I Left My Heart In Kenya


Every night I slid between the course fabric sheets of the small upper bunk, I could feel the crossbars of the crudely constructed frame through the thin foam mattress; yet it was a welcome respite from the weariness accrued from the long day’s events.  I caught the smoky fragrance, like a campfire, emanate from a strand of my hair. The African nights proved far too cold to shower away the remnants of the day; it would have to wait till morning.  I would journal each night by flashlight or by candle (depending on available battery power), and read a little; some of the pages still bear the oily stain from the spilt candle wax.  Honestly, I’m surprised I didn’t catch my bedding or my long tresses afire.

Every morning I would rise early to “shower”.  I could hear our helper chopping wood in the distance. She’d made the long walk to the river to gather water in a huge, five-gallon bucket.  She transported the heavy cargo on her head all the way back to the camp.  She lovingly heated the water for those of the mission team that wanted to wash up in the morning.  The warm, dirt tinged water felt heavenly as I poured it over my head.  I always took the same toiletries on these journeys: liquid dial soap, mint shampoo and conditioner.  Heavily perfumed, they effectively purged the strong aromas from my sticky skin: sweat, oil, smoke, insect repellent, all washed away, at least momentarily, until I slathered them all on again.

Then, we would have breakfast; one day we even shared warm pancakes, a collective effort pulling together  ingredients from home: instant pancakes, thick, sweet syrup, canned meat, packaged fruit, scrambled eggs (from the local market), and strong, Kenyan coffee.  Then, I would don my heavy, black, rubber rain boots, which stunningly set off my long, colorful, cotton skirt, to traverse thick muck, and stroll through “town”, where I marveled at the beautiful people selling fresh vegetables, vendors offering their wares, and rumbling, rustic old tractors puttering by, braying donkeys straining under heavy burdens.  Finally, I ambled over to the clinic, the manifestation of an urgent dream, a joint effort, but my hope and dream.  Before the end of the week, we would see hundreds of patients in Olmekenyu: Kipsigis, Kikuyu, Kisii, and Massai.  They set aside tribal rivalries and came together for a common goal: to pursue medical care to ease their suffering. Some walked seven days to arrive at our doorstep, along with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others.  I sat at a small wooden table next to a nurse, who served much like a doctor, diagnosing and treating a myriad of conditions from malaria to pneumonia, fungal infections, ear infections, actually, all kinds of infections, hypertension, multiple injuries.   I caught a glimpse of the name of her patient and mine, two young women, who looked nothing at all alike, but shared the same last name.  I looked quizzically at the nurse, “Sisters?”.  She responded frankly, “Co-wives”.  Interesting.  I pressed on.  Others of our happy entourage served as “crowd control”, others worked in the pharmacy, and still others, performed dental procedures.  This particular day, we worked through lunch time, and, quite starved nine or ten hours later, eagerly received a small meal prepared by one of the locals who brought us warm, fried bread and a small piece of roasted meat.  Tasted heavenly.  After we finished clinic, I went to Mercy’s home.  She is the little girl the clinic was named for.  Our first trip, her mother presented her to me, knowing I was a doctor, to see if we could help.  This was our “scout” journey, and one that was intended as a spiritual outreach.  We had no medications.  She was seven or eight, slight framed, and febrile from a large, infected burn covering half of her back.  Hot porridge had poured over her, causing a third degree burn which was now “soupy” with infected tissue.  My heart was heavy.  We gave the mother funds to take her to a clinic two days journey away.  This return trip, I was astounded to see little Mercy, healed, and so grown up.  She had filled out, and had a healthy plump, not only to her cheeks, but all over.  What a welcome site!  Her mother was so happy I’d agreed to come to her home.  The adobe walls were set off with a thickly thatched roof.  The obelisk structure ordinarily mounted in the center of the roof was distinctly absent from this home, signifying that the father and husband of the home was there no longer.  When I arrived inside, I stifled the urge to cough every moment; the blazing fire inside the home served multiple purposes: to cook, to provide warmth, and the smoke rising from the fire served to drive away insects from the thatching overhead. Every molecule competed with the space’s life giving oxygen. I perched myself on a low rising mound of the hardened mud, a sort of seat, covered with an animal hide, as she smiled and pointed out the important details of the home.  I could not speak Kipsigis or Swahili, but told her in my most earnest, sweetest voice how beautiful her home was. She understood.  She was grateful that I crossed the threshold of her home, and I was just as grateful that she opened her heart and her home to me, the stranger that reached out to help save her little one.  As I left, she cradled my hand in hers and escorted me back up the treacherous hillside, dodging brambles and piles of warm cow dung, back to camp.

The time was too short, we would soon pack our things and set off, back to Narok, then to safari.  I was being rushed; the rains were coming.  We needed to hurry or we would be stuck; there exists no mud like that which resulted from the relentless downpour during the “rainy season”.  But I had to finish up.  Another patient, a late arriver had come for me to look at an animal bite, make recommendations, dispense one last medication.  We had delayed just long enough for a young mother to desperately trudge the final steps of a long journey; she was burdened down with two, very heavy, very sweet bundles: a toddler with a bronchial infection, and baby, hugely swollen from protein malnutrition, kwashiorkor.  The mother was very sick as well, with a serious pulmonary infection.  If we hadn’t delayed to provide care to the one with the dog bite, we would surely have missed these precious ones, and the babes would no doubt have perished.  We packed them in the vehicle with us, and, snug as sardines, we set off.  The delay cost us greatly, we wouldn’t beat the rain. We became inextricably bogged down in thick mud. The middle section of the vehicle’s frame became caught on a mound of earth, the tires spun mindlessly and uselessly through rivers of muck.  The stuff spun off onto our faces and clothes as we tried fruitlessly to push the heavy utility vehicle off the mound.  We were hopelessly stranded.  We all prayed and, after an hour or so, we heard a low rumble in the distance.  Then we beheld our saviors, lithe framed, ebony skinned angels, clad in brilliant red plaid wool cloths, mounted on the most enormous, and most beautiful ancient tractor I had ever laid eyes on.  That they were out and about on this overcast day was a mystery, that these Massai cattlemen/farmers came to our rescue, even more so.  They coupled our vehicles together with heavy rope and hoisted us off of the mound.  Effortlessly.  I will remember their kindness the rest of my life.

We arrived in Narok, still wet, straight through, my flip flop broken, skin badly chaffed, from holding the broken thong on, squeezed between two toes; the body of the foam shoe flopped wildly with each step.  Not only were my cheap shoes wrecked, I was as well; gritty mud, drying, clung to my flesh, peppered my face, soiled my clothes and clumped in my hair.  We made our way up the hotel stairs to tidy little rooms.  The piping hot water rejuvenated my senses, soothed my aching pours, driving life into my weary body and soul.   It’s so strange how one can shower each night, dress in soft clothing and slip so unappreciatively into warm, pillowy bedding, without a thought as to the worth of the privilege.  But, batter yourself senseless, scrape and scratch every square inch of your skin, soak yourself with frigid rain, drench yourself with mud, pulverize every muscle, and the ritual takes on special new meaning.  I think I slept like the dead that night.

We deposited the sick little things at the hospital and paid their expenses.  We later learned, they survived and healed nicely.

Then, we set off for safari in the Massai Mara. What a beautiful journey.  I marveled at the rugged beauty of the Mara.  We sped through the tall grasses.  I poked my upper torso and head through a hole in the roof and gripped the sides of the opening as we sped through the golden valley.  The wind played with the tips of my hair, flowing from under my floppy hat, tethered with a cord under my chin.  I was the sole passenger that day. I must have shot a hundred rolls of film on our trip, thirteen that day alone.  Another day, we all traveled to the hippo pool.  The driver “negotiated” with the militant guarding the area along the border.  He let us pass.  I was stunned that the hippos congregated with the crocs, nonplussed by their presence.  Surely their tender flesh would serve as a tasty morsel, and yield easily to the rending of the razor sharp teeth of the reptiles.  But I discovered that hippos are a ferocious and formidable foe to animals and humans alike, not sweet bedtime creatures to be snuggled, they were not to be toyed with.  We spotted a rare white rhino, herds of wildebeest, cackling hyena, a happy family warthogs, and my favorite: a pride of lions, with little cubs feasting on the morning kill, then tousling around with the adults of the pride.  I will treasure the memories of the animals, but even more, I will treasure the lovely people, with their shimmering dark skin, their bright smiles and brilliantly colored garments.  I discovered that though their homes are different, as are their food and drink, their clothing and language, yet their hopes and dreams are much the same as ours: to lead meaningful lives, to have enough to eat, clean water to drink, medication to ease suffering, and loved ones to surround them.  I miss Africa.  I left a part of my heart in Kenya.

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