Jan 052012

After a bout of diarrhea during the night, having slipped and fallen in the ‘choo’, or pit latrine, causing him to vomit in his lap, then falling in the mud outside trying to get back to his shack to wash, Rye tells us – ‘My pants were so nasty that I took them off and left them crumpled outside the front door to Dan’s shack (where he was staying)…
My ROTC training had taught me how to pack lightly, and I had fit all of my clothes, including three pairs of cargo pants, into my dad’s old duffel bag. I had already tossed one pair of cargo pants in a dump after having slipped and fallen into a sump of sewage. When I told Salim (a Kenyan friend) about the incident, I expected him to laugh at the thought of a ‘mzungu’ (white person) slipping into a sump, but he didn’t. Instead, he told me in a serious voice that I should have cleaned the pants and given them to a street child if I was too squeamish to wear them. I thought about the crumpled pants outside and decided I would clean them up later.’
After being out for the day, Rye recounts ‘My pants were nowhere to be seen by the time I returned to Dan’s shack.
”Excuse me,” I asked my first neighbor, a mother with four children, “I think I’ve lost my pants. Do you know where they are?”
The woman tried to contain a giggle. “Sorry, Omosh (Rye’s Swahili nickname), I don’t know.”
I stepped to the next shack and I received the same reaction. Little did I know that the expression to ‘lose your pants’ was also a popular way of saying “gone nuts.”
The last shack was in the least desirable location. It sat adjacent to a small area used by all of the compound’s residents to shower and urinate. I was curious about who lived there. A neighbor had told me there was a fourteen-year-old girl named Vanessa, though I had never seen or heard her. Whoever lived in this final room was unlikely to know where my pants were, but I knocked anyway.
An old, wrinkled grandmother cracked the door open. She stood a little over four feet tall and had a thin patch of curly white hair. Her face looked like leather. She didn’t move as I greeted her and explained my predicament. After a long pause, she opened the door fully and gestured for me to enter with a slight movement of her hand.
The grandmother’s ten-by-ten was even barer than Ali’s shack (the most humble one Rye had come across). Two faded ‘kangas’ (brightly colored sheets with Swahili aphorisms which were used as dresses, satchets, baby wraps, wall decorations, and room dividers) divided the space into halves. My half had nothing but a stool and a paraffin lamp.
“Vanessa cleaned your pants,” the grandmother said in Swahili. “The pants, they are here.”
When she pulled back one of the ‘kangas’, I thought I was seeing a ghost. A girl stood motionless with my folded pants in her stick-thin arms. She was missing chunks of hair. The skin clung to the bones in her face as if she were a skeleton. A dark, sleeveless slip hung between the bend in her slight shoulders and slender neck. The grandmother took the folded pants from her and handed them to me.
“Nimeshukuru sana,” I said. “I’m grateful.”
Vanessa slowly lowered her arms.
“I’m Omondi but people call me Omosh.”
Her mouthed twitched as if she wanted to smile but couldn’t. I extended my hands and took a step forward, cupping her palm into mine. Her skin felt like a hot iron. Every movement must have caused her pain. I didn’t want to be the source of any more discomfort, though I had to ask why she did it. Why did she go out of her way to clean my pants? What motivated her?
The words came softly. Her lips hardly moved. “Kwa sababu naweza.”
It knocked the wind out of me. “Because I can.” Vanessa didn’t expect anything in return apart from perhaps the good feeling of having done something that was appreciated. There were no more words. I fought to hold back the tears as I stood there looking into her beautiful eyes, eyes that conveyed everything as they rose unnaturally from her sockets – the fear and the pain, the love and the hope, the hope, the hope despite it all, the hope despite her body losing a battle against a silent thing they called ‘dudu’, “the bug.” It was an invisible curse that she did nothing in her short life to invite, that no child ever did, but that came and could not be stopped.
“Because I can,” she had said.
A week later Vanessa died of AIDS. Her body was removed from Kibera in a wheelbarrow and buried in a communal grave in Nairobi.
That night after Vanessa’s body had been taken away I sat on the edge of Dan’s lumpy mattress and tried to ignore the sounds of Kibera:  the piercing ululations of night funerals, rats squeaking, babies crying, coughing, wheezing, snoring, the wind whistling. I was wearing the pants she had cleaned. My head throbbed. The rubber band sensation pulled my chest apart. I cried. I craved silence.’
Excerpt from the summary of “It Happened on the Way to War:  A Marine’s Path to Peace” By Rye Barcott, Chapter 4
In 2000, Rye Barcott spent part of his summer living in ten-by-ten-foot shacks in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. He was a twenty-year-old college student heading into the Marines, and he sought to better understand ethnic violence – something he would likely face in uniform. Barcott learned Swahili and listened to young people talk about how they survived amidst poverty he had never imagined existed.

 Posted by on 01/05/2012 Think on These Things  Add comments