We stood there. We stood just on the outskirts of the school she had attended since age three. We stood and I listened as she told me that her mother had passed away six months back at age 39. We stood as she went on about how her father works in Mombasa and this, this here was once her home. We stood and I stared at the upturned soil, heaped unnaturally above the ground.
I must have done all these things for some time because when she took my hand with a small smile, she said, “It’s getting late. We ought to head to grandmother’s.”
My only memory of the walk from her old home to the new one is of the giant ants. Being the foolish mzungu that I am, I had worn my Tom’s shoes that day, the kind with the lacy look and little holes. We laughed until our bellies hurt as we plucked each and every sneaky bugger off of my ever-swelling foot.
Once there, she showed me around their home. The place was breathtaking—a yard of three small huts draped in bougainvillea. She told me to wait there and I did, looking out at their view of vast Lake Victoria, little chicks chirping at my feet.
15 minutes passed before I saw her return, running up the hill, three sodas tucked in the nook of her arm. She sighed, setting the bottles down on a green plastic chair under the tree. “Come.”
I followed her to the kitchen hut where her grandmother was preparing fresh chapati for us to eat. Grandmother speaks the native tongue, Dholuo. And although my Dholuo is admittedly limited to greetings, food and motorcycle lingo, the three of us sat huddled around the small fire, talking back and forth, her granddaughter—my student—as the translator. Grandmother looks after more than ten of her grandchildren now. Nowadays, Grandmother is 84.
We laughed and sat and helped cook as darkness fell over Muhuru. I wish Grandmother and she could know what a view they offered me.
And then there was V. V and I sat there. We sat just inside the five-foot by eight-foot mud classroom at her desk. We sat and I talked. I asked her why she had gotten none of the answers right on her geometry quiz. Had she not prepared? V listened. V stared. But V did not speak.
As the week went on, I noticed some things. V never played during P.E. time. V never spoke to anyone. One day my frustration with these nevers got the best of me, and I asked one of the teachers if everything was OK with her.
He told me that V has tuberculosis. She has had ongoing respiratory issues and has been truant from school, averaging two days a week. Now I did not speak. What was there to say?
I walked to school that next day, heavy at heart, with a backpack full of copies of John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace” spilling out the seams.
I had each of my seventh graders stand up and read two pages aloud to the class that day. V never stood. She shook her head, “no.” V never spoke.
My second to last day, these "nevers" proved damningly imprecise, as they have a habit of proving. We went around the room, wrapped up in the tense dialogue between Leper and Gene. “Next please,” I mumbled, my gaze downward, eager to read what would come of this exchange. A slow, sweet voice came from the corner of the room. V read to the end of the chapter.
I used to think that going to rural Kenya this past summer would be a culture shock. I was right in some ways, I suppose. But what I never could have dreamt in my wildest of wild imaginings was how much more of a shock returning would be.
V and she give but a glimpse into the overwhelming kindness and hope revealed to me during my stay. Families who were working day to day to make ends meet would welcome me into their homes, offering food reserved for only the most special of occasions. Individuals shared their life stories and listened, really listened, to my own. I came to find that most people live in the present there, valuing relationships above all else. For after all, life in Muhuru is so uncertain. One in three people have HIV. Curable diseases claim sisters, mothers and fathers. Toddlers waddle around, their little empty bellies bulging.
But then, I stood here. I stood here just outside the library where I had spent hundreds of hours these past three years. I stood and I listened as someone chatted on his cell phone, carrying on about the Penn Pavilion. I stood as he went on about how the Career Fair went well, but how he couldn’t go to dinner tonight because of that dumb writing assignment. I stood and stared at the stream of people rushing by, eyes glued to their cell phones. I stood and stared as hurried person after worried person rushed off to do hurried and worried things. I stood and I stared at our upturned culture, living unnaturally, its feet miles above solid ground.
Gracie Willert is a Trinity senior. Her biweekly column will run every other Monday.