Saturday, August 29, 2009


I ran away from home on Wednesday -- at my own, not our donors', expense. Actually, I convinced myself that I really wanted to take the "Lunatic Express" (the old British night train from Nairobi to the coast, replete with sleeping berths and dining cars) before returning to the Vineyard at the end of my first mission year in October. My beloved grandmother took me via train across the U.S. fifty years ago, and I've never forgotten the experience. Nor will I forget this one.

The truth is, I am tired. I needed to take a break for a few days from the frustrations of a hospital with no water and little electricity and minimal medications and late employee paychecks. Again.I needed to take a break from the faces of the Pamelas and the Susans who separately looked into my eyes on Monday and asked me to let them die. "We're not giving up on you. Don't you give up on you, either," I responded, with a squeeze. (They both have TB and can survive, with time and food and medication. And they're getting all of the above at Maseno Mission Hospital, TG.)

So when a neighbor told me she'd soon be taking the bus to visit her daughter in Mombasa, my heart skipped a beat. I asked Judy, "Would you consider traveling by bus to Nairobi with me, and then going by train, as my guest, to the coast?" (It's not safe to travel alone at night in Kenya.) She was delighted, and so was I. We made our plans quickly, secure in the knowledge that a Boston medical resident would accompany Dr. Hardison on rounds in my absence.

In all candor, we were probably the only "lunatics" around on Wednesday, and there was nothing "express" about that train. But Judy and I shared an amazing experience, and I am grateful for her companionship. We took the morning Easy Coach bus from Maseno to Nairobi, and it was a thrill to see the sights, en route -- all eight hours of them. Sugar cane fields in the rolling dark earth of Nyanza Province merged into tea plantations in the lush green hills of Kericho, where we saw the tenderest tea leaves being harvested by hand. But that lovely land gave way to increasingly parched tan earth as we approached Molo in the Rift Valley. Familiar acacia trees dotting the countryside of the west were replaced by desperate cacti, reaching their withered arms to a merciless sky.

And there, in Molo, the faces appeared again... Faces of illness and hunger and despair and poverty. Mostly the faces of children this time. Children who were too tired to play and who simply stood at the station on spindly legs, arms out, eyes wide and sunken with hunger. Beginning in Molo, in fact, children began to routinely line our route. At the Nakuru stop, we saw the menacing sight of older kids, armed with hand-hewn clubs, stealthily approaching a private vehicle. We soon realized, with great relief, that they were unleashing their own venom onto a black mamba that had wrapped itself around the car's axle.
Our bus made its way through the more prosperous town of Nakuru, where we saw the pink sands of the lake in the distance. The sand wasn't really pink, of course: it was chockablock full of flamingos! Further along, at Gilgil, we narrowly averted a collision with a zebra. Children's faces temporarily faded in the dust of the Kiligo Wildlife Conservancy, as ill-advised baboons bounced in the roadside ditches, while warthogs and oribi antelope played chicken with the bus. Shortly thereafter, we encountered a vast eucalyptus forest ("Emmah's trees," as Judy called them) being laboriously logged by donkey carts.

Approaching Nakuru, goats and sheep grazed the meager fields and rocky roadsides. Then we saw the faces again. This time the smallest of the faces were bundled in the hoods of mission-box snowsuits. It was cool (70 degrees F) and rainy near the lake. Nearing Nairobi, the scene changed as buildings began to dot the skyline. A large sign posted at the entrance of the parking lot for the Communication Commission of Kenya announced, "You are now entering a corruption-free area." The lot was filled with gleaming new black and silver BMWs.

We arrived in bustling downtown Nairobi and walked quickly from the bus to the train depot, where we awaited the arrival of our assigned "Coach Number 1223, Chumba/Compartment C." The history of the British Railway/Kenya Railway/now Rift Valley Railway is the history of colonial East Africa. As Judy kept remarking during our trip, "Those men who built it, they were strong." They were also essentially slaves, brought from India, and many died on the job -- of heat, hunger and lions even hungrier than they.

After a series of zany misadventures (who knew that a receipt was not a ticket, that a ticket was not a boarding pass, and that askari/guards would challenge our anxious comings and goings?), we boarded at 6 PM for our 7 PM departure. Miracle of miracles, the train actually departed on time. We settled in to enjoy the ride -- and soon the dining car, where the starched white tablecloths and mismatched silver and stainless tableware provided an elegant counterpoint to the hot and rumpled passengers (just like us).

But then the faces returned in earnest. Faces of every age, lining the tracks, vying for slices of bread from the kitchen crew tossed out railroad car doorways, and coins from the passengers tossed out dining car windows. The scene bore no resemblance to Oak Bluffs harbor, where kids dive for coins tossed off the ferry for fun.

After a decent, but disconcerting, meal, we "retired to our cabin," which had been neatly made up in our abseAfter a decent, but disconcerting, meal, we "retired to our cabin," which had been neatly made up in our absence into very comfortable bunk beds. (Yes, I got the top, Maisie and Nico and Nell and Nadia!) Although I was up once -- n.b., a stationary long drop is nothing compared to a rolling choo -- I saw no sign of the infamous Tsavo lions during the night. And when we stopped at various stations along the way, it was blissfully dark. No faces could be seen, just scattered cooking fires in the distant bomas/settlements.

Dawn over Tsavo brought a startlingly different landscape. Ubiquitous plastic bags and the skeletal remains of a variety of livestock littered the arid pasture land between us and parallel MacKinnon Road. The drought in Kenya is real. A pungent stench, that of not-quite-rotted flesh, made breakfast unappetizing enough. But hungry faces peering in the dining car while we were sidelined at Taru Station made it impossible. The flat red earth of Taru was criss-crossed by narrow trails, down which children in oversized shirts (and nothing else) came running. Gesticulating hand-to-mouth, their needs were all too apparent. Judy and I waved and retreated. There was, sadly, no way to give anything to anyone without starting a stampede of children.

The train moved on. As we passed Samburu Station, we saw toddlers and mamas fetching firewood, with babies tied on their respective backs. Then came a surprising stretch of stately green sisal, as far as the eye could see -- a blessed relief from the haunting realities reflected in the faces of poverty. Clusters of coconut palms began to dot the horizon as we approached Mombasa. Clusters of kids again began to dot the tracks. More faces.

The train arrived two hours late, right on schedule (TIA). Judy's beautiful daughter, her husband and two-year-old Deborah met us at the station and led us through Biashara Street, Old Town, and stalls of sticky dates -- a great delicacy imported especially during Ramadan. They then kindly delivered me, via tuk-tuk, matatu and ferry, to the ACK Guest House in Likoni, just south of Mombasa. I can personally attest to the fact that there is something wilder than Vineyard Haven's Steamship Authority dock in August. That pales by comparison to Likoni's ferry terminal! On the other hand, the Mombasa-Likoni ferry is, ahem, FREE.

It is now a quiet evening in a quiet place. The calls to prayer from the mosques of Mombasa are somehow soothing. They remind me to pray, too. Even as I remember the faces that I so foolishly tried to forget in Maseno (and all along the Way), I am remembering again to breathe and to pray. Thank you, dear friends, for the reminders! I'll be homeward bound tomorrow -- by plane to Kisumu, then car to Maseno this time. And I will be ready, once again, to see the face of God, as well as the faces of pain, in Pamela and Susan. Please pray for us all at Maseno Mission Hospital?


Lori said...

I'm so glad that you were enough in tune with yourself to realize you needed to get away -- and did. I worry when I'm not there to personally tell you to take care of yourself!

BTW, Abbey asked how long you will be in Kenya. She's mulling over whether she would be able to join you after graduation and help at the hospital for some time. She's just thinking, but Africa seems to have had a strong pull on her.

kate said...

Safe travels home to Kisumu, Mom — what an adventure you had!

Kate, Kate, "Neeks" and "Nods"