The Garden of Eatin’

Kenya, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Volunteering & Giving Back — By on October 31, 2006 at 8:18 am

After Sister Freda gave us a tour of her rural clinic, she led us past her own small house (one of the few I’d seen with running water and a western-style toilet) to one of most enchanting parts of her property: the tropical fruit grove.

Pushing past the low-slung gate, we entered a lush, emerald green playground where the plants were so tall and widely spaced, that as we walked single file between them, I felt as though we’d stepped into a scene from Honey I Shrunk the Kids.

“Oh good. I think that the pineapples are nearly ripe,” said Sister Freda

Instinctively, I glanced up, trying to spot them hanging from the trees, but I quickly realized that I was walking right past them. The spiky little fruits were peeking their heads out from the center of a waxy green plant no taller than my waist.

As we examined them more closely, Sister Freda went on ahead, pulling several junior-sized pineapples directly off the plants and tossed them back to us.

“Um, guys, do you think that this one is bad?” Holly held out her pineapple to us and we all peered at it. On one side, the fruit had caved in and tiny black bugs were crawling out of a hole in the tough skin.

“Yeah, I’d say so,” said Irene. “Here, take one of mine.”

Once Holly had chucked the rotten fruit, we took pictures with the good ones balanced on our heads (you know, like Chiquita girls) and ran to catch up as Sister Freda. She’d already reached the section of the garden where the guavas were so ripe and heavy, they came off the trees with the slightest turn of her wrist.

Elijah, the local guide who had joined us in the garden, demonstrated that we could bite right into the soft skin of the guava and peel the outer layer to get to the soft pink flesh inside. We all did followed suit, then took a bite.

“Eww! Gross! Oh my god, you guys!” Holly screeched between spitting pieces of her guava onto the ground. “There are worms in my fruit.”

“Are you sure?” Jen said, a trace of doubt tingeing her voice. Holly had a habit of spotting the most disgusting things in almost everything she ate. We could always count on Hol to pull a short curly hair from between the layers of her sandwich or spot a small bug floating in her soup. It had gotten to the point where Holly had claimed so many nasty additions, that we wondered if she was imagining them.

Continuing to gag profusely, Holly didn’t have to say anything to answer the question. Her current predicament reminded me of one of the very first jokes I’d learned as a kid

What’s worse than biting into an apple and finding a worm?

Finding half a worm, of course.

“Ew, Holly’s got worms up her guava!” shouted Jen.

We all erupted into laughter, and between grimaces, even Holly had to even smile.

*****

Downpour
We collected huge armfuls of mangoes, avocados, guava and pineapples, hugged Sister Freda goodbye and started heading back towards the main road half a mile away. We hadn’t gotten very far when the enormous storm clouds that had been threatening all afternoon finally opened up and dumped their contents all over us. This happened almost every single afternoon between 2 and 4 pm, but the rains had still caught us by surprise.

“Please, we must go fastah now,” urged Elijah, trying to make us hotfoot it down to the matatu stop.

“Elijah, you’ve got four women loaded down with multiple pounds of fruit,” shouted Irene, “There’s no way you’re going to make us move us any faster.”

He must have heard the truth in her tone, because he motioned for us to head off the dirt road, which by now was rapidly turning into a raging river of mud. We followed him to a low-slung house constructed from the same cow dung bricks we’d seen all across western Kenya. Clearing a particularly huge puddle, we landed in front of a shadowy doorway and tiptoed around six small children to get inside.

“Wait. Elijah? Do you know the people that live here?” Jen asked

He didn’t answer. Elijah said something to the kids in Swahili and they scattered to the back of the house.

Unsure if whether we were trespassing or not, we tentatively down on a set of mismatched couches and waited. I stared at the various yearlong calendars affixed to the walls with long nails, freebees from fertilizer and tractor and sugar companies. There was one from 2001, a 2003 and a 2004. The current year, and one before it were conspicuously absent.

A few minutes later a tired looking woman strolled into the living room, offered us each a limp handshake and said something to Elijah before departing once again. Her blank expression told us that she wasn’t surprised to see us perched uncomfortably on her furniture. Before we could confirm anything with our guide, the sound of the rain striking tin roof grew to a jackhammer decibel, ruling out the possibility of casual conversation.

Across the room, two small kids sat side-by-side on a stuffed chair draped in what looked like an oversized lace doily, staring at us with trepidation. Behind them, a tiny girl with cornrows peaked out, squealing and crying in horror as she caught a full glimpse of the sopping wet white aliens who had invaded her living room.

The four of us stared back. After a few minutes, Holly broke the silence.

“Hey there, guys” she coaxed, holding out a piece of fruit she’d plucked from her backpack. “What’s this, huh? It’s a pineapple. Want to see it?”

Her simple peace offering got the best of their curiosity. The two older kids crept over grabbed it from Holly’s outstretched hand and hauled back across the room to examine the gift. Giggling, they returned once again, now content to climb all over the couch behind Holly, Jen and Irene. I watched the scene from across the room, my eyes growing heavy from the humid pressure in the hut and steady rhythm of the thunderstorm outside.

I hadn’t realized that I’d nodded off until a buzzing fly alighted on my shoulder and zapped me awake. The rain had slowed to a light patter, and Elijah had decided that it would never stop completely. Time to go.

We decided to give the mother a few additional pieces of fruit to thank her for letting us invade her home. As we passed though the doorway to go, the older daughter surprised us with her farewell.

“We shall meet again,” she said, solemnly.

“Wow, did she just say ‘shall’?” asked Holly. It wasn’t the first time we’d heard such starchy formality coming from such a little mouth. Even the kids that we taught at Pathfinder usually preferred contractions like “shan’t” to “won’t” and threw out phrases such as “we must persevere,” and “enter the circle…you will not fail” during recess games like dodgeball and soccer.

As we returned to the dirt road, now sloppy and mucky enough to consume our sandals and dye our feet paprika red, it occurred to me why the little kid language pushed past the boundaries of old-fashioned and into archaic territory.

“I think that that only book these kids get to read is the bible.” I said.

“Yeah, you’re totally right,” Irene agreed for the group. “It’s sermon talk.”

We all fell into a heavy silence, trudging through the misty grey afternoon, thinking about all of the Little Golden Books, Frog & Toad stories, Goosebumps paperbacks and Harry Potter titles that the vast majority of these kids would never get to experience. They’d probably never read Where the Red Fern Grows, The Cat in the Hat or Where the Wild Things Are, or see themselves in a character created by Judy Bloom or Beverly Cleary.

Of course, those titles probably wouldn’t strike the same chord for a kids growing up in rural western Kenya as did were for me, an awkward little girl raised in the Florida suburbs during the ‘80s. Still, reading had blown my mind as a child, stoked my already wild imagination and allowed me to travel to places populated by fairies, monsters and good witches-but not a single grown up. I wished that these local kids-many of whom reported “sweeping” and “washing utensils” as their favorite after-school activities-could experience the great escape that had been so vital to my own childhood.

Later that night, when I got back to the school and looked through my stuff, I came across Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, something I’d packed and forgotten about completely. I never read the books and had skipped the movies, finding it pointless to watch them out of order. I’d bought this book (the first in the series) in Nairobi, intending to get caught up on my pop culture reading during my long nights on the road.

Grabbing the paperback and switching on my headlamp, I hiked down the dark path to visit the 12 pre-teen girls who boarded at Pathfinder Academy. I learned that while most had heard of the boy wizard Harry Potter, not a single one of them had read the books.

“Do you want for me to read it to you?” I asked.

“Yes! Yes!! Harree Pottah! ” they screamed in a chorus, grabbing my hand and pulling me over to sit on one of the twin beds. As I flipped open to the first page, they settled in all around me, resting chins on my shoulder and curling up around my lap.

The electricity had gone out earlier, plunging the entire dorm (and indeed, the whole camp) into darkness. The glow from my headlamp and the girls’ kerosene lanterns gave their room a mystical atmosphere befitting the other-world we were about to step into. As thrilled and wide-eyed with anticipation as the little girls snuggled all around me, I started to read.

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    4 Comments

  • Mick Gordon says:

    Your writing style is impressive. Are you sure you are not a well known novelist hiding as a “lost Girl”? If not, consider it as an option.

  • superkain says:

    Wow. I’m really excited that you got the chance to read to them. I’ve done that sort of thing for public libraries and terminal pediatric wards, and it’s always humbling and empowering. I’d love to tour the world and share stories as you have.

    Keep it up, i’m enthralled.

  • Dellie says:

    Oh A, I’d forgotten how you could touch me with your writing. What a wonderful magical idea that you had-reading Harry Potter to these book- deprived young girls. You must have made them so happy. Now they know that there are other book choices out there. How fortunate for the girls and what a blessing for you.You gave them a gift–a seed of a thought–there is a whole other world out there beyond the pineapple trees. You gave them the gift of Imagination–the trait that separates humans from all other species. Mick Gordon was very perceptive. I’m impressed,Mick. A is an amazing writer.

  • Anonymous says:

    THIS IS A COOL BLOG.

    BUT MY SIDEKICK ISNT SO SURE.

    SORRY MY CAPSLOCK DOESN’T WORK GOOD.