“I used to look after some cows,” the conversation began. Christopher, about 17 years old, had just seated himself on our couch and was twirling our massage stick in absentminded circles as he began to talk in a rambling way about his childhood. We hadn’t asked any particular question; he seemed glad to sit and felt like talking, so he talked.
Christopher shared easily, with obvious confidence in himself, and with an even didactic air, knowing that what he was saying would be interesting and maybe shocking to us: pampered visitors from a posh and indolent country, who count even the most insignificant inconveniences as severe trials.
An hour later, after listening to the disconnected but always fascinating anecdotes, we were left, as you’d expect, with nothing to say. Apart from our periodic courteous mumblings of attention and empathy, Christopher had carried the conversation entirely by himself. Of course, we never heard another word about the cows.
Instead, we learned about the tribal wars between the Turkana and Samburu in Christopher’s earlier years, how he had seen it break out, and the lives he had seen it claim. He told us of finding high school students dead in the thorn bushes, after being given guns by the local clan leaders–gifts for being in their final year–and asked to kill the enemy. He told us that when they searched the bodies (a practice he took for granted), they often found graded papers, returned that day by the teacher, and perhaps on their way home to be shown to parents.
He told us of the helicopter he saw shot down (“killed”), how it crumpled “like paper” and burned, with nothing to salvage. The men who shot it down, he said, had killed so many people they no longer thought it would be a bad thing to do. Then he looked at each of us and explained sadly, “Some times you can do so many wrong things that after a while your conscience doesn’t know it’s wrong anymore.”
I agreed, realizing he knew a lot more about it than I did.
Interspersed with other random anecdotes (some, thankfully, much more lighthearted), we learned why Christopher had last cried almost 10 years ago, at the death of his grandfather. He had seen so many people die, that he said, “I can feel sadness in the heart, but it will never make it to my eyes.” He agreed, however, that it is good to be sad.
All the while, Christopher’s attitude and body language bespoke an unworried and unhurried mind. Every story of trial long-past was followed by one of thanksgiving. He prayed to go to secondary school, and, after his parents could no longer take care of him and he found himself admitted to Tumaini, he did. In another year he’ll graduate. He prayed fervently that one day he would be able to play a drum set, and the church recently purchased one. Christopher now plays it every Sunday, untutored, but with natural ability.
His childhood was, we would say, defined by poverty and death. But simply because he’s able to go to school, and can play a drum set that he doesn’t even own, Christopher thinks God must love him. Christopher knows and feels God’s love, in those simple gifts.
(Oh, how that shames me and my arrogant doubting! A churlish fool in such a cloud of blessing as I have been placed!)
But even words of thanksgiving don’t stop him from telling yet more stories. And so shame is pushed aside as I struggle to parse Christopher’s Kenyan English. We listen with surprise as he tells us that his father is accustomed to walking from Nyeri to Nairobi (a distance of about 150km) whenever business requires. Why pay the equivalent of a few dollars for a bus ride when you can walk for two days?
Apparently, it’s a family skill Christopher’s father wanted to pass on: when Christopher was in junior high, his dad woke him up one day and asked the boy to accompany him to Karatina and back (about 85km total). We asked Christopher why they went. He doesn’t know, but he has a guess: “He just wanted to see how well I could walk.” Not surprisingly, Christopher is now one of Tumaini’s best marathoners.
Tumaini is such a wonderful place, we often forget that each of the 175 children here have stories much more like Christopher’s than like our own. It is good to be reminded of that, when we have the capacity to hear it.