Saturday, May 05, 2007

Part V: A Day between Two Mountains

This is the last of five-part reminiscence from my time in Kenya as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid-Sixties. See the first four parts in posts from earlier this week.

Ali and I slowly emerged from the desert and its maze. The road straightened. Clusters of sage-like brush appeared along the roadside, then the shade-making, flat-topped acacia “umbrella trees." We passed a pair of camels laden with sticks and guided by an ancient herder. A gazelle clan stared at us from afar before bounding away, their white tails flicking in retreat.

The road turned to tarmac at the crossroad garrison town of Isolo. We passed the armed jeep, which had pulled to the side of the road. We waved good-byes and thanks to its dust-covered driver and machine gunner.

From here it was another hour to Nanyuki and the home of the owner of the Ali’s lorry, Mr Singh, one the thousands of Asians in Kenya’s merchant class.

I would be welcomed, Ali assured me.

We gained elevation again. The coolness of the evening, the forests and the heights enfolded us. Nanyuki is still known to most westerners as the place where the actor William Holden built his resort, the famed Mt. Kenya Safari Club. Even at dusk it was easy to see how he chose it. Nanyuki is safe and pristine, tucked away in a canopy of giant trees and guarded by the mountain slopes.

Mr. Singh and his family lived in an ample rectangular compound of white washed, single-story buildings. The compound’s gates were thrown open, Ali drove the truck into the courtyard, and Singh himself ran out to greet us, knowing full well the dangers of the journey. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I was a welcomed with surprise and made a cause for added celebration.

Singh insisted I stay with the family that night before heading to Nairobi in the morning. He led me to a guest room which had an adjacent, and much welcomed, shower.

“You take your shower and then come out to the courtyard and we’ll get you a scotch and curry. You have had curry, haven’t you?”
As a matter of fact, I had never had curry, I admitted. It wasn’t a dish common to Illinois.
“Well, then, you are in for a treat.”

Indeed I was.

Scotch in hand, I sat with Mr. Singh and his family around the outdoor charcoal burner and gazed into the embers and the curry pot. The pungent amber curry bubbled and steamed into the mountain air. The spicy richness of the exotic flavors melded with the scotch, the celebration, the camaraderie, the distant desert, the day and the danger.
That night, I slept as soundly as I have ever slept.

I have treated myself to hundreds of curries since that first one around the fire in Nanyuki. None has tasted so good, and each has renewed memories of that day between mountains so far away and long ago.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Part IV: A Day Between Two Mountains

The following is the fourth of a five-part reminiscence from my time in Kenya as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid-Sixties. See the first three parts in posts from earlier this week.

Once we hit the open road, the convoy began to stretch out as each driver tested the limits of his vehicle. After a half hour or so we were off the mountain and well into the desert maze of canyons and wadis. No one wanted to linger in the desert.

Soon the truck in front of us had disappeared around several curves in a shallow, bone-dry ravine. Not even its tell-tale dust hung above the road. There was no telling how far ahead or behind our armed protectors were.

I was still looking for my opportunity to mention the Shifta when Ali announced that we were approaching a dangerous place.

“You say what?”
“We were attacked here once. It is a good place for attacking.”
“When was that?”
“Last year. See that hole above your head? That’s from the attack.”

I looked at the jagged, finger-sized hole not six inches from my scalp. There were others as well, behind me in the cab and on the driver’s side.
“What about these?” I asked.
“Those are from other times. In other places. I will show you.”

Ali pressed on, pointing to a plateau above a wide place in the wadi. “That’s the place they hide,” he said without looking. But nothing happened, no shots, no new bullet holes.

We sped on.

“Tell me before the next dangerous place, OK?” I said, not sure that I really wanted to know.
“The next place is soon. See that dent?” he said pointing to one on the door frame. “That was caused by the bullet that killed my friend who was sitting where you are. It hit him in the head. The place is around the next bend.”

Again, Ali rocketed past the place, waving vaguely at the fatal ambush perch.

At one point we came up on a truck from our convoy. It was pulled over to the roadside. Ali slowed some distance away and approached cautiously. Only when he was certain it wasn’t a trap, did he pull along side. The driver was tying down cargo that had worked itself loose.

Never had a road so fully engaged me. The dust, the heat, the rugged, lifeless terrain. Most striking, of course, was the fear locking me to the landscape. Yet for Ali and the others whose trips between Moyale and Nanyuki were notched by bullet holes, fear was a mere occupational hazard, part of a way of life.

The Shifta were, and still are, a stateless people. They didn’t take kindly to Kenya’s independence or claim of ownership or military presence. Just as they never had accepted the Europeans or their absurd colonial boundaries. For centuries these desert warriors had raided the Oromo tribal groups—the Rendille, the Boran and the Gabra I had encountered at the clinic. To the Shifta, war and pillaging are manly virtues. The Oroma are considered weak. At best they are regarded as mystical.

But mysticism matters little to the Shifta warrior culture. In the desert, mysticism is no match for the glory of armed victory. As for the Peace Corps, I could only guess how the Shifta would perceive it. Alien certainly, some human anomaly.

The landscape that I experienced as a fearful passage, the Shifta regarded as a proving ground.

To be continued....

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Part III: A Day Between Two Mountains

The following is the third of a five-part reminiscence from my time in Kenya as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid-Sixties. See the first two parts in posts from earlier this week.

I spent the day at the Marsabit Secondary School and then in Marsabit Town, arranging my ride back. I could catch a ride on a lorry, part of a convoy leaving at sunrise the next day. It seemed simple enough. Weary from staying up half the night at the lodge, I fell into one of those deep mountain-high slumbers.

I was literally blasted awake.

My host had failed to tell me that the principal elephant path to town ran just outside the bedroom window. Emboldened elephants often pounded down the trail from the mountain to the vegetable shambas below. There they fed on lettuce and yams and bananas until they had had their fill or were frightened away by alert guards.

When the old bull bellowed, he must have been no more than a bed’s length away. The blast erupted from deep inside him and ripped me from sleep.

Nearly as unnerving, the thudding, lumbering, snorting herd shook the room for a good two or three minutes.

Finally the shaking lessened, the foot fall faded and mountain sleep enfolded me again. I never heard the elephants on their return up the path. In the early morning, I was roused by the throngs of birds. The elephants seemed no more than an African dream.

My pack slung on my back, I set out to join the convoy south. I strode down the road from the school to the town through the chill mountain air. Fingers of mist clung to the ground and hung in the trees. In the market square at the center of the town, the lorries idled and puffed out wisps of exhaust. The drivers clutched themselves against the cold.

They were waiting for the soldiers to arrive.

It was the first I heard of soldiers. The news was as chilling as the cold.

The word was out that the Shifta, notorious Somali bandits, were working the area again. They had been known to attack lorries venturing alone on the Moyale road.

The thought of being in an armed convoy and fighting off nomadic bandits in the desert clashed with my exalted sense of my humanitarian Peace Corps mission. Suddenly the dangers in the desert confronted my cause. But I had no choice. My fate was yoked to the convoy’s.

Soon our military protectors arrived in two olive drab, machine-gun equipped Jeeps and an army truck loaded with 10 or so soldiers. The plan was for one Jeep to lead the way. The convoy would follow. Behind it came the remaining Jeep and truck with its soldiers bringing up the rear.

I climbed into the lorry assigned me and struck up a conversation with Ali, the wizened Ethiopian driver. The truck was laden with gunny sacks of charcoal, the principal domestic fuel in East Africa. A tool in his trade between Ethiopia and Kenya, Ali’s English was far better than my Swahili. English allowed us to get to know each other.

Turned out that Ali had a half-brother who drove a cab in Chicago. To this day I have concluded that anyone you meet abroad has a half-brother who drives a cab in Chicago or Manhattan.

At any rate, I grew up 90 miles from Chicago. I’ve even hailed cabs in Chicago. Small world, Ali remarked as he gunned the engine, eased into low and coaxed the lorry into its assigned place in the convoy.

I didn’t want to bring up my concerns about the Shifta alert. At least not right away. I assumed that a natural transition to the topic would present itself. Besides, Ali had enough to do as the convoy lurched out of town. He conveyed a stoic acceptance as he went about his work, wheeling the lorry around chuck holes. If he harbored fear, he didn’t show it.

As Marsabit fell behind us, the convoy got up to speed. Surprisingly, the trucks eagerly hurtled down the shoulder of the mountain for the desert. I had falsely assumed our escorts would keep us close together for protection, in case we needed to perform an East African version of circling the wagons or some such defensive maneuver. But no, the intent drivers in control of our fates had a different strategy. They shortened our time of vulnerability with raw speed. The convoy raced flat out across the desert leaving billowing wakes of dust behind us. The drivers followed each other at a distance determined by the time it took for the dust to settle and their visibility to be restored.

Ali and I did not share what we both knew: The clouds of rising desert dust were a clear invitation to bandit gangs.

To be continued....

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Part II: A Day Between Two Mountains

This is the second of five parts. Part one was the previous post.

arsabit is an extinct mile-high volcano rising above the hard-scrabble wasteland like a tropical island in an vast ocean. Once the volcano was surrounded by lush plains similar to the famous Serengeti or Masai Mara to the south. But overgrazing and changing weather patterns have eaten away at the vegetation, turning the plain to desert.

The devastation now licks at the feet of Mount Marsabit. The desert cuts off the mountain, leaving its crater lakes and forests as an isolated refuge for elephant, lion, leopard, greater kudu, baboon, gazelle, onyx, giraffe, buffalo, monkeys and 13 species of bats. The dense forest is also home to 350 kinds of birds, who greet each day with riotous, cacophonous song in the cold, misty, pre-dawn hours.

We arrived with some note and ceremony from local dignitaries. I settled in at the local high school, where a Peace Corps colleague had been appointed headmaster. Marsabit Secondary School was a five minutes’ walk up the foot of the mountain from Marsabit town, a huddle of shops separated from the vast forest by neatly tended gardens and banana plantations.

I put in my time at the clinic in the town, helping clean boils, blisters and abrasions. The patients were reticent, dignified inhabitants of the desert. They carried their solitude with them. Rendille, Borana and Gabra, they were all dark skinned Nilotic peoples, unlike the Hamitic traders from Ethiopia to the north or the Semitic Somali to the east.

The Ethiopians and Somali were present in Marsabit too. The mountain’s temperate micro climate creates an oasis on the ancient trade route between the highlands of Ethiopia and the fertile, populated lands to the south beyond Mt. Kenya. The road I had seen from the sky passed through Marsabit town, linking Moyale 100 miles north near the Ethiopia/Kenyan border with Nanyuki, nestled on the lush slopes of the Mt. Kenya 125 miles to the south.

Like any visitor to Mt. Marsabit, I wanted to plunge into the forests of mountain preserve and seek out its game. But before I had a chance to set out up the mountain with my Peace Corps friend, the doctor was summoned to fly to distant Lake Rudolf on an emergency. He would not return to Marsabit for another month. I could either go with him or stay behind to drive up the mountain. Staying would mean returning to Nairobi across the desert on the 100-mile-long stretch of road between Marsabit and Nanyuki. I decided to stay. The journey up the mountain seemed worth the trip across the desert.

The mountain safari was an overnight venture. My Peace Corps colleague and I traveled by Land Rover on a one-lane dirt track, setting out at dusk when the big game were also on the move to their watering holes. It turned out that at least one was taking the same road we were.

Rounding a corner in the forest, we found ourselves suddenly confronted by the bulky backside of a lumbering water buffalo. He was the size of our Land Rover and probably weighed twice as much. Suddenly, he wheeled around, choosing to face us down. His black muzzle dripping with saliva, he lowered his battering ram horns and pawed the road.

He froze; we froze. We inched ahead; he lurched toward us, then recoiled. We honked the horn; he didn’t flinch. A beast accustomed to trumpeting elephants and roaring lions has little regard for honking Land Rovers.

Finally we did the one thing he had never encountered. We flicked on the headlights. Stunned and blinded, the buffalo stepped back, then leaped over the embankment with the grace of a fullback surmounting a line of scrimmage. We listened as he crashed through the forest for what seemed like a full minute.

That night we hunkered down in bedrolls at an abandoned lodge on the edge of a lagoon where we had placed salt licks as an additional lure. We knew that the animals wouldn’t be out in force until 2 a.m. or so. We tried to sleep and push aside our imaginings of noises in the night.

After hours of restless vigilance, we heard noises that were undeniably real. We peered out into the moonless night at Goliath shapes no more than 30 yards from us. Grunts and wheezes shaped all kinds of imaginings. Certainly there were the hulks of elephants though how many we couldn’t be sure. And was that a rhino to the left of the far salt lick? Could our nemesis, the buffalo, his composure restored, be out there in the gray-black gloom as well? Much of what we saw was phantasm.

Eventually, the herds and their hangers-on, real and imagined, retreated into the forest, and we went back to sleep not quite sure what we had seen.

To be continued....

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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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Monday, April 30, 2007

High school on my minid

High schools and the high school years are on my mind today.

First, I spent four hours this morning at Beaverton's Sunset High School talking with two religious studies classes about Quakers (I'm a Quaker).

The school is wonderfully multi-ethnic, multi-racial and, of course, a cauldron of adolescent energy. Anyone who needs a boost should join the adolescent throngs between classes as they jam high school hallways. Bizarre, I know, but Sunset High's cramped and jammed halls reminded of the human swirl of Tokyo's subways.

Having a religious studies class at a high school is utterly inspired. Adolescents are fascinated by quests of the spirit. In previous weeks, the classes had been visited by a Muslim, a Christian Scientist and a Mormon. Amazing.

I don't know how much of my Quakerism 101 sunk in, but the questions were excellent. "If you have no pastors or priests, who marries you?" a girl asked. (Answer: True to Quaker form, the betrothed couple exchanges its vows unassisted and from the heart, typically after a reflective period of silence.)

This is the second year that a Beaverton high school has invited me to speak about the Religious Society of Friends. I look forward to returning.

I find it particularly interesting to see who stays around in the brief time between classes to ask more questions. After both classes today Muslim students came forward. One, a girl with a telling gauzy scarf over her hair said that my presentation led her to want to visit our Friends meeting as part of her term project.

The other was a boy, whose questions during class led me to assume he was a fundamentalist Christian, but he came up to say that he was a Muslim and that he was struck by the similarities between our beliefs. That had never occurred to me, but together we quickly reviewed the Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality — drawing links to Islam.

One other student, a girl who had a beautifully fixed gaze, came up to say that she was a "meditator" and wondered whether the silence of a Quaker meeting was an opportunity to meditate. Meetings by their nature lack the qualities of solitary meditation, I told her, but they were most certainly meditative.

That was Sunset High School. Closer to home, today I receive in my e-mail in-box one of my favorite epistles—Linda Doyle's Wilson Spotlight newsletter celebrating the achievements of the Wilson High School Community. I am not as in touch with Wilson's students this year as I would like to be. but two names jumped out at me in Linda's accounting of honors.

George Wolff, a gifted classical guitarist, won first prize in the state high school competition. George played beautifully at our Hillsdale Book Sale last year and at the Multnomah Arts Center Auction earlier this year.

The other name of note in the Spotlight was Daniel Ronan's. Daniel was acknowledged with an honorable mention in foreign language achievement.

Be it further known that Daniel is also the first Wilson student to serve on the board of the Hillsdale Neighborhood Association and has been active in the peace movement both at the school and in our community.

Both George and Daniel are gifts to Hillsdale. I will follow their paths closely and with great expectation.

Finally, strange to say, my own high school classmates last week enlisted me to be on a reunion committee for our 50th reunion in 2010. Could it be? I went to an embarrassingly tony New England prep school, which I have largely ignored lo these many years. When my principal recruiter, one Wally Winter of Chicago environs, phoned, I saw his enlistment of me as a sign to others that we can bury past angst about our privileged educations and about the pettiness of adolescence to meet in renewed camaraderie.

It will be good, after 50 years, to reconnect with old friends from a vibrant, turbulent time. They have been too long out of my life.

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Will voters take newspapers' advice and vote for Adkins?

Ruth Adkins, my choice for Portland School Board from our Zone #1, has won endorsements from every major paper: The Oregonian, The Portland Tribune, The Portland Mercury and Willamette Week.

That's a remarkable feat given that she is running against an incumbent, Doug Morgan, who is no slouch. Where Ruth beats Doug is in her passion to involve communities in decision-making and to keep neighborhood schools open.

With a bean-counter's outlook, Doug backed Portland Schools Superintendent Vicki Phillips in shutting them down during his tenure.

So now we will find out just what all those endorsements are worth. They can't hurt, but just how much will they help?

One other note about Ruth, who is a Hillsdale neighbor. She was an organizer of our Friday evening peace vigils at Sunset Boulevard and Capitol Highway. And while she could have been out knocking on doors for her campaign these past few weeks, she has reserved Friday evenings to be with us with her anti-war placard in hand.

Hers is to the point. It reads,"NO!"

She knows that money spent on war is money diverted from real social needs, like quality schools.

Her anti-war stance is another reason to vote "YES!" for Ruth.

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