Sho sho’s house was the Africa I’d been looking for. For two months, I’d been living and volunteering at the Expanding Opportunities orphanage in Mangu, Kenya. The orphanage had given me a sturdy house with electricity where I’d been eating oatmeal and drinking sodas and generally being very comfortable. My hosts and their friends owned cars and cell phones and had plenty to eat, and that was all very nice. But when Bev Stone, the director of Expanding Opportunities, asked if anyone wanted to accompany her “into the bush” to pick up a new kid who was living with an impoverished, very elderly woman named Sho sho, I jumped at the chance.
This child, I later learned, was the great-grandson of Sho sho. The child’s mother, a relative of the couple acting as “parents” at the orphanage, had left him with Sho sho when he was born, then disapeared. Sho sho was, according to Bev, nearing a hundred years old, and was also supporting her mentally challenged daughter and her four kids. Their only income was from vegetables in a small garden.
We drove most of the way to Sho sho’s house, until we got to a small set of shops in between two large cow pastures. There we left the white, just-washed Toyota Corolla and crossed the street to a small dirt path running perpendicular to the road. We hired two local men to carry the presents we’d brought for Sho sho, and they took off in front, carrying bags full of cooking oil, flour and juice. The path brought us through a thin tree line, and then suddenly we were on a ledge with a valley the size of the Atlantic expanding in front of us. Small hills bubbled up across the landscape, dotted with huts, cow fields and farms. Bev pointed to the nearest hill. “See that little house on the top?” she said. “That’s where she lives.” We set off down the slope, pausing periodically to take pictures of chameleons on the nearby bushes as we made our way through the skinny, dusty paths, totally unfit for any automobile.
Down the valley and up the hill to Grandmother’s house we went, eventually reaching the little homestead that Bev had pointed out. Two toddlers ran to greet us but they grew more cautious as we got closer. One, a little boy, was wearing tattered sneakers that revealed his toes and a grime-colored shirt. “That must be him,” Bev said. “He’s about the age Penny’s son would be.”
Sho sho’s daughter ushered us into the sitting room. The space was bare, except for a wooden table and some chairs that were lacking their cushions. The walls were insulated with cardboard and decorated with chalk drawings, presumably created by the older children. On the door of the threadbare room was a benevolent greeting: “Welcome all visitors in this house. Welcome again and again.” Looking around the room, I was surprised by how clean it was. The building housed five children, yet there were no toys or dishes strewn about, no messes shoved into the corners. It would dawn on me later on that the kids kept the house clean simply because they had no possessions with which to mess it up.
We were told by Sho sho’s daughter that her mother had gone to the river to get water. We trooped down the thin dirt path that had been dug into the side of the hill by years of foot traffic. The river was in a relatively low area, so we saw it from above before we reached it. A small group of women were gathered, trying to scoop up what water was left after the two-year drought. As they finished filling their twenty-liter drums, they hoisted them onto their backs, throwing straps around their foreheads to hold them in place, and climbed up the hill.
Sho sho came last. Before strapping her jug on, she stopped to shake our hands, and I understood that Bev had not been exaggerating when she’d said Sho sho was almost 100 years old. Her skin had weathered to tar paper and her eyes had taken refuge deep in their sockets. Standing about four and a half feet tall, Sho sho hoisted the water, which, at 40 pounds, must have been half her weight, onto her back and started toward the house, indicating for us to go in front of her. As we returned to the house, Sho sho carried the water all the way, defiantly refusing help.
Our visit at the house was brief, as Sho sho was uncomfortable with the attention that the presence of white people drew from the neighbors. We declined her customary offer of tea, not sure of the water’s cleanliness, and quickly discussed the logistics of Sho sho bringing Brian, as we learned his name was, to the orphanage. Then we were off, hiking back up to the road, Sho sho walking with us, wiping tears out of her eyes.
Brian came to live with us a few days later. I felt proud to be part of an organization that could bring this kid away from the ugliness of hunger and inadequate shelter. Yet I kept thinking of those chalk drawings on the walls and the doors, and the way Sho sho had offered us tea, although she and her kids were hungry. Her family was beautifully generous and loving, if impoverished, and I was sorry Brian wouldn’t grow up running through those dirt paths with his cousins. But real life doesn’t have simple solutions. I’d found the real Africa, and it was just as complicated as it should have been.
_Saima Sidik spent six months living in Mangu, Kenya in 2006 and she hopes to return there soon.