‘Planes, trains and automobiles’ lead to a new world for St. Gregory studentsby kenya on Jun. 09, 2011, under Life
June 7, 2011
Dispatch from Kenya
By Fred Roberts, St. Gregory Dean of Students
Prior to our trip to Kenya we knew we would have long plane rides and endless layovers, but until sleep is short, giddiness comes randomly, or if you can’t decide between being too tired to sleep or too tired because you just woke up, then know you are in the middle of it. If there is a middle, then there must be an end. The good part is that the destination is always getting just a bit closer, if not by miles then by the tick of the second hand.
Nearly two days of planes, trains, automobiles and a lot of walking have taken us from Tucson to Naro Moru, Kenya. Most of our party met at St. Gregory on Sunday morning at 9 a.m. and at 2:30 p.m., we were departing Sky Harbor for Dallas. During our four-hour layover, Alex Harrison, Olivia Paige and Lila Conlee, our Atlanta Girls’ School contingent, joined us. From there we had a nine-hour flight to London’s Heathrow Airport, where Lauren Bolhack, a St. Gregory Middle School grad, joined us. At our final gate at Heathrow, the final member of our entourage arrived, Emily Hansen, who had been in Copenhagen with her family.
At each stop along the way we found a comfortable set of seats, preferably without arm rests so we could stretch out, to ‘camp out.’ With our various carry-on items within reach, one or two of us would stay ‘in camp’ while the others explored the different airports. While bunkered down in Heathrow for our seven-hour visit, at regular intervals the loud speaker announced the next departing plane. Paris, Bucharest, Moscow, Santiago, Dubai, Lagos, to name a few. Each passerby seemed to be speaking a different language that accompanied a different shade of skin color and a different style of dress. We were not in Kansas anymore.
We arrived in Nairobi on Tuesday morning, and the first thing we noticed was the chill in the air with a touch of humidity, a rarity for us Tucsonans. We smoothly passed through customs and to our three waiting vans to take us north to Batian’s View Experiential Education Center, our home for the next 23 days. On our way out of the airport we saw a giraffe in the distance, walking slowly through the low whistling acacia trees. Thankfully, Nairobi’s traffic was light, and soon we were in the countryside passing large pineapple plantations, sisal farms and small family farms growing beans, corn and bananas.
Unlike the U.S., where per capita ownership is 1.4 vehicles, in Kenya the ratio is closer to one vehicle for every 50 people. Large busses full of passengers plied the roads, along with smaller nine passenger vans called matatus. Every few miles groups of people would wait for a matatu going to their destination. As a matatu approached, a young man would lean out the open side door, waving his arm and pounding on the door announcing the vehicle’s arrival. Once inside the matatu, ‘tout’ would collect the fare, either large coins or neatly folded shilling notes, which he would lace between his fingers; the tout’s cash register.
We stopped outside of Thika for a chai (Kenyan tea, half water and half whole milk) break. We also had samosas (meat pies), mandazi (Kenyan doughnuts) and a few sausages. The hoteli (small Kenyan restaurant) – one not frequented by tourists – was bustling with early morning commuters on their way to their jobs in Nairobi. As is the focus with this trip to Kenya, we hope for the students to see the places regular tourists miss, and in that we see a side of East Africa that most foreigners miss. And in my opinion, the most wonderful side of Kenya.
As we traveled further north, there were fewer people and fewer vehicles. When we passed a small village, small stands of fruit, vegetables or live chickens lined the road, the merchants selling their goods to the travelers. Some were quite aggressive in their marketing techniques, venturing further and further from the curbside to display what they had to sell. A dozen vendors, vying for the buyers’ attention, immediately surrounded the vehicles that did stop to make a purchase.
After three hours we reached Naro Moru, a town that has grown quickly in the last decade due to the increase in produce grown for the international market. Here you could not only find traditional crops such as corn, beans and potatoes, but also snow peas, strawberries and sunflower seeds. Of the latter only the domestic grade quality was found in the local market, with the higher-grade quality making its way to Europe and the Middle East.
We left the tarmac and went due east towards Mt. Kenya, on a rutted dirt road that was more of a washboard than road. Waving school children raced, cattle walked lazily with an elder and switch in hand, and women walked with loads of firewood on their backs. From the international city of Nairobi, we were in a very different part of Africa, one that hadn’t changed for many years, but was also subject to the forces of globalization and technology. It wasn’t uncommon to see the mamas carrying wood or bundles of cabbage with a cell phone clipped to outer pockets of their long dresses.
We pulled into Batian’s View, a small oasis of tall pine, eucalyptus and cedar trees, their roots extending deep enough to draw nourishment from the rich soil and water from the nearby Naro Moru River. Co-managers Peter Kafuna and Mary Wairimu met us in the driveway, along with the cook Ngigi, who had bowls of irio, a traditional Kikuyu meal of potatoes, corn, beans and spinach, waiting for us.
The afternoon was spent settling into our new accommodations, the girls staying in a larger new building, fondly called Ndovu, which means elephant in Kiswahili. The boys bunked up in one of the cabins closer to the river. In the late afternoon we took a walk along the river and were greeted by a small troop of black and white colobus monkeys in the trees nearby. As we watched the colobus, Ali spotted a chameleon, slowly making its way up a small shrub. We gently picked it up and passed it around, watching its colors slowly change with each sweatshirt the small reptile crawled on. And almost immediately we spotted another. We passed the little critters around, and the colobus looked down upon us as if to say ‘hey, what about us!’