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2010 Narrative Travel Writing Contest 3rd Place Winner

Kenya: My Heart’s Home

I live trapped between two worlds. One is in my head and guides me through each day through reason. It is where I spend most of my time. This world reminds me of the car payments and student loans, the budding career track and successful future. This world keeps me from making quick, rash decisions by planting my feeble feet on solid surfaces. This world urges me toward the familiar, the things I know to be true, to be safe. Its perimeter is small, confined by my own limitations, and, if I do not gaze too far ahead, I do not have to acknowledge that, instead of grounding me, it has trapped me.

The other world is buried deeper. In my heart, I live in Africa—a mysterious jungle that beats to its own rhythm. The sun shines bright here, and the air feels full of purpose. In this world, I close my eyes and can hear the laughter of children and the songs of the hopeful carried in the wind. This world is where I feel most alive, but it is also where I feel most afraid. To get here, the journey is long, the road is treacherous, and the cost is great.

Last February, I sat on the patio around the dinner table like I had each evening since arriving in Kijabe, Kenya. Known as the place of the winds, the small Rift Valley community lived up to its name that night. The howls, like freight trains, bulldozed through the coniferous trees. Yet, the setting sun cancelled out the bluster sweeping across the hillside. The crimson clouds outlined in gold hung below the peak of Mt. Longonot, the valley’s infamous volcano. The African Paradise Flycatcher fluttered from bush to bush, oblivious to the three Sykes monkeys in the branches above. A banana bunch, suspended from an umbilical cord-like vine, blocked my view of the distant mountainside. I had seen this view many times before. This was my fifth trip to Africa, and my shortest one yet.

Returning to Take Action

I first fell in love with the country at fifteen, when I came on a youth group trip to volunteer at Dr. Richard (Dick) Bransford’s Crippled Children's Hospital. Since then, I just kept coming back—to play, to laugh, to hold little children. Only, this time my visit served another purpose. This time I was here to tell their stories, to make a documentary, in hopes of raising awareness about the lack of medical care around the continent.

Eight people occupied the seats around the patio table: two doctors, two housewives, two high schoolers, my cameraman, and myself. Still, there was room for more. In Africa, there is always room for more. A bowl of fresh mangoes, papaya, pineapples, and strawberries was passed from hand to hand, from plate to plate. 

Twenty minutes had passed when Dick got a phone call.

“Sorry to eat and run,” the grey-haired, bushy-browed surgeon said half apologetically.

He did not say where he was off to, but we all knew. He unzipped the fleece vest he wore each evening and swapped his olive-green Crocs for tennis shoes. At sixty-eight, Dick could still walk up and down the steep mountain to and from the hospital without huffing or puffing once. This time, however, he grabbed the keys to the white Land Rover.

Dick and his wife, Millie, moved to Kijabe nearly thirty years ago after Dick decided to be a medical missionary and Millie decided on Africa. Their journey to Kijabe started with a short stint in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then to the East African Comoro Islands, and eventually led them to Kenya, where Dick would become one of a handful of surgeons for the entire country and Millie would raise their five biological and two adopted children while teaching math at a local missionary school. Through the years, Dick became less interested in repetitive surgery and more interested in handicapped children—cursed by the very parents who conceived them. Now, just two years from being forced out by his mission organization's retirement policy, his passion to rescue children from the traditional stigma of disability was stronger than ever. 

I knew there had to be a critical situation in the pediatric ward, and I could not shake the feeling that I should have gone with him. It seemed, though, that my feet had been glued to the floor, my lips sealed shut, my gaze locked on my dinner plate. While everyone continued with dinner conversation, I felt a mother’s tragedy unfolding. Should I grab my camera? Should I document death? After all, it is part of the business. It is part of life. 

“Zucchini bread, anyone?” Millie’s bubbly voice rang out, interrupting my thoughts as her grey curls bounced in rhythm with the bob of her head.

An hour later, the weary-looking doctor sat silent in his navy Lazyboy, reclining while his bride of forty-three years entered the sitting room with a teacup of chocolate ice cream from the market. 

“She died,” he told us. “Just a few months old—complications from Spina Bifida.” 

Spina Bifida is a birth defect, where the spinal cord does not close but is exposed as the base of the back. Most children born with this condition will never walk or have control of their bladder and bowels. They suffer severe nerve damage and, in this culture, are thrown out to the animals or left to die on their own.

Relieved I had not gone with him to see it with my own eyes, I asked only one question of the man who looked as though he had been through war: “What was her name?” 

He looked up. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Bed eighty-seven. She was a new patient.” 

I had met the mother of Bed 87 earlier that day. I had been down taking pictures of some of the mothers and their children in the annex, the neonatal ICU, if you could even call it that. That baby was so sick, too sick for another operation. She had already been through so much—a back wound, an unsuccessful surgery, an opening that would not close. She was too sick to heal. She endured enough and she died.

I was sixteen when I held a dying baby for the first time. Just a few weeks old, Patience’s tiny chest seemed to fight for each breath. Up and down, up and down—she put forth such effort for such a little girl. Her mother, at nineteen, seemed much older at the time though now I see that she was a child herself. In Kenyan society, the mother is blamed for a disabled child and often abandoned by the one man who promised to stay forever, her husband. The child is then labeled an affliction to the family, the community, even the country. Here sat this poor teenaged girl, her daughter a curse, her husband a deserter, and now she faced a future alone.  With the afternoon equatorial sun seeping through the thin-paned windows, I reached out in childlike faith and placed my hand on her shoulder. “Tuombe,” I said using my limited Swahili. “Let’s pray.” 

I prayed for healing for her tiny baby and strength for her weary soul. We opened our eyes and looked at each other.  She gave a faint smile as if to say thank you. I felt connected to this woman, bound through belief. Her daughter, Patience, was a candidate for surgery to repair a condition known as hydrocephalus, fluid around the brain, but, in order for surgeons to operate, her fever needed to drop; little Patience was running out of time.

The next morning, during rounds with Dick, we woke Mama Patience for the girl’s daily checkup, and the nurse said I could hold the child while he examined her. I knew something was not right when her limp body didn’t move as I lifted her in my arms. This was the last time I held Patience. This time she was dead.

Watching a person, no matter how small, pass from life to death shakes you. As I gave the lifeless body to Dick, I watched her mother weep. Then, I walked back up the hill and lay down on my bed for hours. I had not expected that this would be part of the adventure when I had signed up for a summer abroad. I had not expected to watch a child die.

Now, ten years and two bowls of ice cream later, I said goodnight to Dick and Millie and decided to turn in early for the evening. Walking back to the guest house, I thought about Jesus. On the night before he died on the cross, he lifted his head toward Heaven and asked God for another way. “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from me; nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done.” Jesus knew the only way to save humanity from an eternity of depravity was to die in our place for our sin. So, despite the pain and the heartache and the loss, God gave up his only Son, condemning him to death, to save me, to save Patience, to save Bed 87. I believe that God is good and his death is a testament of his love for the very people he created. However, God’s goodness is not always expressed in a way I agree with. I guess that’s what makes me human because I do not understand why little babies have to die, why innocent mothers have to suffer, why entire nations live in poverty.

Everything happens in slow motion in Kenya. What’s supposed to be a nine o’clock church service turns into an eleven o’clock church service—dinner at five means dinner at eight. If you say you will be somewhere at one time but do not ever show up, it is okay. “Sawa, Sawa.” No worries. “Hakuna matata.” While life appears to drag on slowly, the adventure never stops. The peaceful paradise can often be disrupted in a moment by an unexpected midnight hyena chase, by a broken down vehicle next to a pack of sleeping lions, by the only white face surrounded by a mob of determined salesmen promising to give “a good deal.”

Lying in bed on that February night, I thought about how returning to the country was like coming home. Every time I go back, I find myself walking familiar paths, seeing familiar signs, and hearing familiar sounds. The same dust and smoke sifts from battered cars through the air and into my already dry sinuses—just like before—yet I am still not blind to the sharp glances of people as I walk by. The joyful preschooler’s, “How are you?” is often hushed by an embarrassed mother staring. I sometimes wish I could hide my creamy skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes so they could only see what was inside. I wonder if they see me as I see myself—a person just like them.

I wonder what Janet thought of me when she met me as a teenager ten years ago. Broken Fanta bottles lined the buildings around her home, and exhaust fumes filled the air. The mid-afternoon sun beat fiercely down on the dark, African faces. The women sat on the dusty front porch of this local brothel, barelegged and shameless, while a large man stood in the doorway and kept watch over his soiled flock. We approached with caution, the two wazungu (white people) and our interpreter, Luke. As the only Kenyan traveling with us, he said to stay back, but we followed him anyway.

We had come to share our faith, house to house, with the people of this small coastal community, and I was still learning how to do it comfortably. Drawn to one woman on the edge of a blue bench perched against the crumbling wall, I sat down beside her.

“My name is Sarah,” I said softly as I reached out my hand to shake hers. 

“Janet,” she replied confirming she understood English.

Her light brown skin was soft and beautiful.

“You from around here?” I asked.

Janet had lived a prostitute’s life since she was a young girl, sold by her family as a child for a few meager shillings and forced into a hopeless future. She had two boys of her own, both of whom, she told me, were desperately ill.

I do not remember saying much at all, maybe bits and pieces about my own story. She spoke mostly about her hard life. I think she was happy just for someone to listen to her. She seemed weak; her body looked frail, her eyes carried deep bags.

I will never forget the one question I did ask her. It was one of those naïve "evangelism" questions that haunts me even to this day: "Janet, where do you think you will go when you die?" 

She studied my face, maybe to see how trusting I really was. After a few seconds of silence, she said, "Sarah, I believe we are all going to heaven because look around.” She swept her hand in front of her gesturing to the street and continued, “This is hell." 

Janet, I learned, experienced her own hell everyday as a victim of the AIDS virus. As a fifteen-year-old, I had neither the medical advice to help her, nor ten shillings to buy her an ear of corn, so I said nothing. Our translator prayed with the women in Swahili; we invited them to an open-air crusade; and we walked away.

Five years after I first met Janet, I returned to that little coastal town. I could not quite remember the exact location of the brothel, but around every street corner I looked for her face. On every porch, I desperately longed to see the woman who unveiled her own hopelessness without shame. I wanted to shout, "Does anybody know Janet?" I never found her. She’s probably dead.

I had a dream on my last night of the documentary trip to Kijabe that overwhelmed me. In it, I was supposed to interview Dick and follow him around the children’s wing of Kijabe Hospital, but I could never catch up to him. Every time I would set my video camera down to get a shot of him touching a child or checking some records, he would be in another ward. By the time I moved my gear, he was gone. Again and again I fell short of my purpose. All I needed were a few more shots. Finally, after what seemed like hours, I caught up to him and pressed “record.” Just then, a terrible alarm rang out in the hospital, and everyone went running. The blaring noise was my alarm clock, and the nightmare was over. The dream reminded me of Janet, of Mama Patience, even of Mama Bed Eighty-Seven—the hungry few that I abandoned by leaving too soon to make any difference, by leaving too soon to see their lives' changes. The dream reminded me of my own helplessness and how I never stay quite long enough to make a lasting impact in anyone’s life.

A plane flew overhead as I packed my suitcase, and I breathed in the morning dew as I walked up the hill for yet another goodbye. I had said these goodbyes before. I had been here before. I had heard these sounds, and I had walked these paths. Every time I leave, it gets harder. The pull is stronger. The guilt is deeper. Deep inside, I know this is where I belong. Deep inside, my heart beats for Africa.

Sarah Seaton is a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University Master in Writing Program. She currently works as a promotions producer for ABC 7 News in Washington, D.C. and enjoys traveling as often as possible. She has volunteered for several non-profit organizations in East Africa over the last eleven years. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her toy poodle, Tater Tot.

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