January 2003

The New Year started as I said my goodbyes and packed final bits and pieces to head off back to Kenya. All seemed uneventful as I piled on bags that were well over my allowance; bringing all sorts of books and supplies that I thought I might need for the resource centre. Fortunately, I was greeted by the self same girl who assisted me during the pilot’s strike in June, on my previous return flight and she waved any charges, thanks Val! She even remembered me. Fr. James Good (still fondly remembered in Turkana) came to the airport to say farewell, and off I went. Met up with Veronica in Heathrow so had some company on the nine hour flight and even met up with one of the lads (Kevin) who spent the previous New Years with Orla and myself in Waisini, small world!! Arriving in Nairobi exhausted, I found myself bagless AGAIN! Couldn’t believe that I could be so unlucky with luggage and the next four days were spent borrowing Heather’s clothes and calling the airport. When my bag was eventually found I discovered that anyone, without any identification, could have claimed my bags back but any money I was due from the airline required a passport. I was livid, I would rather have my bag held than the money, it was worth way more!!
To top it off on my first night back I managed to crack the exact same tooth that has been giving me all the trouble since I arrived on… a bread stick! Can you believe it? A visit to the dentist the following week means there will be more dental expenses to follow, should have just has it pulled! Bought material for costumes and a stereo system for my musical and tried to leave Nairobi the following morning but every mode of transport was full so that gave me a whole extra day where I managed to bump into Elaine, her sister and friends who were also down country. Did some research for equipment for the resource centre and ended up, despite all my spare time, rushing to get away as everyone in Nairobi seems to travel at the same time in whatever direction I wish to go in!
The over night bus from Nairobi to Kitale was an indication of things to come with a family of seven children and their parents all sitting on four seats (one of them being mine) all had to be moved. Then the guy beside me obviously ran all the way from the other side of Nairobi to get the bus as he stank!!! Stinky, stinky man!! AND he also managed to snore most of the way to Kitale as I watched each bump in the road just before we hit it. We arrived at just after 5am and were not allowed out of the bus till the sun came up and it was bright enough to walk around. I stayed on till the father of the seven children got off and as I knew that my bags were in the same compartment as him so I was out like a bullet and into a taxi to St. Martin’s for a few hours sleep before heading off to Lodwar at around 10am. The usual stops were not as bad a normal as there is no longer any bribery of the police being accepted by the people at the checkpoints. However a soldier had to be carried by one of the matatus (for security they say but he may have just been looking for a free lift). We were doing well until we got into Turkana proper at Kainuk and thought we’d be safe from there on to Lodwar. A slight hiccup however leaves me less over 2000/- ksh and the watch Aisling, my sister, bought me for Christmas!
A guy with a gun (AK47 they tell me), who had three friends also with guns, stopped us. Thankfully, we had refused to carry an escort with a gun “to protect us” so there was no shoot out. We just handed over all the money we had in our pockets and when they started to look for more, they actually wanted the bag that British Airways had already lost and I couldn’t bear to lose it twice in one week. As I disputed this with one guy through the driver’s window, one of the lads on my side pointed at the watch! I had thought about taking it off for vanity purposes earlier (tan line and all that) but something made me keep it on. When I looked very disturbed about giving it away ,and explaining in English (which none of them possessed) that it was a gift, I was slapped across the face by one of them. Of course I couldn’t get the stupid sticky Velcro open and they thought that I wasn’t co-operating, so an AK47 was pointed in the window (as if I didn’t think they were serious!!). The watch opened and the guy looked at the dangling timepiece then as if to say what is the big deal!
At this point I was very aware that my handbag with loads of money and my passport, ID and credit card was at my feet and I was worried that they would ask us to get out and spot the bag, so I started to say, “Catholic Church, Diocese of Lodwar” and took off my sunglasses so I could look them in the eye and start the tears as talking was getting us nowhere and they seemed to be getting more restless as the time went on. The first rule of a damsel-in-distress, if in doubt, cry! Seemingly my years of acting paid off, as one of them was almost moved to tears himself (Br. Paddy told me later!) I was just so upset over the watch! They could have had anything else. This evidently worked, so I have Aisling to thank that we have everything else and our lives, as they told us to carry on at that point. Br. Paddy’s watch and money, along with Kevin’s money was also taken. But we are very grateful that we are all unharmed and, for the most part, very calm about the whole experience. To the extent that when we got to the next parish and stopped in for a break and a bit of grub they didn’t believe us! No point in being hysterical I guess.
Though carrying guns and pointing them at us, at no point did I feel afraid for my life, they were young and probably just looking for school fees for relatives and, knowing that extra cash is going up and down the road at the start of school term, makes it so much easier to be tempted. Two days spent in the police station followed with a written report being written, in English, by an officer whose third language was English and eventually frustration took over and I asked for permission to write it myself as I was going to have to sign my name to it. Not that it did much good; only fill up another drawer full of reports of highway robbery (that is what they called it, I had fond memories of Dick Turpin on his black horse!) But the good news is that the new president promises that he is going to round up all of these guns, so sometime down the line these insecurities will be in the past. Not to mention the state of the road that insures that everyone travels at such a slow speed. They are to be fixed and this improvement will also help.
Everyone in Kenya for the first few weeks of the year started or finished almost every sentence with “we have a new government now”. There was a real feeling of excitement and hope in the country as a whole. Unfortunately by the end of the month we found the President and Vice President both hospitalized for various reasons and a tragic plane crash killed one minister and injured four others, I must say it took some of the steam out of the people but there is still hope!
Within four days back I wanted to pack up and go home to Ireland but I was assured that this was “re-entry shock” and Sr. Yvonne my solid support system here, encouraged me to stay and she was right as the shouts of “Mazungu, Mazungu” aren’t half as offensive as they felt the first few days back. It didn’t help that there was no electricity for days on end and the whole place was suffering from a water shortage and tensions were high. But things did change quite a bit for me as I started a new job as Architect, Foreman and Director rather than teacher. I spent the next two weeks getting plans drawn up and approved by the various government ministries and getting water supplied to the building site as the heat here can cause terrible cracks in cement, therefore water is a must. During this process, it came to my attention that my builder was contracted by another parish to do work at the same time and I had to go about getting a new contractor so the whole development stopped for a bit. So I got stuck into the task of directing a musical. No-one here seemed to have any idea what I was talking about, it was very difficult to describe a play through songs when they only songs they tend to sing are religious ones. Funny for a place that never even heard of God until 40 years ago! And no-one has ever heard of Elvis, how do you get a Pharaoh to impersonate Elvis? But I didn’t give up and started with 60 children (in variations of 30 to 35 different children every day) who were all taught all of the songs in the hope that one or two would shine and become lead charcacters, which they did! I had six weeks to make this happen. Unlike in Ireland, this all had to happen after school hours and it is not safe to walk in all areas after dark so I was lucky to get 45 minutes a day if they turned up. I’ll let you know how I get on.
Elaine’s friend Caitriona was over for a visit and this gave me the excuse I needed to go to the lake, though the car had been giving trouble. On our return journey we had a flat tyre in the middle of nowhere. Luckily my car is now equipped with a lock box so the jack is most likely to be there when you need it! The jack was there but it was not high enough; so as the dark started to surround us we resorted to the very thick book Catiriona was reading to give us that extra inch and we were on our way! We were all so grateful that we felt that the name of the book, “A Prayer for Owen Meaney” should be recorded for posterity, thanks Caitriona! Her return flight to Nairobi also afforded us a weekend in Lokichoggio, which you can never complain about; good food and good company.
The month ended with a very successful workshop with the teachers of the junior refugees in the camp in Kakuma. A teacher from the junior section of each of the 25 primary schools within the camp was invited. Many of these teachers are untrained but very enthusiastic for their children, who would for the most part have been born in the camp itself and have never seen their homeland and yet have at least one extra language to deal with in their day-to-day lives. Their mother tongue, KiSwahili, possibly Turkana in the local village, and finally English. This also gave me the opportunity to practice my Burundian drumming (which has been totally forgotten); do a bit of Lingala dancing with the Congolese; sample Franco’s Ethiopian food and catch up with the wonderful national and international staff of the various NGO’s. I just love that feeling, it’s as close to New York as a cultural melting pot gets.
It always seems sadder to be away from home when there is a loss of a close friend. This January our warm, happy and funny; singing and dancing friend, Dave Tobin, passed away at far too young an age of 48 while dancing with my family. It made me feel so remote and unable to comfort those at home. He will be sadly missed but fondly remembered. May he rest in peace.
Hope your year started off well and that you have kept your New Years resolutions!
Keep in touch!
Love from the Desert! Nora