cacophony of emotion: exhilaration to finally hold my daughter in my arms, exhaustion from single-parenting three kids ages four-years and under, confusion about how to extract Lily from Kenya as interpretation of laws rapidly changed, shock from discovering our first lawyer was on the run, and anxiety about finding a new lawyer to initiate a new legal procedure.
My three kids and I and my mom and father-in-law stayed at a guest hostel of a Kenyan Christian ministry. In the compound were the offices as well as flats for employees and their families. The hostel was comprised of simple wood-sheet walls and cement floors, but we were grateful for solar-heated showers. We filled laundry buckets to provide baths for the kids. Electricity came and went, but we compensated with candles and flashlights.
The compound was beautiful with flowering shrubs and trees and provided lots of room for the boys to run and play. They enjoyed kicking a soccer ball around with employees’ children after school hours. They also entertained themselves by playing hockey with sticks and a frisbee. Avocados fell from trees in the compound, and the boys improvised to use them as vehicles for their toy Rescue Hero action figures. Empty formula cans and laundry clips also provided hours of creative entertainment for all three kids.
We liked to sit outside our hostel in the shade of a clump of trees, until we looked up one day to see five or six bats hanging upside down, wiling away the daylight hours! The boys were fascinated, the adults not so much. I tried not to listen at night as rats scrambled down the hallway outside our door.
As is common in Kenya, the ministry provided a mid-day meal for their employees; and we joined them. We grew accustomed to a typical diet of lentils, stews, rice, potatoes, and beans. For breakfast and dinner, we shopped at local grocery shops and fruit stands in the community and created simple meals, unfamiliar as we were with Kenyan cooking methods. We boiled our drinking water and washed laundry by hand, tasks which consumed countless hours.
The day Lily came into my care, she was 20 months old; but she was unable to crawl, much less stand or walk. As her developmental milestones came and went unmet, the sisters had hired a physical therapist to help strengthen her legs. We learned she was born at 7 months gestation, and fought for her life as a preemie and through respiratory illnesses and chronic ear infections. She bore scars on her head from IV insertion points that became infected. I took her for a medical evaluation soon after she came with me, and she was put on medications for an ear infection and giardia.
Lily struggled to sleep. She would only fall asleep for naps in someone’s arms and woke up when we tried to transfer her to a port-a-crib. Either way, naps were short. She woke often at night, which was particularly challenging since the three children and I shared a room. With lack of sleep, illness, and a major life transition, it was understandable that she would be irritable. She also seemed confused about attachment. She wanted to be held almost all the time, but didn’t seem to prefer one adult over another. When we visited the orphanage, she cried when we left. At around age twenty months, toddlers usually tackle the developmental milestone of differentiation from their mother. Lily was well-loved at the orphanage, but since she never attached to a mother in the first place, her attachment trajectory proceeded haphazardly.
At first the boys were infatuated with their new sister, but I disctinctly remember the moment Jedd realized she was claiming more attention than he was willing to share. His touching gift to her of his treasured Bat-Mobile on her first day with us faded into distant memory. We were reading a book before bed, with Lily sitting on one side of me and Jedd on the other, when they began slugging each other across my lap! Justin seemed more accepting of her and enjoyed letting her drop things, with a loud “uh oh” while handing them back, but calls home to his dad were particularly upsetting for him.
Meanwhile, I was hearing from people in Nairobi who were in touch with the adoption process that interpretations of the law were in rapid flux. Ours was only one of the cases caught in a backlash from “The Miracle Baby Scandal” of 2004. A Kenyan Pastor in the United Kingdom claimed the power to make infertile women able to conceive. The only problem was that the babies who suddenly arrived to the mothers were actually stolen from Kenyan hospitals. Within a couple days of discovering the disappearance of our first lawyer, I met with a well-respected adoption lawyer who had handled my friend Janet’s guardianship case in 2004. She told me the Nairobi courts were deciding to no longer grant guardianship to foreigners, and adoptions were backed up by six months. Because we had a letter from a doctor diagnosing Lily with a respiratory disorder, she recommended we pursue a medical visa.
I also read a post in a Yahoo Kenyan adoption group that Kenya was planning to suspend adoptions while officials wrote a new constitution and adoption laws.
Living in Kenya for six months before even being allowed to start the legal adoption process loomed impossible. My husband Dave could not leave his job in Colorado and our seven year old son, Jacob, remained with him for school. Six to eight weeks was a stretch, but feasible. A year or more? Inconceivable. And, from what we were hearing, even if we completed these requirements, adoptions could be suspended indefinitely.
People also were saying that rural courts might still allow guardianship. In our desperation, this seemed the only viable option. We contacted our American friends who gained guardianship of their Kenyan daughter from Western Kenya in 2004, and they connected us to Pastor Charles, who directed the orphanage she came from, and a lawyer in the community. We began the arduous, one-step-forward, one-step-backward process of attempting to contact the lawyer and determine how to proceed. For awhile, I thought we might have to re-locate completely to Western Kenya. But, in the end, the lawyer requested a one day visit.
My expectations for the day seemed straightforward and reasonable enough – I would fly from Nairobi to Western Kenya for the day with the Sister Superior of my daughter’s Mother Teresa Orphanage. Our one simple goal: to initiate legal proceedings for my daughter’s adoption. We scheduled our flights with plenty of extra time on either side of an appointment with the lawyer, just in case of unexpected delays. It seemed very do-able, even considering the wild ride I’d encountered thus far
Hope swelled with the first rays of dawn and the chirping of various exotic birds, and just as quickly receded as minutes crept by without any sign of an approaching car. When at last the vehicle pulled up, half an hour late, I joined Sr. Cletty in the back seat, charged with anxiety. Long lines of cars snaking through traffic jams further weighted a tense silence. We crawled along at the speed of a car in a parking lot. The driver sighed every now and then, and Sr. Cletty and I tried not to look at the clock on the dashboard. At last pulling up curbside at the airport, a plane roared overhead. Sr. Cletty laughed nervously and said she hoped it wasn’t ours. After cruising through security and running to the counter with racing hearts, the agent confirmed that, yes, indeed, it was.
Somberly we joined a line at the ticket counter and booked the next available flight, to depart several hours later. We phoned our connection in Western Kenya and reported our predicament.
And that’s when the day turned upside down – both what actually happened, and my expectations of it.
Sr. Cletty and I retreated outside and settled on a curb in the parking lot to wait. In this drab, mundane setting, I began to ask about her life. The tiny, unassuming woman shared with me a radical story of how she saved an entire orphanage at gunpoint in Burundi. She described interfacing with the invaders, praying constantly, then fleeing across the compound to warn the other sisters and children. They shot her and she fell. They ushered her back to the sisters’ area, wounded, and threatened her at gunpoint, demanding any funds on sight. She refused, and a man fired the gun. The bullet somehow ended up in his wrist just as the police arrived and rescued her and the compound!
Suddenly my original intentions for the day dimmed in comparison to the moment I had suddenly stumbled into, the awe I felt to be spending the day with this hero of the faith, in the presence of the Gospel beating alive and well in flesh-and-blood. By the grace of God, my heart received an invitation into a Great Exchange. I set aside my own expectations like a bag of bones in order to receive something far grander, something that would change my life.
We caught our new flight and arrived in Kakamega. Our contact greeted us warmly, but the car that picked us up sputtered and died on the side of the road. The fuel gauge showed the tank to be empty, so the driver hopped on a matatu (public transport) and took off. Our contact apologized and explained that the car was a taxi he hired, and perhaps the driver forgot to check the gauge.
Sr. Cletty and I caught each other’s eye in the back seat and started laughing.
Sr. Cletty napped while I tried to ignore all the people passing by, staring curiously at a Kenyan, a White woman, and a nun sitting in a stalled car. I was acutely aware of the bulging packet of funds I carried to pay the lawyer.
The driver returned and added fuel, but the car stubbornly refused to start. A mental image intruded into my mind of a gnarly hand holding the car engine, and another hand slapping the knuckles with a rod, causing them to release their grasp. I don’t usually see visions, but then I don’t usually hang out on the sides of roads in foreign places with Mother Teresa sisters and people who look nothing like me, loaded with a bunch of cash. So, I prayed according to the image. The driver attempted another start, and this time the engine engaged.
We continued rolling over hills of lush greenery and by fields of sugarcane, having missed our second appointment with the lawyer. He texted that he would no longer be able to meet us because he was due in court, but arranged for his assistant to receive us.
Sr. Cletty and I laughed again. Actually, we never stopped for the rest of the day as one ludicrous event after another unfolded. I would say we were rather giddy.
Arriving at long last in the lawyer’s office, the assistant asked some questions, but did not seem to know much about our paperwork or process. We expected to sign an affidavit to commence the process, but the assistant informed us that the office printer was broken so we could return the next morning. After explaining that our return flight was scheduled for later that day, we agreed that the document could be over-nighted to Nairobi.
Sr. Cletty and I returned to the airport with time to spare and enjoyed coffee in an outdoor café like old friends, still chuckling. We crossed the tarmac to the airplane in a glorious, hazy, golden African sunset.
I left Kakamega, seemingly much poorer after purchasing two round trip airfares for two people, never once meeting the lawyer, and unable to initiate the legal case that held the promise of being my ticket home with our daughter.
But I flew back to Nairobi with treasure that shapes my life to this day – the incredible privilege of sitting at the feet of a Mother Teresa sister, of laughing at all that tried to push us down, of pondering the beauty of a life poured out on Jesus’ behalf, a life that makes ordinary expectations seem very dim indeed.
Of course I didn’t know it at the time, but the experience fore-shadowed all that was to come.