Early this morning, after dropping gear off at the home stay, I was taken by matatu to the northern edge of Mombasa. The longer we traveled, the more distressed the scenery became. Some sights supported images from years of National Geographic. On nearly every street, Kenyan cattle roam freely interrupting the flow of traffic. Traffic has no real pattern here. A two-lane highway, given a moment’s chance, will adjust and all lanes will travel in one direction forcing the weak-of-heart to the side of the road. People line the city streets preparing the morning’s charcoal fires and many of the natives, not able to afford the cost of the matatu, walk in groups toward the city. Very few afford automobiles but the roads are crowded with taxis, matatus, bikes and carts. As one might expect, the women often carry large baskets or pails of water atop their heads and nearly all are brightly garbed and are followed by a parade of small children.
Some sights overwhelm my sensibilities. There is no garbage collection and so the sides of the roads are littered with dumping areas on which the goats and chickens feed. As we pass over Nyali Bridge, many are making the commute to Mombasa pulling carts filled with bananas or coconuts. Sometimes, it takes three or four strong men, with sweating backs and bare feet, to maintain the cart’s speed in the morning traffic. Almost any material is used to make a cart and often traffic must weave around a cart that has collapsed under the weight of its load.
Nearly all the time, the air is strong with charcoal smoke. Early morning, the fires are used to roast yams and mahindi—a type of dry sweet corn. In the latest hours of the day, the fires help to light the roadsides and create gathering spots for those who are returning home from the city. At nearly every fire, someone will call out the sale of roasted vegetables or chicken. With no streetlamps to guide them, the fires become a welcoming beacon.
At the end of the rode, the matatu let us off to walk the two miles to the orphanage and school. It is hard to conceive of this path as a road—it is so rutted from the winter rains and carts. More and more, the comforts I know disappear and my angst increases. It is a blessing to have Louisa, who travels with me for introductions, to offer some distracting conversation. From London, she has been in Kenya for six months scouting programs in need of volunteers. During our walk, she pointed out small medical clinics and other local sites. Finally we turned into the path of Restoration School and Orphanage. I was stalled by the sight of the primitive mud and tin huts that spilled out children—all running to see the new white lady.
As all the children, both young and old, circled me and laughed, I could not help but respond in kind. Immediately, the children caught sight of the gold crown that protects a back tooth. The crowd filled with a jibber of amazement and pointing. The children, lacking my timidity, repeatedly reached from around my face and pried my mouth open to see the gold tooth. I knew for at once that I had not been foolhardy with the decision to travel here.
Louisa introduced me to Pastor James and his wife, Madame Margaret. He is a young, slight man and seems, at first visit, aggressive in his wants for the school and what he expects to accomplish in short time I will be here. Madame Margaret, a beautiful and maternal figure, is very shy and hangs back.
Soon Louisa left me on my own and the children took me by the hand into the school house. It is a long mud hut with a tin roof. Only a mango tree offers shade from the sun. Since there are no windows in the hut, it is very dark. Dirt mounds protect the school rooms from becoming flooded in the rain. In the school, the classes are broken into small areas. There are no partitions… no desks… no books… no chalkboards. There are a few pencils and scraps of paper littering the dirt floor.
In my first discussion with Pastor, I learn that the children are grouped by age and that there are nearly thirty children in the KG classes. Madame Margaret, who speaks little English, works with these children. I look over his shoulder and see her with them clustered around her feet. All other classes from Standard One through Standard Seven have ten to fifteen children. Some students of high school age are grouped into a second Standard Seven class.
The most difficult group is the KG group as they speak languages known only by their own village. Since many of these languages are broken dialects of Swahili, that is where we begin. I spend a brief time working very simply with them using greetings and introductions. We played a bit with colors as well. I do not attempt any English with them. They are excited to share Swahili with me and seem to take great joy in my mistakes.
My introduction with Standard Three reveals that the children are fairly fluent with Swahili and so I am able to work in some English. By the end of today, the older students were able to recite, “Good day, Madame Della. How are you? I am fine and pleased to meet you. Goodbye for today.” It seems simple to be sure, but this teaching was a full-day’s work.
Many of the children walked with me for the two-mile trek back to catch the matatu at night. It is dark here by 6:00 PM and I worry about the children making the walk back to Restoration. They, however, do not seem concerned. They waved as I gathered my courage to jump aboard the crowded matatu. I was surprised with the exhaustion that invaded my body. I pulled the fare and directions from my pocket and began looking for landmarks that would help me find my way home. As I wearily walk to the home stay from Moi Avenue, my mind is full of all there is to accomplish and the air is full of the spicier smells of stews and rubbed goat’s meat.