Why Go To Kenya?

A couple of people have asked me that lately. Most, the non-runners, think I'm slightly cracked for considering such a trip, especially since I don't plan to be on safari. My mother-in-law summed up those feelings with a question: "Isn't it dangerous?" To which I replied, "It's safer than Chicago." Being a smart-aleck comes somewhat naturally to me. When I get to combine it with truth, it becomes even more fun.

I have plenty of reasons for going. Just traveling to a new place, to meet and, hopefully, understand people that live very different lives from me is a sufficient reward in itself. Ditto for the fact that I'm going to get to watch some of the greatest runners in the world. For a step or two, I might even get to run with them.

Neither move me enough though to risk losing my business. Self-employed people who disappear for two months tend to migrate to unemployed. We'll see. That's a journey I will be trying to avoid. (Which brings up the subject of acting in the face of fear - I'll tackle that some other time.)

What will get me off the proverbial couch and on to the road to Iten is a story. The core idea of it I had three years ago when I first started writing novels. What must the Kenyans go through when they come here, to the United States, to run and attend university?

I began to go do the list, Reno, Kimowba, Keoch, and Lagat at WSU, Mike Bot, and a dozen others. Almost exclusively male. The question changed when I recognized that, and became what does it take for a woman to leave Kenya to come to United States to run and go to school.

That I might be able to answer from the couch, but I couldn't do it well, with real understanding, without making the trip. There will be too many subtleties that I'll miss, too many assumptions that are flat-out wrong. From a first-world perspective, many people point to the obvious and condemn the third-world culture for a lack of enlightenment.

Stealing a phrase from a nephew-in-law, there are no voluntary vegetarians among the starving. So it is for most of us, that our underlying prejudices will inform our judgment, to the detriment of the truth.

The time that I have in Kenya won't strip me completely of my biases, but it will give me a base to learn that I have them and to work around them. Then I'll be able to write the story that I want to tell.

The following I wrote as part of an exercise. It will give you an idea of where I'm headed.

From his battered white Toyota, Rob could see her bare feet caked with the dry umber dust of the road to Kapkeringon Village. Grace had none of the baby-giraffe look of the others headed the school from shacks in the fields. Instead, she unfolded one fluid stride at a time, feet lifting puffs of red haze in the post-dawn light.

She flew as the fastest of the sparks flowing past the newly green tea fields. She wore the school uniform of Kapkeringon East, a poinsettia-red skirt, a button up shirt with small blue and white checks, and a vee-necked sweater the color of rubies. Her books, both of them, she carried tied together with string on her back.

Grace saw him long before she reached his car. She eased across the road to the far side. Her eyes, when she got close enough for him to see, were deep wells, and her gaze was more curious than cautious until they met his. Then, they turned down in respect to his age and his skin. Still, he had seen the flicker of a question before she averted her eyes. Who was the muzungu—white man?

He waited until she was well within earshot, so that he wouldn’t be shouting over the buzz of insects pollinating the crop.

“Habari za asubuhi.” Good morning, what is the news.

She slowed without seeming to at the morning greeting.

“Nzuri sana, assante,” Grace replied, the accent lifting on the next-to-last syllable. The news is good, thank you. Like her eyes, the words hung diffidently. A light sheen of sweat lent a polished glow to her skin. It was almost a deep mahogany rather than the darker black of most of the children and was stretched over a body so spare as to show every muscle. Her head, like that of all the students, was shorn to her scalp. 

She risked another glance when she was opposite him. In that a fleeting moment, he saw her take stock of him. A flash of white teeth showed, and a crease smoothed on her forehead, and he recognized a bit of her uncle in the expression, the look Joseph had when he figured something out.

Grace surged, three long strides that opened space between them and carried her on to school.