East Africa: Journal of a Return. Part 1

For a long time I toyed with the idea of going to my beloved East Africa one more time. This year it happened; from mid-September to mid-October I was in Kenya and Uganda. Thanks to my Mill Hill colleagues it was possible to visit all the places where I have ever lived and worked. It has become a beautiful, educational and rewarding journey.

It was almost 20 years ago that I was in Kenya and therefore in Nairobi. I was amazed to see that so many new buildings have been built in the city. Huge tower blocks, shopping malls, road expansion and even sidewalks! Traffic now seems to be better organized and I found it less hectic than before.

I wondered whether all those external innovations could actually mean development in the sense of a better life, from which all people could benefit. Because next to a brand new apartment building you will find the same shabby houses with broken doors, crooked roofs and peeled off paint. Beggars and disabled people still sit along the streets begging for their livelihood, etc. etc.

The ingenuity is still there! Groups of young people stand at traffic lights. As soon as the light turns red, they perform acrobatic feats for the queues of waiting cars. Just before the light turns green again, they pass the row of cars with their cap!

The shoe shiners have also become more creative. The customers can sit next to each other on a platform in an easy chair, the shoeshine boy no longer has to get down on his knees to polish and the customers have a nice overview of the whole scene and the company of each other.

Kisumu has also changed completely at first glance! Huge buildings, tower blocks, offices, a university and luxury supermarkets, which apparently go bankrupt very regularly and are restarted by others. Out of curiosity, I entered a few. I needed a backpack and went to see the price. Boy what a luxury they radiate; I have never seen such large stores at home in the Netherlands!

At least 10 counters where you can pay for your groceries, large shelves with all kinds of stuff, from a box of matches to a refrigerator! Unfortunately, the many shelves only have articles in the front line, so the stock is not large. Many employees walk around idle, because customers are nowhere to be seen! I ended up buying a backpack on the side of the road for less than half the supermarket price. Now I understand why so many supermarkets go bankrupt! It’s just too expensive for the common man.

For a few hours I wandered through the city looking for street children without finding any. I asked several people and they told me that street youth are no longer allowed in the city center. So by all appearances there are no more street children!

The parish church of Milimani and the surrounding area, which has been staffed by Mill Hill for many years, has also undergone a transformation. A huge yellow and white arch with large letters: ‘Archdiocese of Kisumu’ painted on it leads you to the courtyard, the parish house and a brand new chapel. That chapel in particular shines with all kinds of the gold-colored decorations, a polished tile floor and all kinds of other dazzling attractions. Not exactly inviting for some silence or prayer. Stunned by all these innovations I no longer felt at home.

In Nanga, the parish of Gerry Kraakman, I experienced the familiar friendly atmosphere. Gerry has built a few churches in the out-stations and now he is working on a social hall and immediately builds an indoor “apartment” in it, so that he (or his successor) can continue to live with dry feet next time when Lake Victoria bursts its banks. The lake had flooded enormously at the beginning of the year and Gerry needed boots in the house to stay dry.

The former Mill Hill guesthouse is now called Hotel MillsView. That also takes some getting used to and deep swallowing with all those luxurious looking rooms and even a (tiny) swimming pool. But as a money-generating project, it appears to have been successful and is providing Mill Hill with a stable income.

Corry and friend

The regional house is still the same with the familiar faces of the cook, domestic help and gardener. What a reunion that was!

On the way to Luanda, I suddenly heard my name called through the open window of the car! What a surprise: there was Daniel, one of the street kids I met in 1999 as one of the first. He still uses the same self-made wheelchair because of an amputated leg. Only I thought I could see that he’s now missing a piece of his second leg too. He is now a grown man, but still has the same happy smile and optimism. What a nice reunion that was!

Corry van den Bosch MHM

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