Tim Woodward

A land of constant surprises: Woodward reflects on his visit to Kenya

Kenya was never remotely on my bucket list. It was a place that in my wildest imaginings I never expected to be. The odds of my flying to Nairobi seemed about as likely as those of boarding a shuttle to Pluto.

Boisean Vincent Kituku, however, has a way of making the unlikely happen. He beat long odds by turning a dream of helping poor children in his native country into a life-changing high school. So it was nothing for him to get me and my wife on a plane to go there. He wanted us to teach the high school’s students from an American perspective. She had the advantage of actually having been a teacher, and he figured I might be able to teach the kids a little about writing, or at least not get in the way of people who knew what they were doing. He is an optimistic man.

So what was Kenya like? It was a country that never stopped surprising us.

“Look at all the signboards in English!” I said as we drove from the airport to the hotel on our first night there.

“Tim!” Kituku said in a tone of voice normally reserved for small children. “Kenya is an English-speaking country!”

Actually, I knew that. But for some reason I was expecting more Swahili, Kenya’s second official language. Members of all 42 of its tribes are required to learn it. But every single sign was in English.

Some, from our perspective as Americans, were funny; others had us scratching our heads: Good Luck Hardware, Jazzy Hardware, Semi Divine Hardware, God’s Favor Butchery, Next Level Pub, Ready Meat Hotel, Overboard Investments (and haven’t we all had a few of those?).

It’s true that Kenya is an English-speaking country, but “translation” is frequently required. A University of Wyoming graduate, Kituku jokes that he has a Wyoming accent. Well, everyone in Kenya has a Wyoming accent as thick as pine tar. Add to that the fact that many of the girls and women are taught to speak just above a whisper, and we were continually asking people to repeat themselves.

We expected Nairobi to seem more exotic, more foreign, but American influence was everywhere: KFC, McDonald’s, Subway, Heinz Catsup, Tabasco Sauce, American movies, Budweiser beer, Hershey’s chocolate …

It was winter there — cool nights, warm days. The temperature most afternoons was in the 70s. Pleasant for us, but not for Kenyans acclimated to their steaming hot summers. Comfortable in shirtsleeves, we were continually surprised to see people bundled up in sweaters, parkas and stocking caps.

We drove to the schools Kituku wanted us to visit through countryside that was constantly changing. We’d be in lush green hills dotted with tea and coffee plantations, and an hour later in desert reminiscent of the drive from Boise to Mountain Home.

Miles from anything resembling a settlement, you’d see a dapper man in a suit and tie standing by the roadside waiting for who-knew-what. A woman in an elegant gown walking a red dirt pathway to who-knew-where. Who were these people, and what were they doing in the middle of nowhere?

We went to places that made the middle of nowhere seem like Times Square, on roads that defied belief. Take the worst road in Idaho, throw in shards of granite protruding from the dust every few feet and an occasional stream masquerading as a mud hole and you have Kenyan wilderness roads. Negotiating them requires extra heavy-duty tires and suspension, special transmissions and full-time four-wheel drive. Even with all of that, reaching your destination can seem like a small miracle.

In cities, including Nairobi with a population of over 3 million, you see very few traffic lights. Traffic is controlled mainly with roundabouts and speed bumps. Most of the time, it works. But in rush hour, L.A. has nothing on Nairobi’s gridlock — or its smog. Emission controls aren’t required. Life would be healthier and more pleasant for its citizens if they were.

It’s an understatement to say that Nairobi has experienced dramatic growth. We were driving through one of its suburbs one morning when we passed a sign that said simply, “Karen Blixen House.”

Karen Blixen? Pen name Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa” and some other perfectly wonderful books? When she lived there, it was a pastoral coffee plantation. Now it’s completely surrounded by a teeming city.

“Can we go inside?” I asked Sam, our driver.

“No, it’s a private residence.”

Talk about missing a bet. A foundation could buy it, charge admission and make a fortune for a charity. Dinesen was one of the 20th century’s great writers. I’d happily pay to see the place where she lived and worked.

This was on one of the days off that Kituku gave us from working with the students, and the day’s itinerary included an African dance exhibit. I was more interested in seeing real life than tourist attractions, but the end of the performance was unexpectedly moving.

To the surprise of everyone but the performers, giggling audience members were dragged onstage to try to dance with them: Africans, Americans, Europeans, Asians, Hispanics — their smiles and laughter and genuine good will left me misty-eyed. This was at a time when terrorist attacks and racial tension were dominating the news back home. And here, for a few moments at least, people of every creed and color were simply having fun and enjoying life together. How sad, for all of us, that it can’t be that way more of the time.

Visits to the schools could be emotional as well. The students were beyond grateful for small things we take for granted — pencils, pens, shoes, underwear. Some of them live in homes smaller than many Americans’ closets. And those are the ones lucky enough to have homes. We met a girl at Kituku’s school who came from a home made of sticks and slept on a bed of sticks. Some Kenyans have virtually nothing but the clothes they wear.

Weeks earlier, Kituku told us that going to Kenya was a transforming experience, that we would return from as different people.

Did we? Yes and no. We’re the same people, but our gratitude for what we have increased exponentially. We Americans don’t always appreciate how truly lucky we are. What cosmic force allowed us to be born into relative luxury while so much of the rest of the world barely has enough to eat?

My wife and I volunteer at a shelter in Boise and thought we knew what poverty was before we went to Kenya. We had no idea. Seeing it made us more grateful for what we have and more committed to sharing. We can’t afford to add a wing to a school or a hospital, but we can help more students go to a school that means the difference between a good life and one of destitution. We can afford $400 for eye surgery that will prevent a child from going blind. I’ve spent more than that on guitars.

Did Kenya change us? No, not dramatically.

Did it change our commitment to helping those less fortunate than we are? Absolutely.

Next: Misadventures in Europe by rail. Tim’s column appears Sundays for the next two weeks and every other Sunday after that. It’s posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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