LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE KENYAN DOCTOR WHO SAVED ME FROM MENINGITIS
BY JENNIFER ACKER
What you said made us angry. You were an experienced doctor, a member of the Indian professional class in Kenya. We were naïve, young white women, accustomed to respecting authority. But we did not take to you. I think it is fair to say you did not take to us either, two American girls in Africa for the first time.
We were 17, L. and I, just out of high school, living in a mud hut in Mwira, Kenya, with our host family: brother Timothy and his mother Elizabeth, whom we called Mama. The village was remote and beautiful. We took walks along the footpaths at sunrise and sunset, thronged by curious children and awestruck by the size of the swollen rain clouds that burst above our heads at least once a day, usually when our laundry was drying on the hedgerows. The world was red, green, and yellow. Red for the iron-rich soil, green for the rolling sugarcane and maize fields that were the livelihoods of our neighbors, yellow for the sun-hot light. When my students begged to do my hair, crafting it into six, thick brown plaits, I ran a finger laden with sunscreen between the rows.
We drank chai every morning for breakfast, stirring in warm, unrefrigerated milk from a box. But then Mama's prized cow had a baby, so fresh milk was boiled and stored in a thermos for our chai instead. The milk smelled and had a thick, creamy film at the top. We found it nauseating. We had previously enjoyed our morning chai, the spice and the sweet, and we felt guilty when we tossed it out the window. For dinner we often ate homemade chapattis with our sukuma wiki and the porridge-like ugali. Mama showed me how to knead and roll the chapatti dough. I did not know that chai and chapattis were not native to Kenya. They were imported from India, where your forebears came from.
When we first arrived in Mwira, to live in the Rift Valley among Luhya people and teach at the local harrambe school, L. and I had been assigned to different host families. L.'s family, including a sister, Rukiah, and her adorable, pot-bellied baby they called Babu, lived across the river. But one day L. showed up for school reporting that Rukiah was in the hospital. Meningitis.
The village had no phone, so we scribbled a note and gave it to Rukiah’s fiancé Issa and asked him to deliver it to the director of our program in a town nearly 50 km away.
You, Dr. S, were physician to the Kenyan Peace Corps volunteers. And, I have recently learned, you advocate for women living on the street, for people with HIV, for children's education. You work in palliative care. Clearly, you are a compassionate woman.
Yet we did not think so at the time. When we came to you for our meningitis boosters, driven in our program director’s Jeep—speeding by thorny pineapple plants and banana trees hung with yellow fruit—you asked about our lives. We lived in mud huts without running water or electricity, just like our host families. We bathed in water boiled for us each morning by our host families. We ate meals with, and prepared by, our host families. We ate with our hands, using a flattened pat of ugali as a spoon, like our families had taught us. At this, you scowled and shook your head. “Don’t eat with them,” you told us. “Never do that, it’s not clean. Not even Peace Corps eat with the families.”
We came away sore in our upper arms from the shots, and sore at you, Dr. S. We thought your advice, your admonition, stemmed from racial prejudice. Even if we had the ability and the materials to cook our own meals, we refused to offend Mama and Timothy—Timothy who knocked on the door of our hut every morning to say the bathwater was ready, and who, when I poked out my head to say Jambo, laughed and responded, "Jen, I thought you were still in the blankets!"
Later, when our friend Kirk got malaria and paid you a visit, he reported you to be kind and caring, and then we thought you were sexist as well.
We did not understand how you could be science-educated, both Indian and Kenyan, and still harbor such prejudices. Just as we did not know that chai and chapattis were imported. We knew nothing about Indians in Kenya. We did not know, then, that people from many places, many castes, many religions in the Indian subcontinent had established themselves there, lured to East Africa under British colonial rule. We did not know that Indian and African laborers alike had been mauled and devoured by man-eating lions during the construction of the Ugandan Railroad, which stretched from Mombasa on the coast to Kisumu on Lake Victoria, where you lived.
I know these facts now. I have spent nearly eighteen years with an Indian-American man whose parents are from Nairobi, who are part of the East African Indian diaspora, whose history I researched for years to write a novel. I know that the British exploited tribal and ethnic divisions and left a terrible, segregated legacy, one which every generation confronts, and some try to repair. I also know that, at 17, I was adventurous but inexperienced.
I still do not know what to think of your comments, Dr. S. Did we misinterpret them? Were they straightforward medical advice to which we misassigned animus? I don't think so. The way that colonialism squeezed the middling, merchant class, treating “Asians” as better than “natives” but never good or clean or smart enough, never equal to the whites, left a terrible scar—chasms filled with ignorance, rumor, and resentment between Indian and African societies. Stark boundaries still exist, despite Asians being recently recognized as Kenya’s 44th tribe.
The prejudice I heard in your words I have now seen and heard elsewhere in Kenya, among other Indian communities. My husband saw it growing up, both in the U.S. and in Kenya. But I also know that the further we are from colonial days, and the more that schools and workplaces are integrated, the more old divisions are being rubbed away, especially among younger generations. And so I can imagine that you have changed with the times, with new colleagues and experiences.
You were at the front lines of the AIDS crisis in Kenya. In 2004 you said to an American newspaper that the epidemic was “personal”; you lost “friends, fellow doctors, two secretaries and lots of patients to this disease.” Mwira, too, lost people to AIDS, like Issa, who ferried our note about meningitis to our program director. I would like to believe that your views have changed, because what you said to us then doesn’t square with the good works and compassionate activities that buffet your Internet presence now, the grateful and respectful homages paid to you in blog posts and newspaper articles. And so I still think of you, a doctor whom I met for fifteen minutes twenty-five years ago, because I still think often of Kenya, and the villages of Mwira, Bungoma, Indangalasia and Koyonzo, all those places where we met families and shared tea and meals with them, immersed in our red-green-yellow world.
Yesterday, one of Timothy's sons sent me an email. He has finished his third year of college and is looking for internships at financial institutions “to get a touch of how the real world is.” And how is it there now, Dr. S., from your point of view? Were we wrong about you? What would you say to girls like us today? Maybe you, like me, know things now that you did not know then.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer Acker is founder and editor in chief of The Common and the author of the debut novel The Limits of the World. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and directs the Literary Publishing Internship and LitFest at Amherst College. She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband. You can find her on Twitter.
Photo credit: Zoe Fisher
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