Kai Staats: Pistis Reunion, 2013

For a few days Lindah, Bernard, and I discussed how to bring a few of their classmates together, Timothy, Alex, and Wycliff, Amos, and John too, for a day of food and fun. Ibrahim was in Uganda with Cameron, and so I did not have chance to see him but for a brief hour my last night in Kenya.

I had wanted to host a “Mexican Burrito” meal complete with flour tortillas, beans, rice, and home made salsa. However, we were unable to locate tortillas in any form in the local markets. Given the limited time we had today, it was not realistic to prepare ample quantity of home rolled tortillas for fifteen people (including John’s wife, Lindah’s boyfriend, Bernard’s girlfriend, and a few others).

We instead purchased three kinds of beans: black, kidney, and one tan variety whose name I did not recognize. I provided John with a bottle of cinnamon which, as I learned from Ron Spomer, draws the sugar from the beans, and a generous amount of cayenne pepper. He volunteered to cook the beans and rice at his home, using an open wood fire.

I sat on the floor of Bernard’s apartment for forty five minutes, dicing tomatoes, slicing onions, shredding carrots, and adding two small, hot red peppers (in the family of habenero, I assume) as a cold, salsa topping.

Timothy, another student from Pistis I had never met, and a friend arrived. They were amused by the speed by which I managed the knife on the cutting board, another reminder of the limited skills which young men, in particular, are assumed to have in this society.

I grabbed my Canon camera and tripod. Just outside Bernard and Lindah’s apartment building, we climbed into a tuk-tuk and headed to the playing field. While a tuk-tuk is designed for the driver in front and two, maybe three in the passenger seat and space for luggage in the rear, we managed to cram seven people in this vehicle, Wycliff, the eighth, climbed in less than a kilometer before the park. I filmed the exodus as it was not unlike the circus act of the same nature, but costume-clad clowns instead of neatly dressed Kenyans and one mazungu.

The official football field was engrossed in a proper game with uniformed teams, referees, and goal post nets. To the side and up a bit we found ample room to play. With a new soccer ball and two badminton sets, there was something for everyone. We warmed-up in a circle, juggling with knees, heads, chests and feet. Two Sudanese guys joined us, both in their early to mid-twenties. The taller was just just under two meters and had a warm smile. The shorter (still tall than me) carried that tenuous sense of having seen far too many horrors in one lifetime, even in his early twenties, to be at ease for any length of time.

I was reminded how different it is to run long distance versus sprinting. In the first few minutes of the impromptu match, I felt light headed, my legs weak beneath me. As in those dreams where you cannot bring yourself to run, I struggled to get my body to do what I intended. But over the course of an hour, I recovered and found some rekindling of what it meant to play a good game.

Far too many times my team left me to defend the goal alone, one white guy who had not played for fifteen years against two Sudanese half my age. I learned quickly and blocked the final half dozen attempts. As the taller of the two would break free and attack, I yelled out, “You again!

[laughing] Why is it always you and me? And where is my team?!”

He grinned, enjoying the challenge as much psychological as physical, his tricks in movement threw my concentration. I had to remind myself to watch the ball instead of his feet.

The Sudanese said, “Your team is lazy. They’d rather talk on the phone than play,” and then he struck. I patted him on the back when he scored and he complimented me when I was successful in defense. There was an earned respect in both directions, even when we were beaten 10 to 4.

Looking Back
To spend time with just a handful of the graduates from Pistis was to be reminded of how each of us finds our way through the world, despite the challenges we face. Most of the Form 4 class with which Lindah and Bernard graduated, the only to have come from Pistis, have landed on their feet.

Some are sponsored by locals, some given opportunity to attend the university through foreign financial aid. Some are working part or full time jobs with the hope of attending school while others are taking night classes as their budget allows. A few are living in an “orphanage” for young adults, not yet able to get out on their own.

The Form 4 class was a collection of truly intelligent individuals who were granted opportunity to attend some of Kenya’s best high schools. However, without funding, they were denied. They arrived to Pistis, and under shared roofs, made the best of what they were given.

Looking Ahead
The rain came and went shortly following our arrival. Our clothing dried nearly as quickly as it became wet. When John and his wife arrived with the rice and beans the rain returned, but this time with African strength. We closed the game and bid farewell to the two players from South Sudan.

The shorter was proud to state, “We are from South Sudan.”

Bernard responded, “Welcome to Kenya! We are proud of what your people have done to make a new country.”

For the first time the face of this young man softened, “Thank you.”

Playing off of the tension I yet saw in his face I offered, “It will take time for the two sides to find stability. Maybe ten, fifteen years before the memories of the war are replaced with something more … peaceful. It is like this anywhere there has been a civil war.”

The taller nodded, smiling, “Yes, this it is true. It will take time.” He paused, then added, “We are here, every Saturday, playing. I don’t join a club,” he made the face of someone who avoids rules and regulations or any official organizations, “We just play.”

“You are good. I could learn a lot from you.”

The taller smiled, “Ok! We will teach you! You are welcome! Karibu sana!”

We shook hands again, Kenyan style, a normal hand clasp to thumb-wrap, as though one were to initiate an arm wrestling match, and back to hand clasp again three, four, or more times. It can go on for quite a while. Even the Kenyans laugh at the duration of their greetings and salutations.

Shelter from the Storm
The rain was coming down harder. We gathered our things and walked quickly from the field. Just across the street was a small market with ample roof to keep us dry, lined-up shoulder-to-shoulder, backs pressed against the wall.

I walked to the end of the market where a small thatched roof provided shelter over a stick frame stall. Two women and a man stood there, also avoiding the rainfall. After some conversation, they offered use their one-room home for our gathering, just behind where they sell coal. I ushered the group of ten into a room designed for three, maybe four and we found ample room on a wood frame couch, two chairs, and the floor.

The storm grew to tremendous strength, driving against the tin roof and small, single window pane. We were pleased to be indoors, even without light or electricity or ample places for all to sit.

The rice and beans and vegetables were more than enough to feed everyone. We served our host and her two children first, and then our crew. Lindah introduced us to her hosts as a reunion of orphans, a manager and a cook, and me, one who had come to serve at the orphanage a few times.

I felt uncomfortable, for while we were invited we had truly overrun her small home. Rice and beans were falling to the floor. When we were done eating the rice, sweat beans, and spicy vegetables, the mother of our host entered. She said something which sounded serious to me and I held my breath, fearing we had over run our welcome.

Lindah translated, “So, she is the mother of our host and grandmother of these two children. Today, she was to have received people from her church, but due to the rain they did not come. Instead, we arrived and filled her home with food and laughter. God sent us to her instead, she says. We are all welcome.”

We filled two aluminum pans, one with rice and the other with beans, enough for a few meals in the coming days, shook hands, thanked our host, and then walked back into the street which was now flowing with shallow red rivers of water and mud.

The slow Kenyan saunter granted me time to talk with each of my friends I had not seen for more than four years. The sun had long ago set, a light rain threatened to return, and over the course of a few busy intersections, our reunion was again returned to just me, Lindah, and Bernard.

We entered the apartment complex, dark and typically without any light at the entrance nor in the corridors. Bernard lit the way with the face of his cell phone and we found his apartment again on the third floor.

I shredded fresh ginger and boiled it with local, Kenyan honey to make a rich, potent tea. Bernard read the first few pages of his new book by Tom Clancy, the first novel he has ever had the pleasure of reading. Lindah and I worked on her computer, getting Thunderbird to coordinate with her Gmail account and Skype installed to the latest version of the Ubuntu operating system.

We have found incredible comfort in our shared days. I will miss our small, simple family of three. It has been a wonderful return for me, to Nakuru, Kenya.