Equatorial escapades and a nervous breakdown
Trip Start Sep 06, 2006
24Trip End Oct 12, 2007
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i had taken the matatu just over an hour from sigalagala, the highway town nearest to me, into the city. i was crammed in the very back of the packed van-style matatu to the right of this tall, strangely elegant man. on the ride, he conversed animatedly with the stout man in the business suit, who was sitting to his left. they spoke mostly in sheng, which is a modern kind of fusion of english and kiswahili, used widely by young and/or educated people. they were speaking of some business matter, their conversation blending seamlessly in with all the background white noise, the rattling of the matatu's thousands of loose parts, the honking of every vehicle on the road, the hacking coughs of several people on board, the driver and conductor yelling at each other good-naturedly.
i stared out the window, the sun beating down hard on my bare, conspicuously white arm, my heart caught in my throat, taking in the stunning scenery of the road which cuts, winding, through the fertile valleys and boulder-strewn hills filling the space between kakamega and kisumu. this majestic ride never fails to awe me; however, this day had the added distinction of being the one in which i finally took notice of the tiny, rusted-out tin sign, deposited at a haphazard angle into the dirt by the side of the road. almost completely illegible, i managed to catch only the letters "e...tor," at which point i made the mental baby step (with complete disbelief that it had taken me so long) that, on every trip i make to kisumu, i'm crossing the equator twice. i guess i had just expected something a little more grandiose...like the line that is literally painted on the ground, much to the glee of the flocks of tourists who delight in having photos taken with one foot on either side, at the arctic circle in finland.
so distracted was i by this painfully obvious realization and the subsequent train of thought regarding the proper fanfare that should accompany significant geographical landmarks, that it was only when we reached the outskirts of kisumu, dusty and scattered with barefoot children amongst the garbage on the streets, did i remember that i needed to find the post office as quickly as possible upon arriving, as it would be closing at noon
in fact, aside from the brief exchange we had stepping out of the matatu into the stifling heat of the city, i was all but ignored by the two as they continued their excited discussion. i tagged along always two steps behind, struggling to keep up with them as they deftly negotiated their way through the thicket of human bodies, honking matatus, and weaving bodabodas choking the path to the main strip of downtown activity in the city. beads of sweat were already rolling down my forehead in the notorious kisumu heat, always about 15 degrees farenheit higher than that of shikokho. kisumu, like italy's florence, is settled down in a natural basin at sea level with lake victoria, trapping all the heat within.
we quickly parted ways at the post office, them barely waving to me as they kept on with their conversation. i set to the tasks of my busy day, the highlight of which was eating a pizza at "the casino" restaurant, the first cheese i'd tasted in 6 weeks
but the off-handed comment of the strange, tall man was indeed a harbinger of the week to follow, which has been decidedly solemn even amidst random peals of laughter.
returning from kisumu that evening, exhausted by the long trip, my arms heavy with shopping bags full of rare, exotic groceries (like apples and wheat bread, found only in the big city) for florence, cynthia, and racab, and all the materials i had set out to find for the creation of the school's new library system, i arrived back at malinya weary and eager to find only a bodaboda driver who would be respectful (hard to find) and a reasonably decent driver (harder still) to give me a lift back to the house in shikokho
we had gone about 2 yards, just beginning to build speed, when, suddenly and without warning, he crashed into the ditch by the side of the road, the bike tipping feebly over into the brush, sending me sliding helplessly off the seat to land awkwardly, but at least feet-first, in the little trench (lucky for me we tipped in the direction my feet were pointed). a wave of uproarious laughter burst forth from the other bodaboda drivers behind us. getting my footing, i turned to look incredulously at my driver, who was struggling with his small body to right the bike again. only then did i realize he was completely, staggeringly drunk. i scowled at his teetering figure, gathering up my things and moving onto a different driver, who was at the ready to pick up the disgruntled mzungu passenger.
things started off well enough with dickson, as i learned he was called, me keeping adequate balance even with the many extra pounds of shopping piled up on my lap, threatening to slip off at any second, as we bounced along down the dusty road. about 5 minutes into the ride, though, as we were flying at breakneck speed down the second big hill going towards shikokho, catching air at every big bump in the clay road (and believe you me, there are many), i realized with a whiff of combined body odor and stale alcohol that this guy was no more sober than the last. unfortunately, it was too late to do anything at that point - those guys won't stop for god himself once they start going, no matter how many times you yell, "simama! simama! SIMAMA!" ("stop! stop! STOP!"). i tightened my grip on my things and thought to myself, "well, i've had a pretty good life," and we continued our barreling descent down the long, steep road, the woods and people lining the road becoming a greenish-brown blur, the driver feverishly ringing his dinky bicycle bell as pedestrians dove out of the way left and right to avoid their untimely deaths at the hands of the kamikaze bodaboda.
miraculously, we arrived at the foot of the long, narrow path leading to my house without incident, and i leapt off the back of the bike, shooting little visual daggers into the guy's head as i all but threw his 20 shillings at him. he smiled with irritating satisfaction and began his lazy, weaving path back up towards malinya. i had never been happier to see the faces of cynthia and racab, who had tea waiting on the table and glanced nervously at each other when i recounted to them the details of my harrowing flight back home, one of them finally saying, "our sister was in a bodaboda crash over a year ago and broke her leg, which still hasn't healed." ugh.
i was still hearing the words of that man, death is normal here, the next morning as i sat, quieter than usual, next to cynthia as we nibbled at our breakfast. i was making notes on my tasks for the day as she watched, completely engrossed, the exaggerated televangelist in the white suit who appears every sunday morning with some catchy new life plan for viewers. last week he was giving out cups of dirt that he had brought back in truckloads from israel, advising his viewers to buy land in kenya and sprinkle the holy dirt around the land to ensure its blessing. this week he was standing by sympathetically as a sickly-looking man delivered an impassioned testimonial, which culminated in his insistence that before going to church, he was set to sell his car for KSh200,000 (about US$3000), while after he went to church, he found a buyer for KSh500,000 (US$7500). i was turning my head so that cynthia wouldn't notice the extra enthusiasm with which i was rolling my eyes, but just then she said, "this is almost as bad as the one where the guy claimed he had AIDS, died, and was resurrected and healed by god!" well, at least we agree on some things. then the televangelist's wife appeared on screen, a pastor in her own right, in an elegant white pantsuit, imploring the women of kenya to find god and come to next weekend's revival in mombasa. cynthia snorted in disbelief. "ha! a saved woman wearing trousers! tsk, tsk." i guess some things we'll never agree on.
on monday morning, though, i woke up, inexplicably, in the blackest of humors. all through my morning ritual, rolling up the mosquito net, making the bed, jimmying open the wedged-in window shutter, taking my bucket shower, getting dressed, and eating breakfast, i sought intensely and in vain to coax myself out of this hideous mood. i quickly learned upon my arrival in kenya that entertaining a bad mood in this environment is yet another luxury which i cannot afford - augmenting the isolation and external frustrations i am already experiencing with a fruitless internal struggle can only have catastrophic results.
but this terrible mood was not to be shaken, and i spent the bulk of the morning struggling to disguise it from the teachers and students at the school, who most definitely, and rightly, would have had no sympathy for it. at 12:40 i arrived for lunch in the staff room, picking gloomily with my thumb and index finger at the ugali and sukuma wiki, identical to every other day, in the bent metal bowl set on the rickety wooden table before me. i noted the arrival of the headmaster with mild irritation. "teachers, i would like to brief you on a few issues during your lunch," his booming voice, thick with the choppy kenyan accent, announced in english. i forgot my bad mood for a second to be pleased that, for once, he was calling a teacher's meeting during lunch, an appropriate time for such; generally he calls these "emergency" [read: poorly-planned] meetings during class time, when the school's entire staff sits idle as the students run amok, a complete waste of teacher's salaries and school hours.
his first announcement concerned three teachers who had evidently been conned into signing up for insurance policies that they didn't want, a nasty situation which he, the headmaster, had personally resolved, a fact which he stressed with clear expectation of gratitude. this announcement was met with muffled grunts and a chorus of chewing sounds from the teachers, all bent over their bowls.
he paused and looked around. "now! last friday there was a problem. one of your teachers" - here he announced the name of the female teacher concerned - "performed an abortion and put the baby in the toilet. the baby has been exhumed and buried, and she has been reported." the mouthful of food i'd been chewing stuck in my throat and a wave of nausea swept over me. my hand leapt up involuntarily to cover my mouth, and my eyes shot to the faces of the teachers around me, who were still chewing, receiving this piece of news with the same blase attitude as the last. "i have been to see her, and she has told me all," he continued. "she attempted abortion in july, but failed. in august, she attempted and failed. on friday she succeeded. she has told me that she did the abortion because she did not want to return to her husband, and could not afford to keep another child." his eyes, which had avoided me since he began speaking, finally jerked around to meet mine. to my horror, he noticed the tears which were brimming up under my lashes, and said quietly, "sorry, lillian."
listen. i don't care what your stance on abortion is. just take a moment and think, really consider on a more than superficial level, not as a conservative or a liberal, but as a human being, about what i'm saying. here was a woman who left her husband, most likely, it can be safely assumed in a country where domestic abuse is terrifyingly prevalent, because he was abusive. given the pervasiveness of AIDS in kenya and the fact that it is hugely spread by men involved in extramarital affairs, there is also a possibility that he, like so many unfaithful husbands, had contracted the disease and had, meanwhile, passed on this death sentence to his unsuspecting wife. this happens all the time. i cannot stress it enough. with no money, nowhere to go, and possibly the realization, in the case of AIDS, that giving birth to a child would mean condemning another person to a short life of suffering and discrimination ending in a painful and hideous death, what were her options?
now stretch your imagination and really make an effort to understand, especially if you are a woman. when the headmaster said, "toilet," he could only have meant "pit latrine," which is an indescribably filthy hole in the ground with four corrugated metal walls around it. she attempted abortion on herself two times, unsuccessfully, under these conditions using an instrument i cannot even begin to imagine, before finally succeeding the third time in a minimum of her fifth month of pregnancy. this was not an act of laziness, recklessness, or carelessness. this was an act of utter desperation, the type of suffering that virtually no one i have ever met could even begin to fathom.
my memory skipped back a couple weeks to one night, in the dark, smoky kitchen house with cynthia, washing dishes. the tiny, ancient radio, run by two D-batteries taped to the side, was turned on, releasing a scratchy, crackling reggae beat into the room. cynthia sang along with obvious pleasure, "abortion is a crime, abortion is a sin, yes, abortion is a crime." she looked at me with laughing eyes, saying matter-of-factly, "it's true. abortion is a crime." yes, abortion is illegal in kenya, and behold the result. when the headmaster said that the teacher had been reported, he meant to the police. god only knows what fate awaits that broken woman. if she hasn't already done irreversible damage to her body, she could face a prison sentence. what will happen to the children she already has then?
i sat rigid, frozen, my entire system in shock with all of these thoughts that flashed through my mind. and then, the headmaster still staring at me, i did the worst thing i possibly could have done. i let one of those tears, overflowing in my eyes, fall. in front of all the teachers. i quickly excused myself and left the room, this horrible sickness breaking inside of me, the tears rushing down my cheeks, no longer controllable. i stood behind the building, sobbing uselessly, the laughter of some class 7 girls who saw me drifting up to choke me further.
but there was not, and is not, anything to cry about. this is just the type of all-consuming helplessness, the sensation of uselessness, which draws back and strikes randomly, without warning, certain days. for a moment i felt completely overwhelmed by the pain i felt for this woman, one of the kindest, quietest, and sweetest i have met here, this pain made exponentially more bitter by the knowledge that i was powerless to do anything for her. but returning to the staff room, looking around at the stony, unchanged faces of the other teachers, some of whom are her close friends, i understood that their resolution is truly the only means of survival here. they recognize that her situation is horrible, but still more horrible are the situations of millions of other women here and around the developing world. without this armor of seeming callousness, how would it be possible to get up every day and go through all the motions of living?
death is normal here. and so, it seems, is life.