Sunday, March 22, 2015

THE BLOOD-RED FEZ



It’s not there!  My head is buried in the bottom of the worn chest with the map of Africa burned into its battered lid.  Sweat drips from my nose splotching on the cedar.  I replace the heavy tray filled with slides, black and white photos and super eight movies grown brittle over time.  The lid thuds into place, and I pull metals hooks over the latches.  Dust swirls as I rummage through boxes not yet unpacked from our move, run my fingers along high shelves, sweep under beds.  I cannot find the blood-red fez.   I manage to lose it after it survives for 60 years.   Why does it matter? Husband Jim read that a fez represents the blood of martyred Christians.   He doesn’t understand what this particular one means to me.  
                                                         
 Kenya, East Africa 1956
         Dark and silent as a shadow, a thin figure moves out of the fog which envelopes him.  The morning is still.  The smell of wood fires hangs heavy in the air.    The red brick house with its high-peaked corrugated metal roof looms over him like an apparition.  The shadow of a young girl disappears from the attic window just below the rain gutters.  He steps onto the concrete porch as a sliver of light falls through the blanket of clouds.  His stomach is a bag of nails. He takes a breath and knocks.
       He smells of sweat and soot, standing in his ragged shorts cinched tight over the knobs of his bony hips.  Bloodshot eyes gaze through yellow sclera, swallowed by dark sockets.  He lives like most Africans; in a smoke filled hut with goats, chickens and cattle. 

      A young missionary, green as grass, draws open the door expectantly.  A vivid widow’s peak introduces that striking coal black hair which frames a small delicate face.  Her eyes penetrate like needles but compassion bathes her diminutive features.  Daniel Chege, hardly more than a boy is not tall, but fine boned and austere.  He scrubs his shirt each evening on a rock until it is white as an elephant’s tusk.   Flashing a wide smile he blurts, “I cookie roastie.” He has practiced this phrase repeatedly as he walks barefoot along the dirt path towards the mission compound.  Memsahib Eby suppresses a grin and invites him in.
Chege's Grandmother
      There is an uneasy silence as they regard each other.  ‘Kuja hapa rafiki kidogo, come small friend,” Memsahib Eby says to put him at ease.  She leads him over the red-waxed concrete floor to a rough counter beside a wood stove that is radiating heat.  The warmth is welcome in the cool morning air at 5000 ft in the Kenyan highlands.  Washing her hands carefully, she instructs Chege to watch as she sifts ingredients, mixing, then kneading the dough with a fury. She has barely learned to make bread herself.  Isolated with her family far from Lake Victoria and any type of grocery store, she knows that if she wants bread she will have to make it.  Chege follows her tutorial, committing it to memory in the quick way that he had. He absorbs everything like a clay pot soaking up water.  No further instructions are needed.   Mom throws in another log and places the bread into the wood stove. 
        Chege makes bread two days later and it is every bit as perfect as the Memsahib’s.  She never has to show Chege anything twice. Chege’s grandmother brings milk each day in a dirty bottle with leaves stuck in the top.  Mom notices dirt in it so she shows Chege how to strain it through cloth and boil it until the foam subsides, hoping it doesn’t scorch,  It almost always does and is a far cry from American pasteurized milk.  I never grow accustomed to the taste.
      My sister Lydia and I hang around Chege like shadows coaxing him not to roll his Rs and he teaches us to roll ours amid roars of laughter.  Preceding his serving debut, Daniel Chege lifts the long white Kanzu over his bony shoulders, which rise like spikes against the rough material.  He carefully ties the red silk sash around his waist.  Gingerly, he places the red fez onto his shaved head and adjusts the tassel at a jaunty angle to the right of his round Kikuyu face just as Memsahib Eby shows him earlier that day. His small chest swells inside the flowing white.  His smile is blinding like sunlight on a tin roof.
      He pours the oxtail soup into Mom’s best china bowl, which survived the voyage in the hold of a freighter from Rotterdam called the Kenya Castle.   White robe swishing around his ankles, heart pounding, conscious of all eyes on him Chege stiffly carries the soup through the swinging door.   Bwana Eby, the memsahib with our baby brother on her lap, my sister and I watch as Chege sucks in his breath and ladles it into each bowl.  The bowl rattles against the saucer from his shaking hands.  A little slops out when he serves me leaving a dark stain on the tablecloth. 
       “Zuri sana,” I enthuse to encourage him rolling my r perfectly.  He manages a weak smile.  His breath comes in little whistles through his lips, a nervous habit that never changes in the many years he works for our family.  He loves us and we love him back unconditionally.  He whistles through every meal, that’s our Chege.
       Mom is a nurse so with Chege to help in the kitchen she can dress wounds from panga cuts, bandage the heads of babies who have rolled into the cooking fire during the night, and treat snake bite wounds.  She does this on the front lawn until Daddy builds her a small brick dispensary. 
Cleaning before suturing.
Each day she puts on a white nursing uniform and her stiffly starched nursing cap as if headed to the Mayo Clinic and swings her way purposefully to the dispensary to care for the sick.  Years later Chege will be the one to administer penicillin shots, malaria meds to the ill, many who have walked trails for over a day to reach the mission.
        Mom has a snakeskin belt, which she often cinches around her 22-inch waist. I find it in her attic years later.  Tall at 5’9” she has a way of walking that captures attention as she sweeps into a room.  Part of the reason for her thinness is the financial sacrifice that she and Dad make to pay for our tuition at Rift Valley Academy, a boarding school 200 miles away over grassy plains in a sleeper car on the East African Railway.  This leaves little money for food.  She raises chickens and learns to chop off a head with amazing determination and precision. She dips the hen in hot water, plucks the feathers, passes it through a flame to singe and chops it into pieces.
Tomboi, the gardener and his two little boys.
      She has a garden in the back tended by Tomboi and his two little boys.  It once produced a tomato six inches across.  The soil is dark and rich in the Kenya highlands.  The entry to the mission station cuts through a large British Tea Estate that thrives in the fertile soil and moderate temperatures.
      In the evenings, we crane our heads towards the small black radio listening to the crackling news from BBC if it comes in.  A British newscaster reports news including that of Kenya, a British protectorate at that time.    Numerous stories end with a favorite phrase in crisp English, “No foul play suspected.”   Foul play is the norm after the MauMau rebellion.  Many in Chege’s village were strung up by their thumbs when refusing to take the bloody MauMau oath. This is mild compared to the 100s who were savagely murdered by crazed Kikuyu MauMaus.  
      Mom becomes concerned, as Chege seems pale, difficult for a coal-black African and thinner than ever.  She checks his blood and finds that he has extreme anemia and TB.  It becomes her furious campaign to restore him to good health.                          
         My father built a U-shaped Bible School, which Chege attended.  Chege later becomes a pastor and marries a young Kikuyu girl named Kedsia.  They will have 10 children. He eventually directs the mission work in Kenya for the entire mission organization… “our cook!” He was as fervent a pastor and administrator as he had been a cook.  He is now with the Lord who I can imagine saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” as Chege flashes that wide smile.
March 2014
      Searching for a wrench in the back of his truck, Jim notices something like a brown rat crushed under the tools.   It’s the formerly red, now brown fez!  I am disconsolate.  I seek out my Mom, (Memsahib Eby) who is 88 and resides at Bayside Nursing Home.  “Take it to the cleaners and have it blocked and cleaned,” she utters matter-of-factly through her gums.  She lost her teeth again.  Vick’s Cleaners makes me sign a release since the fez is now as stiff as a beaver’s tail and bent completely closed.  A week passes without a word. Worried, I call to check on it.  The attendant regrets that they are unable to clean it.  Probably no one can, she maintains.  I sob like a baby in the car wondering what in the world is wrong with me.  They package the fez in a little square box, like a coffin. True to my tradition of unconditional support of lost causes, I decide someone, somewhere, can fix Chege’s fez.  I’m going to find that person.