Posted by: hilarycole | November 21, 2009

Lame Apprehension

I’m writing alongside the Indian Ocean, with a very warm, humid breeze in the air. A friend-of-a-friend from Vancouver is doing research here, so I’ve sidled into her house on the beach for a few days. The night train from Nairobi to Mombasa was recommended by many as an epic journey; the experience was, I imagine,  like a developing-world version of the Orient Express.

Before leaving Nairobi, Mama Mercy and I went back to the orphanage site to check on the work there. We met with the well-drilling company and made some decisions on the tower and pump which will both be done within a week or two. Fundis are finishing the inside of the dorms and dining room; a painter has made the roof a nice blue and will be finished the brick-coloured exterior by the time I get back. The new kitchen was just getting walls and the 30-foot toilet was at about 25 feet. There will be lots to see in a week. 

While all of this was in progress last weekend, Mama Mercy and I took a little roadtrip; we went to visit her sister near the Tanzania border in a town called Loitokitok. Mama Mercy said it’s like a vacation for her; I would soon find out that vacation for her is just taking care of people in another town, sleeping in someone else’s house.

Loitokitok is a small town at the very foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. I had to take their word for it though, as the peak was shrouded in heavy cloud when we arrived. Everyone wanted me to see “the mountain”, as did I, but they were also hopeful for rain – most people here had planted and lost crops four times over in the last two years. No rain, but I got my wish the next morning.

This is where the trip blog brings you the harsh reality of life of sub-Saharan Africa.  Not what people want to read over their morning coffee, but it would be ridiculous not to talk about.

Mama Mercy’s sister had arranged for a van to take us deep into Maasai land to see a family she knows – she has been a regional veterinarian there for more than 20 years and has earned unprecedented respect from a tribe that is entirely dependent on livestock. What is most exceptional is that Maasai men are not famous for relating to women on an equal plane. I’m told they will introduce each of their wives as “children”. Often, the age gap almost makes that appropriate.

This is a culture older than I can comprehend. Unlike many here, they have resisted change with a strong sense of pride. But these are the people hardest hit by two years of drought in Kenya. Maasai families have lost their lifeblood – cattle. Some herds have gone from 800 to 20. People here say they’ve not seen it this bad in their lifetimes. Exclusively cattle herders for countless generations, some of the Maasai have recently asked Mama Mercy’s sister how to start cultivating crops like everyone else. If all goes well, it will apparently take up to 20 years for them to recover. In the meantime, they each have dozens of children.

In our rented van, after church of course, we drove past the gates of Amboseli National Park, watching zebras, giraffes and elephants scrounging for dry leaves and grass on the way, and up to a traditional Maasai boma (home compound). Each boma has maybe six or eight round, mud-and-thatch huts – one for each wife and her children. There were so many children.

Mama Mercy had come equipped with a big box of biscuits and a sack of clothing to give away. Unfortunately most of it was for bigger people, and many of the children were in tatters from the waist up, and nothing from the waist down. But the women were so happy. I can’t imagine looking at your own children wishing you could take away their hunger but having no way to feed them.

I kept pretty quiet through most of this, watching Mama Mercy do what she does best: give stuff. She even gave the women a few hundred shillings she had scrounged up from people before leaving for the trip. As for me, I went through the usual awkward apprehension in my head of whether to open up the wallet and look like the fat, wealthy westerner coming to hand out cash to the poor people of Africa. I gave Mama Mercy a little bit to hand out, once I realized what she was doing, but I was careful not to overdo it and set a bad precedent.

The whole way back I realized the absurdity of that thinking. I am the rich westerner; I had a few thousand shillings in my purse that could have made a good dent in helping these ‘poor people of Africa’ for a little while. That should be the precedent. It’s true, you can’t help everyone, but when they’re right in front of you and you have the means in your pocket, that’s the time when you absolutely can.

But I was concerned with appearances. And maybe a little with my own finances. I fixed the error later, back in the house, but my hesitation and questioning was such a pitiful contrast to Mama Mercy’s attitude. She operates on a give-what-you’ve-got rule of thumb, every time, without questioning. In 20 years without a job in a poor country she has never gone without. Funny how that happens.



  1. That would be called faith, hope and LOVE !

    Sleep well. Sunday night Nov.22 2009.

    When are you home?

  2. Hi Hilary, you don’t know me, but I found your blog because I was looking up Loitokitok on Google and it directed me to this entry. I have been to Kenya twice now, and I am about to try to go to Loitokitok to see the mountain.

    I know you wrote this a long time ago, but I wanted you to know that your post rang true to me. I am in Meru, north of Nairobi, working with a group of children. I definitely feel like the rich Westerner, and worry about setting a precedent for people to constantly ask me for money. It’s good to read what you’ve written. Thank you for your words.

    And if you have any advice for traveling to Loitokitok, I’m all ears. 🙂

  3. Am so great about the article, am from that region,studied primary and secondary before join University out of that area…Am not Nomad but i have grown seeing all what is meant to be nomadic, Environment, health and social life…Am taking Environmental Engineering from Nairobi University with the motive to transform Environment of that area…Its quiet challenge but I hope i will make it… In doing so, am starting organization named Africa Nomads Conservation with motive to rise environment of that area as suitable for habitation
    you can like my page

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