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Trip Report January 2017

This trip established a first because our two volunteers were women. Jacque and Danielle are lawyers practicing in Denver. They were best friends in law school, despite their contrasting ages and personalities. Jacque is in her early fifties, is a grandmother, and is an extrovert, to say the least. Danielle is 33, and an introvert. Jacque had extensive experience living and working in Kenya and in the middle east, while Danielle’s foreign travel experience was limited.

We left DIA on Thursday morning and arrived in Nairobi Friday night, staying at the Milele Presbyterian Conference Center 20 minutes from the airport. All the bags arrived and we had a little trouble getting through customs.

On Saturday, we met up with Ralph, Norah (college student outside Nairobi sponsored by Ralph), Samuel (a Masai college student sponsored by Ralph), and their respective friends. We went to visit a computer training center that was established by two American brothers in their twenties, one of whom is a fellow Duke Alum. This center was literally on the edge of the infamous Kibera slums. After visiting the computer center, we took a walking tour of the main road through the slum. There are rows upon rows of sheet metal shacks, no sanitation, and kids in filthy rags everywhere. There are also signs of hope and improvement.

We bid goodbye to that crew late in the afternoon. On Sunday, we met Phelisters (Margie’s sister, who attends college in Nairobi), and Jombo (The first baseball-playing student that Drew and I met in 2010) and drove to Ahero (20 km east of Kisumu and Lake Victoria). This is about a 7- hour trip and, despite the vastly improved roads, you can count on some kind of a delay. This road trip marked Danielle’s introduction to travel in Kenya, when she was heard plaintively calling out from a gas station restroom, &“Danielle, do you have any toilet paper?&”

We arrived at Margie and Everline’s place shortly before dark to a joyous reunion and welcome for Jacque and Danielle. We stayed at the usual place nearby. Accommodations there are fine but there are a lot of bees that constantly come in through the unscreened windows.

Our baseball crew included Grephus, Pastor Joshua, Jombo and three others we had met playing baseball over the years, Kasman, Sammy and Evans. The mix between these three and the women visitors was hilarious from the beginning. Jacque never missed a chance to tease about anyone’s personality quirks, and I don’t know what Jombo was thinking when he acceded to our demand to turn over his phone so we could see who he had been messaging. The funniest theme of the week was that all of the secondary school kids we saw, some of whom are as old as 20, thought that Danielle was 18, and the boys constantly tried to impress her accordingly. One day, when I had other business to deal with, the ladies spent lunchtime in Ahero with the crew. They came back laughing hysterically about something I never did get, but they were all very amused the whole afternoon. That afternoon, Jacque compared biceps with a rugby-playing school principal.

Baseball activities went well. Our team members are becoming more comfortable in their roles and need less and less supervision. Grephus and Kasman were a huge help taking turns pitching batting practice. We replenished baseball supplies and stored a significant amount of gear with Grephus. One innovation that I wish I had thought of years ago was using whistles to change activities or get kids’ attention. We continued to use the plate and feet stencil and sometimes used spray paint instead of flour. I pretty much let Grephus or Sammy do the baseball explanation. When doing batting demonstrations, using a student in parallel to our demonstrator really seems to improve retention and minimize the need to repeat. The tournament was complicated by the fact that the fields got soaked. Thinking that the Karanda site was too wet, Joshua re-scheduled the tournament for an alternate site. When we arrived there, that field was unplayable. Grephus and I ran over to Karanda and decided we could deal with it. We had to re-orient the fields, and we wee constantly rubbing mud off the baseballs all day long using whatever we could find, but we managed.

One of our basic themes is empowering young women. Having Jacque and Danielle along was tremendously beneficial. They were instant role models for not just the girls, but for all the kids. At one school way out in the middle of sugar cane fields, the playing field was too muddy. The principal is a lady whom we had seen for several years. We ended up just having a really nice conversation with a large group of students who listened with fascination at Danielle’s explanation of her work as an intellectual property lawyer and they loved it when she showed them a picture of her brand new Audi. There were serious, excellent questions and quite a few good and funny wisecracks as well.

I used some of the midday breaks to meet with Phyllis (whom I have been preparing for several years to run a children’s home). Jacque, Danielle and I went to visit and see for the first time the 2-acre plot that we purchased in early 2015 for an orphanage site. Phyllis had done a lot of work hauling tree saplings and bushes there all the way from Kisumu via public transportation and on foot, and had planted these around the perimeter. Unfortunately, we learned that two men who had befriended Phyllis and helped her with some personal legal issues in the past year saw the children’s home project as an opportunity for themselves. This kind of exploitation is all too common in Kenya, and a huge obstacle to overcome.

We also made it over to Kisumu several times. Margie was doing an apprenticeship there at a small pharmacy, located along a main road within a stone’s throw of the city’s dump. She always had a smile on her face and her pride in being of value to her customers was obvious. Her work schedule was six days a week, from eight in the morning until eight in the evening. She was paid $150 per month. We went to see where she lived, a short but treacherous walk from the drugstore. It was a portion of a small, sheet metal shack, with no plumbing, and the only furniture was a mattress on the floor. The lock on her door was a bent finishing nail. I must admit I wanted to throw up. All of her hard work getting through school against all the odds, and she gets treated like this? Jacque tried to reassure me that it was okay, that it was a place of her own, that she was proud of it. I knew better. Later in the week, Margie looked at me and said &“it’s pathetic.&”

By the end of the day, after two or three clinics and miles of riding around in a Land Cruiser on bumpy, dusty roads, the women were ready to relax, but this was my time to spend with my beloved Margie and Phelisters, walking the kilometer from their place to the house where the visitors were staying, stopping to say hello to the neighborhood children, throwing stones into a quarry along the way. We talked about life and the circumstances that brought us together, and hopes and dreams for the future, but mostly just enjoyed being together. The most amazing thing I have learned from all of my time in Kenya is that when you change someone’s life, your life is changed as well, and that forms a special bond between the two of you.

Whenever we walk around in these places, kids come out from every nook and cranny of the tiny compounds and look, calling out &“mzungu, mzungu,&” (white person) which always cracks Margie up. We also see these kids when we drive back and forth. Sometimes we toss them a rubber ball. One day a little girl flagged Grephus down and handed him a piece of paper. It was a thank you note for the ball we had given her. It was signed Titi Mwamba. The next day, we stopped by where she lived and she came running out in the middle of a bath. We gave her and her friend baseball caps. They scampered back home laughing and shrieking for joy.

We spent eight days in Ahero. It gets increasingly difficult to say goodbye to these close friends. There are lots of tears. On the last day, I finally coaxed Margie’s little niece, Shantel, who had been shy all week, and would not let anybody take her picture, into posing for a picture sitting on my knee. Her not-so-sure smile gets the cuteness award for the week.

Our next destination was Kakamega. For this portion of the trip, I invited Violet. In 2015 on this web site, I sought a sponsor for Violet. When no one else stepped forward, I sponsored her myself. We had corresponded over email quite a bit, but this was a chance to get to know her better. I learned that when she was the head girl at her high school, it was she who meted out punishment for various student infractions. The position came with the privilege of eating lunch with the faculty. Instead, Violet would not take her own lunch until every other student had been fed. At college, in her free time she visited prisoners in an atrocious Kenyan jail.

Violet had the opportunity to spend time with Danielle and Jacque, which was great for all of them. While in Kakamega, we played baseball at a couple of new schools. One was a large girls boarding school where we spent a very nice visit in the principal’s office. Jacque declared that this was a girls’ school and by God the women were going to run this clinic. This was fine with me, as I wandered over to the fence beyond the playing field, where students were coming and going. Within minutes, there was a large group there chatting and asking questions and telling me about student life.

This anecdote is not to demean the message that these adventurous women volunteers delivered to the young people we saw. The message was delivered with passion, kindness, dignity and strength and was extremely well-received. But given the kind of friendships that form between the participants in one of these trips, and the ribbing that goes on, I have to share this. After the baseball clinic at the girls school, Jacque was giving a pep talk to the assembled 100 or so girls. Just as she got to the part about how girls could do anything, she took a step back and tripped over the equipment bag, tumbling ass over teakettle. The girls were startled, but Danielle and I were convulsing with laughter.

We traveled out to Masai Mara for a couple days of rest and game drives. We stayed at a ridiculously nice tent camp, like something out of Queen of the Nile. I felt it was too nice but the women were glad for it. Jacque had been battling pneumonia prior to the trip, and unfortunately it came back by the time we reached Masai Mara. I was worried about her when we left Kakamega and traveled back through Kisumu. Against my better judgment I did not insist that she go to Aga Khan Hosptial. By the time she was really sick, we were in the middle of nowhere. Amazingly, there was a medical clinic with a doctor on duty at a resort not far from our tent camp. Lesson learned, if I think one of our volunteers needs medical attention before we head for the bush, I will insist on getting it.

The safari was amazing, as usual. The highlight was seeing a leopard in a tree, of which we enjoyed a great and undisturbed view for nearly half an hour.

Travel home was uneventful. Jacque and Danielle made a beeline for the spa at the Frankfurt airport.