Well-Wishers

After Taekwando Cameron got a call from Des. He was waiting at the landing site to drive over to the village to take a look at a well that had been malfunctioning. I wasn’t entirely sure what mechanical skills I could bring to this trip but I was more than happy to go. I always loved seeing more of the village and the little children were always so excited to see white people it was impossible not to get swept up in their giggles.

Cam and I got into Des’s car, Yael hadn’t been feeling well the last couple of days so stayed at the house, and off we drove. I was used to a certain lack of mirrors so when I caught a glimpse of myself in the rear-view mirror I almost burst out laughing. My hair was wild from my snorkel earlier, all of the small bits waved around my face in the wind like some kind of bizarre anemone, and my face was bright red from the Taekwando. If I thought I’d stand out before now I realised I was basically a walking neon sign. ‘Never mind, eh’ I thought to myself. ‘More to make the children laugh!’

When we reached the main road we picked up Nicko, the man who had fantastically guarded the turtles that had stranded themselves in the lagoon while mating, he guided us onto the bumpy road leading into the village. Des talked with Nicko in Swahili and I felt foolish. I resented my inability to speak another language (although I did cut myself some slack for not having become fluent in Swahili since my arrival two weeks before) and resorted to smiling and nodding along at whatever was said. Hopefully that was the right response. The road got narrower and bumpier until Des had to ask twice when Nicko declared,

“Left.” Because there didn’t seem to be a path at all. It just looked like overgrown grass.

“Yes, left.” He added firmly and Des drove on. After a couple of metres or so I could see that there were tracks of squashed plants from previous car tyres so there was at least some degree of road-ness. The directions seemed so random at times I could have sworn that Nicko was making it up. I was extremely glad that he was with us in the car otherwise there would have been no hope of finding this well whatsoever. Eventually we pulled into an opening that was smooth underfoot, clearly well maintained and regularly swept. The dusty floor was the reddish colour of all the earth around here and felt so soft under my feet that I took off my flip flops carried them in one hand.

There were four houses around the clearing and bunches of children sat on the floor around their families, chatting and eating. Most either stood or sat on the floor, leaving the benches for adults to sit on. We walked over to one woman surrounded by about ten or twelve children and shook her hand.

“Jambo,” I said with a smile, ‘Hello,’ and hoped that the warmth in that one word would make up for the fact that I only knew a handful of others and so ‘Jambo’ would probably be the only word I spoke to her. I figured it was unlikely that she would ask me for a cup of tea so my vocabulary was limited. Des asked her if all of the children were hers and she shook her head and explained she was looking after her neighbours children as well. They gazed up at me, by far the whitest of the three of us, with their big eyes in curiosity and perhaps confusion.

Nicko took us to the next house where we shook hands with two women who were cooking over open fires that sat in the bottom of what looked like two small cubicles made out of the traditional mud and woven sticks. They were also very friendly and chatted away with Des in Swahili. Two younger men came over and we shook their hands too.

“What are your names?” Des asked

“Gift,” said the first man.

“Good Luck,” said the second.

“Gift and Good Luck?” Des asked, unsure if he had heard them right. They nodded. “Lovely to meet you,” he said with a smile. The children had followed us over from the first house but were keeping a safe distance. When I turned around they scattered like fish and laughed when I waved. Nicko took us to the next house. We shook hands with two more women and I wished that I could understand the words they spoke with Des. I wanted to feel less useless but there wasn’t much I could do about that so again I smiled and nodded.

We then all started walking over to the well and I slipped my flip flops back on. Des turned to me and gestured at the cloud of children that came traipsing after us.

“Can you see the population issue the village faces?” He said. “As medicine improves almost all of these children will live to adulthood. Traditionally families would have so many children and only a few of them would survive to adulthood but now the village is growing at a rate that it might not be able to sustain,” I glanced behind us and could see maybe about thirty or forty children and about five adults.

“Are you, or rather the KCWA, doing anything about that?” I asked

“We want to,” Des said, “But it’s difficult, because it is not something that people like talking about. We need to bring in proper education programmes to teach people about things like family planning.”

“And contraception?” I asked

“Indeed. The village can’t keep on growing at this speed it’s just not sustainable,” Des replied. We passed what looked like a big plant bed, raised from the ground with stone sides.

“What is this?” Des asked in English.

“This is grave.” One of the women replied, “Of one of old father,” There were a few English words written into the stone, ‘clean’, ‘born’ and ‘love’ was all I could make out. I wasn’t too sure of what they were going for but I’m sure the message was lovely.

We then reached the well. It was actually more like a three floor concrete structure with the water pump at the bottom, an empty concrete layer in the middle and another tank on top. Des and Cameron went into the walled room at the bottom that had the well inside. I knew that I would only crowd out the already very small space so I waited outside with, what now felt like, the whole rest of the village. I edged backwards, trying to see if there was in fact anything on the middle floor, as this one didn’t have any walls.

“You can go up,” one of the village women said kindly, “There are stairs,” she gestured round to the side of the structure. I uncertainly looked towards where she pointed.

“Go on,” another said with a smile so I walked round and there was a blue painted ladder going upwards. Now everyone was looking so I placed my feet on the rungs with the utmost care, dreading the idea that I might fall and not only hurt myself, but look like an absolute plonker whilst doing so. When I got up to the second floor, or more accurately the roof of the first, I looked around and saw that it was totally empty. At the edges I could still see the little faces of the children gazing up at me as well as the women who had allowed me to venture up here. But when I walked into the middle no one could see me. It was a little oasis of calm in the hubbub that I had just found myself in. I could imagine this being a really cool spot for something like meditation, where you could be separate from everyone else for a little while.

I climbed up another couple of rungs to see the top floor and saw a giant plastic tank. I didn’t go all the way up as the tank took up pretty much all the space. I made my way back down the ladder, not relaxing until I heard the solid noise of my flip flops hitting the ground. Cam and Des had emerged from the well,

“What’s the verdict?” I asked

“Annoyingly it looks like it will need professional repair,” Des replied, “Which might be quite expensive,” I nodded and looked at all the people who had gathered around us. I hoped they’d be able to fix it soon. Des took a few paces back and got out his phone to take a picture of me and Cam with everyone. After that I asked Des if I could use his phone and started taking selfies with a couple of the children. Soon the screen was totally full of little faces, all vying for a spot in the picture and it was very sweet. The result is a photo that couldn’t scream ‘Gap Yah’ more if it tried.

Nicko then led us around the side of the well to what I think was a fuse box. Again, my mechanical skills deserted me, and I was concentrating more on the little children again. They had followed us around, entranced by Des’s phone. I squatted down and offered my hand to high-five one of the bolder children. Soon I was bombard with little hands all pushing forward to join in the fun. The language barrier was complete and uncrossable but the high-five is still known to all and their laughs made me laugh. One little boy would offer his hand for me to high-five approximately every two minutes for the remaining time we were there. Every time I did he would grin and quickly put his hands behind his back. There was another girl who can’t have been more than seven or eight herself who had a tiny baby strapped to her back. As we walked its little face would occasionally poke out from the brightly coloured fabric that it was swaddled in and blink confusedly. It was very sweet.

We thanked the women for welcoming us and Des spoke to them for a little while in Swahili. Needless to say I got lost in that conversation so I can’t offer a full debrief but everyone seemed to be satisfied with the outcome.

Cameron, Des, Nicko and I got back into the car to drive home so I waved through my partially open window to the children. They all waved back and even raced to follow the car as we navigated the slightly tricky route back to the more road-like paths. Des spoke with Nicko in Swahili until we got to the main road where Nicko got out of the car. I wasn’t entirely sure how much Cam was understanding either but it had to be more than me. Occasionally I might catch a word I recognised, ‘maji’, meaning water, as you can imagine, came up a few times.

We then drove back to Des’s house and went inside to have a drink and watch the stars fade into view. We sat out in front of the house looking up and tried to spot different constellations.

“There’s Orion,” I said, pointing. I had to get that one in quickly as it was the only one I knew. We managed to spot Taurus and the Seven Sisters as well. I wished we had stars like this in London, where even the brightest ones struggle against the orange wash of artificial light. Here the stars were laid out like shattered glass, glinting out from the blackness.

God, it was gorgeous.



Itinerary

23/01/19

  • Fish Species ID revision
  • Benthic organisms lecture
  • Re-writing the Volunteer Guide
  • Saying goodbye to Des’s sister, her husband and her friend Monica
  • Snorkel
  • Taekwando lesson
  • Trip to the well
  • Drink and stargazing with Des at his house

1 thought on “Well-Wishers

  1. Lol – your sentence about ‘screaming gap year’ and meditation rooms. So sensitive. So respectful.

    Like

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