“Brother Clement!” one of the Americans called from the back of the van. “How long have you lived here?”
From where he sat in the front passenger’s seat, Clement could feel all eyes on him including Ejigu’s. He turned around with an amicable smile. “Almost ten years. Is this your first trip overseas?”
“Nope, we’ve been to all parts of the world at least once!” the ruddy-faced man said proudly. “But this is our first trip to Africa.”
“It’s such a beautiful country!” the woman at his side gushed, eyes dancing with delight.
“She means Ethiopia, not the whole continent,” a teenager added, a permanent scowl look on her face. Or was it embarrassment?
Clement hid a smirk. His oldest niece Joselyn was barely in her pre-teens and already wore that expression when her loud-mouthed parents spoke out of turn or embarrassing. His eyes fell on the girl who attempted to wear makeup in this sweltering heat. He could never understand teenagers, even though he was one at some point in life.
She caught him looking at her with a perturbed look and rolled her eyes before looking away. He fought a laugh. This moody teenager reminded him of Darah, and he immediately missed home.
“Brother Clement,” another spoke, drawing him away from his nostalgic thoughts. “Is it always this hot?” the man was practically red in the face and drenched with sweat.
“Oh dear!” his female companion scooted close and began fanning him with the brochure in hand. Her eyes flitted over to Clement. “Does the AC work?”
“Sorry Madam,” Ejigu said before Clement could. “Picked up the old van.”
Barely registering the groans and sighs from the tourists, Clement shifted in his seat and exchanged a quick glance with Ejigu. It was the only van that did not undergo close inspection by the tourist company Ejigu moonlighted with, and the perfect hideout for their newly-acquired guns.
“Jamie, quick take a picture!”
Clement didn’t look to see what they found enthralling; tourists thought everything about a foreign country was interesting. He propped one elbow on the open window and just quietly watched as Ejigu maneuvered the small van along the dusty road. Two new buildings filled his view, their identical steel spindles piercing the blue sky.
“Doesn’t it remind you of Phoenix, honey? Look at that gorgeous mountain.”
Clement propped his head back and closed his eyes. The ride along this road never failed to lull him to sleep; the jostling felt like the sway of a rocking chair and the wind like a soft caress of a mother.
His lips twitched a bitter smile. What mother? He couldn’t remember anything about his childhood, and that was for the best. No good memories were in his early childhood, not until Yonas and Ester Teka came to the foster home one fateful afternoon.
“Brother! Brother!” The panic in the voice and the rough shaking jostled him from the brief nap.
Clement’s eyes snapped open and he glanced once at Ejigu’s perturbed expression. The man wordlessly inclined his head to the front of the car where blue-uniformed men surrounded a car in front. Clement gritted his teeth. Police men.
“What’s happening?” a drowsy voice asked from the backseat. “Border patrol?”
Ejigu managed a smile and looked back to the bewildered tourists. “It’s just the police… random checks.” His smile eased away once he turned around.
Clement noted Ejigu’s hands squeeze the steering wheel and understood the cause of his anxiety.
At the beginning of the year, city-wide violent attacks had taken place due to ethnic-based clashes among the youth. Universities reported fights breaking out among the student population, resulting in major injuring and requiring immediate police involvement. A few of the city precincts had their officers patrol the streets, looking for troublemakers and those intent on disturbing the peace or causing violence. Which meant impromptu car searches were no exception for any resident of the city.
Normal citizens found it a mere nuisance to be interrupted from their drives, but Ejigu’s van had weapons. Trouble of the worst kind awaited them.
The two men exchanged a look and Clement began praying for immediate intervention.
Kibera was nothing she’d ever seen before in her life… well at least apart from what was shown on television. The pungent smells of refuse waste and unwashed bodies was mixed with spices and roasted meat. The cocktail of scents assailed her nostrils and Karen refrained from holding her hand to her nose. Too many people were watching.
A giant housefly buzzed around her face and Karen merely leaned her head back to avoid it from perching on her cheek as its mates did on faces of those in her team. Shonda was not having it, swiping at her unwelcome companion with a heavy hand.
Giggles sounded across the stream of water that trickled right in front of them. Karen sought the beautiful sound and her heart melted. From what resembled a makeshift playhouse, a handful of children watched them openly. She found herself smiling at them. Despite their disheveled appearances, their big button eyes deep-set on dark dusty faces and bright smiles won her heart. They were entirely too precious for words. She wished to cross the stream, talk with them and just love on them.
“ASF for Africa was founded in the early 90s by a Catholic nurse and her family,” said a plump fair-skinned woman with thin blond hair flowing free in the wind. Her bright-green eyes skimmed the group before her. “She came to Uganda first on a sabbatical, very much like the one you’re on right now, before coming here. She discovered a need not met by the Red Cross and other NGOs in the area. The children of the slums were not being cared for past the first few days of free food and water.”
Shonda looked up from her camera and followed Karen’s direction of sight to the children there. She grinned and lifted her camera once more, taking a series of shots. The children ducked from view and Karen frowned at Shonda who was now studying her pictures with a satisfied smile.
“ASF works with a few orphanages and academies in the area, providing the basic education for the children that live here.” The representative for the nonprofit foundation continued, her small hands clasped in front of her. “We cannot reach every single one, and some of the children stay only for the food and water but find no interest in the education.”
Karen frowned and looked at the woman. What child would not be interested in education if it were free?
“Is it because the academies cost what they can’t afford?” Jennifer asked softly, and endeared herself to Karen once again. All eyes turned to the young but seasoned nurse. “From what I know, many children have a sharp mind and an interest in learning anything if given the chance. What do the academies require for a child to enroll?”
A furrow appeared between the representative’s brows. Her green gaze flickered among the attentive crew. “Uh, well it varies… but the highest is 28,000 per year.”
One gasped, another whistled in awe. Karen stiffened.
“Why is it so much?” Shonda asked, distracted momentarily from her camera. “Isn’t that too much to ask from a family living on 2 shillings per day?”
The representative’s lips twitched a dry smile. “Actually, it’s one dollar per day. Unfortunately, the academies bear most of the costs to not only educate but feed the children. Besides, in order to educate, they need teachers who won’t work for free.”
The crowd grew silent in thought. A train whistle sounded in the distance while the carefree children played without a care in the world…
Karen found herself watching a new set of children as they kicked at the dirty stream of water, no doubt ridden with bacteria and critters. She bit her bottom lip, taking in their torn and faded clothing. In spite of their unfavorable conditions, they could still laugh and play. If only there was more she could do than just offer two weeks of attention.
“What can we do?” Jennifer then asked after a moment of silence.
“You’re helping already,” the woman insisted with a gentle smile. “Offering to teach the children and love on them while you’re here is enough. We have more of you coming all year round, so we are not short on help. Trust me, what you are doing is more than we could ever ask.”
“You can ask for more,” Karen said for the first time since arriving at the foundation’s building hours ago.
All eyes turned to look at her. The representative raised a questioning brow. “Pardon?”
“You heard me,” Karen replied, turning to face the woman with a firm expression. “As Jennifer already mentioned, it’s foolish to expect a family living on very little to find 28,000 for an education when their children can be more useful to them on the field, making money.”
A couple team members nodded in agreement. The furrow in the representative’s brow only deepened.
“It doesn’t make sense to ask the parents to foot a bill the organizations are not even willing to pay for,” Karen continued, emboldened by the compassion she felt for these children. Some of them were her niece and nephew’s age. “Of course the children will only stay for the free offerings, I would too even if education proved beneficial and long-lasting… In a place like this, what good is an elementary-school education if nothing else changes?”
The mumbles of consent only deepened the woman’s frown. Her thin lips only tightened, as if no one had voiced such a strong opinion about her foundation’s operations. “When there is little help from the NGOs or the governmental agencies, what else can we do?”
“Ask your guests to do more.”
She didn’t break eye-contact with the representative whose eyes widened in surprise.
“W-what do you mean? Ask them to donate more than their time?”
The consenting stopped suddenly and eyes widened at Karen.
Karen tilted her chin slightly. “That’s precisely what I’m saying.” Then she grabbed hold of her money purse and unzipped it. “How much did you say it was per student?”
When silence answered, Karen looked up from counting the cash in her purse to see the woman’s mouth wide open. Her eyes flitted to the equal gapes among her teammates. “28,000 right? Which is approximately…” Her brow furrowed, doing the mental math.
“2,400 per month!” Jennifer piped in, eyes bright.
Karen nodded and slowly zipped her purse. “Well I don’t have the money in my purse right now but I can transfer the money once we get back to the hotel.”
“W-what are you saying, Miss?” the representative asked in disbelief. “Are you offering to pay a student’s tuition for the year?”
“Not just one student.” Her eyes skipped over to the children she’d spotted earlier, and her lips twitched a smile. Lifting a hand, Karen gestured to the children now playing a form of tag. “Those five.”
A chorus of gasps sounded among the group, and the representative looked as if she’d swallowed an egg whole.
“Me too!” Jennifer said without hesitation. “Put me down for five also.”
Shonda lowered her camera and cleared her throat, looking a bit uncomfortable. “… I’ll do three.”
Karen bit back a smile as a few others volunteered to pay for the children, and she returned her attention to the children playing in the streets. There were many more that needed sponsorship—and an elementary education was only the first step. After that, they’d need secondary education and mentorship all throughout their lives. Their parents and their environment needed lifelong support, which Karen and her teammates couldn’t afford to provide on their own… but at least this was a start.
For the first time since she arrived here in Nairobi, Karen felt as if she was doing exactly what she’d been born to do. And that was the best feeling in the world.
It was their turn to be checked and Clement had not stopped praying. He could feel the tension in waves from Ejigu’s side of the car but kept his face forward as the two uniformed men approached the car.
One on the driver’s side bent and peered into the car. His gaze swept over the tourists in the backseat. “Who are these?”
“Americans,” Ejigu answered in their native tongue, keeping a smile on his face.
“Hello officers!” one of the Americans greeted the men.
Clement clenched his teeth; their audacious greeting may backfire if these men were not in the mood.
The officer grunted his reply and lifted his eyes to Clement. One brow arched suspiciously. “And him?”
“My pastor,” Ejigu answered. “A local church near Bichena.”
With no indication that he understood, the officer narrowed his eyes at Clement who maintained a placid expression. Any strange twitch or shift of gaze could have the officers begin an unnecessary search, one they could not afford at this present time. They had already wasted enough of it carting these tourists to their hotel. By the time they reached Bichena, it would be late in the day.
The car was tense in silence as the first officer studied all the passengers in the car. Clement couldn’t even shift his gaze to watch the second man circling the car, for fear of attracting suspicion.
Then a voice from the back of the car called out to his comrade, alerting both Ejigu and Clement who understood the words spoken in a harsh Amharic.
The first looked back at Ejigu. “Open the trunk.”
Ejigu stiffened visibly and the first officer straightened. Clement gritted his teeth as the both officers convened at the back of the car. They pounded on the hood impatiently.
With a nervous glance at Clement, Ejigu reluctantly unlocked the trunk. He also drew in a sharp breath and clenched the steering wheel.
Tense in his seat, Clement prayed… although there was no telling what would come out of it. God did not mess around with illegal smuggling of weapons, even if it was for a good cause.
“Oh my God, what’s going on?” one of the Americans exclaimed in horror, shifting around in her seat.
“Sit still!” Clement barked, glancing out of the rear-view mirror to watch both officers shifting the luggage around.
“Are they allowed to do that?!” another protested, turning his head to watch them unzip their suitcases.
Of course in the U.S., it was highly unacceptable but with the city in a state of emergency, the police officers were given special authority to search, arrest and disarm as needed. Clement did not care for the Americans’ sensibilities as he did the discovery of weapons hidden in the floor of the van. He strengthened his desperate prayer and waited with baited breath.
“Reggie! Oh my gosh, Reggie!”
Both Ejigu and Clement jerked around despite their attempts to stay still. One of the tourists, the one whose face was like a tomato, was now slumped over. His wife, panicked and distraught, was attempting to keep his head up. Her friends surrounded her, attempting to help also.
“Please help me!! Help my husband!”
Clement glanced once at the police officers rifling through the luggage and without hesitation, climbed over to their side. “What’s the matter with him?” he crouched beside the unconscious man. One hand moved to his forehead; his skin was as hot as it looked.
“He’s been complaining of chest pains since we left yesterday,” his wife replied, tears streaming down her own red face. “Oh God, please help me! He’s all I have!” She moaned, ignoring her friends’ attempts to comfort her.
Just then, the door slid open and one of the police officers glared down at them. “What are you doing?” he demanded in his native tongue.
Clement glared right back, no longer caring what they’d discovered in the trunk or the gun strapped on the officer’s hip. “This man is dying,” he said in perfect Amharic. “We need to get him to the hospital now.”