Monday, December 17, 2007
Hope... and Hippo Point
I lit three candles in the darkness before dawn today and prayed for the souls of all our fathers -- and for all of our families everywhere. It brought me comfort to know that, within hours, the Advent wreath at St. Andrew's would be lowered and the pink "Hope" candle would be lit.
We have no Advent wreaths in Kenya, but families here are anticipating holiday gatherings, just as they are around the world. There seems to be very little commercialization of Christmas in Kenya's countryside. (I refuse to count the three skinny Santas, one in a purple suit promoting Cadbury candy bars, that we saw at Kisumu's Nakumatt last week.) The economy is undoubtedly a factor, but the cultural emphasis seems to remain blessedly on family and faith in a country that is 75% Christian and 15% Muslim. Kenya is a country of both beauty and pain, clinging to hope against many odds.
Sunday is market day in Kisumu, however; Massachusetts blue laws do not apply. Linet escorted Nadia and me via matatu to Kenya's "second largest city." Actually, Kisumu is the third largest, but Mombasa is not labeled a city. Our Nissan van legally held 15 passengers; people hopped on and off and paid the tout (conductor), who hung precariously by one arm onto the open door frame throughout. I counted 26 of us, all sizes and shapes, at one point during the half-hour ride. Shortly after that we were stopped by a police roadblock, and kitu kidogo (a little something) exchanged hands before we were permitted past the meter-high metal teeth that criss-crossed the highway.
In Kisumu, we resisted the street vendors, met Linet's husband Collins and traveled together to Kiboko (Hippo) Point on Lake Victoria via piki-piki, or motorized boda-boda (bicycle). Getting there was definitely half the fun! Vehicles here travel on the left side of the road; careening through the roundabouts with cows, pedestrians, goats, cars and other boda-bodas made for an exciting ride, to say the least. A mzungu can be an expensive liability for her African friends, however. I made a relatively futile effort to disappear into the crowds whenever they were arranging transport, since every price is negotiable in Kenya.
It was a most amazing day. Lake Victoria, although shallow and congested by encroaching water hyacinths, is the source of the Nile River, and it is enormous. Lake Superior is the only larger freshwater lake in the world. Linet and Collins introduced us to a young boatman who had poled his slender wooden matatu- (engine-) boat through the hyacinths to meet us at Hippo Point. He took the four of us out for two hours on the lake where, yes, we saw hippos -- from a very safe distance, thank you. They travel in matriarchal groups, with the bulls maintaining solitary watch some distance away from their pods.
We both drifted and motored through the murky water, which is unfortunately full of bilharzia-causing schistosomiasis, while taking in the astonishing scenery. Uganda was in the distance on one horizon, Tanzania on another, and Kenya was behind us. We could only imagine Rwanda on the far western shore. Families were bathing and laundering in the marsh, while nearby fishermen were casting their nets by hand. Catfish are caught in the hyacinth tangles to use as bait for the tilapia found in the open water; the delicious tilapia is then sold to the local markets. We also saw geese, egrets, kingfishers and bright yellow "riverbirds," along with a few boats, one of them a dhow with a single striking triangular sail.
It was surreal to be lolling about on a bucolic lake in 85-degree sunshine, especially knowing many of you have already had a foot of snow. I expected Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn to appear around the next bend.
Soon, however, we returned to reality, knowing we still had hospital patients to see. But first we treated our hosts to lunch -- fresh tilapia, of course -- for 350 KSh, or about $5.50 each, at the Kiboko Club. We were surrounded by throngs of people in bright orange garb; it was obviously a meeting of the ODM (a/k/a/Orange Democratic Movement) party elite. We then traveled back via three-wheeled motorized tuk-tuk to Kisumu and saw gracefully leaping impala en route. Another hair-raising matatu ride brought us back to Maseno and a walk up the long red road home.