Today was one of the most challenging, difficult days of my life, also one of the most rewarding. At 7am I woke up and prepared my belongings for the journey up north. It was to be Joyce’s first day of High school. I was to be travelling through some of the hottest parts of Kenya so I grabbed the biggest bottle of water I could find and put it in my backpack.
I picked up the thin piece of foam that passes for a mattress in Kenyan boarding schools, and with my other hand the large box with a metal bucket attached to it that held all of Joyce’s belongings, , and went to the gate to meet her. She was supposed to be there at 8:30 but the guard on duty said she had been there an hour early. I greeted her excitedly, and she limply grasped my hand and averted her eyes while muttering a shy greeting, as is her custom. I met her a week before, and she was still obviously not comfortable with me.
I had actually never seen her act comfortable with anyone. I had decided to sponsor her not because of her outgoing personality, but because of her family’s poor background, her solid academic record and intense desire to continue school. After scoring a very respectable 300 marks on her KCPE (the final primary school exam that determines your academic future) she watched as her friends, almost all of whom had lower scores than she did, went off to school while she waited and hoped for an opportunity. Living with her destitute Grandmother and two brothers she had no chance of her family paying her school fees. The drought this year had taken their supply of food and even eating was only possible through relief rations given by the World Food Program. When the few opportunities for scholarships slipped through her fingers she settled in a deep despair and cried for weeks.
Though she had stopped crying after I interviewed her and informed her that I would like to sponsor her, she still seemed melancholy and distant. On the day that I was taking her to school I have to admit I was having doubts about whether she was the right girl for me to sponsor, because to me attitude is the most important factor in success. We were on our way though, and we were far beyond the point of no return. We walked for ten minutes to the dirt road and were able to quickly hail a sand truck. They were not going all the way to Dol Dol (which was our destination) but they were heading to Il Polei which is about halfway to Dol Dol. We got in the truck and started on our journey.
An hour later at 8:45 am we were in Il Polei walking through the town with all of her equipment in tow. I followed her to the Matatu stage that would take us to Dol Dol and found myself sitting on a big flat rock with the hot rays of the sun beating down on us. I have spent lots of time in the hot sun of Il Polei and with time I have discovered that drinking too much water early on only makes your thirst more intense later. I decided to use this wisdom and save my water for when I really needed it. An hour passed in the unbearable heat and I became aware of the discomfort. I looked around for some shade but the nearest tree was 100 yards away.
Another hour passed and not a single vehicle had gone by. I became distinctly aware that the sun was burning my skin. Despite the intense heat of the day I found myself longing for a sweatshirt with a hood that would cover my arms and neck. During the second hour some groups of Masaai started walking by us. It served to break up the monotony a little bit. Joyce being a Masaai herself was greeted by some of the passersby and I was pleased to see that she was willing to acknowledge their presence, since she couldn’t seem to acknowledge mine.
By the time noon rolled around the sun had really turned the temperature dial up. I found myself thinking back with a longing fondness on the 11 o’clock sun. I knew this was likely to be the worst of it so I decided to bite the bullet and pull out my water. I reached into my backpack and to my profound dismay I found that I had forgotten my water.
The next hour (from 1-2) things got interesting. First I noticed that Joyce had picked a rock up off the ground and put it in her mouth. I was already having doubts about her and at this point I thought to myself “She is eating a rock, great, Im sponsoring an idiot”. (Later I found out that tribes who live in the desert often place rocks in their mouths on particularly hot days when they have no water to keep their saliva flowing…yes I am the idiot)
The other thing that happened was that people started passing by who knew her. They would come by smiling and give her a hug, greet me and pat me on the back. This is when the miracle happened. She started smiling. She would tell everyone who came by that she was going to school and give them a shy but proud smile. Every time a group would pass I would ask what they said and she would repeat it to me in Kimassai and translate it to English. She found it hilarious when I stumbled through phrases in her mother tongue. A large group of men came by and I decided to use my little Massai: “Enta Supa” I called out to them, and either I mispronounced the words or the men had little interest in talking because they walked by un-amused. I turned around to find Joyce rolling on the rocks laughing. Inspired by her display of Mirth, I broke into a loud laugh of my own.
Now I didn’t want to miss a matatu, especially because at this point it seemed as though they only came every five hours. I was however very thirsty. I decided to run to the nearest store. I got there and asked for water the whole time looking over my shoulder for a matatu. The lady shook her head at me. “Encare” I said using the massai word for water. Still nothing. “Maji?” I asked, switching it up to Swahili. The lady looked at me like I was crazy. “Okay, give me two warm sprites” I said pointing to the loose bottles on the shelf. I grabbed the sprites from her and started running back while opening the first bottle. As soon as top came off the sprite started spraying everywhere. I put it to my lips to the mouth of the bottle to try to stop the onrush of liquid. When the explosiveness was finally contained the bottle was almost empty and most of the liquid now resided on my face and clothes, unfortunately very little of it in my mouth. I quickly drank the rest and, already unsatisfied, ran to join Joyce. I handed her the sprite and she looked at me like I was crazy but she did take off the top and start drinking.
The stickiness from the sprite somehow made my sunburn feel worse and I began to wonder if it was possible for me to die because of the exposure I was experiencing. The contemplation of my mortality was short lived however because I was interrupted by screams of a passing Massai woman. Joyce immediately got up and started screaming…and smiling, so I knew it was ok. She ran to the screaming woman and embraced her. The woman was carrying a baby on her back and a plastic bag full of milk. She turned out to be Joyce’s Aunt despite the fact that she looked by age to be her slightly older sister. She had noticed the school equipment and had been unaware that Joyce had found a sponsor, so she was elated. She came to me and hugged me, turned around and made sure her baby got a good glimpse of me all the while smiling. She then put down her empty bags that were to be used to bring the relief food back to her shamba (homestead) and gave the bag of milk to Joyce with a smile. Joyce glanced at me conspiratorially and grinned big. “My Aunt has given this to you as a gift, will you drink it?” she said.
I laughed…and waited for her to tell me she was just kidding. “Of course Ill drink it,” I said hesitantly. She kept smiling but somehow looked relieved. She handed the bag to me and kept looking at me expectantly. “You want me to drink it NOW?” I asked incredulously.
She smiled again and nodded, “my Aunt was bringing the milk into town to sell it, but she is so happy that you are taking me to school that she wants you to drink it”. A list of excuses flashed through my mind but I knew what I had to do.
“Ok,” I said to her, “How do I drink it? Show me.”
She expertly pulled the outside plastic bag away, untied the inner one and poured a sip of the milk into the other bag. She then put the corner of the bag into her mouth and bit through it, sucking the milk through the hole in the bag. She then looked at me with a smile and handed the big bag of milk to me. The look on her face said “well, get to it”.
So I did. I bit the corner and started sucking the milk out of the bag. It was surprisingly thick, and surprisingly warm. I started thinking about pasteurization and the health benefits it had brought to our society and how I wouldn’t be experiencing any of those benefits because this milk came literally straight from the udder of the cow into this, most likely dirty, plastic bag. At Daraja we always boil our milk before we drink it, as I was enjoying that thought I started to wonder why we do that. I had guzzled about half of the milk and pulled the bag from my mouth. I looked at Joyce and her Aunt looked into the sun that was frying my skin and said “Its really hot out….Milk was a bad choice.” I guess neither of them had seen “Anchorman” or they just aren’t Will Farrell fans because they just looked at me once again like I was crazy, but they were also obviously pleased that I had drank some of the milk. I took the bag back to my lips and drank the rest of it.
Then, just as if on cue, a matatu appeared over the horizon. I have written about them earlier, but basically they are vans that serve as buses for the general public, most of whom cannot afford cars. I helped the loader tie Joyce’s items safely on the roof and squeezed in to a spot in the very back row, middle seat. I say squeezed because the matatu had 14 seats and literally 21 people in it. As soon as I sat down on the laps of the two people next to me one of them , a breast feeding woman, handed me her second baby who looked to be about two years old. He looked up at me and I smiled, praying that I wouldn’t throw up on him.
After a long adventure that day we finally got Joyce to school. My experience with her that day had left no doubt in my mind that she deserved to be in school. As I was about to leave her there and head home, she said goodbye to me and took my hand. She didn’t let go. I looked at her and told her that I was proud of her and that she was going to do well. She smiled at me and reluctantly let go of my hand.