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Trip Report, January 2014
By Jim Cederberg
Humanity Through Baseball traveled to Kenya once again from January 10th to 26th, 2014. Our traveling party consisted of me, Ralph Ogden and Eric O’Brien, a 17-year-old high school baseball player from Freeman High School in Richmond, Virginia. Co-founder Drew Sauer was unable to make the trip, but helped procure and pack the gloves, bats, helmets and other equipment and saw us off at the airport.
Travel went smoothly in both directions. We arrived in Nairobi where, astonishingly, one of the people who came from the guest house to meet us at the airport was a high school teammate of my son Luke in Boulder, Colorado. Talk about a small world.
We did not visit any slums in Nairobi this year due to several factors. We did learn that Marcy, the young woman struggling to survive in the Nairobi slums who was described in earlier trip reports, and whom we were unable to substantially support, has experienced a series of tragic events culminating in a suicide attempt. This was a grim reminder that the stories of the lives we encounter do not always have happy outcomes.
At the guest house in Nairobi, we had an early morning chat with the lady working there as cook and housekeeper. Her story was much like other stories we have heard that are becoming all too familiar. Married at 16 to a man from western Kenya, she later gave birth to twin girls. In that sub-culture, twins are considered a curse, so she was abandoned by her husband. With nowhere else to go, she returned to her parental home where she was treated as an outcast and a failure for not remaining with her husband. She was threatened with a machete by an alcoholic brother. With her twin daughters in tow, she came to the doorstep of a U.S.-educated, dynamic woman who runs an orphanage and community development center. She was provided shelter and job training and is now able to support her family, cooking at the orphanage school and working at the guest house. The saga of this beautiful, intelligent, industrious and courageous woman represents both the bad and the good of Kenya.
Other travelers we met at the guest house were working on various humanitarian projects: a female family counselor from California; a doctor from the University of Michigan and his multi-profession wife; a businessman from Ann Arbor. These folks are remarkably diverse yet similarly fascinating. They all put their comfort zone behind them and jumped in.
The drive from Nairobi to Ahero was painstaking due to road construction, even though we were traveling in a large, nine-passenger Land Cruiser. I can’t imagine what the journey must be like for the Kenyans packed into overloaded buses or crammed into the ubiquitous mini-vans called matatus. The good news is that the massive road construction project from Nairobi to Kisumu has long stretches that are complete, and completion of the remaining sections is within sight. This is a vast improvement in Kenya’s transportation system and will make our travels and commerce in Kenya much easier in the future.
En route to our destination of Ahero, we descend into the Great Rift Valley and then through changing and beautiful countryside between many bustling small towns. We pass through the larger towns of Naivasha and Nakuru, each of which has adjacent game preserves, and through the boundless and beautiful green hillside carpets of tea plantations around Kericho. Ahero is located twenty miles from Lake Victoria and just south of the equator in a vast, flat plain of sugar cane plantations, rice paddies, and subsistence farms of maize, cabbages, kale and vegetables. Along (and frequently on) the roads are cattle, goats, sheep, donkeys and pedestrians, children in school uniforms, women with impossible loads balanced on their heads, men in suits and ties.
We arrived in Ahero Sunday afternoon and promptly visited with Margaret and Everline. Everline showed off her 16-month old daughter, Shaunte. Our friend Hope, anxious for our arrival, soon appeared by motorcycle taxi. The emotions of this reunion are hard to describe. These are people I think about every single day.
Everline provided the first fodder for ribbing Eric, as if any was needed, when she described him to the other two women as “really cute.”
Over the next five days, we visited fifteen schools and conducted baseball clinics at each one. Our contingent included the three of us from the U.S., our guide Grephus, our host pastor Joshua, and four or five young people who became interested in baseball during our previous visits. The agenda included three new schools, including one primary school. We played on crude soccer pitches, often sharing the field with cattle, goats and sheep. At most of these schools, there were hundreds of little kids from adjacent primary schools providing an enthusiastic audience. At one of the high schools, extremely uncharacteristically in our experience, the kids were not very enthusiastic. No problem. Eric said, “Let’s play with the little kids!” That was one of the best ideas of the trip, and fifty or so of the little ones laughed and shrieked with joy through their turns at bat. Lesson learned: always be prepared with little kids’ gear.
The secondary school kids were fun, as always. Some showed impressive athletic ability. Imagine hitting a screaming line drive the first time you ever swung a bat. All of them showed great determination. Eric was tireless, pitching batting practice for hours on end in the blistering equatorial sun. I would repeatedly ask, “Are you OK? You’ve been going a long time and it’s really hot.” The answer was always the same: “I got this.”
It is always fascinating to see and very hard to comprehend the magic of baseball. The students invariably first appear a bit uncertain, unless they have seen us in past years. For the veterans, they come bounding up to us, saying “Hallo Jimy, how is Drew? Do you remember me? I am Violet.” They display the bandana or plastic bracelet or other souvenir we left on a previous visit. The newcomers are a little bit wary, not sure what these mzungu (white guys) are all about. After two hours of throwing technique, fielding, basic baseball rules, and one or two turns at bat, they are smiling, laughing, clowning around, posing for pictures, asking serious questions, asking us when we will see them again, when will we come back.
There is a scene in the movie “Labor Day” where the main character, an escaped convict, is building a relationship with a teenage boy and his mother. One thing he does is teach them to hit a baseball. In the movie, this is used as a quintessential bonding activity. I thought, “My God, I got to do that 500 times last week.”
Unquestionably, the most fun we had was at the primary school. Those kids were incredibly cute. They tried extremely hard and followed instructions well. The grins of delight and surprise when they hit the ball were priceless. Because the little kids at this rural school understood very little English, Grephus stepped in and did the batting instruction. Watching him work with each of the kids, especially in that society, was a marvelous thing.
Teachers often joined in to try their skills at hitting, and when they inevitably took a mighty swing at the first pitch and missed, the students would howl with laughter.
All of the kids we see are extremely poor. Many are orphans. Many have tattered uniforms and worn out shoes. Kids mostly play in bare feet to spare their battered school shoes. Actual athletic shoes are rare.
Everywhere we played and everywhere we went, grubby children could be seen huddled around the perimeter of the school grounds, bare-footed and wearing little better than rags. These are the children who do not have money for school uniforms and therefore are excluded from school. So they wait around for hours for their neighbors to come out for recess so they have some company. They have no toys or playthings, so they make do with sticks or pieces of trash. I have no idea what, or how often, they eat. Frequently they have the discolored hair indicative of worms or the telltale distended abdomens of malnutrition. We often play with these kids on the side, take pictures, and give them coveted empty water bottles. These are sweet, innocent children.
The three-schools-per-day schedule was grueling. The temperature was quite pleasant first thing in the morning, but by 11:00 it was pretty warm, and by 1:00 it was very hot. We were virtually at the equator at an elevation of 4,000 feet, so the sun was intense. Repeated applications of 50 spf sun screen helped, but could not prevent impressive burning on the back of our hands and necks.
Typically, in between the schools were several miles of rough dirt roads. There were always kids walking or playing or just watching along these roads. When they see the Land Cruiser approaching, they come running to the edge of the road pointing and excitedly shouting “Mzungu, mzungu!” or “How are you?” Somehow we managed to find time at midday and in the early evenings to visit friends or mingle with the locals. People were very nice to us and at no time did we feel threatened or in any danger.
During the course of the week, we visited a rice mill in Ahero and the sub-district hospital where Margaret is doing her clinical training on her way to becoming the equivalent of a nurse practitioner. Portions of the clinic are constructed of converted cargo containers. The clinic does a lot of work with AIDS prevention and testing and treats AIDS patients with anti-viral drugs. Margaret marched into nearly every office in the complex and proudly introduced us to people working there. One could tell that she is well liked. I had a chance to speak with her about her future plans and dreams. Margie will complete a semester of review and take her exams in August. This is a young woman who will do good things for her fellow human beings and make the world a better place.
We saw a lot of Margie but never enough. It is hard to describe what a sweet person she is. Leading up to the trip, she was calling me two or three times a week. While we were around Ahero, she appeared for rides to work and back home. She came out to see us at the guest house and came to visit during the tournament. When it came time to say goodbye, it was tough not to shed tears. When I got home a week later, she called to say hello.
On Saturday, we had a tournament in the middle of town. Tournament play is not particularly warranted by the training we are able to provide in a few hours, but it is justified by the enthusiasm of the players. Using modified rules, we play two games simultaneously on diamonds set up on opposite corners of a large soccer pitch. To an outsider, it must appear chaotic, but by rolling with the punches we have learned to make it enjoyable. It was a lot more manageable since we limited it to eight teams.
Sunday was a day for visiting. We visited Joshua’s village where we supplied a meal for the orphans and village children. We played catch with the kids, Eric and I pairing with four or five kids at a time. Ralph was mobbed by the smaller children.
I have written last year about Hope’s (not her real name) quest to achieve her dream of a college education. I have communicated with her for the past year and a half on virtually a daily basis. I learned quickly that financial support is one thing, but moral support is equally important, and one of the challenges for women in this society is finding moral support for any endeavor other than the traditional role of doing household and farm work. I wanted to see her home village and meet her parents, because her mother cares for her two sons while she attends college. Let’s just say the challenges she faces are huge.
On Monday, we went to Kisumu, a large city, and I had a chance to visit Hope’s college and residence and see her everyday surroundings. Last year, she was living in a YWCA hostel next to the Coca Cola factory in the midst of the huge Kisumu open air market. We have since made arrangements for her to share a large apartment in a house with another young professional woman. This is much nicer and a safe walk from school. Hope is doing well and I am immensely proud of her.
From Kisumu, we drove to the Kakamega rain forest, where we visited four secondary schools over the next two days. The terrain here is a bit different, with gentle hills and very green. The economy includes some tea growing but mostly subsistence farming. We stayed at a guest cottage at the edge of the rain forest preserve. The first night of our stay, there was a puppy next door that was in some kind of distress and cried and whined loudly all night, the worst distressed animal sounds I have ever heard in my life. On these trips, one’s emotions, both high and low, are on overload. If they are not, you are wasting the trip. As the sleepless night wore on, that suffering puppy next door became the voice of all the sorrow and misery of the hungry, lonely little children that we had seen for the previous nine days, the cry of all the women who are treated about the same way it was being treated.
I keep talking about young people with drive and potential and great promise of making this world a better place. They are not hard to find, and when you do find them, you know it. One such person is Angela, age 20, with a high school education, who saw exactly what we see — the little grubby kids whose families (if alive) had no means to provide school uniforms and so the children are left behind. Angela volunteered and started a preschool for these children so that they will have a chance. All of her teaching materials were either written on a blackboard or home made. Her dream is to obtain her teacher’s certificate. We will make sure she has that chance.
We had the opportunity to spend the better part of a morning with the preschoolers. I had a blast reaching into my memory banks for that. We taught a couple lessons about object names and phonics, numbers and days of the week. We sang nursery rhyme songs. We played hide and seek, ring around the rosy, chased the kids around as they shrieked and giggled in mock terror, shared pictures, and tossed kids in the air. I hope Angela was planning to send the kids home after that, because we really got them wound up. This was a morning that those kids, Eric, Grephus and I will remember for a very long time.
After every one of these trips, there inevitably comes a flood of emotions. These feelings come from places unexplained and mostly unexplored. They seep out in drips and drops but, always at some point, they come in a tidal wave. Sometimes this happens upon seeing a little girl wearing trash as jewelry, or on the long flight home, or late at night. This year, it happened when I got to this point in the report.
The experience is about human beings whom we touch and who touch us. It is impossible to deny that some of these children and young adults have no chance, and that is heartbreaking. But many do have a chance, many find at least a bright spot in their lives simply because we were there, and some are well on their path to success because of their own courage and because of the work that we are doing. These people will change the lives of others in their community. That part is incredibly inspirational and uplifting.
Absorbing this tsunami of emotions makes life a lot less comfortable but indescribably more interesting and fulfilling.
Thousands of human beings we actually see, and millions more we know are there, are no longer faceless masses of kids. They are smiles, they are facial expressions, they are personalities, they are laughs and shrieks, they are held hands, fuzzy heads huddled close to look at pictures, determination, high fives. They are minds, hearts and spirits. They are hopes and dreams.
The sublime, to butcher a phrase, often co-exists with the ridiculous. At each school, we must first go into the principal’s office and formally introduce ourselves. At one of the schools in the rain forest, and I mean way out in the middle of nowhere, I mentioned that I am from Colorado. The principal immediately responded, “Ah, you have legalized marijuana!”
From the Kakamega Rain Forest, we traveled back through Kisumu, Ahero, and Kericho, then turned south to Kisii and Narok to the Masai Mara, Sekenani Gate. Given the condition of the roads, this 200-mile journey took nearly eight hours. While at the Mara, we went on four game drives (driving on dirt roads and tracks through the Masai Mara Game Preserve), and played baseball with the local Masai kids. The Masai live a very traditional lifestyle, residing in clusters of huts made of stick frames covered with cattle dung, subsisting on milk and cow’s blood and herds of cattle and goats. Because of the wild animals, at night the livestock is brought into the villages, which are crude stockades made of branches and brush, where the animals roam around the huts. Masai culture tests the boundaries between appreciation of different cultures and concepts of basic human rights, with traditional practices such as female circumcision and arranged marriages of very young teenage girls in exchange for dowries. The kids are just kids. Maybe they have to go out and tend to scores of cattle or goats, but they are still just kids.
The Masai Mara is one of the premier game-viewing areas in the world. Even in the off-season (when the great migrations of wildebeest and zebra numbering in the millions and the predators that depend on them are farther to the south in the Serengeti), the wildlife we saw was spectacular. Sightings included elephants, rhinos, hippos, lions, cheetahs, cape buffalo, wildebeest, zebras, impala, gazelles, giraffes, hyenas, topi, kudu, hartebeests, warthogs, ostrich, exotic birds and other species, most of them within less than twenty yards. On our last morning we watched, up close, a young cheetah romping with its mother like a huge, magnificent house cat.
At the tent camp where we stay in the Mara, one of the other guests was Amanda, a 20-year-old student from southern California. Amanda works as a retail clerk in a sporting goods store to put herself through community college. She has been setting aside money every month from her earnings and student budget to sponsor students through international relief organizations. She was in Kenya, by herself, volunteering to work on a water project.
In addition to having compassion for their fellow human beings, all that Eric, Ralph, the folks at the guest house, Amanda, and Luke’s classmate who appeared to greet us at the airport have in common is they stepped out of the bounds that make life comfortable but make us complacent. They just did it.
Let me digress to share a quick story that is important to you as an American. My friend Hope, in the context of one of her college courses, recently asked me: “Is it really true that for many years in America black people and women were not allowed to vote?” The tone of incredulity says it all. Many people in the world look up to us. The least we can do is try to be worthy of that.
As always, I am hoping that this trip report lets you share in this remarkable and uncharted experience. My greater wish is that you, or someone you know, will share the trip firsthand. The only way to truly experience such an adventure is on one’s own terms.
Our next trip will be in January of 2015. At this point, all participants must pay their own way or find sponsorship. The total cost is around $5,000. The cost is tax deductible.
In addition, we are always seeking equipment, especially baseball gloves and catchers’ gear. I personally have found many gloves at flea markets. If you are willing to explore a flea market near you, let me know and I will provide some details about the kinds of gloves that are most usable.
Humanity Through Baseball depends on your tax deductible financial contributions. Giving information is on our web site at www.humanitythroughbaseball.org, or contributions may be sent to the address above.
Finally, if you are interested in a more personal experience of providing the financial and moral support for a promising young person to complete their education and transform their life, please contact me and I can match you with a student to sponsor.
Thank you so much for sharing this passion with me.