Our family recently returned from southeast Kenya, where we helped work on a new dormitory for a rural, all-girls high school.
Because I have no skills in construction, I was worried I would be useless.
But our hosts found a job for me – smashing rocks with a sledgehammer.
Even after I demonstrated mastery of this task and expressed interest in less strenuous assignments, such as mixing concrete, I couldn’t seem to shake loose from smashing rocks.
I thought this was because I was so good at it.
My children explained it was because the other dads actually knew how to mix and pour concrete.
My wife was the one who came up with the Africa idea. She wanted us to help people less fortunate than ourselves.
I pointed out we could just drive 25 minutes to East L.A. or Compton.
“Charity starts at home,” I said cheerfully.
She shamed us into going
But she was adamant. She wanted us to go outside our comfort zone. She wanted to remove the kids, at least temporarily, away from their privileged, suburban routine, which was increasingly dominated, she complained, by youth ice hockey.
The last laugh was on her. The charity which runs the school, Free the Children, is based in Toronto. Three of the families in our group were from Canada. We talked hockey the entire time.
Here were some revelations from our journey:
KENYANS ARE EXTREMELY FRIENDLY
As we bumped along in our jeep each day on the way to the building site, or to visit a local health clinic, kids would come running up to the road screaming “Jambo!” and waving at us with both hands.
“Jambo” is Swahili for “hello.”
one seriously frightened goat
In one commuity, the whole town turned out to meet us. They sang and danced, and grabbed us to join them. They gave us necklaces. They even gave us a goat.
I had been worried about this goat. It was tied to a tree during all the dancing and speeches. It was bleating and complaining, pulling at its tether. Then the men gathered around it, untied it, and lifted it up.
I figured we were about to witness its ritual slaughter, and then we would be invited to feast upon it.
My kids are not well acquainted with the spectacle of slaughter. (Nor are they adventurous eaters, for what it’s worth.)
Luckily the goat got a reprieve and was placed into the arms of a kindhearted Seattle woman on our trip named Marylou Brannan.
MY SOCCER SKILLS ARE RUSTY
Lulu and friend
On this same outing, we were invited to play soccer against boys from the local school.
A bull was grazing in the field. It was led away before the opening whistle.
The goals consisted of long branches, stuck in the ground at roughly the correct distance from each other. No nets.
I got started by whiffing on a ball in long grass and smacking an African boy right in the face while swinging my hand behind me.
This was especially unfortunate because the injured boy had just scored a goal against us. So it kind of looked like I was targeting their best player.
Which was untrue. I didn’t start targeting that guy till LATER, after he scored a second goal.
For my act of colonial-style violence, I was awarded a very solemn, imaginary yellow card, to the great amusement of the Kenyan players.
We ended up losing the game, 2-1. But we got to keep the goat.
Brushing my teeth Kenya-style, with the gnawed-up end of a spicy tree branch
When I wasn’t punching African children or smashing rocks with a sledgehammer or receiving livestock as a gift, I went with our group to the world-famous Masai Mara Game Reserve.
HYENAS ARE GNARLY-LOOKING SKULKERS
Hyenas are up to no good. You can tell. Just look at the picture.
They appear to limp as they run, due to length differential between front and back legs. They won’t look you in the eye. They mark their territory using their anal glands. Just awful.
You can’t even tell what the things really are — cats? Dogs? Some mixture of dog, cat, and bear? I wasn’t a fan.
Good-for-nothing hyena, being photo-bombed by Cape Buffalo (photo by Karen Bank)
LIONS AND CHEETAHS RULE
Big cats, on the other hand, are majestic. Much better in person than in pictures. Low body-fat, not a care in the world, feared by all.
photo by Karen Bank
Grazing animals such as wildebeests and zebras really freak out when a cheetah is on the scene. Anxiety City, up and down the line. Wildebeest sentries stand guard. Zebras trot nervously to and fro. Gazelles, topi, and elan all freeze in place, riveted by the distant cat. And all this was caused, on the day we were there, by a cheetah which was mainly just napping.
ELEPHANTS, GIRAFFES, AND OSTRICHES ARE ABSURDLY LARGE
Elephants, giraffes, and ostriches look like pieces from the wrong board game which were accidentally dropped down in the middle of our Planet Earth game. Way off-scale. No reason for them to be this big. Clearly a mistake by our creator.
Supposedly giraffes kick so hard, they can decapitate a lion. That news was impressive enough. But it triggered a conversation among teen boys in our jeep about the hairy frog in Cameroon (trichobatrachus robustus).
Apparently the hairy frog breaks its own foot when attacked, and then stabs its attacker with the broken bone.
We didn’t see this gentleman because we weren’t in Cameroon
This revelation produced an awed silence in our jeep.
The teen boys on our trip were informative in other ways, too.
During Q&A’s on African culture they inevitably reverted to the same topic — polygamy.
They wanted to know how many wives, max, a Masai tribesman might be allowed to have?
During one trip to the game reserve, we watched two jackals chase a rabbit across a field. They caught the little guy down in a bush-choked ditch.
We listened to the bunny’s final plaintive cries. Disney could not have made up a more pathetic noise if they assigned 10 guys in sound production.
Speaking of the circle of life, it turns out a bunch of the names in The Lion King are Swahili words. Rafiki is friend. Simba means lion. Nala means gift. Pumbaa is stunned or slow-witted. Shenzi means savage.
CATTLE OWNERSHIP IS A KEY INDICATOR OF WEALTH
Cattle are a big deal in East Africa.
One tribeswoman offered condolences to my wife when she found out we don’t own a single cow back in L.A.
In the old days, the Masai tribe came up with a great rationale for stealing the cattle of neighboring tribes.
“We believe God gave them to us” originally, said the Masai warrior Wilson Meikuaya.
When raids were conducted, he said, “We were just taking them back.”
KENYAN ROADS ARE HORRIBLE
Lulu getting her hair braided
Bone-jarring doesn’t begin to describe the roads.
Kenyans circumvent the problem by walking everywhere.
Some kids walk two hours to get to school and another two hours to get back. Tell this to your offspring next time they complain about homework.
MASAI WARRIORS ARE MOVING AWAY FROM SOME OF THEIR MORE HARDCORE TRADITIONS
The Masai are phasing out ritual circumcision for teenaged boys.
Circumcision was done without anesthetic. If the boy screamed or flinched or even breathed heavily during the procedure, then he was up shit’s creek.
Masai warrior Wilson Meikuaya
“Nobody wants to marry a flincher,” Meikuaya told us.
My wife promptly turned to our group and informed them: “I married a flincher.”
Which I thought was unfair, in light of my rock-smashing prowess.
The Masai have generally stopped killing lions, which used to be another rite of passage. They have stopped because of the animal’s decreasing numbers, we were told.
Masai children can now become warriors by demonstrating aptitude and diligence in school.
However, the Masai are still pretty hardcore. Warriors subsist on a diet of meat, milk, and cow’s blood.
When herding animals in remote locations, warriors can get sustenance by nicking a cow’s artery, drinking its blood, and then patching the beast back up. Which is disgusting, but also awesome.
Jesse getting a lesson in Masai archery
Overall, it was humbling how generous and open-hearted the rural Kenyans were, especially given their extreme poverty (and despite me having punched one of them in the face).
Jesse carrying water from the Mara River
They did not approach us with their hands out, asking for gifts or money.
They helped us build the school dormitory. They showed us how they carry water from the river each day, how they make rope from sisal plants, how they bead jewelry. They showed us how they use various trees and plants as medicine, food, firewood, and construction material.
We had been told many Kenyans would want to know what we thought of President Obama, whose father was Kenyan. But I guess the novelty has worn off. No one asked us about the guy. A few voiced irritation that he had just wrapped up a trip to Africa without visiting Kenya at all.
No one cared
Malaria was not a problem. Most of the time we were in the Mara region, at elevations around 5,000 to 6,000 feet. We saw very few mosquitoes. (There were some HUGE spiders, but they left us alone, thank God.)
There is an animal called a bush baby, or galago. It is roughly the size of a raccoon and has huge eyes. It makes the loudest, most disturbing sound at night, way out of proportion to its size or situation.
Basically it sounded like a baboon was being torn limb from limb outside our cottage every single night.
noisy little bastards
Luckily I was so tired from my chain-gang work, I slept through the nightly shrieking of the bush babies.
PEOPLE ON THE COAST WEREN’T AS FRIENDLY
At the end of our trip, we spent two days on the Kenyan coast. We boarded a tiny plane to get there.
It was my wife’s turn to flinch when we boarded this bad boy
The coastal residents were friendly enough, but there was none of the Beatles-at-JFK mania we experienced in the country’s interior
People were more jaded, from centuries of watching tourists roll into town, get drunk, hire prostitutes, get sick, become lost, hire prostitutes, and so on.
Plus, we weren’t building a free school for them.
There was a heavy Muslim presence in Mombassa, an ancient seaport which has hosted travelers and traders for 2,000 years.
We went for a boat ride on a traditional dhow boat.
The boat operator started by asking our trip leader Cameron Kennedy if he wanted to buy marijuana.
Cameron said no.
Later, the man asked if we wanted to pull over at a riverside encampment for homebrew alcohol.
Again Cameron declined.
The boat pilot’s third piece of communication was to inform us that the boat was now leaking. Which it was. Seriously leaking.
And his final cheerful offering, when we returned to dock just in time to avoid sinking, was to ask if he could have Cameron’s shoes. Cameron again declined.
Cameron was kind of over the boat operator by this point, honestly.
Wouldn’t part with his shoes (or his sweet Winnipeg Jets lid)
MY WIFE WAS RIGHT, THE TRIP WAS WORTH IT
Ultimately, the highlight of our trip was the Kisaruni All Girls Secondary School.
The students were extremely impressive. All were attending on full scholarship. They had been top students at their respective primary schools. They were confident and ambitious; they were strong public speakers. They woke up each morning at 5 am to begin their studies. They even petitioned school officials for the right to wake up earlier. (Denied.)
These girls welcomed us to their school so warmly and were clearly working so hard at their studies. It was a pleasure to help build their new dorm. Or to smash rocks while others helped build their new dorm.
The school alone was worth the trip. The animals, and everything else about Kenya, that was just a bonus.
Free the Children (FTC) is a Canadian non-profit organization which supports education in Kenya, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti, India, and China.
Trips to some of these places are offered by FTC’s sister company, Me to We, which donates 50 percent of its profits back to the charity.