Reflections on Leaving Kenya

by Nate Baumgart ’06

The cars are supposed to arrive around ten to take us to the plantation airstrip. A private plane has been chartered to Kisumu and then to Dar Es Salaam. Thus far, I am the only one up. Pushing aside the dirty plates and vegetable peelings, I brew the first of the three pots of coffee we will drink before departing. The kitchen is a mess. The night before last we made a large and luxurious meal to celebrate our arrival [in Kericho]: chicken stew, coconut rice, sikumiwiki, and cabbage. Discovering that our second night was also our last inspired another bout of Dionysian excess.

The day before yesterday, the Stagematt in Kericho was open for the first time since the problems began. Hannah and Rachel [fellow Peace Corps volunteers] went into town for us and bought supplies. The line stretched out the door and around the block: scores of people who have spent the last week or so locked in their homes, rationing slowly dwindling supplies. Guards carrying fully automatic weapons stood at intervals on the sidewalk, doubled up at the door.

Doug [director of the Walter Reed Project in Kericho] arrives with the vehicles. Driving to the airstrip, he explains the passing convoys of tractors, their trailers packed to overflowing with dark faces. Members of the Kisii tribe have volunteered to leave the plantations in the hopes of avoiding violence. The explanation of how their presence might inspire such a problem is murky. Tribal rivalries, assumed political affiliations, language barriers: the common denominators of all conflict here.

The airstrip is on the crest of a hill—a single long strip of tarmac and a tin metal warehouse plastered with “No Smoking” signs. Climbing out of the SUVs into the sun, my stomach has a sickening boiling sensation: I haven’t had this much caffeine in months. The plane is a twin prop. Fifteen seats. The pilot is Ugandan; he flies for an international NGO that brings doctors and medical supplies into impoverished areas.

The rich and vibrant green of Kericho’s fields and shambas gradually fades to a dry and dirty brown as the grasslands descend towards Lake Victoria. Rough and rusted roofs in the center of compounds surrounded by rings and squares of trees appear like massive pupils staring up at us as we pass over. As we approach Kisumu we look for the greasy black smoke that marks the improvised roadblocks we are flying to avoid.

Touching down, we see what appears to be a stream of volunteers coming out to greet the plane. My friend Faith [another volunteer], having experienced riots and violence in Homa Bay during Parliamentary nominations a month ago, came to Kisumu for elections because she thought it would be safer. This did not turn out to be the case. She looks grim. Apparently she is one of the volunteers who lack a passport. The photocopies faxed by the Peace Corps are causing problems with the customs officer.

Our pilots for the next leg, both Australian, have been flying a relay between Dar and Kisumu for most of the day. We are their fourth group with three more to go. I have never been on a private jet. The seats are hand-stitched leather. We are offered snacks and use the power plug and fold-out table to power Marcus’ laptop while we play a round of Tiger Woods’ PGA Golf.

Flying out of Kisumu, over Lake Victoria, we can see the laison that has choked the bay. A non-native water plant whose thick roots and leafy, floating top growth have crippled numerous sectors of the economy here, it lies in a field of brilliant green not unlike the tea in Kericho. It has choked the harbor, preventing the movement of boats for fishing, transport, and tourism. From here it appears as a field of solid green, like a tremendous flat soccer pitch planted at the edge of the water.

It’s a short flight. I am boggled, yet again, at what it means to be a citizen of the richest country in the world: to find myself under its protection, to have its resources mobilized in my favor. In the space of two days, two sets of private planes were organized to evacuate me from a relatively safe locale. Customs practices and proper documentation have been thrust aside; within the large list of people attempting to extricate themselves from troubles, our names have floated to the top by virtue of the place we were born. There is no deserving this, no earning it.

Touching down, I am struck that I came here to understand what lies at the bottom as I float at the top. I was hoping to find a way to make what I had meaningful, to give it purpose. As I think of AIDS orphans camped outside the Catholic Diocese in Kericho waiting for food or water in the afternoon sun, it seems to me that the concept of earning anything— the idea that things happen for a reason—is yet another luxury I had easily assumed away as truth within the soft and easy choices of a Western life.

We exit into a moist oven of tropical air. There’s another group of helpful Peace Corps staff to whisk us through customs, help us change money, offer phones for calls home. Finally, while passing a minibus broken down on the side of the road, I realize that I was expecting a roadblock, a burning car, a crowd of people held at gunpoint by police. It strikes me for the first time that things here are precisely and mundanely normal.