Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Africa, Africa: Why Africa is Always on My Mind.

Recently in line at the Greendale YMCA in Worcester, Massachusetts where I play tennis, I noticed a new guy behind the counter. He was black and he had an accent that I immediately recognized.

When my turn came, with a big smile on my face, I said, "Harbari." (a standard Swahili greeting in Kenya roughly meaning, "How are you doing?")

His mouth flew open. His eyes looked like they were going to pop out of his head. Then came a huge smile, and I mean HUGE.

"Mzuri, mzuri sana," he replied in Swahili ("good, very good").

"Asante," I said. "Asante Sana." ("thank you, thank you very much")

Since this is America and not Africa, I then reverted to English. "I used to teach in Kisumu, Kenya. Nice to meet you."

 "Wow, I was born and raised in Kenya."

I told him that I had taught in Kisumu for two years. I also told him that my oldest son, Gregory, was born in Kenya in 1964, making him a dual citizen of Kenya and the United States. 

"I would say we have a lot to talk about, right?"

Mouth open, wide-eyed, he nodded his head. We shook hands, exchanged names, and email addresses, and he agreed to arrange a time for me to hear his story. That will be an upcoming blog.  Below is a photo of Kimani Thumbi behind the counter at the Y:

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Below left is a photo of Greg with his ayah Philomena and a little playmate in Kisumu, Kenya. Below right is a photo of Greg and me at a recent Pollock family get-together at my home in Worcester, Massachusetts. We look like brothers--agree?  I'm on the left.

Immediately after graduate school, I was accepted into the Teachers for East Africa Program (TEEA) of Columbia Teacher's College. Soon after, Phyllis and I went off to Kenya as newlyweds. Fresh from college and with an intrepid new bride, I was going to save the world. I would do good. I would spread civilization. I would make friends for America. I was young and naive and I didn't know any better.

We spent two years in  Kenya. It was the greatest learning experience of my life. First, I saw real poverty. Everywhere I went I saw children naked, walking with bare feet, often with distended bellies, a sign of malnutrition.

Just outside of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, were perhaps a million black African souls existing in Africa's largest slum, Kibera. It was a mass of shanties without electricity, running water, sewage, and health care. Life here was short and brutal.

But, newly freed from decades of British colonial rule, Kenyans throughout the country were  celebrating independence by singing and dancing in the streets. It was a happy, optimistic time for Kenyans with their own new government under Jomo Kenyatta or the "Mzee" (old man). 

Several times I was at packed Kenyatta rallies where he stood tall in his multi-colored beaded cap, fly wisk in hand, and evoked roars of  "Harambee" (work together) and "Uhuru na Kazi" (freedom and work). Sometimes I was one of just a few "Mzungus" (whites), but I felt perfectly safe.

In Kenya, America and Americans were deeply respected. I felt it everywhere. For example, in 1963 I was in a little village -- the only American there -- getting my VW serviced when news broke of President Kennedy's assassination.

One Kenyan after another came up to me to express their sorrow. Each one extended an open hand, bowed, expressed their sorrow and slowly backed away. Here I was, me, representing the United States of America!

Despite widespread poverty and homelessness, Kenya was rapidly becoming an important regional and transportation hub as its tourist industry began growing in leaps and bounds. Kenya would soon become East Africa's biggest economy and an island of calm, avoiding bloody conflicts that ravished Sudan, Rwanda, Somalia, and Uganda.

Following are some photos from our time in Kenya.

Above are Phyllis and Greg in Kenya with two African women. We were driving our 1961 VW Bug along a dirt road in Masai country when we saw them. On the spur of the moment, we pulled over. Gesturing with my little Instamatic, I asked in bad Swahili if I could take their picture.
They smiled. Greg patted the goat without bothering to ask. Truthfully, Phyllis and I both felt safer with African tribal people than with strangers in American cities. These were the days when Europeans, what all white people were called, were greatly respected. Now Kenyan cities are as dangerous as American ones can be.

And here is a photo of me leaving the school with books under my arm. And what a teaching experience! I have never seen such eager students. You walk into the classroom and the whole class jumps to its feet.

"Morning, Sir!" they shout in unison.

Then they sit. All eyes are on the mzungu mwalimu (white teacher). With notebooks open and pencils at ready, they are ready and eager to learn. And you had better teach them so they can pass the overseas exam from England -- or else.

I'll never forget the time I was telling a story about life in America. A student in the back row, very tall and older than the others, jumped to his feet.

"Sir!" he all but shouted. "What you are telling us is not in the syllabus!"

He sat down with pencil at ready to take notes.

"Quite right," I said in my best faux British accent. "So sorry. Yes, I'll get on with it. Thank you."

 I never again strayed from the syllabus.

When I was not teaching, we drove everywhere. One time we drove all the way to the coastal city of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean. On the way, we stopped to say "jumbo" ("hello") to an elderly man on the side of the road. I gave him a shilling and asked if I could take his picture. He readily agreed.


When we saw a couple of African girls hiking along the road, we again pulled over. They were just as curious about us as we were of them. After Swahili greetings and giving them a few shillings, they willingly let us photograph them.

In Mombasa, we enjoyed the beach for a few days. In the photo below, I'm on the beach playing with Greg.


Have an idea why Africa is always on my mind? Oh the memories!

So long and keep moving.

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