We have a busy day ahead of us. We’re scheduled to leave at 6:30am so we can meet Naomi in Eldoret at 8am when her bus from Nakuru arrives. From there, we will meet up with her brother James and his wife (Naomi), visit with them and their three children for an hour or two before heading to Naomi’s mom’s house, about an hour away, up the mountain outside Eldoret. Our outing has a dual purpose. First, I finally get to meet Naomi’s mother. Second, the older children gain time to finish the birthday party preparations for the twins – including cooking the birthday feast, decorating the house and wrapping presents. An energy of expectancy sparkles in the home.
As with most days this week, this morning dawned bright and sunny. Afternoon rains are, as usual, expected. Yet none of us give much thought to the fact it has rained every day this week. If we had, we might have made different choices on today’s journey.
Today four of us will be traveling to Eldoret – George, myself, and the twins. The older children are up already, doing farm chores, preparing breakfast and helping the twins get showered and dressed. Anytime the twins leave home, they’re always dressed to the nines. Even when they go swimming! Today, they’re preparing to see their grandmother in matching crinoline-skirted outfits that only differ in their color (pink for Paula and yellow for Paulette). This makes it even easier for me to tell them apart!
George is still moving slower than normal after his health challenge earlier this week. We leave the house a bit after 9am. Naomi has already arrived in Eldoret; knowing we’re still at home when she gets off the bus, she makes her way to James’ house rather than wait in town for us. She’s there before we’re all showered, dressed for travel and have eaten breakfast.
It’s about a 90-minute drive to Eldoret town and our trip there is uneventful. When we arrive, George drives us into the center of town, to pick up some grocery items for Naomi’s mother and the wrapping ribbon that we kept forgetting on our treks into Kitale town.
Eldoret is in full swing by this time and George cannot find a parking space. Instead, we head back to a small commercial area closer to James’ home, where he joins us so he can jump out downtown to do the shopping while George circles.
This is the Kenya way. Everything gets accomplished in due time. Polepole. Slowly. For the most part, I’m at ease with this pace. Except of course when I’m attempting to catch a flight home. Planes have their own schedules, and tend to depart on time, with or without you. My last trip both my departure from Denver AND my departure from Nairobi were delayed with no ill effects on my ability to travel. So this time, I’m much more relaxed.
Of course our journey today will be absolutely perfect in every way. We just don’t know it yet.
Our next stop is James’ home, where his wife is preparing tea and bread so we can sit and visit with them a while. Both wives are outside with the three children. The oldest child, James and Naomi’s daughter Fiona (11), comes running right up to me and gives me a great big hug. The two boys (8 and 18-months) hang back a bit, smiling and making eye contact when I ask them Habari yako? “How are you?”
Fiona has both sickle cell anemia and Down’s Syndrome. Naomi shares that this year they found a really good school for her that is helping her mainstream her education. She’s bright and energetic and pushing the boundaries like any American 11-year old would. Our visit with James’s family is short. Naomi’s mom is calling wondering where we are. It’s past noon and they have prepared lunch for us. I pose for pictures with James’ family and he joins us as we head off to continue our journey with promises to come and stay longer next time.
We head “down the road and around the corner” to “Mama Naomi’s” house. In Kenya, women often go by their oldest girl child’s name. For instance, Naomi is often referred to as “Mama Paus” to indicate she’s the mom of Paula and Paulette.
A decade or so ago, Naomi’s family moved further out of town, where Naomi’s older brother has land and has been building a house. Her father has dementia and lives in town. Her mother lives on the land we’re traveling to.
As we leave the tarmac, we head up the dirt road, then the rough road. We pass a building where people are pouring out. A wedding has just taken place and the bride and groom are coming out the door as we pass. We continue up the road leading to Naomi’s mom’s house. The way is beyond muddy and is all uphill. It’s slippery like a snow slush/ice mix on the roads in Colorado. It has rained very hard here the past few days. In our little sedan, we have very little traction.
We see a four-wheel drive pulled off to the side. It’s Naomi’s brother-in-law, Robert. Naomi shares that Robert was going to bring us up to the homestead, but he expected us hours early. Now, he’s not able to help, as he has promised the wedding party he would help them with his truck.
He gets out and gives us hugs, and he and George and James discuss the road. He had hoped to guide us up the hill in his vehicle. Instead, he wishes us well and directs us up the hill. We slip and slide and nearly wind up in the ditch once, twice, three times. And then, we become good and stuck. It’s clear to me that we’re not going to make it up the hill. George is trying with all his might to make it happen by sheer will. We try again and again, each time getting stuck and needing to be pushed back.
We’re already late, and the last time I visited Kenya we cancelled on Naomi’s mom at the last minute, when our car battery was dead the morning we were traveling back from Kitale to Nairobi and we didn’t want to risk me missing my plane.
Even George’s tenacious willpower isn’t going to make this puppy climb the hill! Thanks to a few pedestrians on this muddy track, we’re able to back up enough to slide down the hill backwards to a slightly flatter area, where we’re able to turn around.
By now, Robert has finished with his activities for the wedding. We decide to head back to the tarmac road so Robert can give us a lift to the homestead. They ponder whether or not we should go all the way back to the place on the side of the tarmac where we can pull over and slog through the fields, or if Robert should just carry us up the muddy direct road in his truck.
It’s been raining on and off during this ordeal, and the road we traveled is even more slippery than before. Next thing we know, we’re stuck again, even though the road is more level here. I ask George if it would be bad form if I got out and helped James and the guys push. He’s not keen on that idea, so I ask if I can take his place behind the wheel and he can help push. That’s acceptable. With George, James, Robert and several other strong young men behind the car, I put it into gear and gently accelerate. Nothing happens. We try again. Nothing. Even rocking the car doesn’t make it budge.
James leans in so we can regroup – and he notices something I hadn’t. When George exited the vehicle, by habit he pulled up the parking brake between our two seats. After having a good laugh, we try again, and this time the car easily begins to roll forward. We all take our original seats and head back to the tarmac, pulling onto a parking pull off area near a local shopping district.
Naomi, the twins and George climb into the covered back of the pickup truck, along with Robert’s oldest daughter, Sharon. I climb into the front seat next to Robert and we head back the way we came, up the slippery slope. Even with his 4-wheel drive, we travel at a crawl. The truck bucks against each muddy crevice and the wheels fight for traction with each inch forward.
Alongside the road, an old man with a cane is attempting to walk uphill. Robert pauses and offers him a ride, which he gladly accepts. We can’t stop where the man planned to disembark; the risk of getting stuck is too high. Instead, he travels with us to the top of the hill, where our wheels finally connect with grass. He’s grateful for the ride, as it is much easier for him to walk down to his home than it would have been to continue his walk upward.
Here, we are up high, and the ground is flatter. There is one drawback. Robert has to leave within an hour, to take care of another commitment he has and he’s our ride back. Not sure how it’s going to sit with Mama Naomi if we have to eat and run. We are greeted by a variety of Naomi’s nieces and nephews and her younger sister, Purity (Robert’s wife).
We enter the sitting room, put down our bags and head to the outside toilets. It’s been quite the journey this morning! Back at the house, a basin sits on the edge of the stone porch, with a pitcher of water and a sliver of soap so we can wash our hands before eating. It’s much colder here, and damp. As I dry my hands, thunder rolls in the distance. We’ve arrived in the nick of time; the downpour begins just as we sit down to eat.
The usual arrangement of large stuffed chairs and couches line the walls of the sitting room and various tables have been commandeered for us to eat at. Just beyond the sitting room, is a hallway and across it another open room, where serving tables are set, piled high with food.
When Naomi’s mom enters, I give her a great big hug and she gestures for me to sit down. I join the twins on a couch to her right. Naomi and Purity pile food on plates and serve us. Sharon follows with a milky pitcher filled with Mama Naomi’s homemade mala – fermented milk much like American kefir, only thinner. This is her specialty. It’s made from her cows’ milk and sales of mala provide a small bit of income.
Mama Naomi is overjoyed that we’re finally meeting, that I’m partaking of her food, spending time in her home, and enjoying her mala.
This is truly a feast. Meat stew, chicken, rice, ugali, chapati (yay!), greens. The food on my plate towers. Irene had given us strict instructions to eat lightly at lunch since they are planning a big feast at home. That’s so not going to happen today.
As my Swahili improves, it’s become quite the norm for people to start up conversations in the room and chatter away amongst themselves even when I’m around. I understand Swahili much better than I speak it, and often laugh at jokes that are made, or nod in agreement at something that’s been said. I love being immersed, and sit eating my meal mindfully, enjoying the conversation and laughter that fills the room at this family gathering, so like the dinners with friends and family at my home.
Just before chai is served, Robert announces it is time for him leave. When Mama Naomi discovers this means we have to leave too, she’s crestfallen. James comes to the rescue and offers to ride down the hill with Robert, and then drive our car to the other side of the fields, which he will cut across on foot to get back to us. He’ll then walk us out the same way when we’re ready to go. A win-win-win solution. My favorite kind. We sit back down and leisurely enjoy our chai, take scads of pictures, the twins enjoying quality giggle time with their grandmother.
Earlier today, as we were romping through the mud road, I had texted Irene to see what time they wanted us back, when they thought they would have their party preparations finished. The text reply comes back: between 5-6. As we sit taking tea, it’s already 3pm, so I’m pretty sure we’re going to be on “Kenya Time,” aka more than fashionably late.
Before I can text back, I’m distracted by a sudden influx of people entering the room dancing and singing. They circle around me, dance around and with me, celebrating my being with them. While they are singing, they wrap me up in a traditional waterproof covering. Now I see how it is women can be walking alongside the road in the rain, with their baby bundled on their back and not be getting wet.
In addition, they are gifting me with a ceremonial gourd. This was a customary part of their tribe’s culture, when they would travel during the day. The gourd would be filled with fresh goat or cow milk, the leather straps would be tied across a person’s chest, or attached to the “saddle” where it would ferment and “churn” during their travels. This is how Mama Naomi’s family grew up – and why she has such a stellar recipe for mala herself.
James returns. He enjoys his cup of warm chai – the weather is still misty, and his trek through the field has been a wet one. After many hugs, and promises to visit again soon, we leave. We walk past a section of the yard that has a partially crumbled mud and grass hut, a long low clay covered cinderblock house and a vacant timber home where the mud flooring underneath has eroded. We stop at the clay house to thank the women who prepared our dinner, who are now attending to the meal’s cleanup.
The partially crumbled hut had been Mama Naomi’s original house on this homestead. In Kenyan tradition, the matriarch of the family always maintains her own home. For now, Naomi has convinced her oldest brother to let their mother stay in his partially built house for now, so she has safe shelter from the elements.
The vacant frame house was a home Naomi paid to have built for her mother during the time she worked as the ward head of the hospital in Nakuru, before she and George were married and later had the twins.
It was her way of giving back to her mother for having mostly raised Leon the first years of his life, before he came to be with her in Nakuru. It’s a bit of a game in Kenya for young college men from wealthy families to seduce as many young college women as possible. This often results in many single women having to drop out of college to raise children. Fortunately, Naomi’s parents were willing to raise Leon as their own so Naomi could finish her nursing degree and have a strong start in life.
As a result, Leon was considered Mama Naomi’s son. When George asked Naomi’s parents for permission to marry Naomi, her father asked if he “would be taking the boy too, or just Naomi?” It’s a very binding process, legally, ethically and morally. By announcing his intention to “take” Leon too, George agreed to make Leon his son, as much as his own flesh and blood, eligible for all rights and responsibilities as a Kaye son. This George did without hesitation.
We follow James off the homestead, and down a grass and mud path that cuts between two fields. We are quite the sight. George in his suit and dress shoes, Naomi in her fancy dress, the twins in their crinoline skirts and Mary Jane velvet shoes and me in my jeans and sneakers. The muck and mud pulls at our shows, splattering our skirts, pants, suits, and even shirts. We are merry little hikers, though, helping each other up and over big puddles when we can, slipping and sliding and singing.
What a magnificent manifesting force these twins are…. When we finally make it to the car, I start laughing aloud and share the story behind my mirth. A few days ago, the twins were reading to me from a book about a family that goes camping. The book mentioned “hiking.” I explained what hiking was, and the twins began chanting “I want to go hiking in Eldoret on Saturday!” And here we are. Hiking. On Saturday. In Eldoret.
What you want is your business. How it comes to you is most definitely none of your business.
Our delay was once again divinely guided. It’s now getting close to 6pm and Irene texts to say they have hit delays in their shopping and cooking process and won’t be ready for us until closer to 8pm and they hope we can stretch out our day a bit more for them. Not gonna be a problem, I let them know.
We still have to drop off Purity, and then take James back to where we picked him before we head back home. We head homeward, hit Kitale town center with six minutes to spare, and pick up the birthday cake seconds before the store closes.
When we arrive home, the girls are beyond excited about the birthday decorations. Banners and balloons festoon the walls of the sitting room. On the wall directly to the left of the front door are four golden “number” balloons. An 8, two 5’s and another 8. The 55 celebrating my birthday is flanked by each of their 8’s.
My job is to distract the twins while the older children take care of the last finishing touches for dinner. I do the only thing I can think of that will keep them busy for 20 minutes when they are tired and hungry. I check to see if Sandy is available to video chat with us on my phone.
Imagine the scene. I’m sitting on the main couch, with a twin on either side. They’re so excited to “meet” Sandy that they both keep jumping forward toward the tiny phone screen, and are loudly talking over each other. It creates mayhem on the other end, with the slight video lag. The only way I can make the call comprehensible, is to wrap an arm around each one, which makes it look like I’m wrestling with two small colorful panthers. As they lunge forward and back, I’m getting quite the upper body and ab workout.
Thankfully, dinner is soon ready. What a feast we have. It’s so very late by now, that George actually falls asleep sitting up in the middle of dinner. We do need to light candles, sing the birthday song, and eat cake, though, despite our weariness! The cake looks magnificent. Once it’s cut, all three of us get a plate piled high with birthday cake. I’m not completely present to what is happening.. the twins are going around the room giving each person a forkful of cake. “Giving” is an understatement. They’re stuffing the cake in mouths the way a bride and groom with wedding cake. Turns out this is the tradition when you have a birthday cake. As they were starting this ritual, I was in my own little world, eating my frosting-saturated corner piece. So much laughter and video was captured – alas, it was dark so it was unclear what truly took place.
The girls aren’t used to having birthday presents, so it doesn’t even dawn on them that there might be more to their celebration than dinner. We decide that we shall extend their birthday celebration until the next evening. I promised to partake in the ritual then, which satisfies everyone.
Tomorrow, George and I again have a long day ahead of us, as do the twins and Naomi. We’ll be riding to Bungoma so I can speak at Evans’ church; the services are held in the lobby of the hospital we’ve building. And we’ll be taking the twins with so they can visit Pastor George’s mama. We’re scheduled to arrive at 9am so we’re there for the beginning of the church service.
We clean up the sitting room, since it will need to double as a bedroom tonight, with Naomi home. We make an executive decision to leave the kitchen to be cleaned up in the morning.