Telling Details

Despite all the running-related stuff I’ve been posting, the purpose of my trip to Kenya was to get the kind of details that would make telling the story of Grace (introduced at the very end of Trail of Second Chances) realistic and relatable.

Justin and his wife, Winnie, have been absolutely wonderful in helping me with this. On Saturday, we went to Winnie’s parent’s home in Soy (So-yay.) Soy sits on the border of Uasin Gishu (WA-sin Gi-shu) County and Western County, out toward the Ugandan border.

The land here is flatter than the rest of the county or of Nandi County, and drier despite several decent sized lakes. The dirt roads are in better shape, due to less erosion during the winter seasons. The tarmac roads are pretty bad everywhere except Nandi Hills, a response to the tea industry and their need to get product to market.

Winnie’s parents were welcoming – it’s a word that is very apt for the whole country so far, with one exception – but I ran into a language barrier for the first time.

Kenya has two official languages, English and Swahili. English is used in all the schools, according to Justin. However, that is something that pertains more to the younger generations. Winnie started to apologize for her parents, and I laughed, telling her that they speak more English than I do Swahili, which is limited to about four words, Please, Thank you, Sorry, and Uh-oh.

One thing I don’t know is how Kenyans stay slender. Each journey to family homesteads takes on the elements of a progressive dinner. The trip to Soy was no different. Two stops, two full meals. The first also included two cups of mursik. I pretty much skipped dinner when we got home.

Winnie’s dad, with Justin playing the role of interpreter, told me that the area used to be covered in wattle trees, used locally to produce ink (from the tannins in the bark) and charcoal from the pulp. That changed in the late 1990s when the East African Tanning Extract Company Ltd divested, finding that the sector was not profitable enough for the stockholders tastes. Since then, homes have sprung up, including a new home under construction for Kenyan soccer star, McDonald Mariga. He is one of two international stars from Kenya.

A special treat for me was an invitation to see the kitchen at Winnie’s parent’s house. The kitchen is purely the woman’s domain and men are expected to stay out. Because Winnie understands the kind of book I’m hoping to write (and because I had volunteered to do a little cooking one night), she asked if I would like to see a traditional kitchen. Absolutely, I said and meant it.

This marked me as very different from most Kenyan men. They have no desire to visit the kitchen, preferring to savor the foods that come out of it.

The kitchen is set up in a separate building and the cooking areas are literally built into the walls of the structure. Not something that I would have imagined. Likewise, the lack of a chimney. Kenyan kitchens use cross-ventilation from windows and the small gaps at the top of the walls to handle smoke. These are the kind of telling details that, when I write the book, will make the story honest

The fires burn corn cobs, a plentiful material here while other places use charcoal. The flames are set below and pots set into the cavities molded to hold them. Storage is done at the other end of the room. All the ingredients are fresh since there is no refrigerator, and the water is drawn from wells and boiled before use.

Each of the women, including many of the younger girls, will play a role in the preparation and serving of the food. Preparation is by hand, with everything cut into bite-sized pieces except meats attached to bone. Boiled rice, potatoes, millet, and chapati (a fried flour dish somewhere between a pancake and a crepe, but without the sugar) are all very common, as are cooked vegetables. At most of the meals I’ve been present for, meat was served, but I suspected that’s in honor of me, not a part of normal Kenyan diets.

After we ate, the family gathered in chairs outside, enjoying the cooling breezes from under a few remaining wattle trees. Listening to the family speak, sometimes emphatically using hand gestures—Kenyans talk a lot with their hands— and sometimes jokingly, scenes for the book finally started to drop in. I’m not ready to write it yet, but I am getting close.

I came here in search of the story, worried I might not find it, but it is here, right in plain sight, as though it has been waiting for me.