Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Child of Africa: Story of an Mtoto Mzuri (Good Child), Told in Old, Old Photos.

My oldest son, Greg, has a very special heritage that makes him different from I would say 98.8% of his fellow Americans. He was born in Africa on April 10, 1964 in a little 12-bed clinic in Kisumu, Kenya. That's him playing the drums on the cover of a little book I just did about Greg's African heritage.
After nearly a year of our making sure he slept under nets to avoid the parasite-carrying sting of the anopheles mosquito, Greg got bitten. He came down with malaria. The same British doctor who had ushered him into this world, Dr. Ian Maxwell, saved his life. Dr. Maxwell got him the quinine he needed.

After two years in Kenya, his mom and I carted Greg off to West Africa, where after six months he came down with dengue fever. An Indian doctor in Maiduguri, Northern Nigeria, just below the Sahara, told us that he had "growing pains." We knew better. He was severely dehydrated.

Greg and his mom got on the next plane to the U.S. where he received the medical care that he needed. I followed a few months later. Before the age of three, Greg had contracted and survived two of the world's deadliest diseases, malaria and dengue fever. Today these diseases still kill millions of Africans every year.

Sheer survival is surely the most important part of Greg's Africa heritage. But there is so much more. He is truly a child of Africa, riding in his basket in the back seat of our 1961 Volkswagon Bug, bumping over dirt roads, having monkeys jump on the car and peer down at him from the roof, playing with African children whose dark skin made no difference to him whatsoever.

Naturally, he remembers none of it.

I went to Kenya  as a teacher with the Teachers for East Africa program of Columbia Teachers College.  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 didn't know any better.

I did know enough to bring a camera, however, a little point-and-shoot Instamatic.  Everywhere we went, I clicked away with the little Instamatic. Back in the U.S., we turned the photos into slides and little black and white prints and put them in a little box. There they mostly sat for close to a half century.

There sat also the photographic story of how Gregory Francis Pollock started off  life in a faraway land and culture that could not be more different from our own. It is certainly an unusual story.   Afraid that the story of Greg's African beginnings would vanish forever, I decided to make sure that this would not happen.

First, I retrieved the slides, nearly 200 of them and had the best of them, about 75, digitized and put on a CD. I had this done at the Photo Shop at Wal-Mart, which I highly recommend. The service was excellent and the price  reasonable. I don't own Wal-Mart stock and I'm not being paid to say this.

Then I sat down with my niece Linda , who works as a consultant with Creative Memories. The company has all kinds of creative and exciting ways for people to capture cherished memories. She can be reached through her website. She is paying me big bucks to push Creative Memories. I wish. Linda and I are shown below.

We started with manuscript pages which I had organized into chapters such as Wild Africa, Exploring Africa, People of Africa, Living in Africa. For each chapter, I had taped suggested slides and photos on a rough layout and made notes on content.

For the cover, I had a montage of four photos of Greg as a baby. In the kindest possible way, Linda said that while the multiple photos could work, a single striking photo might be more compelling. Fingers flying around her computer, she quickly demonstrated how each would look. Her single-photo cover was heads above my montage.

For the cover type, I had selected a nice respectable Times New Roman type. "Yes, that is a nice looking type," Linda said sweetly, "but let me show you something else that you might also like." Out of probably hundreds of possible choices, she picked one and showed me the title in it.

Not only did I like it, I loved it. I loved it with all my heart. I loved her for showing it to me. I could not imagine a type that said "Africa" as perfectly as this type did.

"Do you want to look at any other possibilities?," she asked.

"Absolutely not," I said, ready to fight to keep her suggestions.

And so it went, over the course of 35 or 40 hours of work over a couple of months, the little, 31-page hardcover photo book took shape. Linda took my ideas and built on them and refined them.

With the photo editing tools of her Creative Memories software, she methodically brought decades-old images to life. She cropped, sharpened, lightened or darkened, rubbed out distracting spots.

My good wife Barbara sat in on a number of the work sessions. She's a perfectionist. (Yes, I know, what's she doing with me?). She applied a sharp eye to every page layout and photo placement. She proofread every word. She raised questions.

We had lively debates, ending almost always with me losing two to one. That's okay, I said to myself. I'll  be able to blame Barbara and Linda for anything not perfect while taking full credit for everything else. How else is a flawed creature to survive in a competitive world?

With all of us crunched for time, we had to schedule lots of short work meetings, often just an hour or two. It's amazing how much can be accomplished by simply filling in little gaps in the day with concentrated work. No one said "I don't have time." We made the time.

It helped that we had an important deadline. We were determined to get the book done so Greg would have it in hand  for his birthday on April 10. We wanted him to be able to take it with him to Florida where he was going to celebrate his birthday with childhood friends and play in an ice hockey tournament.

Barbara and I presented the book to him and his wife Kelly on March 26, in plenty of time for him to take it with him to Florida.

This child of Africa has come a long way since he fought off two of the world's most lethal diseases and bounced around the dirt roads of Kenya in a basket. Now he plays competitive ice hockey on a surface, ice, that is strange and alien where he comes from. If his teammates need convincing that he is a true native of Africa, he can show them "Child of Africa."

Greg's African heritage has now been captured in a handsome hardcover photo book and  no one will ever be able to take it away from him. And now, boys and girls, instead of Toxic Mother III and reading lots of depressing words, let's take a breather and just mostly -- look.

Let's look at baby pictures of a Child of Africa.

                                     Greg explored Africa in this basket.

Above Greg's mom holds him with the magnificent Mount Kilimanjaro in the background. The photo was taken in the yard of American teacher friends we were visiting in Arusha, Kenya. Today the whitecap of the famous mountain is all but gone.

 Greg's mom holds him on the Kisumu-Kakamega road at a sign marking the equator.

  Greg gets a close-up of Victoria Falls, one of Kenya's great natural wonders and a major tourist attraction.

This is a page from "Child of Africa." The copy above left says that the alligator was photographed on a boat trip down the Nile. It asks: "How close did your dad have to be to get this shot of a racing elephant? Too close."

This is another page from "Child of Africa." The old man at left, or Mzee in Swahili, is holding a shilling (about fourteen cents then) I gave him for posing. Above is a Kenyan teacher friend. Beneath him is a Masai warrior and two shy girls in tribal dress. In those days, Americans were respected and welcome.

Is this a photo of a child  in a plush Connecticut suburb? No, it's Greg playing in an upscale suburb of Nairobi where we were visiting friends. The residents were almost all European, or white.  In such neighborhoods, the only Africans seen there were household help and gardeners.

Here Greg plays with a couple of his little African friends.  One of them feels his arm to see if it feels any different from his own.

Greg is shown here with his ahah, or babysitter, Philamena.  A member of the Luo tribe, she worked for us for nearly two years.  On a teacher's salary, we could afford a cook and a gardener as well. That is the 1961 VW Bug that took us all over East Africa.

Here Greg is shown recuperating from malaria at the little clinic in Kisumu. There an English doctor, Dr. Ian Maxwell, saved Greg's life. When this picture was taken, Greg, an early walker, was so weak he could not stand up.

The last page of "Child of Africa." Linda suggested the photo and also the date. "Years from now, people will wonder when this book was done," she said.  "Now they will always know."

The child of Africa is now all grown up.  Today Greg lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Kelly. They will celebrate their 20th anniversary in October. He is a regional manager for Pizza Hut. Responsible for dozens of stores, he travels a lot. He is shown here with "Child of Africa," on the day I gave it to him.

At the moment, he is on his way to Florida to visit childhood friends from growing up in Middletown, CT and to play in a highly competitive ice hockey tournament. He's healthy, in shape, and says he is at the top of his game. He is all psyched up to score goals.

He has high hopes of doing well in the ice hockey tournament with teams made up of former professional and college players. Having lost 30 pounds and doing strength exercises twice a day, he may be in the best shape of his life.

Skate hard, Greg. Skate for the open space. Keep your head up. Head-man the puck. In the corners, own the space around the puck. The goals will come. (Hey, can't a dad give his kid a little advice now and then? He's only 46, for God's sake.)

He no longer travels by basket, though it is still available should he wish to revist his early -- and I mean early, early days -- as a Child of Africa. After I gave him the book, Greg stopped by his mom's in Middletown to see if she still had his old basket.  She did. The two of us show off the famous basket below.

Happy Birthday, Greg!
                                                                                                 Love, Dad


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