After nearly two years of lectures, seminars, tutorials, assignments, papers, exams, and a thesis, I’m done with my MPhil in Linguistics at Oxford! (I technically won’t know whether I passed for another week or so, but since I’m confident I did my best on everything, it doesn’t matter to me much what happens at this point—let’s stick a fork in it and call it done.)

It’s been a long and oftentimes hard journey, but full of reward. After leaving my last exam today (it felt somehow appropriate that it was on the history of the Greek language), it was sweet indeed to meet my wife and stroll through the old streets of Oxford—streets which in many ways feel like old friends, especially now that the ominousness of final exams has been banished from every shadow. I will be sad to say goodbye to them and to all the other special bits of this wonderful town, a town which has meant something to me in various ways since I was a small boy. So here’s to following a dream, to finishing strong, and to letting go when the time comes to move on! (And to a great rest of the Summer in Oxford…)


Goodbye! Fine.

The time has come for me to leave Kenya. It’s ahead of my scheduled April departure, since I’m now needed back in the States for my sister’s upcoming wedding. Because of the suddenness, I haven’t had time yet to really appreciate what leaving means, and as I’ve begun saying goodbyes to those students who will be at school tomorrow when I leave, I’m awash with emotion. During the six months out of the last year (however non-consecutively) that I’ve spent living with the kids here, my average attitude towards them was probably some mixture of exasperation and bewilderment. The endless knocks on the door, the sly maneuvering to wheedle any variety of things from us, the interminable and insufferable church services… I suppose that complaining about such things internally has masked the more gradual and quieter growth of what, I notice with surprise, can only be called love! I never thought I’d struggle to fight back tears when saying goodnight to an 8-year-old, or that a poorly-spelled note slipped under the door, insisting that “sualy we will miss you very much,” could drop me into a similar tailspin.

I guess the last few weeks here have been too busy for me to notice such things–a recording project I started with some of the songwriters here has blossomed into something greater than expected, and accordingly ate up most of my waking moments–but that topic deserves its own post (I’ll supply it when I’m back in Terra Ignomino). Then there were the two final events of our House Competitions (you know, the ones between Nile, Euphrates, and Tigris), which had to be bumped up to accommodate my early absence–this weekend’s grand finale was an awesome headache of uncoordinated mayhem! Finally, as we’re nearing Marathon Day (less than a week away), we’ve been hitting the dirt and loading up on running mileage. Yesterday morning’s long run was 26km, with about 2300 feet of elevation gain. On Friday, as many of the race-ready kids as we can fit into a van will be heading to Moshi, Tanzania for the Kilimanjaro marathon. Since I’ll be back in California on that day, I’ll be running the Napa Valley race instead–which will be an easy, downhill, cakewalk of a marathon in comparison.

I did have a strange moment on Saturday, when we took all of Tumaini to the nearby Ruring’u stadium. It has the distinction of being the place where many of the Kenyan refugees in this region are camping out. It also has a track (which is why we wanted to be there). Thirdly, it is close to Huruma, Tumaini’s sister orphanage. When we went to Huruma for lunch in the middle of our track and field competitions, and as I watched some of the younger Tumaini kids greet with wide-eyed astonishment a swing-set and a slide for the first time, I was struck by the dream-like sensation that these were my kids encountering something new. And when little Faith and Gladys tentatively started playing (in that wordless though infinitely nuanced fashion children have) with some of the Hurumans, I felt my breath catch as I waited to see if they would get along and play nice. Perhaps most unsettling to my young, all-too-bachelor self was the sense of responsibility I experienced in it all. If Faith had fallen off the slide, or if Gladys had sucker-punched a Huruman (which she might very well have done), I know I would have been involved in an instant. Does this mean I will be a good parent? No. But maybe it means I won’t be a horrible one!

In one way or another, it’s thoughts like these that come into my head now that I’m about to leave. I’m already missing the dusty red of the walk to town, the brilliant gleam of the high-angle equatorial sun on the plants in the shamba in the mornings, and the exhilaration of cresting a tortuous hill on a long run and being greeted by the overpowering sight of Mt Kenya’s majestic cone and its three glacier-covered peaks. But the withdrawal pains will come most strongly with memories of faces–from Rhoda’s crazed hilarity to Mary’s doe-eyed wonderment to Grace’s far-seeing thoughtfulness to Stacy’s always-ready half-smile… and yes, even Edwin’s post-Christmas-cow-killing grin! The only question is, how long can I stay away?

Right now, there’s no answer to that question, and life has a way of leading us down all kinds of different paths. But I know that, sooner or later, I’ll end up here in Nyeri again. I hope it won’t be too long–but even if it is, I know that the relationships I’ve gained–brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins–will still be here. But for the time being, this is my last entry from Kenya. I hope you’ve enjoyed my third of the blog as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it–and I hope Michael and Emilee keep the stories coming until they leave in a few weeks. I know that I for one will be looking eagerly for them as soon as I conclude my long two days of travel!

As they say in Swahili, Karibu Tena!

Time Trials?

It’s been a shameful while since we’ve written, but the kids have been keeping us busy. We’re now in the last few weeks of training before our marathon in Tanzania, and so running has taken its toll! For my part, I’ve also been working with several of the kids to produce and record some songs they have written, before I leave Kenya at the end of this month (making the trip home for my sister’s wedding)!

Between the running and the music, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to film a short video, set to music by Mary (a student here at Tumaini). The subject of the video is ‘time trials’–the 7k or 10k timed runs that Coach Titus has us do every few weeks to get a feel for how the kids are improving.

On this particular day, as you will see, the time trials were not universally understood and respected, whether by the kids or by nature itself–but that doesn’t stop everyone from having a good time.

Enjoy! And let me know what you think of this glimpse into our daily afternoon routine. (Apologies for YouTube, whose compression ruins the audio and whose watermark obscures some subtitles).

Still Alive, Computers Working, Despite Grudges

Apologies are no doubt owed for this relatively long radio silence. It has been due, thankfully, to our own busyness here and not because any of Kenya’s troubles have reached us at Nyeri. It is deeply saddening to read the news of what is going on in other parts of the country, and hear accounts of the pain firsthand (there are over 100 refugees living not 3 kilometers away in a local sports field). At the same time, we are grateful that we have been able to continue our work mostly unaffected, and that the kids haven’t been subject to anything outside of what’s on the TV.

In truth, life has been good here the last few weeks since I returned to Kenya, with our biggest hardships comprised of woes like finding the grocery store less than fully stocked, and slightly higher gas prices.

The computer classes at Tumaini have likewise continued, and I have the good fortune to be even at this moment looking at a blackboard with the remnants of what appears to be a lecture on “Computer Security”. The chalk on the board haphazardly forms a list, ostensibly of the various facets of “Computer Security”. They are (strictly mirroring punctuation and emphasis):

  • Environmental Threats
  • Clumsiness
  • Stabilizers
  • Terrorists Attacks
  • grudges

Hmm. Apparently, ‘Environmental Threats’ are the most ominous bad guys in the world of computer security. And I can see that; maybe it’s not obvious that computers should be kept out of the rain. But what are ‘Stabilizers’? And why do they threaten my PC? “No! Don’t bring that Stabilizer in here!”

The best, though, is clearly ‘grudges’. You never know when your computer’s security might be compromised by a grudge. And multiple grudges working in concert? Forget it, your RAM is hosed.

You might also be glad to know that from what I’ve overheard, the classes on word processing are just as helpful to the student.

An American Interlude

While Michael and Emilee eat the Christmas Cow on December 25, I’ll be with some family in Camp Verde, AZ. The kids were disappointed when they heard I was going home for Christmas, and I don’t blame them–in fact, I’m sad to miss the celebrations at Tumaini myself! A good number of the kids also thought I was purposefully abandoning them in favor of a ‘White Christmas’, and it was hard to convince them otherwise.

In actual fact, this is a sort of landmark Christmas for our family, since for the first time ever we have opted to forego all gift-giving and holiday money-spending, and instead are traveling to Arizona to fix up my aunt and uncle’s house, which has happened to be in a bit of a sad state. I’m certainly a bit self-conscious about how ‘self-righteous’ this tactic can come across to people (I know I’ve thought that about those people who go work in soup kitchens on Christmas). Therefore, I am in no way passing judgment on those who do partake in The Rush this year. Still, there’s a genuine satisfaction in the idea as well, and indeed, my family can’t go anywhere without having a bit of fun, so we’re also planning a 2-day hike down and up the Grand Canyon. I haven’t been there for probably 15 years, so I’m excited to camp in the wintry desert location.

But all this was hard to explain to the kids, until I got a clue from Cucu Kariuki and decided to start telling people I was going to a ‘harambe’–a sort of Kenyan festival held by friends or relatives of people who are in need, in order to raise money and supplies for them. It’s not the same, of course, but it’s close enough, and it did the trick: as soon as I mentioned ‘harambe’, they understood the need to go home. Still, had it been any other year, I would have loved to stay at Tumaini, and I envy Michael’s and Emilee’s opportunity to share Christmas with the kids.

Well, after a long 42 hours of travel, I arrived back in San Francisco last night. What surprised me most was how unsurprising it was to be back in the States. After my previous 2-month stint in Kenya, the mass of development, the showers, the clean running water, etc…, all caught me rather off guard. It took almost a full week to shake the feeling that something was very wrong somewhere. This time, everything just seems like, well, what it is. I suppose this state of affairs is neither good nor bad, but I found it interesting.

Now, I’m killing the hour or two I have left before our midnight departure to the Grand Canyon. (On family road trips, we like to leave in the 2nd watch of the night, when traffic is at a minimum–and this practice holds a lot of nostalgia for me). I’ve taken my fill of fast internet and hot showers (though finding high-protein vegetarian food has proved more difficult than in Kenya), and will now leave the blogging to those who are actually remaining in Kenya, until I return in early January. Happy Christmas! (And perhaps more appropriate for this particular day: Happy Winter Solstice!)

Who Will Kill the Christmas Cow?

Here at Tumaini, the kids have three meals: Githeri (beans and maize), Rice and Beans, and Ugali (beans and a maize polenta). Githeri is eaten for every lunch and quite a few dinners, whereas rice and beans and ugali are served less frequently. Given this monotony, it’s easy to explain the mounting excitement that accompanies the approach to Christmas here. You see, on Christmas, the children have told us, “we will eat cow!” This is one of the two days per year where they are allowed to eat meat (and because of or in spite of this many profess meat to be their favorite meal).

In addition to the cow, incidentally, several of the rabbits kept here for breeding are purportedly going to be eaten. And, since the rabbits are named (of course) after us and others of the volunteers who have stayed at Tumaini, many of the children take great delight in telling us that on Christmas, “we will eat Michael and Emilee!” And then they laugh diabolically. (Jonathan the rabbit will not be eaten at Christmas; At first I was glad, but then they told me that he has already been “eaten by dogs,” because “he rotted and died.”)

Anyway, the three of us were sitting around last night, and wondered where they typically get the cow that they eat for Christmas. Then we realized they probably just kill one of the cows they keep on site. After discussing, agricultural newbs that we are, the horror involved in slaughtering an animal like that, and talking ignorantly about what method would be used, the question finally arose, Who will kill the Christmas cow?

It’s definitely going to be Edwin.

Edwin, after killing last year’s Christmas Cow

Monkey Nuts

Waking up on Sunday morning in time for church is often difficult. I confess (all too readily, perhaps) that the church services here aren’t what I particularly crave in the way of spiritual edification. The music that sets my teeth decidedly on edge (insanely overblown speakers, off-key saccharine synth jams pumping from the electronic keyboard, etc…) has already been mentioned, for example. Of course, they do some things here in Riamukurwe Parish that are a breath of fresh air. Women from the community, not even trained ‘ministers’, regularly preach. ‘Presentations’, or songs performed by any member of the congregation, take up a large portion of the service, and it’s nice to see such involvement appreciated (even if, to my classically-trained ears, those moments have a definite Purgatorial feel).

But, “Church” is another entry, deserving of a title different than “Monkey Nuts,” which you may be wondering about. The story I want to tell happened a few weeks ago, and it was in fact during one of those Sundays where Eunice, the Manager (heroine of so many of my blogs, it seems), was delivering the Word of God. As everyone who preaches seems to think, the Word of God by itself can be a bit boring, and so it’s good to spice the message up with illustrations and anecdotes.

As Michael, Emilee, and I were sitting three-quarters of the way to the back of the small church, Eunice began to tell a story about certain farmers in another part of Africa, ostensibly to support a point she was making. I was only half-listening, expecting this story to follow the general pattern, that is, to have no link at all to anything that has been said so far. I think I was right. But anyway, the story went something like this:

These farmers produce, as a cash crop, a certain variety of nuts which sell well in other regions. But, as it happens, a local species of monkey is driven wild with pleasure when eating these treats, and so they do all they can to steal them from the farmers. The farmers, being humans and therefore more ingenious than the monkeys, devised a way to trap the monkeys and save their crops: they would take some nuts and put them into a large clay pot with a very narrow mouth. The monkeys would smell the food, rush to the pots, and insert a little simian hand, grasping the nuts. Of course, their fistful of treasure then makes their paws too big to remove from the pot without first letting go of the prize. Unwilling to do this, the monkeys are forced to stay with one hand in the trap, until the farmers can come at leisure and kill them.

So far, so good. I thought it was a worthy story (in fact, one I’d heard about in 5th grade through science class, and liked). I could see where Eunice was going with it too–the nuts are analogous like those things we foolishly hold on to that are going to bring us to ruin. Therefore, we shouldn’t be like those monkeys (in our spiritual lives), clinging to pleasures that will only bring death.

But while I was thinking these things, Eunice made her conclusion in some unexpected words: “The Lord wants you to release your monkey nuts!”

I snickered, and looked around thinking everyone else must be too. But all the Kenyans were staring straight ahead, some simply nodding in agreement. Eunice went on, excited by her point. And then she said it again, with feeling: “The LORD wants you to release your monkey nuts!

I realized at once I was in trouble. The Lord wants me to release my monkey nuts? Ha. Ha ha ha. Monkey nuts! Though I don’t laugh at every dirty double entendre I hear, the context, the complete lack of intention, was too much. The corners of my mouth began to quiver, and soon I found myself smiling uncontrollably. A Kenyan to my left looked at me, and I looked down, hiding my face. Then the laughing began: those stomach shakes that I refused to let move up to the throat. “If only I can avoid looking at Michael and Emilee,” I thought, “I’ll be OK.”

But Eunice was not on my side. Really worked up now, she got a bit more personal, and asked the congregation a question, leaning forward from the pulpit and talking in a suddenly low, serious voice: “What nuts are you holding on to?” she said with a penetrating gaze.

And that was it. A stifled guffaw inadvertently escaped my lips, and I ducked behind the pew in front of me, pretending to be reading a Bible. Then I heard movement from Emilee beside me, and saw that she too was trying to keep from breaking out in laughter. I couldn’t see Michael, and that was probably what saved us all from total humiliation. But, that feeling came that we all know, when it’s one of those times where it’s completely inappropriate to laugh, but two people think something is funny, and the mere fact that they know the other thinks it’s funny too makes it impossible to get a grip.

Remembering that I’d read about such situations, I tried a folk remedy and started pinching myself. The pain didn’t help. And so I stayed bowed forward for a full minute, until I thought the storm had passed, and the lashings of laughter subsided. Eunice had moved on, and we were in the clear. That is, until she came to her grand finale, and in full-throated Kenyan fashion made her pronouncement: “It is not a surprise that some of us will burn in Eternal Hellfire because we are holding on to monkey nuts!”

So true, Eunice, so true.

Needless to say, a lot of people were wondering what was going on with the Wazungu, though no comments were made. I tried to make it look like I had been crying (and I was…), moved by the sermon–but it wasn’t that kind of sermon. Anyway, it’s these little cultural or linguistic differences, and other random hilarities, that keep life here exciting. Like tonight, while playing Pictionary with the Form 4 Leavers (the secondary school graduates), when the phrase to draw was, appropriately, “Baby Jesus”. One team’s artist chose to signify the stick-figure infant’s holy status by drawing a manger, and streaks of light shining gloriously around Jesus’ body. The other team’s artist chose a more realistic tack, and decided instead to draw the little newborn, not just as Baby Jesus, but as “Extremely Well-Endowed Baby Jesus If You Know What I Mean”. Everyone in the room had a good laugh for about 10 minutes. Oh, and in case you were wondering: the streaks of shining glorious light turned out to be a better symbol–our team won.

The Great Internet Outage of 2007

A few Fridays ago, when the always-sketchy Internet here at Tumaini began hiccuping, we didn’t think much of it. It was normal. Almost two weeks later, we know better.

The first few days, we attributed the lack of Internet to environmental causes, like the weather. Or perhaps the guy who holds the data tubes together had fallen asleep. When we run out of water for strange amounts of time, I wonder the same thing.

Then, we began to ask the computer room teacher, Ann, what was going on. She asked us if we’d seen “those wires in the street.” I thought for a moment–yes, running earlier that day, I’d seen some wire coiled up in the street. “The problem is those ones,” she said. Apparently, that was the phone line for the area. And yeah, that would be a problem.

In what seems to be typical Kenyan fashion, every day we asked Ann whether she’d spoken with the communications company and if they were going to fix it, she said, “Yes, they’re coming tomorrow to fix it.” ‘Tomorrow’ kept one day ahead of us, however, and so Thanksgiving passed without e-mail contact.

We took bets on when the Internet would be back. We were all wrong! I began to worry–all my online projects might have suddenly failed and I wouldn’t even know.

Finally, all the ‘tomorrows’ coalesced into ‘today’, and a Telkom employee came to fiddle with something this morning. The Internet works again! I can catch up on more days’ worth of e-mail than I’ve had to in over 10 years. We can write blogs again–and stay tuned, because a lot of great stuff has happened in the past few weeks. Apologies for our absence!

Like water and electricity, the Internet has truly come into its own as a utility…

Tumaini Lives, Part I

“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.