The country straddles the equator like a boy on a dime-store pony once the ride is over. The ride of history roller-coastered the residents up and down like the crashing waves off Mombasa Island but now everything seemed frozen in time.
The etchings of the ancient Arab slave trade refuse to be hidden under the surge toward western democracy. The determined safaris of missionaries like Peter Cameron Scott in the 1890’s, to stem the tide of Islam in Africa, helped open up the path of railways, schools, and hospitals which still hobble together a mosaic of animists, tribalists, capitalists and aging colonialists.
I brought my bride to bask in the sunshine, to capture images of millions of exotic zebras, wildebeests, and antelopes on migration, to surf on the turquoise waves of the Indian ocean, to feast on the curries and mysteries of the coast.
This was the place of peace where British soldiers still trained, where US warships still moored, where the United Nations based their operations, where Western media settled in to catch the chaos everywhere else.
Kenya didn’t have the reputation of Uganda’s butchery under Idi Amin and Milton Obote. It didn’t have the genocides of Rwanda where one million souls were eliminated in 100 days of savagery. It didn’t have the instability of the unceasing civil wars of Sudan where north and south, Arab and African, Muslim and Christian struggled for dominance. It didn’t have Ethiopia’s history of famine or Somalia’s feuding warlords or Tanzania’s struggling economy. It just sat still in the middle of it all.
Unless you count the wife-swapping, drug taking British aristocrats and farmers hiding from the Mau-Maus threatening to destroy the foreign settlers before independence in 1963. Unless you count the Leakey’s finding the oldest human fossils on the planet. Unless you count the tribal conflicts at each election where houses were burned and other wananchi were chased back to their homeland. None of that impacted me growing up.
The idealism that flooded my childhood memories was jolted by the reality of my first steps into the main airport.
Jomo Kenyatta Airport, named after the country’s founding president, and the nearby Wilson airport process more planes in 24 hours than most African countries see in a week of activity. For me, it was the place of hugs and tears. Today, it was a shell of what it had been.
Gutted by a fire which ravaged the arrivals area, the hub of international travel was almost a place of shame. I’d read about the tragedy. Workers spotted a blaze and called electricians who tried to use extinguishers. Firemen were called but no one could find the drivers on duty. A truck was finally sent but it had no water to pump with. By the time other first responders arrived looters had raided the banks and stores and not much could be done.
The van driver who won the bartering rights to carry us and our luggage managed to jam in another half dozen paying customers on his way toward the city. There was no air-conditioning. A sign plastered near his rear-view mirror read “With us you’re already half-way to heaven.” I didn’t want to think about that too long.
The outgoing road was rimmed with dozens and dozens of three-story-high bill-boards advertising everything from cellphone plans to soaps to margarine to safaris.
The ostriches and antelope who had been common along this stretch of pot-holed tarmac were nowhere in sight. We inched our way into a pack of buses, trucks, vans, cars and donkey carts that were trying to transform a two lane highway into a six lane obstacle course. The sun blistered the paint and made anything metal on the vehicle equivalent to a sizzling skillet.
My bride and I had been dreaming about this land for a year. My missionary parents raised me here, worked hard to turn the love of Jesus into something the Kenyans could appreciate, and this is where they were buried after a car accident. This trip was a long time coming and my memories clashed with what my eyes were absorbing.
The largest slums in Africa sprawled around the capital city like the arms of a gorilla threatening to crush the life out of the deteriorating concrete jungle. The restlessness festered like maggots in a rotting corpse.
My wife seemed blind to it all. “Did you see the street children? Did you see those crippled beggars? I can’t wait to stop and share Jesus.”
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