The sun is still rising, and its bright, white rays poke through the front windshield and land on your lap. On the other side of the windshield, in front of you, the Kenyan landscape stretches for miles in every direction. Green trees and grass, strong brown dirt, and houses made out of mud, brick, and corrugated metal roofs.
Every available seat in the van is taken; you and two others up front, and seven in the back. Six of the backseat passengers are living and breathing. A seventh passenger lies on the floor, silent, a green sheet draped over her body.
The full van bumps heavily over deep ruts in the red dirt road, even as the man at the wheel does his best to drive gently, carefully. The van is quiet, but it won’t be for long. The van turns off the dirt road and begins bumping and pounding along a narrower, sloping road. People along the road catch sigh of the van and they know where it’s going and what you’re bringing; the strips of red fabric tied to the rearview mirrors give it all away.
Suddenly, as the van slows down a couple yards away from a small cluster of houses, one of the backseat passengers lets out a wail. Her mourning cry is taken up by a second passenger, and as the van slides gently to a halt, cries can be heard rising from all around the van.
The back doors are opened, and six people scramble solemnly down, stepping resolutely onto the packed dirt. The seventh passenger is carefully handed down, three men working to support her body. She’s carried to one of the small buildings, and there they leave her.
Tens of people, their mourning cry ringing across the Kenyan forest, push into the building. You’re outside and you’re not sure why they want to be inside. To touch her? To see her? To say goodbye to her?
It’s not long before you follow the three men that you’re working with back up the hill to the waiting van. You watch as they take their gloves off and wad them up with the green sheet, placing the bundle under the backseat. The wailing of mourning Kenyans can still be heard as the van makes its bumping way back up the road.
Welcome to Kenya.
Six hours later, it’s the last stop of the day. You’ve been bumping and sliding up and down dirt roads, visiting people in their homes, all day. The sun, which long since reached its zenith, is beginning to slide back down the far side of the distant hills.
You’re alone in the van, the three guys having gotten out to visit one last patient. From your perch in the backseat, you can see five little Kenyan children standing several yards away. They see you, too. You wave and smile, grinning as they tentatively smile back at you.
One little guy, probably about seven years old, is less shy than the others, and he steps close to the van. Mizungu! Mizungu! He shouts gleefully, his teeth shining brilliantly against the dark of his face.
You are white. Sticking your white head out the window, you can see that the little yeller is now very close to the van, and has been joined by three other young ones. Yards away, on the other side of a sparse layer of pokey bushes, the original group of children has doubled in number. Your white presence is gathering a crowd of curious little ones.
The back door of the van is slightly open, and a little hand reaching into the crack draws your attention. No, better not come in. Here; I’ll come down. You climb out of the van and sit on the tailgate. Twelve children stand in front of you, mixing calls of Mizungu! with fits of giggling over the apparent hilarity of the whole situation.
Your original little buddy steps closer to you, and you grin at him, waiting to see what he’ll do. He takes another step, his bright, dark eyes glittering mischievously. Suddenly, you stand up and take a little step towards him. Shouts of surprise and shrieks of laughter erupt from the gathered crowd, now numbering fifteen, and the little guy darts away.
But, seconds later, he’s back, daring you to come forward. You do, and the game continues for a couple minutes; he steps forward, you step forward, he scurries back. Over and over. And still, curious children gather round. Tired of the stepping game, you sit back down on the tailgate and extend your hand. A second or two passes while the children survey you, then one brave little one jumps forward and slaps your hand. You laugh. He giggles, too.
Then it’s all over. Little girls with fuzzy black hair and shy, toothy grins want to give you a high five. Older boys drag their little brothers up and force them to slap your hand, then slap your extended hand themselves when their brother come away from the ordeal unscathed.
Now brave, the group of twenty children begin calling out the only English phrase they know; How are you? How are you, how are you, how are you? You parrot it back to them, they laugh. Then one of them answers; I am fine. She announces, and you incorporate that into your conversation.
Round and round you go, slapping hands. How are you? I am fine. Do it all over again. And your original little friend is climbing on the spare tire of the back of the van, and a lanky little girl has worked up the courage to stroke your white arm with her little brown hand, and someone’s brought their baby brother, dragging his chubby body over and setting him down in the midst of the gather children.
And then the men are back, and you’re yelling goodbye and patting little round heads and everyone is yelling right back, and someone, probably the first little guy, gets a little too excited and slaps you on the leg. And you’re back in the van, and it takes two guys to shoo away all the kids, while the third slowly, slowly backs the van up. And as you drive away, you can still see the crowd of little ones through the back window, and you wave and they wave until you turn and you can’t see anymore.
Welcome to Kenya.