On a pedestal of fingertips.
But have no fear.
We dare not let it fall
No, we dare not let it fall.
Will you still need me, will you still feed me...
…when I’m sixty-four? We’ll find out on the 20th of this month, when we reach that milestone so whimsically immortalized by McCartney on Sgt. Pepper.
We have known a number of people who share this birth date, whom we have affectionately come to refer to as the “820’s.” We take a moment to remember one such 820, Michael Lifset, a dear friend who died of AIDS in 1989. Michael was memorialized with a panel on the AIDS Quilt.
He would be turning 59 now, and freaking out about being on the cusp of a dreaded “sixty.” They say that age is “a state of mind.” Thinking of Michael, we say, it is a state of being.
Kenya: A Trip in Every Sense
We may have missed Woodstock, but would not have missed this trip for the world; a third world at that. If Woodstock was about overindulgence, Kenya is about “under” indulgence.
As a member of St. Monica’s parish (in Santa Monica) we were given the opportunity to go on a mission to Holy Cross—a sister parish in Dandora, an eastern suburb of Nairobi. The purpose was to witness the work that has been done, and that still needs to be done, in assisting the poorest of the poor in their plight.
This entailed not only interacting directly with those in the parish, but with other organizations set up for similar purposes. This was not a trip with an itinerary you would find in any Frommer’s Guide or any other tourist guide for that matter. We were going where tourists dare not go. But in this context, there we went.
We knew that Kenya was a relatively poor country statistically. Between the 1970s and 2000, the number of Kenyans classified as poor grew from 29 percent to about 57 percent. (Source: Library of Congress). But statistics do not prepare one for Dandora, which has been used as a garbage-dumping site and has evolved into a high-density slum. It was listed by the Blacksmith Institute as one of the most polluted areas in the world.
Nor do statistics prepare one for a walk through Kibera, another slum— the largest in Africa— with an estimated one million people squeezed into an area that is 75% the size of Central Park. As another point in our cultural reference, it was also a place featured in The Constant Gardner—a 2005 film starring Ralph Fiennes.
And nothing prepares you for the children who comprise 45% of the total Kenyan population. And it is always about the children, who are ever present; up close and personal. Yet ever personable (“whale-comb veezi-tahs”) and filled with wonder at the magic of our technology. The picture taking and show-and-tell on digital cameras were never ending. Nor did one want them to be.
They come at you in all forms of economical, sociological and pathological development.
At their best, in mind and body, are those receiving a good education at the St. James School in the Holy Cross parish (all excellent in their penmanship, by the way). Impeccably dressed in their school uniforms, they recite for us proudly the lessons they are so diligently learning.
Then there are those who are abandoned to the streets and are picked up and cared for by the Boma Rescue Mission. They greet us with song and tribal dance. Later we would get down with them and kick some soccer balls around.
There are those who are neurologically damaged and cannot verbalize their inner thoughts. Who yet managed a smile that said it all, during our singing and dancing (there was music in the air wherever we went). They are cared for by the Missionaries of Charity—Mother Theresa’s order of nuns. We met a nun there who had worked directly with that saintly woman of Calcutta, and had fascinating stories about her, to tell.
There are those who are HIV positive. And they sang out their names and ran and played in an orphanage called Nyumbani (“at home” in Swahili). It included a small cemetery out back, containing those kids whose affliction was caught too late, and unable to respond to medication. Yet, the children there seem oblivious to it all, and run about among the small crosses. We are told they have learned to accept life and death, as just another part of their everyday.
And then there were those who are just “plain” orphans; healthy infants awaiting a home.
Having taken these children in our arms, we have tempered our prejudgments against those celebrities—the Jolies, the Farrows, the Madonnas of the world—whom we used to think of as adopters of African kids for sport, so to speak. But there are so many kids out there in desperate need. We thought we knew that before. Now we really do.
What one comes away with amidst all this poverty and suffering, however, is the continued upbeat spirit of the Kenyan people. They smile, they wave, they seem genuinely happy to see us. And they are filled with a steely determination.
Visiting some in their ultra-modest homes they are gracious and generous in their offering of something to eat. They are proud of their sparse surroundings and the little they have, which they never hesitate to share.
But admittedly, this trip wasn’t all altruistic. For one thing, we did stay at some quality lodgings and ate at some unique restaurants. Carnivore—serving ostrich and crocodile among its many meats—comes readily to mind. And we did get to do some sightseeing in the form of a Safari at Masai Mara, (a five hour drive from Nairobi on mostly unpaved roads)… a visit to an elephant orphanage to watch baby elephants being bottle-fed… a stop off at the Giraffe Centre (where we had giraffes literally eating out of our hand)… and last but not least, a visit to a Masai village where the tribe still lives in accordance with the old world African customs and ways.
The guide that showed us around— in his red tribal warrior dress and crude weapon— does however have access to email, through some organization not far from the village. Can Facebook and Twitter be far behind?
At this point, we close with an opportunity to view a nine-minute “visual poem” we have composed (as opposed to say, ugh, a vacationer’s eternal “carrousel” of slides, accompanied by a drone of narration) that we think captures the essence of the trip.