Legs numb after nine airplane hours of poor circulation, I stumbled out from a final security check into the chilly Nairobi morning. I rubbed the sleep from bloodshot eyes and skimmed the sea of Kenyan welcomers, who waved signs for hotel guests and safari customers, and called out greetings to homecoming friends and family. Out from a thin sheet of ruled notebook paper popped the words I sought, in bubble lettered caps lock, “KATE OTTO LOVES WISER!”
My tired face brightened like a light bulb, smiling wide at Osmond, the youthful man holding my welcome sign, as we skirted around the crowd for a proper introduction. Osmond was here to bring me to Muhuru Bay, a small community in the Kenyan province of Nyanza, where my dear friend and fellow Truman scholar Andy Cunningham co-created and now serves as Executive Director of WISER, the Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research.
At it’s core, WISER is a private secondary boarding school for girls, in a village where a dismal 5% of primary school girls continue on to secondary school due to gender inequality in family roles, early pregnancy, and forced marriages. WISER also consists of a bridge program with local primary schools to prepare students for their exams, a skill building summer camp for Muhurian youth, a locally designed HIV prevention program, a youth football league aimed to promote gender equality, and a clean water and sanitation program based at the school that will benefit the entire village of Muhuru Bay. As a diehard fan of Andy’s creative work and tireless work ethic, it has been my dream for several years to visit him on his own turf. And so, when Ginan asked me to accompany him to an annual meeting of a Rumah Cemara funder, this year held in Nairobi, I agreed on the one condition that I could spend some time in Muhuru.
I had intentionally neglected to ask Andy exactly how long the journey would take from Nairobi. While the pragmatist in me prefers to follow a game plan, the realist in me knows such plans are rarely followed in rural Africa, and the romantic in me knows that the spirit of adventure is dampened when I have a sense of exactly what to expect. And so Osmond and I set out on what would be a journey that rivaled the Bangkok to Nairobi flight! For 7 hours we sped through the ancient aura of the Great Rift Valley, and miles of bursting maize farms and barren fields, dotted every hour or so by a gathering of small roadside stalls. And even in the roadsides farthest from any visible structure, there were always people walking and waiting, walking and waiting.
Around hour six Osmond cruised swiftly by a small homemade sign propped up in the road read, “Accident Ahead!” Thankfully there seemed to be no accident, though the fact the locals have a prepared sign left me believing that it must be a common enough occurrence. By high noon we had reached the end of the cracked pavement, our clunker car jostling and jangling down a rut ridden dirt path. I hoped in vain around every new curve we would reach Muhuru, though the vast expanse kept rolling out before us.
This must be a very special place, I decided, knowing Andy was fully aware of the challenges of extreme poverty and lack of development awaiting him when he committed to WISER. My awe at Andy’s dedication heightened exponentially from jostle to jostle, “How does he have the energy to make this trip again and again?”
Leaning out of the window, my face now laced in a thin layer of red dust billowing up from below the tires, I watched women stroll gracefully with grimy yellow jerrycans of water balanced atop their braided heads, water they have to walk miles to get at the banks of Lake Victoria. I watched dignified looking men, in button up shirts and mismatched jackets, toting hobo-esque packs on crouched backs, all dressed up with no apparent place to go. I watched cattle tied to roadside bushes swat flies with their tails and galloping goat kids that seemed to outnumber the small crowds of scrambling human kids, who burst with energy anytime a wazungu, a white person, drives by. “How ah YOU?” their high pitched tones cried out like a broken record, as if it’s the only English phrase they have been taught.
The equatorial sun now blazing overhead in the afternoon heat, we pulled onto the WISER compound under an endless open sky, armies of clouds enthroned above, a rainstorm brewing far off in the distance. Though my towering redhead white-skinned friend was an anomaly among native Muhurians, Andy meshed in seamlessly as a citizen, fluently conversing in the local Luo language and clearly understanding the village power structures and cultural norms that would dictate the efficacy of his efforts. I watched him with adoration, for he had taken the precious time to fully understand his challenging environment before proceeding with his project, time that many development agencies and international aid donors do not take seriously.
“They came with just their underwear”, Andy explained to me. From their dormitory bedrooms Andy and I discussed his impressive students, as all 30 of this first WISER class dutifully and cheerfully brought buckets of water from the compound’s water tower to do their daily washing. From their diligence to their daily chores, commitment in the classroom, and natural bounce and enthusiasm, I could tell they came with much more than underwear, although Andy’s statement accurately reflects their material poverty of their upbringing.
Andy allowed me the opportunity to visit the home of one student and one staff member, both humble homes not unlike the billions of huts and shacks that house an overwhelming majority of our world’s people; after all, over three billion people or half our global population live on less than $2.50 a day. There isn’t a toilet to be found in Muhuru Bay, just squat latrines positioned far from buildings, and sanitation issues are the strongest factor in poor health. On a visit to a local clinic I cringed to see that patients – imagine for example a young mother who has just given birth – have to muster up enough energy to cross the entire yard just to urinate.
At the student’s home, like most Muhuru homes, a mud hut constituted the ‘kitchen’, the indoor coal fire making the air filthy and scorching hot; another factor contributing to poor health. This student’s auntie proudly prepared a large pot of rice and beans, rolled up chapati bread, and an avocado-plantain ‘salad’, treats I knew were not of the daily variety. With the help of a translator, we discussed daily life in Muhuru: high unemployment in a community of fishermen and farmers, a brand new but problematic electricity line, a staggering 38% HIV infection rate, and a complete lack of drivable roads, which meant imports and exports were expensive if even feasible, creating a dangerously limited economy. We searched for the grave of the student’s mother, now lost in field of cassava sprouts, and spoke with the student’s cousin and best friend, a young girl who had not made the WISER cut and was suffering to be away from her sister.
At the home of the staff member, a 30-minute footpath through the farmlands, I learned that both he and his wife are living with HIV, though this is their closely guarded secret. Aware of the great burden an HIV + status can be in any community – because of the inevitable implicit moral judgments and economic consequences – I was shocked that they spoke so freely with me, a relative stranger. “You talked before about your work in Indonesia,” he explained, “And I knew that you would understand our struggle.”
And so I shared more with them about the successful concept of a peer support group, and encouraged them to seek out more of the 38% of HIV+ Muhurians to host weekly meetings and spark creation of more accessible medical and nutrition services. Yet I listened to their rebuttal, that they risk losing their jobs, and hence their two daughters’ educations and livelihoods, if they were the first to open up. As always, the long-term benefit of openly discussing HIV is stymied by the short-term costs and fears. They poured me another cup of tea, offered me another slice of bread, every silent action pleading with me, “We still have more to say”, their pent-up emotions finally meeting their lips and dissipating from within their heavy hearts. These are the voices that articulate reality more accurately than any research paper or best practices produced outside the affected community. These are the voices that guide me in my work, and walking back to WISER, I knew guided Andy to Muhuru, even if the trek is long and arduous.
In this and in most rural villages – far from the convenience of grocery stores – there is just one day a week when food, clothes, and various knickknack items are brought to buy and sell: Market Day. My eyes scoured the crowded scene for the one item I am always eager to buy: local fabrics, in this case, the East African kanga, a batik wrap of bold color combinations, funky patterns, and printed Swahili proverbs. High society SoHo boutiques could import these and sell them for hundreds, but here in Muhuru I bought eight yards for just about $8.
“USIJITESE KWA MAMBO YAPITAYO”
Back at WISER I inquired about the printing across one of my kangas to WISER’s brilliant Kenyan principal. She chuckled softly and looked up into the air pondering how to phrase the translation, and I smiled to see that what takes just a few words in one language can require a lengthy explanation in another, a phenomenon I experience quite often with Indonesian.
“Regarding matters of the past,” she began, “don’t hold it close, don’t try to control it. You know, let bygones be bygones.” I thought about framing the piece of fabric to hang in the Rumah Cemara office, as past hurt and pain are main motivators of drug addiction, and this acceptance concept is a key philosophy to the healing process. And then I thought about these young WISER women, where they came from, and how much burden they have on their shoulders as they embark on their journey through secondary education. While the opportunity to study at WISER is a dream come true, I would imagine they still must worry about the family members they are for now leaving behind, and wonder if their personal gains will benefit their kin as well. Breaking the cultural norm of gender inequality is no light task, and while it looks heroic in the limelight, I am sure these women are dealing with heavy past pains backstage, pains that unchecked could lead them back to the dangerous lifestyle the WISER process is hoping to transform.
I left Muhuru with a heavy heart, as much sorrow for their past as excitement for their future, and did not even take notice of the long hours back, until we were stopped, as I anticipated we might be, before entering city limits. An opportunistic police officer, a title I am reluctant to use for his unabashed lack of professionalism, saw a wazungu and took advantage, informing me that my driver was driving illegally without “lifesavers” in his trunk, the fluorescent triangles used to keep the car safe if we were to break down. “I will have to bring you to the station now, wait until morning to bring you to court, and then charge you 200 thousand shillings (roughly $2600) for your crime.” He smiled a sickening smile, and were it not for his gun and my rusty Swahili, I just might have called his bluff. But I reached down into my bag instead and unwillingly pulled out a 500 note.
“Make it 1000,” he sneered.
I asked my driver to get back in the car, I paid the man’s bribe, and we cruised on into the city lights ahead. How much these WISER girls have on their plate, I thought in frustration, for the societal changes they seek are based on problems that run so deep, so widespread.
Before I could even start processing the complex Muhuru experience, Ginan and I were back in the air flying towards Bangkok. There we visited friends and adventured upcountry to Chiang Mai, an increasingly developing city that serves as a base camp for western tourists seeking the exoticisms of elephant rides, monkey sanctuaries, and visits to the “longneck” hill tribe women straight from pages of National Geographic, sporting the thick metal coils that make their heads seem to float a foot above their body.
Yet exhausted after the week in Kenya, two bustling Bangkok days, and a 12 hour train ride to the north, we were too late, and honestly too frugal, for most tour company offerings. Strolling through the urban night bazaar, air thick with dust, I regretted for a moment not trying harder to see some of the special sights off the beaten path that I would not be able to see in my daily life – the things that make the best stories for my grandparents. After all, we had traveled so far. Was I wasting that long trip just because I couldn’t muster the energy or financial planning to get out and go?
“Usijitese kwa mambo yapitayo”, the bold printed kanga stood out in my mind as clearly as Osmond’s initial welcome note at the airport. Relax. When I worry about what I did not do, I forget to credit that which I have done – in this case, the still very fascinating ventures of praying peacefully at Buddhist temples and conversing with monks about their lifestyle, exploring the teeming outdoor handicraft and flower markets, and sampling as endless flavorful treats of street cart food and drinks.
The greater application followed soon after in my thoughts, as the trip back to Africa got me thinking intensely about what I will do once my scholarship year in Indonesia comes to a close this July. Because I admittedly worry if I’ve followed the right professional course: jumping from project to project instead of committing to just one organization. Or if I should have worked first and waited to go to grad school, being in debt with a degree and seemingly a million possible directions before me. Though I spend most of my time immersed in the matters of the present moment, there are certainly times I spend worrying about my past choices rather than accepting them as an unchangeable constant in the many permutations that could become my life trajectory.
I stared out the window as our return train chugged lazily towards Bangkok. Hundreds of small fire patches were burning up the open fields, as farmers prepared the soil for a new harvest. Thinking about how to use all I am experiencing and learning to guide my next steps, my Dad’s words floated in the air, like he always says, “Making a decision is the right decision”, and as East African Swahili wisdom confirms; accept the decisions you have made, or the hand you have been dealt, and focus making the most of the present.
If you can support WISER’s brilliant work, I encourage you to do so here.