Wednesday, December 2, 2020

What a surprise!! I won $100 for this story about my childhood in Kenya "Boarding School at Mara Hills"

Kenya and Tanganyika, East Africa, 1956

I never could eat that first week at school.  My parents had no choice.  The mission board under which they went to Kenya gave them no choice.  They had to send us to boarding school.  I was nine, and my sister Lydia was seven.                    
My sister, Lydia

My parents drove us in the old green pickup with the canvas-covered back that first time.  We rode behind the cab leaning against our luggage, the red dust thickening our hair as it seeped through the cracks.  Two others missionary kids rode with us.  After hours fighting rutted dirt roads, we were stymied by an impassable river rushing toward eager banks.  New to Africa, my Mom had on high heels but gamely took them off, wading through mud and streams those last few miles to Mara Hills.  My sister and I could hardly contain our admiration.  Mom was seven months pregnant.

My Mother
We walked five miles with our luggage watching the sun burn itself out.  The black impenetrable night was punctured by a vast array of stars as we arrived. We sat patiently waiting on a bench next to the flickering candlelight in the entrance of the u-shaped building while our beds were hastily prepared.  Lydia rested her weary head on my shoulder, her silent tears burning into my neck.  My dad was feverish and shaking with chills from his first case of malaria, one of many to come.  He still managed to get up at the first light of day and trudge back with two Masai men to push the truck out of the rising river.

How could I imagine what lay ahead?  There were bars on the windows, beds from twisted Zebra hides, flashlights boring a bouncy minuscule shaft in the night on our way to the outhouse, an eye out for snakes.  I routinely shone my flashlight down the hole in the rough wooden seat, prompting nightmares of slipping into the maggots swarming below.  “I suspect a slight infraction,” the housemother announced one morning, a smile playing around her thin lips.   We were supposed to use the potty under our bunks at night.

The hunt brought gazelle and impala for our meat, salted down to preserve it.  No fridge at Mara Hills.   We had little garden plots where we all competed, urging on our corn and tomatoes.  We fought to take out slop to the pigs, which were also butchered for meat.

We went barefoot to class, a one-room schoolhouse, grades 1-8.  I saw my first dead body, a man lying stiffly in the back of the school pickup right before class.  We popped green coffee beans right off the plant into our mouths, saving them in our cheeks, enjoying the sweet juice as our heads bent innocently over our books.

The Mennonite house parents were stern but kind.  I missed the daily hugs and kisses from Mama and Daddy that I had so taken for granted.  I wrote letter after letter begging them to come get us.  The letters were not sent, I learned later.

Meals were formal, our cloth napkins stuffed carefully in rings made from sliced Impala horns.  Dessert was often one cookie with a raisin in the center, as lonely as I felt.  A freckled girl with long strawberry braids tried to dislodge a guava seed caught in her teeth with her fork.  She got cleanup duty that meal.  Manners were important at Mara Hills.  Her Dad owned a diamond mine in South Africa.  She did not get one letter from home.

My sister and I clung to each other for security.  One day to my horror, she ran towards me, dark braids flying, one eye pinched shut with a shiny eyeball gracing her palm.  Panic gripped me as I realized I had failed to watch out for her and she had lost an eye somehow.  Convulsing with laughter, she opened her eye shouting, “pig eye.”  It was slaughtering day.

Semesters lasted three long months and then home for a month and so on.  Headed for home at last, Lydia and I leaned against the rail of the steamer as it inched from the shore of Lake Victoria in Musoma, Tanganyika headed for Kisumu, Kenya.  It was just too far and dangerous for Mom and Dad to fetch us by truck each time.   We turned towards our stateroom where two small beds would see us through the lonely night. 

Noon the next day, the sun like a scream in the sky beat down on the black skin of Africans swaying and humming softly to the throbbing of the engine.  Their night had been spent on the deck under the stars.

At sundown, we nosed into the harbor.  Two thin figures became clearer as we neared the shore.  Dad in khaki shorts and Mom, long legged and slim, smiling, holding the baby brother we had not seen yet.

Three months’ emotion let go and I sobbed with total relief at what seemed happiness beyond my wildest dreams.  I would be home in Kaimosi in two hours.
Probably Mombasa in front of Ft. Jesus. 
This picture got wet during the Hurricane Ivan in Pensacola.


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Yours, Absolutely Free

This could be yours!

Manatee Crooks

"We love your house,” they gush.  “When we saw your listing on Craigslist, we heard God say; "THIS IS THE HOUSE FOR YOU.”  He is a little tousled with sloping shoulders and a paunch hanging respectfully over his belt.  A thatch of graying hair spills over his earnest face.  She is blond, matronly, with hair sprayed like cement.

“Can we move in tonight?” he ventures brimming with eagerness, bouncing his caterpillar eyebrows.  He pulls out first and last month’s rent plus deposit in crisp greenbacks.  Their credentials check out.  She is a nurse looking for a similar job in this area, he is retired from what, I wasn’t exactly sure but it sounds good.  Their credit record is clean.  With the sensitivity of a fence post I mutter to Jim, “probably too good to be true.”  “Keep an open mind,” Jim shoots back, his usual optimistic self.  I’m thinking, if my mind were any more open, my brains would fall out.

Not long back from a building project in Brazil, which had substantially diminished our dwindling resources, we have a building trip to Haiti looming so the news of the dream tenants was like finding a Stradivarius at a yard sale.
This was the first house Jim built when Esson Construction Company was birthed in 1987.  We were sitting on the brick steps of our home in the heart of Gulf Breeze, Florida when the call came that our building loan at 14% interest had been approved.  The house was a speculative venture, which I do not recommend. Jim put heart and soul into that first endeavor.

The property rested among patchy ranch styles on a ribbon of black asphalt.  Holley by the Sea was a golfing community in the infant stages, promising every amenity for your future success, fulfillment and pleasure. This lot, of course was nowhere near the golf course. Jim erected a 1400 square foot bungalow style house on that half-acre strip of sand pickled with red mud and cactus scrub, about all that would grow on that $5000 lot.  Blue with white trim and white shutters, all that was missing was the white picket fence.

That was almost 30 years ago. After that first house and with blood, sweat and tears, Jim built his construction company towards its eventual success.

We never did sell that house.  When one of the contracts fell through at the last minute in 1994 our first year in missions, we decided maybe God wanted us to keep it.  Our first renter was a single guy.  He stayed for 12 years, never complained that the carpet was wearing out and was never late on the rent.  He helped pay for that house until he bought his own.

After that, it was renters with dogs that had apparently lost all bladder control, doors pulled off the hinges, fist holes in the wall, backed up toilets, blinds that looked like accordions run over by a semi truck and mustard colored paint in the kitchen that would make a blind man sob.

The pest control company we paid $200.00 each year to treat for termites never informed us that termites were making a smorgasbord of that blue house probably because he never stepped foot near it or because he figured we were far away in the Congo or Sudan held captive by restless savages.

It took over a year to repair, done sporadically whenever we were in the USA or late at night to repair the damage from the monster termites.

That’s why we were elated at the too good to be true renters.  The eager couple furnished the house from garage sales and flea markets, or so they said.  Everything matched perfectly.  It looked fabulous.  They insisted we look.

Several weeks later with the Haiti trip under our belts, we return from a trip to Cuba.  A church needs rebuilding.  The church leaders want us to take the project and life seems pretty good.  The charter plane taxies into Miami airport and the stairs roll into place.  The wind hits us hot and heavy, like a blast from an oven, pleasantly scented with jet fuel.  My skirt flaps around my knees and I grab my hair as we maneuver down the gangplank.   Brimming with hope, inspiration and dogged determination, we don’t even mind the long lines in customs.

I’m relieved to talk freely in the good ole USA after a successful week keeping my mouth clamped shut about communism.  Our church actually gave Jim a roll of duct tape right before we left for Cuba to tape my mouth shut.  I naively thought it was for construction until Jim clued me in.  They gave me Tylenol PM.

After weathering customs, we sit to wait for our next flight.  There was no phone or Internet service in Cuba so Jim powers up expectantly.  Phone messages stream into his cell phone like a ticker tape parade and e-mails by the truckload.  Jim listens to messages and sits studying his shoes with a grim face.  He turns to me, obviously perplexed.  My words come in a rush.  “They did what?”  He supplies the salient parts of the story.  I don’t even feel like saying, I told you so.

Our dream tenants, claiming to be the owners, were renting our home to multitudinous individuals, collecting deposits in cash.  The Bonnie and Clyde of rental fraud used our same ad from Craigslist, pictures and all, substituting their phone number, which of course was now conveniently disconnected.    Infinitely resourceful, they told one renter that there was an electrical fire that would delay the availability of the house by two weeks, giving them time for additional victims and more deposits.

At their large estate sale, I just know they sold that brand new industrial sized front loading washer and dryer they rented from a local rental company.  I could remember thinking, “how could one couple have that much laundry.”

One bilked tenant thought to check county record for the real owners, saw our name and found us on facebook.  There were panicked messages there as well.

This can be yours.  Just let us know where to send it.

The last we heard, the couple was somewhere in South Florida, no doubt pulling the same scheme.  Unless…..there were other schemes.  We wondered if it wouldn’t have just been easier to get real jobs.

I guess you could say our fraudsters successfully avoided the awkwardness of sad goodbyes to their two gullible landlords.  Ever thoughtful, our crooks kindly left us two storks, fastened securely on each side of the front door and, a porcelain fish sitting jauntily on the steps with a long curling plant  growing from its gaping mouth!


Saturday, August 1, 2015

"Please Duck," or "The Thriftshop Throne"

Daddy played the slide trombone.  If you were sitting in the front row of the small church he pastored in 1992, my husband Jim jokes that you had to duck when he started sliding wildly at the fast parts of a song.  The soaring vibrato from his trembley wrist as he pumped that slide with blatant enthusiasm to a crescendo of glorious notes, sparked fervor into the hearts of his straggly congregation.   The pianist bobbed her considerable girth in a dramatic and savage attack on the keyboard.  I always wonder why pianists think body movements enhance piano performance.   A few of the faithful leap to their feet and clap.  An Amen carries from the back row.

By then, all Daddy had left was a fringe of white hair around the edges of his shining earthly crown. The dominant feature of that face below the sagging nose was his wide smile with those big square teeth, a little crooked which I inherited. Adams apple moving up and down in preparation, he had a habit of pausing during the sermon for an interpreter to translate his Swahili into Nandi or Kikuyu, as if it was 1960 and he were still in East Africa.    Of course, the church was in Florida and he was speaking English.  He was paid no salary, and offerings were so small that he had to build his own small podium that I have today.   I use it for a bookcase in the bedroom.  “It could be Holy,” I have tried to explain to Jim.

My Dad
Rhett Butler

My parents bought the 10,000 sq. ft. former Alger-Sullivan sawmill office near the railroad track in Century, Florida for a song.  It had rich wood wainscoting throughout, weathered wood floors and ceilings reaching to 18 feet.   “It has possibilities,” enthuses Dad as he and Mom lean over the black iron fire escape in back.  They planned to turn this albatross into a southern mansion complete with four big columns out front and a winding staircase to the second floor.  They did actually hang a crystal chandelier, but the staircase never materialized. Mom always imagined that she was Scarlett from “Gone with the Wind” and Daddy,  Rhett Butler.  The only similarity was the mustache.  The sawmill came with a sagging hotel next door, the “Century Hotel.”  My sister and I still joke about who finally gets the fountain which was in front, a small boy, with water streaming forth.

After Daddy died and Mom sold the house, I chose the podium (see first paragraph), family pictures, the “Africa trunk” which is in the foyer of our home and the grand piano that has a cracked soundboard, but sounds good except for the three low keys.  The antiques, which Mom loved and “silver service” went to my siblings, the famous trombone to my oldest brother, incidentally, the only one of us that “turned out right.”  The rest, mostly remnants of Dad’s hardware store like books of paint samples and carpet squares, we surreptitiously tossed from the second story window into the waiting arms of a blazing fire in the side yard between the former sawmill house and the hotel, (not the fire escape side).   We saved some of their old letters from Kenya, back when people used carbon paper in the typewriter for every piece of correspondence.  They had been painstakingly hole-punched and put in big blue folders which had faded into an unattractive shade of splotchy purple.  Much, sadly, we threw away but I saved two boxes of their letters, in case I wanted to write a book.
We saved the leather football helmets and soiled uniforms from some team sponsored by the lumber mill years before, for the “antique road show.”  They have since strangely disappeared.
To get back to the point of this story; I’m drawn like a magnet to thrift shops.   I ducked into one along 9th Ave. in Pensacola last Thursday and there was a sawn-off pew the size of a wide chair with bright red upholstery between the rich wood arms, perhaps a small exaggeration. The hymn holder and round holes for communion glasses were still perched jauntily on the back. I showed amazing restraint pausing just long enough to sit in it quickly and surmise it was surprisingly comfortable.  It was large enough to accommodate a preacher the size of Hagee or someone important like Billy Graham.  Now in my eyes, my Dad far surpassed either of those men and skinny as he was in the end, I could imagine him in this throne-sized pew.  Who knows, it could be as holy as the aforementioned podium, now bookcase.  I showed amazing restraint plus the fear that Jim would kill me.  I did not purchase the pew-throne.
Yesterday back on 9th Ave., I found myself veering wildly into the parking lot of the “Teen Challenge Thrift Store” to see if it was still there.  It sat affixed with the orange sticker for $10.99 among the soiled couches and scratched coffee tables arranged in the glaring light of “today only” bargains near the front windows.  I sped-walked so as not to be obvious and let the cashier know I wanted it.  I was amazed no one else had snatched this treasure.  Feeling impulse-shoppery,  I spied the gaudiest oriental chest with brass hardware (well, it could have been) beside the checkout that I thought would be a great sewing cabinet instead of the cracked plastic green thread holder I use now. It used to be Mom’s, now that I think about it.  I asked for the manager and pulled out all my overseas missionary haggling skill and the price was dramatically reduced.  I am really not an impulse buyer, but I felt uncharacteristically and unflinchingly audacious.  I got those two words from the hardback Thesaurus they threw in for 25 cents.

Two previously “challenged teens” loaded the treasures into the Honda.  I could not close the trunk, but the pew-throne was so heavy, there was not a chance it would fall out.  I thought the young man with the blue tattoos and strings of greasy blonde glued to his skull was snickering, but I chose to ignore him.
Inching around the curves down Scenic Hwy. with the big red throne-pew hanging precariously from the trunk, a sizable parade formed behind me.  A white sports car screamed past on the left and I might have seen a hand gesture of encouragement thrust from his window over the roof of his car. 
Whitney, our youngest’s wedding was the next day and my only regret is that I didn’t have time to sand and poly the throne and put in a place of honor so that I could imagine Daddy was here with his Bible and trombone celebrating with us.  I know he is in heaven playing with the heavenly choir, shaking that wrist for a special vibrato, weaving his trombone in wide sweeps as the white clad choir members duck.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


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.