Sunday, September 29, 2013

Nyanguru Village

I was the first mzungu to visit Nyanguru Village.

I was brought to Nyanguru Village, a lovely place high in the hills near Kisii, by Charles Ombongi Masese, my friend and colleague (and also my driver when I lived in Nairobi). My first visit was in April, 2010 and I've borrowed some of the photographs from that visit to share again here, as I re-live some of the experiences of that visit and the most recent, with friends from America who were on safari with me in July.

I've written about Nyanguru Village before (see links below) but in light of the recent news from Kenya, I somehow feel the need to write more about the people I've met, especially those who make up my "Africa Family," so special to me.

The city of Kisii is several hours from Nairobi ("upcountry" as the Kenyans say), and since our first time together - when Charles had been sent to the airport to meet me upon my arrival in Nairobi for my "new life" in Kenya (albeit temporary, just for a little over a year) - we had often spoken of our families and our very different personal lives. And from the beginning, it was clear that Charles wanted me to visit his family in Nyanguru Village.

And I - very anxious to get to know Charles and his family - was as interested in going to Nyanguru Village as Charles was to have me. Although he worked in Nairobi and lived there most of the time, he is the consummate "family man." Whatever his current responsibilities and activities in Nairobi, Jane and his parents and his children were (and are) never far from his mind.

It took a while. We traveled together to other places often, for Charles had considerable experience as a safari driver and commentator (which I've described elsewhere), and we had no trouble going off for frequent week-end safaris to some of the parks and game reserves closer to Nairobi. And thanks to Charles and his great talent for spotting game, we put a lot of time into enjoying the wildlife and the natural beauty of Kenya (and, not incidentally, getting to know one another very well). My professional responsibilities, though, kept me from traveling far, so I didn't get to Nyanguru Village as quickly as we hoped.

When I did get to visit Charles's home, it was a totally new experience for me. And one I've never forgotten. For one thing, although I had had professional journeys to different parts of the world, including South Africa, I had never been to Kenya, and I had never visited any local villages or towns, since my work was usually connected to businesses or institutions located in metropolitan regions. And the touring activities I often engaged in when I did business travel were just that, tourist activities to places like Kruger National Park (where I had my first-ever safari).

So to be invited to a community village (we try not to say "tribe" any more, since the Kenyans want to think of their country as made up of different "communities" rather than "tribes") was very special, and I knew from the moment we arrived that I was going to be treated with great honor and great respect (the latter having to do - to my surprise - with my age, as older people are indeed treated with great respect throughout Africa).

It was in a conversation with Charles's father, a fine gentleman and a leader of the village (nearing 90 years of age when this photograph was taken with two of Charles and Jane's children), that he pointed out that I was the first mzungu to come to Nyanguru Village. As I think I'm described before, there are three "official" languages for Kenyans: English, Kiswahili (or simply Swahili), and one's "mother tongue," the original language of one's community. As Charles and his family are members of the Kisii community and speak that language, he and his father spoke it with one another. I listened (I really can't tell the difference between Kisii - or any of the other mother tongues - and Swahili anyway). With Charles translating for me, I learned that for some reason no other white man had ever been to Nyanguru Village, and I was the village's first mzungu.

Nowadays the term usually refers to a white person, but as I was identified by Charles's father, it was explained that the term, for me as he thought of me, described me as a white man (apparently in colonial days and the early days of Western expatriates in what would become Kenya, "white man" seemed closer to what the locals were attempting to say - and it's my guess that Charles's father, because of his age and rural environment, was looking back to earlier times). And the word stuck, for Charles always said that every time he spoke with his father, from the time he met me until he died in April of this year, this kind gentleman asked Charles: "And how is our mzungu?" I was greatly honored, I can say.

As for describing the people of Nyanguru Village, I am somewhat at a loss for words. They are very friendly people and, like most Kenyans, they smile a great deal and enjoy engaging in good conversation, whether all together in one language or sharing translations via people like Charles, who live in "both worlds" (and he is very good at helping us all understand what is being said). There's a lot of laughter, and as I think comes through in some of the posts noted below, the houses and yards are full of children romping and running and playing with one another. Just great fun to be with, and as some later posts will show - reporting on the latest visit to Nyanguru Village this past July - the children and the adults all seem to have a good time with each other.

There is, of course, sadness, as in all lives. In Nyanguru Village the sadness that comes into our lives is given its due attention when required, and with a great deal of beauty, some version of ceremony, and, when it is appropriate, shared with others who are part of the community's extended "family." When my friends and I arrived in Nyanguru Village and climbed the hill to Charles and Jane's home, our visit began with a stop at his father's grave, just a few steps outside the house where he had lived (the custom among the Kisii community), adjacent to Charles's house. Anticipating our arrival, a large photograph had been set on the grave, next to the wooden cross marking the head of the grave, and we and many other visitors from the village all gathered around for a few words and pleasing memories, ending with devout and very heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving for his life and - a little surprising for me - prayers of thanksgiving that we visitors from far away were able to gather together at his grave with the family and friends to honor him. It was a very moving moment for us American visitors, and as we thought later about the very special place that we have in this family's life, with their arranging for this special observance upon our arrival at the house, it was indeed yet another sign of how our two societies and our cultures have been able to come together.

For more about Nyanguru Village and my earlier visits there (and I can't promise there won't be more up-coming), look at The Western Kenya Safari (2): Nyanguru Village - Welcome Guy, Flat Stanley Goes to Kenya (7): More New Friends, and Guy's African Family (Complete with Namesake). I wrote about the area around Kisii and Nyanguru Village in The Western Kenya Safari (3): Tabaka and the Soapstone Quarry.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Nairobi Siege Over

Media reports coming out of Nairobi say President Uhuru Kenyatta has announced that the Westgate Mall siege is over.

In making the announcement, President Kenyatta - who himself lost family members in the attack - declared three days of national mourning, beginning tomorrow (Wednesday).

Five of the attackers are dead, and 11 are in custody. The death count of victims in the mall is still unclear, but it looks like about 67 people were murdered, with 175 wounded (62 people are still in hospital).

The "mopping up" operation has begun, and bodies of additional victims may yet be found in the rubble of the collapsed floors of the shopping center.

A good personal account of the tragedy was published today in The New York Times. It's worth a look: "Those Are Our People."

Our friends Nerisa and Charles and their families are all safe. I've spoken with both of them, and while they are very relieved, they - like all Kenyans - are concerned about what might happen next. We continue to keep them in our thoughts and hope that the awful experiences of the last four days will not change the beautiful character of the Kenyan people, whom we love so much.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Terrorist Attack in Kenya

Readers of this personal blog know about my great love for Kenya and its people. My heart goes out to my friends and loved ones in Nairobi. This awful tragedy is so sad, and as I watch the news from Kenya and see all the familiar places I recognize, the horror comes home to me with great impact (I've been able to stream NTV from Kenya through the night).

And now there's news of an attack on a Christian church in Pakistan, killing 75 people and wounding more than 100 others.

Will this terrorism ever end? How will it end?

In Nairobi, I often went to Westgate, for Charles would drive me there (it wasn't that far from where I lived) when I needed something I could not find at Village Market. [Despite its name, Village Market is not a "village market" at all - the Kenyans love to make puns in their use of English - but another upscale mall, just not quite as large or as new as Westgate.] I specially liked the computer shop (actually bought a netbook there once) and the shops for guys. A better selection than at Village Market.

So, while I'm busily writing in this space about all the other things I love about Kenya, the beauty of the country, the animals, and, most of all, the warmth and openness of the Kenyan people and their wonderful good humor and their kindness, and reflecting on my wonderful time with my friends when we were on safari this past summer, I'm just torn apart by what I'm hearing. It's heartbreaking to think about what my Kenya friends are going through. I've been in touch with Nerisa and Charles, my two friends I write about most here and they and their families are safe. But I'm wondering about so many people I know and care about.

Please keep our "Kenya Family" in your thoughts.

This is so sad.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Thought for September 11

In December 2001, I sent this to my family and friends:

William Faulkner said this in his “Address Upon Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature,” 10th December 1950:

“It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

Is love included in this list? I think so, for it is love for humankind that enables that soul to rise to compassion and sacrifice and endurance, and it is that love that brings us together in the roughest and most difficult of times. Through these times, we will endure. And we will prevail. It won’t be easy, and it will require—no, demand—of us sacrifices that we haven’t even begun to think of yet. But through it all, we will endure and we will prevail…  because we love.

In that spirit, I send you greetings as this unforgettable year draws to a close.

Let us never forget those we’ve lost… those who have been left behind to love us… those whose love made us who we are….

I hope these words will be of some meaning for you on this important day.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Kenya: Another Big Sky Country

Some say that Montana is "Big Sky Country." They need to come to Kenya.

There is an openness of sky in Kenya that plays on many emotions, an openness characterized by, among others things, awe-inspiring mile-high and mile-wide blue skies that never fail to evoke wonder and, well, simple joy. They're beautiful to see.

So much of what we experience in Kenya is almost over-powering. So many emotions keep running back and forth in one's mind, and there is - especially for a visitor coming from a very different culture or society - a constant "pull" inviting the person to look at this ("I bet you've never seen this before") or to spend some time observing that ("This has to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience").

That emotional roller-coaster (I think that's the common description) is particularly troublesome when one finds that, because there is so much to see in Kenya, much of the obvious gets slighted. Add to the mix time spent with friends from previous visits and time set aside for personal socializing in this country of friendly and welcoming people, and it becomes very easy not to notice all the natural beauty that surrounds you as you move about the country.

For within that "obvious" is some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Even without the wildlife (which, for many people, is why they come to Kenya), the beauties of nature are almost too hard to take in, so splendid in what we have before us. It's enough to make even the non-believer begin to think about the grand scale of the universe and the world we live in.

For me, going back to my first excursions out of Nairobi when I was working and living Kenya a few years ago, my opportunities for learning to love the land came early. Charles Masese, my driver, had considerable experience as a tour guide and driver, and when we realized that we would be working together (and, not incidentally, become the best of friends), he took up the challenge of introducing Bwana Guy to the Kenya countryside.

As it turned out, my work enabled me to have long week-ends free of professional duties, and while Charles and I didn't go off on safari every week-end, we easily arranged journeys around the country every two or three weeks.

A great experience, and while I was exposed to the beauties of the countryside, I also discovered that Charles is one of the best game-spotters in the country. It's amazing to me what he can see on a distant hillside, among the trees and undergrowth of the forest, and I was often delighted when he began a sentence with "I think, over on that hill about 11 o'clock...."

Charles didn't need to complete his sentence. He knew I would look where he was pointing me to.

[A slight digression, by the way: You notice I used the word "forest" for what we Westerners would usually call "jungle." The Kenyans don't say "jungle" when they describe in English the thick foliage growing in the wild and - truth to tell - this type of growth isn't what we think of as "jungle," as in the rainforest type of growth. Despite all the Tarzan movies and such from when we were growing up, there's little of that sort of growth left in Kenya, only in the Kakamega Forest in the western part of the country which, for anyone who's interested, I wrote about here.]

As part of Charles' tutelage, I not only got to see the wildlife. He is an expert in finding beautiful scenery as well, as he knows where to take his car so that he can share the best views (he knows a lot of them). For this post, I've decided to focus on the skies of Kenya, as it was the skies that fascinated me first when I began to go about the country. As you can see from the photographs, there is a connection to what we in America think of as "big sky country." When one travels about in Kenya, the clouds contribute to a view that would thrill even the John Constables of the world (what must the sky of Kenya have looked like in his day? imagine what he would have done with some of the views of the sky we get to witness!).

Go to Big Sky - Kenya to see more.