by Virginia Jama
Why visit Kenya now? One reason was that my husband was working there for an indefinite period. I had lived in nearby Somalia and worked with the Peace Corps there in the 1960s and 1970s and often visited Kenya on the way in and out and on our annual leave. Now, as a semi-retired educational consultant in Queens, I was free to pick up and travel in the summer when schools were closed. My last visit to Kenya 25 years ago was brief. This time, an entire month loomed with nothing much set in the mile-high city of Nairobi.
One day, I hired a taxi and went across town to the fabulous National Museum. The cultural exhibits were modern and informative with many of the tribes of Kenya represented. Outside, the Nairobi River flowed below a fragrant herb garden that had live plants useful for curing malaria, easing childbirth and stopping headaches.
I was passing a group of Kenyan school children when one of their teachers said, “Sit down and have some lunch with us.” They were having meat stew, rice and japatti topped off by Fanta. The teacher, Lydia, told me that their school, the Allomano Children’s School, was created for poor children who might not otherwise have been educated. An elderly Italian nun with them, Sister Jane Irene, told me she had worked for many years as a nurse in Somalia and knew Annelina Tonelli, a saintly lay educator from Italy who worked for years in northern Kenya and Somalia and whom I had met in 1998. Tonelli, founder of a tuberculosis hospital, was shot to death in Borama, northern Somalia, in 2003.
The next week, I called and asked if I could visit their school, north of Nairobi. They were welcoming and suggested that I bring something for the 70 children such as bananas and gave me rough directions to the grounds of Nazareth Hospital, an Italian missionary outfit, towards Limuru up in the Highlands.
Before the appointed day, I hired a reliable taxi driver, George, who knew the area and had taken patients to Nazareth Hospital. George made many stops in misty towns along the way searching for just the right bananas. We passed tea plantations in the hills and flower and vegetable industries in greenhouses. The Samburu “super” in our building back in Nairobi found a gross of pencils with erasers and sharpeners as additional gifts. I visited the third grade and the two younger groups. The children, who sang to me and waved flags they had made, were huddled in warm winter jackets, wool socks and hats in the simple classrooms. All of them walk to school from nearby villages. The kids come speaking their mother tongue, then must learn Swahili, the national language, and then English. Some were immigrants from Uganda whose parents worked on the surrounding tea plantations.
After we stopped for prayer and tea, Sister Jane took me to a low-slung building above the school. There I met eight more sisters of the Consolata Order, most of them long retired but working in the parish nearby. Several had worked in northern Kenya with Somali populations and in Mogadishu. They gave up their rosary time to talk to me. It was an incredible shock to meet them all in this remote place.
I made one more stop at a kindergarten where Lydia worked and bought some jewelry made by her friend Magdalena. On the compound near the kindergarten was a brand new Catholic church! Magdalena and I had to climb on planks over fresh red-brown dirt to get back to the road as workers secured a fence around the church. The previous week, a Catholic church had been attacked in Garissa, northern Kenya, and parishioners killed.
When I got back to Nairobi, I learned that the Consolata Missionary Sisters were very active and respected in Kenya. They serve in missions around the world and maintain American headquarters in Belmont, Mich.
And although I did get to see some of the famous Kenyan wildlife, the visit to Allomano Children’s School on the grounds of Nazareth House and Hospital is what I really remember.