Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Part I: A Day between Mountains

Over the past seven years I have written several unpublished pieces for my writers' group in Longview, Washington. This five-part recollection of a long-ago day full of fear and good fortune was one of those submissions.

Here is the first installment.

Forty-three years ago, in the flush of youthful idealism and a fog of indecision about what to do with the rest of my life, I became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya.

The country, newly emergent from British colonial rule, was aglow with its own idealism. It didn’t have the luxury of indecision about what to do next. The intervening years have proven that both the country and I were grossly unrealistic. Volunteerism and independence are no guarantees of progress.

Regardless, my three years in East Africa as a young man shaped me. They were the best post-graduate education I could have hoped for. The warmth of the people, the challenges and intrigues presented by their cultures and beauty of the East African landscape are still with me.
At the end of my tour, the Luo tribal elders of our village gave me an ugly but functional shield crafted of warthog hide. They assured me that it would protect me for the rest of my life. I have taken them at faith. Wherever I have lived or worked, I have mounted the bristly monstrosity on a wall. Whether because of the shield, or just good luck, I have been protected all these years.

But there was one day in Kenya, more than a year before I was given the shield, when I could have used its security—symbolic or actual.

I taught in a secondary school in remote South Nyanza Province, the very region, as it turns out, that Barak Obama's father called home.

The school, managed by Dutch Catholic brothers, was about 20 miles from Lake Victoria as the crane flew. At sunset, the great lake glowed golden on the horizon, gilding dusk's sky.
Amongst my Peace Corps contingent, I took secret pride in having been assigned to the second most remote posting. The boarding school compound with its lime green, ground-hugging, metal-roofed buildings was at the end of miles of road that crossed the Great Rift Valley, a sizable mountain chain the territories of five tribes—the Kikuyu, the Masai, the Kalenjen, the Kisii and the Luo.

If Rapogi Secondary School was the second most remote posting, I wondered, what could be the first?

I decided I would find out. On a break between semesters, I would venture to it, wherever it might be.

And that is how I ended up on Mount Marsabit in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District.
To get to it, I journeyed all day by bus to Nairobi and then early the next morning, caught a lift with “The Flying Doctor.” To this day, the name conjures up episodes from “The Flying Nun.” But the doctor, an important part of Kenya’s rudimentary health system, was no sit-com character. Without him and his single-engine plane, vast expanses of the country would have had no health care at all.

In exchange for the flight, I volunteered to work for three days at the district health clinic in the town of Marsabit.

The four-seat Cessna lifted off the Nairobi airfield and headed due north over the luxuriant emerald highlands that white settlers had hoped would be theirs forever. We flew over Thika, made famous by author Elspeth Huxley, then climbed over the dense bamboo forests blanketing the broad shoulders of Mount Kenya. Its broken volcanic core straddles the equator. Its 17,000-foot summit, the second highest in Africa after Kilamanjaro, is often dusted with snow. We dipped around the peak, then set out across a dun-colored plain dotted with acacia trees and mixed herds of antelope, giraffe and zebra.

A single, straight road—tarmac to the crossroad military post of Isiolo, then dirt—caught my attention. It sliced across the plain until, after 40 or so miles, fingers of erosion interrupted its path. The route was then forced to wind and pick its way across the broken landscape.
I didn’t realize it then, but I would come to know the road all too well.

The little plane droned on under the clear desert sky. Weary of tracing the solitary road’s circuitous course, I focused on the curdled pattern of wadis, dry ravines and canyons that etched the desert. Trees and game vanished. If there was life below, it crouched in the caves and crevasses tucked along the dry river beds.

Unable to speak above the engine’s rasp, the doctor/pilot touched my shoulder, interrupting my exploration of the desert maze. He pointed to the outline of our destination: Mount Marsabit barely visible in the purple haze along the horizon.

To be continued....

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Blogger John said...

Rick--take a look at my website:
www.peacecorpswriters.org and lets talk [if you are interested] in writing something for it. John

7:39 AM  

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