This year, 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of my love affair with the people of Kenya. In 1992, I flew to Nairobi to visit my friend, Francis Njoroge. Francis had attended my church in Vermont for a year while he completed work on a graduate degree. As he was completing his studies here in America, Francis invited me to come to visit him in Kenya. A friendship developed between us that has spanned both the miles and the years. I still count him one of my most treasured relationships. I thought I was going on a two week safari. It turned out to be a journey that has spanned thirty years and which dramatically altered the course and vision of my life. In 2018, I published a book –– MAKUTANO, Lives Intersecting to Write God's Story. I have reprinted here an excerpt from Chapter 3 of that book; words that describe some of my first hours in Kenya. I could not have imagined in those difficult, early hours how dramatically the course of my life would be altered. (If you would like to read more, you can click on the photo of the book to go to my bookstore)
At fifteen minutes past five, two young men sauntered into the lobby. They looked around and spied me sulking in the corner. As they approached with smiles and outstretched hands, it was all I could do to shove my irritation back into its pack and stand up.
“Yes, I am Pastor Gantt.”
“I am James Kabao and this is Tony Wainania. We have come to take you to Banana.
Polite greetings, a warm welcome; no explanation, no apology. They grabbed my suitcases and headed toward the door that led to Mama Ngina Street as James said quietly, “We go.”
There were reasons, good reasons, for their late arrival; but apparently, those reasons were not my concern. What I could not have conceived then was how these two quiet young men would become two of my dearest friends in the entire world.
James was driving a little blue Mitsubishi. He opened the passenger door and invited me to get in. The boot was large enough to hold only one of my oversized bags. He tossed the other in the back with Tony for the ride to Banana Hill and the apartment owned by Pastor Michael Chege.
I have never witnessed such a mass of people. They were everywhere, moving like ants in the midst of alarmingly gnarled traffic. As they walked along the highway, they showed little to no regard for traffic. The automobiles and trucks held pedestrians with an equal lack of regard. There were little kiosks selling everything from soda to pineapples, fresh picked bananas, bags of meal, fresh (kind of) meat, mandazi, and roasted ears of corn. Street vendors selling everything from watches to newspapers fearlessly walked up and down the lanes of traffic at busy intersections, hawking their goods as they seemed to dare motorists to knock them down. There were traffic lights, but few of them worked. The ones that did work were ignored entirely as if no one knew what their purpose was.
We drove along Limuru Road to Ruaka where we turned to the right and chugged and beeped and waved our way through the little village of Muchatha and on to Banana Hill. The names were meaningless then, but over the years they have become as familiar as my own neighborhood. The men were quiet except to answer whatever questions I asked.
After more than an hour, we arrived at Banana Hill. Again, I was flabbergasted by the teeming mass of people. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, walked down the middle of the road, oblivious to oncoming traffic until the last possible second. Horns blared and huge trucks belched great wads of black smoke from diesel engines void of any emissions controls. Matatus roared in every direction like midway bumper cars, horns hooted, and touts hung from the side doors whistling, “Come ride, come ride! Ten shillings to town.” When a matatu is full, it isn’t really full. We followed one of the small vans with three young men standing on the rear bumper, their hands latched on the bar of a rooftop luggage rack. A goat was tied to the same roof rack. The mantra of the matatu is, “There is always room for one more.”
We drove past row upon row of little ramshackle huts which passed for a shopping center and boasted everything from used shoes to mangoes. Old women sat alongside the road with children’s clothing and colorful dresses hung on gnarled posts. Knots of men engaged in animated conversations; women shouted greetings back and forth across the road to one another. The Kobil Petrol Station at the main crossroads was a hive of frantic activity pumping petrol, checking tires, and repairing vehicles of every size and description. Just across the street, a man who had been caught stealing was cornered like a frightened animal as a group of men were beating him with their fists, sticks, and rocks. I do not know whether he survived.
The little blue car honked and beeped as, competing with pedestrians, autos, bicycles, and cattle, we muscled our way up the Banana Posta Road before turning into a tiny lane next to the Karuri Catholic Church. I say “lane,” but it hardly rose to that standard. It was a path, barely wide enough to allow the car to pass, “paved” with huge rocks and deep, sticky mud. It was so narrow that pedestrians had to push themselves into the shrubbery along the way to avoid being struck by our vehicle. We came to a corner where the muddy trenches became too deep for the car to pass. James announced we would have to go on foot from that point. With James and Tony each lugging one of my huge suitcases and me in my brand-new suit, slipping and sliding in my sharply shined dress shoes, we trudged the rest of the way toward our destination.
I had dressed to make an impression, and I surely must have succeeded. I was about halfway up to Pastor Chege’s house when I realized the flowing stream I was straddling along the path was not only rainwater—it was laced with raw sewage. In an attempt to move to the side, I lost my footing. I stuck out my hands to brace myself, as I fell right in the middle of the path, giving myself a face full of polluted water. My knees dug into the mud and slime. As I tried to stand up, I slipped again driving my elbows into the mud and completely soiling my brand-new suit in the river of human waste. As Tony and James rushed to help me up, I thought, I don’t want to be here. I want to go home.