Our fifth day in Africa begins near sunrise in Bungoma, the relative quietness of the pre-dawn shattered by the loudly broadcasted cacophony of Arabic music calling the faithful of Islam to prayer. I wouldn’t do very well in a religion that forced me to pray before coffee! I’ve been on the road long enough now that even though I still don’t know where I am when I wake up, I do know that I’m not home. A quick, almost cold shower in our scary bathroom is followed by a not-so-quick Kenyan breakfast at the heartbreak Tourist Hotel Bungoma dining room. Then we’re off again to visit more schools up in the Mt. Elgon region. Our convoy winds through town and shortly onto bouncy dirt roads we haven’t seen before, climbing all along the way. Our first stop is a smallish one-room mud-brick-and-plaster-walled schoolhouse for 300 kids named “Milton Simotweet.” The “Milton” part is in honor of Dr. Milton Jones; the “Simotweet” part is named after a nearby simotweet tree that until recently was the only schoolhouse in evidence here. The children and teachers met under the tree! The new schoolhouse with its bright tin roof is nothing special by our standards; for these students and teachers it is a miracle. As we round the corner and come into view, the entire student population assembled outdoors bursts into a carefully choreographed production of a welcoming song, almost cut short by our driver as he guns our matatu over a rise toward a shade tree across the schoolyard. The sea of school children parts like chickens in the road, deftly dodging for their lives yet never missing a beat in their musical production. Being able to avoid speeding matatus is an inborn ability in Kenya!
By now the productions we enjoy at these schools are becoming less of a novelty. These kids are energetic and winsome, joy-filled and so blessed by CRF and kind sponsors a world away. To me the most significant connection we make here is with a young teacher’s assistant named Stella Natasha Wanyoni. Stella is outgoing, and she is bold enough to hand me a packet in an envelope. We learn that she wants to be a teacher, and hopes to attend a teacher’s college. For now, she works at this school as a teacher’s assistant hoping against hope to somehow find the funding to fuel her dream. She seems so capable and willing, and instantly I begin to think of ways to help her. (Note: These 10 weeks later finds Stella Natasha about to begin her studies at the Pamus Teacher’s College in Bungoma. Her two year degree, room and board included, will cost $1,600. A generous donation from a sainted lady of our church who is now in heaven is making Stella’s dream a reality! As a teacher she will touch and change thousands of lives. How cool is that?)
After a couple of hours of welcomes, snacks, tours and more speeches, we load up once again; instead of driving back toward Emmanuel’s place at Eruli where we are expected for lunch, we turn up the mountain road, hoping to go where no man in a matatu has ever gone before. (We would be 5 hours late for lunch!) It was the most difficult and harrowing drive I’ve perhaps ever experienced, but at the end of the road I cannot believe we’ve traversed, we turn into a school compound called Kamkirwoc. I have no idea what that means, but I do know that the Kamkirwoc School sits at the top of the world, or, more correctly, near the top of Mount Elgon. The terrain is absolutely gorgeous, and one can see for miles in all directions, all of them the very definition of verdant. It is breathtaking, and I find it hard to want to be coaxed inside for more Kenyan protocol.
But we are here, and in for the same ritual we’ve experienced four times already in Kenya, the formal gathering of an entire school to greet and meet the honored American guests who have come so far to see them, and especially in this case–the unexpected visit from the CRF President, Milton Jones himself. (I had no idea last night when two African men named James and Moses from this school showed up at our Hotel Bungoma dining room how much it cost them and how long it took them to get there, hoping for an audience with Milton Jones. I do know now. Their diligence has paid off, and after a couple of hours of rather grueling navigation, the summit meeting is about to commence.) As we get started, the pattern is etched in stone, a formality as British as high tea, and no doubt of the same source. I wrote in another blog about the strange dance that takes place at each visit. As much as I love these Kenyans and respect their traditions, a part of me wonders how many years they might add to the cumulative hours of their lives if they could just say, “Hey! How ya doin’?”
But I sense (and will learn more later) that this meeting is different because of where we are. Mt. Elgon is the site of a terrible holocaust that occurred about 6 years ago when a land grab fueled by tribal tensions and corruption in the government boiled over into an uncivil war. It was open season on the people of this region and many thousands did die, the atrocity of war made more tragic in genocide and civil wars where neighbors begin killing, raping, and maiming their own neighbors–simply because it has been declared open season to do so. This is a high school and we learn that most of the children are orphans, their parents killed in the conflict, in many cases brutalized as they watched; these same children were then forced to bear arms or die. Many others have written about such genocides; I was not there, and I will not cheapen what happened with mere supposition. If anyone doubts the total depravity of the human species, they’ve never studied humans very closely. We are never that far from our very worst, even when we are at what we may think is our very best. Only through Jesus can we ever be more than the sum of our human awfulness. That’s one more reason these Christian schools in Kenya matter so much.
The scars of this time of unrest (as they refer to it quietly) are not terribly evident, not on the surface anyway. But you can see them in the faces of the children, whose joy is tempered. They are victims themselves, no doubt held hostage by memories too horrible to escape. Their singing and dancing lacks the abandon of their younger counterparts down the mountain. And you can see it also in the face of James, the headmaster of this school. He replaced the previous headmaster who was killed in the time of unrest; James is tall, thin and soft-spoken, and his eyes tell the story of indelibly horrific memories he must try to forget every day. He is walking, but wounded deeply; I suspect he will walk with that emotional limp all of his life. I mentioned a Moses, as well. Moses is the chairman of the school board. He is smoother than James, and I suspect, a politician. I reflect that maybe these two should trade names. In the Bible Moses was a reluctant leader, soft-spoken and stuttering; James (or Jacob in the Hebrew) was a wheeler-dealer promoter who knew how to spin the facts. Names are funny things.
There is a little backstory here as well; perhaps it is not little at all, but for the part I know. James was not always a headmaster, and not always an employee of CRF, or even a believer. When the time of unrest resulted in the death of the previous school principal, James saw the need for a leader, and stepped bravely into the empty post. He was not even a believer at the time, and it was awhile before the fog of war cleared enough to fully understand what had taken place here as well as the fire James had walked through to steady a leaderless school. Among the facts that came to light was that James, the headmaster of this Christian school, was not known to be a Christian! This of course caused no small stir back at the headquarters; when a discussion with Emmanuel ensued, his wise (and biblical!) counsel was, “Why don’t we talk to him instead of about him?” Emmanuel set a meeting with James and his circle, and by the time it was over James and 45 others had accepted Jesus. And so a baby Christian is now trying to learn to walk as he leads the scarred and traumatized faculty and students at Kamkirwok. Only God could write a story like this!
James seems to be no wheeler-dealer, and totally without spin. He is no son of thunder, either. In fact, he obviously lacks the polish of most of the other headmasters we’ve seen; but what he lacks in leadership skill and demeanor, he compensates for in life experience and sheer determination to survive. It is a concern, obviously, for the leadership at CRF who watch very closely over the progress of the schools where children receive sponsorship dollars; this school is “on probation” of sorts, and the jury is still out. But I’m rooting for James, partly because I like his face, partly because I like his name, and partly because it’s an underdog story. We know from experience that underdogs typically eat the dust, obliterated at the hands of the stronger. But once in a while God allows an underdog David to slay a highly ranked Goliath, and the oddsmakers go crazy, a lot of bookies having to find different work. I’m betting on James. And you can bet I’m praying for him, too. I hope you will as well. I’m betting on Stella, too. And Moses? Well, time will tell….