Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, September 19, 2004
by Susan Ives
The night Nick left Kenya, he shot a couple rolls of film. My brothers and sister, he says. The charcoal brazier next to the chair his brother Jacob sleeps on. That’s Nick, a skinny kid posing on a muddy village street.
His visa came through in the nick of time, he jokes, and he left for America the next morning, a roll of undeveloped film in his pocket.
This is a “bud’s-eye view,” Nick explains, passing around a photo of his village. I figure out that Kenyans don’t pronounce their “r’s.” Bird’s-eye view. He points to a refugee camp in the distance. They are Sudanese — Nubians — moved here by the British in 1945. They don’t have Kenyan citizenship even though they have lived here for almost 60 years. It’s complicated, Nick says.
This is the water tank. It serves the 500 families in the village. These are the latrines, two of them, side by side, that serve the same 500 families.
Cindi, Meredith and I recoil in horror. What are they like inside? A dirt floor and a hole, Nick says. Suddenly the slow leak in the hall bathroom doesn’t seem very important.
I’ve been in the Washington suburbs for a week, helping my friend Cindi move. We’re having tea with Nick and Cindi’s friend, Meredith. The condo is still filled with boxes of stuff we haven’t managed to fit into her new 1,400-square-foot home.
Nick flew to Washington with the clothes on his back and a bundle that fit under the seat. Welcome to America.
Meredith received one of those pesky e-mails from Africa: I am the widow of the former transportation minister of Nigeria who stashed millions in a Swiss bank account. If you will help me get to it by putting up $10,000 I’ll split the fortune with you. I delete a dozen every day.
This one sounded different. I am a chemistry student in Nairobi, Nick wrote, and all I want is an American pen pal.
Meredith wrote back. I won’t give you money, she said, but if you need a mentor, a coach, a friend — I can do that.
They hit it off, a 50-something woman from Silver Spring, Md., and a bright-eyed teenager from the outskirts of Nairobi.
She helped him get a student visa and collected frequent flier miles to get him to America. Meredith has spent the past few summers working at a conference center in upstate New York, and she got Nick a job there, too. A men’s group from a church took him on a shopping spree at Goodwill to get him some clothes. He’s put on 32 pounds since he arrived.
He shows us a photo of his mother and her produce stand, a simple wooden frame with a ragged burlap canopy, bananas hanging from the struts, wedged in among mud and wattle buildings. She financed it by selling cell phone minutes. It supports a family of six.
The University of Nairobi is the most prestigious in Kenya, Nick brags. The chemistry department doesn’t have a lab. He wants to be a doctor and worries his lack of hands-on experience may hurt his chances of getting into medical school.
Nick returns to Kenya in 10 days. He has an idea to start a recycled computer business with his brothers. He’ll be back at the university in January. I have no doubt that the next time we meet he will be an M.D., and a darn good one.
As we load the tea cups into the dishwasher, Cindi and I talk about risk. The risk of stepping on an airplane in Nairobi and trusting that a kind woman will meet you in America. The risk of opening your heart and home to an unknown teenager from Africa. And the miracle of a happy ending.
We could do this, too, we say. Share our abundance, give one remarkable young person a window on a larger world.
We rip the tape off another carton of stuff. These must be the sheets for the guest bedroom. Back in Kenya, Nick’s brother Jacob sleeps in the chair near the charcoal burner.