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We Held Mass in a River Bed

Retired Menlo-Atherton High School teacher Margo McAuliffe recounts the day she experienced the perfect storm in Kenya.

Friday, August 17, 2012

“We have mass here at 7 am, but you can sleep in because we are going out for mass at 9:30.” 

“Great, I am tired and would love to sleep in.” 

But...I was awake at 6:30 with a very strong need.  It’s not advisable to use the toilet after dark, as the snakes hunt at night, it being too hot during the day. 

This was the first night I did not get up to answer nature’s call in I can’t remember when.  Thus at 6:30, it was a NEED.  That taken care of I had another 1/2 hour of sleep, then out to the shower just outside my door.  It’s cleverly designed, an open air round building which spirals in to the actual shower area, so no door is required and the showerer has privacy. 

It was lovely, except the water was cold.  Fast shower, wrap myself in my towel, newly purchased yesterday, and back inside to dress.  I was ready to join the others for breakfast after they finished mass. 

Yesterday when we were driving on some particularly rough road, Father Kiriti thought he heard a suspicious noise.  He had stopped to inspect underneath the truck, but saw nothing.  This morning he noticed fluid leaking from something under the engine area.  That was OK, he’d have one of his helpers drive the truck to Nakuru where it would be repaired.  Later the helper called to say that a stone had cracked the differential, which will be welded tomorrow.  In the meantime he could borrow the sister’s truck.

Off we went, stopping shortly to pick up the man who would direct him to the house of Hannah, the lady who was hosting the mass.  We drove through a “forest” of small acacias and scrub.  Goats everywhere.  Because the rain has been plentiful this year there is plenty to eat and the goats have multiplied exponentially.  Kids scampered from the car - hundreds, thousands - all colors, shapes and sizes.  Up small hills over rocky areas, down into a gully to cross a dry river (or sometimes not so dry), grinding up the other bank and on.  Occasionally seeing cattle or once some camels. 

Eventually we came on two ladies waiting by the side of the road to give us further directions.  After a brief discussion they proceeded to walk down a path, oblivious of the fact that it was far too narrow for the truck.  We were just getting out to follow them on foot when a small boy arrived to say he knew how to get there with a road.  He hopped up in the back with our first guide and several more small boys to yell directions, and off we went again.  Shortly we arrived at a clearing with some round houses made from mud and thatched with grass, where other people waited and more arriving for mass. 

We parked and walked down to a dry riverbed.  Maybe 100 yards further on was a lovely overhanging tree.  Under it was a perfect seat, perhaps roots that had been uncovered by fast moving water at some time past.  That was Fr’s seat, with his mass box in front of him for an altar.  The rest of us arranged ourselves on the bank and on rocks.  My rock was amazingly comfortable.

The congregation were mostly women and children, ranging in age from a few months to 10 years or so.  Father Kiriti introduced me and those who weren’t too shy shook my hand and smiled. The children were particularly sweet, openly staring at me, some shaking hands, others not quite sure whether there was something wrong with my skin and thus an object to fear.  One little girls, 2-3 years, shook my hand, then quickly checked hers to see whether I’d rubbed off on her.  So I checked my hand too.  Smiles from the adults.  Perhaps 20 were there to begin with, but by the time it was over it was more like 50.

Under the tree, Fr Kiriti put on his alb and stole.  I was again reminded of his childhood story of seeing a man teaching under a tree, wearing clothes over his clothing - his first mass.  He sat down and engaged the people, adults and children in dialogue.  I surmised it had to do with which children were going to school; later he confirmed it was.  Shortly, he began the mass.  All the while people wandered in and found a place - young women carrying babies, older women, children, including a girl who couldn’t have been more than 6, carrying a baby on her back, and the dog who had come to greet us when we alighted from the car. 

He was a friendly sort, who eventually scratched out a cool spot for himself and lay down to attend mass.  He stayed quietly until a small cat, hardly more than a kitten appeared on the embankment.  She scouted about, eventually climbing the tree under which we sat.  Small sprouts swayed as she passed and she stopped to bat at them.  She had the dog’s attention.  He got up to see what she was up to, but clearly she knew how to handle him.  No confrontation, just a clear understanding of who was in charge.

The girls wore dresses of every description, from frilly white satin with red ruffles to skirts probably handed down many times from older siblings and neighbors.  Some of the boys wore the traditional cloth wrapped around the waist, knee length, and I can guarantee at least one wore nothing else.  Some boys had on shorts, one so worn that the rear was like fragile lace, but he seemed unaware that his little black bottom showed through in many places.  Most of the women wore dresses or skirts, but several had come with full traditional regalia - wide beaded neck-pieces and elaborate beaded headpieces.  I took pictures later, but not sure I got one of those ladies. 

Fr. spoke in Kiswahili, although some were as unable to understand as I - they speak only Pokot.  He spoke at length, dialoguing with them, then turned to me to explain the question he had posed. 

“What difference has Christianity made in your lives.  How are you different from the people who hold the traditional beliefs?” 

Our guide spoke eloquently (I think) with elaborate gestures and a stately manner.  Clearly he is someone.  A lady then spoke, quietly, diffidently and briefly. 

Fr. then explained, “They said that the difference is they know what is right and what is wrong.  It is wrong to steal, to be unfaithful to one’s spouse, to be unforgiving.” 

He then presented them with this scenario:  A man and his wife quarrel.  He puts her aside, sends her home to her family, but the children belong to him.  He takes a second wife and maybe she won’t love the children like their mother does.  He quarrels with second wife and perhaps takes a third, with the same outcome.  He now has children from 3 wives and no one to care for them.  Wouldn’t it have been better to resolve with his first wife?  They should talk, tell each other what is the problem and stop that behavior. 

He specifically mentioned drunkenness, as this is a major problem here.  In this culture, the women do everything, even to putting up a house.  The men lounge around sleeping, eating and drinking.  The people listened.  Whether they heard is another matter.

At communion time I happened to notice movement on the opposite embankment.  Looking up I saw three camels passing by, stopping to nibble tender morsels.  Alas, I didn’t feel it a propitious moment to interrupt for a photo, so you’ll have to take my word for it.  I’m told the camels are not wild, but are part of the herds of some families. 

After mass, there were handshakes, smiles and waves of kwaheri.  Back in the truck, Fr Kiriti explained that the man who had spoken so well, is a teacher in the local elementary school.  He understands English, although he spoke very little of it to me. 

After we left him off we went to the Buddha tree to send an email. Father Kiriti’s phone picked the weak network signal, but my computer couldn’t.  Maybe none of my Pokot missives will be sent until Sunday when I return to Naivasha. 

“We’ll walk up there a way to see whether we can pick it there”, he said, locking his side of the truck and going around to mine. 

“Grab my camera, will you, please?  And my sunglasses?” 

Camera and glasses in hand, he locked the door.  One second later, “Where are the keys?  Oh, God, I have locked the keys in the truck!” 

Oops!  I peeked in the window and there they were, dangling in the ignition.  RATS!!!!  We stared at each other, each berating him/her self for the mistake.  Nothing would do but we walk back to the compound. 

By this time the sun was hot and I had not thought to use sun screen.  It was flat, but rocky and the 1 km seemed long, but finally we arrived.  It hadn’t helped that I had to lug my computer, which I had taken out to send/receiver emails - a futility.

We saw one of the sisters who own the truck. 

“Do you have a second key?”  “Yes, but it’s back at our home, 2 hours away.  However, we’ve done that ourselves and have been able to use a wire to pull up the lock.” 

Hot and already tired, Fr Kiriti returned to the truck with several clever young men in tow.  I was already feeling burned on my neck and having no car-stealing skills, elected to remain.  But, oh no, the house was locked.  RATS!  Was thinking about my bed with the new mattress with great longing.  Oh, well, I have the computer; I can begin to write this latest chapter in the . 

I sat in the dining house (round, with a thatched roof) and wrote for about an hour.  Feeling sleepy I put my head back and snoozed, albeit feeling guilty to be out of the hot sun and in comfort, except for hunger pangs.  I poked around and found some bread, drank some water and hoped for the best.  By about 2:30 the cook was putting lunch on the table and the seminar folks, including Father Frederick had arrived, ready to eat, but no Father Kiriti.  By about three he showed up and I could read the body language even before he admitted defeat.  Keys still locked in the car.  

He wasn’t about to give up, however, just needed to eat and have some water.  Then he would return to try it again.  As we sat there, his clever young men arrived, handing him the keys!  Relief!  Hurrays, high 5’s (which they didn’t understand) and gratitude.  Shortly he went in another vehicle and soon returned with my glasses from the seat, my water bottle, now hot enough for tea and my camera bag.  Phew!  I now will admit I was a bit nervous on this one.

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