03 February 2014

Wanjala - the 'hunger season' in Kenya

I traveled to Webuye to visit Agnes' oldest son, Tony, at Milo Boys’ Secondary School. Approximately two hours from Eldoret via matatu, this small town in Western Kenya is mostly known for its paper mill, although it hasn’t operated for many years. Like much of Kenya, there are very few jobs in the area.

Once there, I hopped on a boda boda piki piki (motorbike taxi) for the bumpy and dusty six-mile trip on a dirt road. Currently the dry season in Kenya, it’s hot, windy, and beyond bone-dry. And because huge billows of dust develop with each and every gust of wind, I wore goggles to protect my eyes. In fact, a layer of dust covers absolutely every horizontal surface, and amazingly some vertical ones as well.

After signing in at the school guardhouse, I spotted Alfred Mutambo, the school principal. He read a newspaper on a straight-backed chair, in the shade of a large tree. As I walked toward him he removed his reading glasses, stood, and greeted me warmly. An easy-going and very likable fellow, we've become friends over the past two years.

After grabbing another chair for me, we got caught up with one another. We also chatted about Tony and how he's getting along in school. I gave Mutambo the bank deposit slip for Tony’s First Term school fees and inquired about the ‘set books’ he needed. By then the classes were dismissed and Mutambo sent someone to find Tony.

Tony was surprised to see me, as he wasn't aware I was coming. He was especially happy about the ‘chips’ (French fries), sausage, and soda (pop) I had carried for him. We discussed the uniform requirements he still needed and I encouraged him to do his best at school.

Mutambo then pulled up in his car and gave me a lift back to Webuye town. While he assisted a student with a uniform, I bought two set books for Tony at a cubby-hole bookshop. Later, as we each sipped a soda at the hotel where I’d booked a room, I showed him a book called The Last Hunger Season. Much of the book is a narrative chronicling four farmers from Western Province as they try new planting techniques. The book also includes eight pages about Milo Boys’ School, because the son of one of the farmers was a student there.

While Mutambo distinctly remembers meeting Roger Thurow (the book’s author), he didn't know he had been extensively quoted in the book. When I showed him the pages, he thoroughly enjoyed reading lengthy passages out loud, with gusto and much laughter. I very much enjoyed listening and watching his simple delight.

The following day, I looked for a vehicle going to Kakamega, a 90-minute matatu ride south of Webuye. Not finding one at the bus park, I took a boda boda to the stage on the highway. Approached the junction, I noticed 40-50 very agitated men standing in the road. As they shouted and shoved one another, they were so engrossed in their anger that they were oblivious to the fact that they blocked traffic.

There were three matatus parked at the stage, all with doors flung open and half-empty of passengers. I inquired from some bystanders which one was going to Kakamega. The few passengers left in that particular vehicle were noticeably disgruntled. They claimed they’d been delayed there for two hours, due to the ongoing fight which included their driver and conductor. As I pondered what to do, those two men reappeared and I hopped in the front seat.

I glanced at the driver to see if he appeared agitated, since he’d been a part of the ruckus. He seemed to be calm enough, but I prayed for him anyway. At the first market stage, the driver pulled over to allow two passengers to alight. One of them, wearing a black t-shirt, hurriedly dashed across the highway. The next thing I knew, our driver jumped out of the car and joined our conductor and others in yet another fight. This one – with fists flying – created a much more intense scene! We passengers were left, not knowing what to do. Except for me, the rest of them had witnessed two fights in the span of just a few minutes.

The gentleman next to me explained that the young man in the black t-shirt and his friend were thieves. “Those guys are thieves,” he repeatedly exclaimed, adding that they had joined our vehicle after the other fight at Webuye junction. When they darted out of the vehicle, our driver and conductor were apparently quite upset and gave chase.

The young man wearing the black t-shirt, managed to escape from his attackers and walked back across the highway passing right in front of our vehicle. Still sitting in my front seat, I had a close-up view of his now very bloodied face. The anger and wrath displayed by him and his pursuers was palatable.

Ai, ai, ai! I’ll tell you what – one never knows what a day will bring in this country.

The last I saw of him, he was being sternly escorted by three men back behind some buildings. I do not care to imagine what might have ensued when they got him out of sight of onlookers. After living in this foreign land for 12 years, I’m quite aware that it might have ended very badly for him. (Later, when I told Bishop about the incident, he also suspected my worst fear).

Meanwhile, a Salvation Army church maintained their outdoor worship, standing in a semi-circle with the instrumentalist and drummers off to one side. While getting a few photos of the large group, I spotted another vehicle going my direction. I flagged it down and dashed back to get my backpack; my seat mate also opted to join me.

As we drove through the section of highway that cuts through the Kakamega forest, I suddenly became overwhelmed with the unsettling incident I had witnessed. Some of the massive trees brought to my mind that God is my strong protector. And just like the thousands of trees, he shades me from the hot sun of life and shields me from the ever-prevalent anger and danger of this world.

I began to pray and worship. I spoke out Scriptures like Micah 7:7 and the passages about Hagar, all of which speak of God seeing me and hearing me. He knows my every step and He watches over my movement and travels. Tears streaming down my face were a slightly surprising indication to me of how deeply I’d been affected. Just then a song came on the radio – ‘I have a Maker, He knows my name; He sees each tear that falls and He answers when I call’.

Lies, fraud, and deception seem to be rife in this land. Hatred and anger are just below the surface, awaiting an opportunity to erupt in violence.

Just like the title of the book, it’s currently wanjala in Kenya – the ‘hunger season’. There’s little food to eat in the rural areas, especially this year because the last maize harvest was very poor. The sun and heat are almost unbearable. Everyone awaits the rainy season, hoping it will arrive next month so they can plant this year’s crop of maize. It’s easy to be on edge during wanjala season.

Additionally, people have paid out a lot of money in school fees, as January marks the beginning of the education calendar in Kenya. In the towns and cities, those who had casual jobs (hired on a daily basis) have a hard time finding work. Except for school fees, very little money circulates in the country during January and February. Business goes down in every sector. Frustration and hunger are pervasive and an ever-present recipe for anger and violence to erupt. While I can’t be sure if that was a factor in the two incidents I observed, such outbreaks are not unusual.

- - - - -

I’m not sure how to conclude this story, except to say I had a lovely visit with Masudi.

And may I once again request that you remain ever vigilant in praying for my safety!


Naomi Hattaway said...

I have often had "I don't know how to finish these" posts as well.

I really enjoyed reading this post. Partially because it was written so well and took me RIGHT to the altercation ... and left me with immense sadness about all of the things that hunger does to people.

It was fun to read though, about the headmaster and I in fact have sent it on to the people at One Acre Fund and The Last Hunger Season's contact email address just because I think they'll enjoy reading it as well!

Safety is something we all just take for granted ... until you've experienced something like that, it can be hard to fathom.

nanacb said...


Pam said...

I can certainly see how the heat and hunger can get in the way of peace and "loving your neighbor" I remember an altercation, although not that bad as far as we know, over water on the streets of Delhi. We certainly do take things for granted, sometimes and some places more than others! :)

Not sure how to finish this short comment, but I'll say a prayer or two on your behalf. Stay strong!


Anonymous said...

your response to worship God is inspiring. so glad you felt His peace in the midst of your circumstance.


Anonymous said...

living in South Africa I 'sometimes' get so angry that I too forget to have Grace Thank you for the reminder to pray for my country and you. Sandra

Anonymous said...

Yes, this is pretty scary and its' amazing your composure. I respect the work you are doing because you are doing it with people and from within Kenya. I know Kenya is a country with the potential to become wildly unstable at any moment so please follow your heart and be safe.

Anonymous said...

mob justice is so scary -Sarah

Anonymous said...

Beautiful Deb. Thanks for writing out the distinct worlds of joy and sadness that seem like such highs and lows. Praise God for your faithfulness, trust, and belief that is constant through these radical movements of emotions and circumstances.


Anonymous said...

Will be praying for your safety. We take so much for granted here, safety, electricity, transportation. Thanks for sharing and glad that your work documents are in the works.

Take care,


Anonymous said...

Praying, praying, praying for your safety Deb, as you travel so many miles and hours from one destination to the other and situations such as this happen frequently. God is on your side!

Joy, joy, joy in hearing about the principal of the school enjoying the pages of the book that are written about him. And for your time with Tony and Masudi.

You sure have everything but a dull life! It is good to hear about each phase of your trip and the people involved. Hearing your story just reiterates the need we have to pray seriously and continually for you.

Praying God's hedge of protection around you,

Anonymous said...

Again, I was transported to Kenya to experience this with you.

My heart aches for you.

deb said...

Thanks all of you for taking the time to read my story. Thanks for your expressions of concern and for your prayers for me!

Anonymous said...

I pray Psalm 121 for you my dear missionary friend. I read all your writings with great interest.
Looking forward to the time you come back to Omaha. Love, Peggy