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Kenya Believe It? Part 1 - Musings & Mosquitoes

Kenya Believe It? Part 1 - Musings & Mosquitoes

Kenya Believe It? Part 1 - Musings & Mosquitoes

A new travel series documenting my adventures in Africa

Writer, filmmaker, intrepid traveler, (recently-heartbroken) lesbian, and stupidly fearless risk-taker Katie Boyden journeyed to Kenya in the summer of 2014 to direct a documentary on the incredible work of the Fiat Lux Foundation which builds eye hospitals in the developing world.  Along with this quite noble cause, Katie got herself into more than a few ridiculous scenarios and shenanigans while traipsing around Africa through operating rooms and savannas, bouncing down dirt roads in jeeps and vans, and flying in one particularly tiny aircraft that she doesn't even think counts as an actual plane.  Think of it as sort of an extreme version of "Eat, Pray, Love." These are her stories. 

(Some names have been changed)

08/10/14, Kisii, Kenya, Unfanisi Resort, – 12:36am

I am at war with the mosquitos.  And they are winning. 

It all started after Brad left my room for the night.  We had been discussing philosophies of life, travel, world history, adventure stories, and so on, over a few glasses of scotch—everything you would expect in a conversation between two naively spontaneous filmmakers who had found themselves in way over their heads after jumping at the chance to make a documentary on an eye clinic in a remote part of western Kenya.  We pondered the genocide in Sudan, the Somalian terrorist attacks along the Kenyan coast, and the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and Nigeria with the knowledge that we were now on the same continent—in the case of the Somalis, the same country—as these nightmarish news stories.  We joked about the smell of Deet that was wafting off our skin and reminded each other to take our nightly anti-malarial pills.  We reflected on all that we had seen on our drive in that day and the newness and sensory overload of it all. 

Earlier that day in the airport. I'm babysitting the camera equipment as well as a box that contains five donor human corneas on ice that will eventually be used in surgical transplants on patients with keratoconus.

Brad, ever the intrepid cameraman, captures the doctor carrying the corneas onto yet another flight.

I was feeling that peculiar mix of the elated immersion into a culture combined with the melancholic, guilty awkwardness that happens to those of European descent and first world countries who travel to the third world.  I call it the "Rudyard Kipling Complex," which is essentially the opposite of the White Man's Burden.  It is the constant desire to undo and make amends for the atrocities of our imperialist forebears.  Ever since arriving, I haven't been able to plug my phone into the UK-shaped wall sockets or get into the passenger seat on the left side without the crushing awareness of what had taken place here in order for English to be named a national language alongside Swahili. I know it is naïve; I know that the vast majority of Africans are much more concerned with day-to-day subsistence and the kind of worries that plague all of us than to bother wasting time on hating the English, Dutch, French, you-name-it, and their descendants, but the thoughts still nagged at me.  And anyway, the people of Kenya are the nicest folks I have ever encountered.  The politeness and hospitality here is unlike anything I have seen, and there seems to be a genuine warmth and happiness that emanates from them.  

As we zipped by markets and pedestrians and huts, entrenched in our documentary mission, we tried to capture footage and snap photos out of the van's window.  Many villagers noticed and waved to me, smiling and trying to get into the pictures.  Some, however, shook their fists and cursed at us in the Kisii tongue.  One young man even picked up a rock as if to hurl it at our vehicle—a reminder that at least a portion of my uneasy thoughts regarding my presence here was justified.   

Just some cows blocking the road... nbd. 

On that ride from Kisumu to Kisii, bouncing along the narrow dirt highways between villages and rainforests, I had allowed myself to think about Leah from time to time, letting the sadness and the frustration seep into me, wondering if she missed me and what she was doing right now—it was the middle of the night in California but if I knew her at all, I knew she was awake.  Mostly, I wondered if I would ever get her back, not wanting to think of the alternative.  I watched men and women holding hands; I saw families in their huts, farmers with their heads down driving picks into the soil, teenage girls walking together with baskets on their heads, little boys running around amongst piles of tires and sheep, people sprawled out napping under awnings and trees, women carrying their babies in cloth slings.  

I wondered what all these people had gone through for love; what passion and relationships and heartbreak was like in a place like this. It comforted me to know that most everyone I had seen that day had felt the ecstatic highs and wrenching miseries that are so often the side-effects of being in love.  You can travel across the entire world, or you can stay in one tiny portion of one tiny village for your entire life, but falling for someone and having your heart broken remain the experiences that bind us all.   

"It is amazing, isn't it?" Brad said to me later that night, before I went to war with the mosquitoes.  "All humans really want to do is eat and have sex and play and spend time with each other.  We aren't supposed to spend eight hours a day at our job at Microsoft."

I told him what I had been thinking about the Kenyans and their romantic lives that day; how I missed Leah.  But as I was talking, I felt okay for the first time since she left me; I felt just how big the world is and how much ground there is to cover in my lifetime.  I knew that somehow, in some future iteration of time and space, that I would be able to get over her. That surely there was some woman in this vast planet we call home who would want to be with me as much as I wanted to be with her.  I knew that I had no choice but to get over her, much as I hoped we would somehow find each other again. I also knew that I could travel seven thousand miles and touch five continents, but still I would always want to be in one place with one person.  I guess my person is still out there. 

The perspective of this place. 

I thought about the women I had seen pounding millet on the side of the road and the men carrying bags of sweet potatoes to market with their lean and healthy cows in tow, and how ironic it is that I spend half my salary buying organic and natural foods in Los Angeles when here I was in a place where free-roaming goats were slaughtered in tin-roofed huts and cooked the same day, and non-GMO, pesticide-free banana, corn, and rice fields stretched for miles. This is not to say that I'm naive enough to think that life in a country like this is somehow better--the lack of potable drinking water is severe and people constantly get sick from the rivers and wells, and that is just scratching the surface. I thought about the different ways in which humans make themselves sick.  In the States we ingest all kinds of awful chemicals from our household products to our children's snack food, we pop pills for every ailment that the pharmaceutical industry can invent, people sit bent over desks with eye strain and back problems, and every other person is on anti-depressants and attention medicine.  In Kenya the motorbikes have PSAs on them asking the citizens to help fight the spread of tuberculosis and the sound of an ambulance siren is hardly a source of annoyance; it shows that a city has a solid infrastructure--it is not a backround sound but a reminder of progress.

Almost every other stand in the markets was an Internet and phone charging kiosk, loudly advertising the Facebook logo on the side. "Many people in Kenya have Facebook," the clinic's head surgeon's brother had told me on the way in. "And everyone who doesn't wants an account."  Also Kenya, like much of Africa, has a payment system in which you can charge up and wire money directly to people from a simple flip phone--and this is much more efficient and much older technology than something like Venmo. But I couldn't fight the nagging feeling that we weren't doing anything better in the first world either--all of our social media has created an increasingly anti-social world where we interact with screens more than people. Is this really something to strive for? Many people in Kenya have cell phones, but you don't see them walking around like zombies with their necks bent at 45 degrees. Luckily, at least, Kenya has learned from the destructive mistakes of more developed countries and as they industrialize are striving to protect their ecosystems and animals, having seen the consequences of environmental mis-management (the American bison and pine forests of Europe weren't so lucky).

Brad's voice cut my reverie short as he told me about a job he did for Cisco and how the CEOs talked about a concept called "stretch-time" in which employees are encouraged to put in weekends or long nights on top of their already 40+ hour workweeks in order to maximize their output. 

"What fucking hell that must be—" I started to say as we were interrupted by a chorus of howling feral dogs.  We both fell silent; awed by the awareness of the present and the entirety of how far from home we had come. 

"But that's what I mean," I said.  "At what point is technology too much?  We wonder what these people do all day to keep themselves entertained—meanwhile we sit at our desks and mindlessly scroll Facebook.  We call this 'progress' but into what?"       

A few minutes later, we said goodnight and he was gone.  I walked into the sparse bathroom, feeling the day's worth of grime and travel and bug repellent on my skin.  I turned on the shower, stood just outside, naked and shivering, and stuck my hand into the stream of cold water hoping it would warm up soon.  Realizing the hot water would never come, I resolved to postpone the shower until the morning, so I turned off the tap and started to dry my arm.  Then I looked up and saw them.

To be continued….

Stay tuned for Part 2 in which Katie engages in a one-woman battle against the malarial mosquitos in her bathroom, much to the dismay of all the other guests in the hotel. 

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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Katie Boyden