There is no such thing as a typical morning around here; while we have gotten into routines and patterns, it only takes one seemingly insignificant incident to throw a wrench into everything. Take, for example, Friday morning.
We rent a large 15 passenger van to bus our school children to and from the centre, as the majority of them live on the other side of town. Wombogo serves as our bus driver, and, on a perfect day, arrives with the first of two busloads of kids between 6:45 and 7am. The first 25 kids pile out and have “recess” until he arrives with the second load of kids approximately 45 minutes to an hour later, at around 8am. Morning assembly begins at 8:20am, class begins at 8:40am, and so on. The older children who go to private school need to be there by 8am; to make things easier, when Wombogo arrives at 6:45, they simply hop on the bus and he drops them at the end of the road to their school on his way to pick up the second load of kids. When all goes well, this routine is very predictable, and easy for us all to adapt to. It’s also nice because whoever chooses to accompany the children to school gets some nice early morning exercise in, taking the bus down and walking back to the centre.
However, “all going well” is a lot to ask. While seasonally, January is the driest and warmest month in Kenya, it has been uncharacteristically cold and rainy here the past few weeks. The Kenyans blame it on el Nino, which apparently they have been waiting to arrive for weeks. Whatever the reason for this unseasonal weather, it rains like clockwork at about 1 or 2pm everyday. I’m not talking a drizzle or a shower. I’m talking monsoon heavy rainy that forces you inside, wherever you may be and pounds so loud on the tin roofs of the classrooms that it makes continuing a lesson virtually impossible. The rain lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to the rest of the afternoon, but even a short rainfall is heavy enough to leave its mark.
The road going up to the centre is about a mile and a half of dirt and there are two or three major hills. When it rains, the road becomes virtually impassable and traveling by car or motorbike is a joke. It becomes a bit of a vicious cycle, as the road can’t dry until it is warm and sunny for a day; it’s freezing cold in the early morning, which turns to pleasantly warm by 9 or 10 am, which tends to begin the drying process, but once the skies open up in the afternoon, it negates any progress the sun made, and makes the roads doubly worse than the day before. When the road hasn’t had enough time to dry, we can guess with decent accuracy that Wombogo will get stuck in the mud somewhere along the route, pushing the whole schedule back indefinitely. When he gets stuck on one of the hills it’s tough because he is one of two adults usually in the car on that first run, so he doesn’t have anyone to help him get un-stuck. While the 25 children are really cute as they chant “Uncle WomboGO, Uncle WomboGO!!” I’m not sure that good thoughts and cheering actually make the van’s wheels gain traction (if I were him, and was stuck for the 3rd time in 30 feet, I would probably chuck the kids out of the car and make them walk – the last thing I would want is 28 children screaming behind my head that “I can do it”).
I only know about Wombogo’s fan club as I passed him every day last week, wheels spinning uselessly in a trench, van at a 45 degree angle, as the children shook the vehicle cheering and jumping. Last week I took over escorting our older children to school; it’s a long walk, and it’s nice for them to have company, plus, I enjoy the more adult conversations I get to have with them, as they are often overshadowed by the younger children’s personalities. The walk from the centre to their school is 50 minutes to an hour; after a bit of trial and error, we have worked it out that if Wombogo hasn’t arrived with the first load of school children by 7am, we must begin walking so that we get to school on time. All but one morning last week, I got the glorious opportunity to take a 2 hour round trip walk up and down ankle deep muddy roads.
Friday was a particularly eventful morning. We had terrible rains on Thursday afternoon that lasted hours, and we knew Wombogo wouldn’t make it up the hill so at 7am I began the trek with the kids. Normally, we run into Wombogo somewhere along the route, the busload of children cheering and screaming, one or two adults pushing the van from behind while our fearless driver tries in vain to maneuver himself out of the ditch. As I have on more than one occasion been in the car with Wombogo when he gets stuck and suffered from the sore muscles that result from hours of pushing, I am all too happy that I have an excuse not to join in and help him each morning. “Hey Wombogo, oh you’re stuck again, bummer. Welp, good luck with that, gotta get these kids to school by 8!”
However, this morning, we didn’t see Wombogo anywhere along the road from our home to town, which meant that by 7:45 he hadn’t even made it to our side of town, which meant that he was probably stuck on the dirt roads that he picks the children up on. Sure enough, Wombogo gives me a call as I get to the tarmac road that signifies “town;” not only is he stuck en route from picking up the first load, but the van has broken down. Awesome. I walk the children the rest of the way to school, and prepare to head back, certain there’s nothing I can do to assist in the breakdown, as the car is still at least two miles away. Wrong again. Teacher Paul meets me as I exit the school, having walked all the way from where the van broke down, bumming money for diesel (as at this point they thought the van was merely out of gas – another false assumption). After dishing out the rest of my cash, I look up to see 25 children approaching with our matron, Phoebe, who had also been in the first load, as she lives on that side of town as well. She dropped the kids with me, explaining she was going to go back and get the second load of children (we had contacted parents and asked them to have their kids start walking), who were unattended by an adult. Stranded, I looked down as 25 children expectantly met my gaze; I was in the middle of Njabini, with lorries, motorbikes, donkeys, sheep and cows running haphazardly up and down the main road at warp speeds, and I had to shepherd 25 children through the maze. Again, awesome.
I began the trek with the kids, alternating between leading the pack and bringing up the rear, mentally doing a headcount every few minutes, although it was hard to differentiate between the 25 identical bonnets. Everytime we were faced with crossing the street, I had to instruct them in my best Kikuyu (I speak very broken Kikuyu, mostly I string together individual words that I’m sure don’t actually make a sentence), Watoto! Hapana! (Children! Stop! – actually, hapana means no, but I think they got the gist). Then I mimed holding hands (over half of the pack was nursery kids who speak a combined sentence of English) and signaled to run for your life.
We had to take a route that kept us off the main road as much as possible even though the rough terrain increased the overall walk by at least 20 minutes. One by one the children hiked up the hill, a brother gave his sister a lift on his back, a string of children held hands helping each other up the hill and I quickly glanced around for Capitan Von Trapp; it’s as if we had stepped straight into a scene from Sound of Music. Minus the Nazis and hot husband, I could have been Maria, leading my children over the rolling Austrian hills to freedom. Then I tripped and fell; the searing pain that shot through my hand where it had landed in a patch of stinging nettles snapped me out of my reverie. SO close. In reality, we were hiking up a vertical hill slick with mud, forcing me to walk hunched over at a 90 degree angle, increasing the odds that I would break my nose on the next fall. Trash piles smoldered on either side of me as sheep picked through them for any remaining sustenance, a “stream” of human waste made its way down the hill and I couldn’t distinguish my charges from the street children that had joined us along the way. While the Flying Kites centre itself is amazing, the views are spectacular and the compound is immaculate, the same can’t be said for the town of Njabini. Hiking up the hill towards one of the slum neighborhoods is not a stop I would include on my guided tour.
We finally made it off the main road to the 2 mile dirt road that leads to the centre. I felt better about letting the children run amuck (ha-ha, pun intended?) when I knew that any motor we heard would be that of a car or bike trying in vain to get out of the 10 inches of wet mud. I held the hand of one of my favorite girls, AnnLiz, who has some sort of birth defect that caused her to be born with only two fingers and toes on each hand and foot. It’s sad, but I’m glad she was born that way and the deformity isn’t the result of some abuse or accident; she’s quite adept at writing, eating, grasping things, etc… as she’s been doing it her whole life. I was torn between my desire to burst out laughing and crying when I felt her straining against my hand and looked down to realize that both of her shoes had gotten sucked into the mud and she was in her stocking feet; I think her foot slipped out easier with less toes… I though it was a pretty good way to sum up the morning up until that point.
We made it back to the centre without too much more trouble, although I vowed that I was taking a break from walking the kids to school this week. My calves and butt were sore all weekend from the workout. On the bright side of things, I don’t feel bad about splurging on pizza tonight in Nairobi!!