Notes from the In Between

cowsThere I was: on mission, in the west of Kenya near Lake Victoria, living at an all-boys high school, speaking neither Kiswahili nor Dhluo, and not quite sure what was next. It is interesting to look back through my journal which is filled with all manner of reflections, notes about an adventure for the day, but I have no distinct memory of having any enduring task that carried me from day to day. I did help out in teaching mathematics occasionally. The Form 3 and Form 4 (that means, 11th and 12th grade) math teacher had recently started a family and the first child had many health issues which took him away from the school on an recurring but irregular basis. You might ask how could I teach without common language skills? Mathematics has its own language of symbols and signs, many of the key words are in English, and with a little imagination and waving of hands, it was possible to get through a class. There was also a student available who could translate, but as I recall in the Form 3 class the translator was not the best of mathematicians. Not sure what was lost in translation.

But as I mentioned, the journal records an “adventure” or two. Two of the adventures involved cows. OK, one was not so adventurous, but I did learn to milk a cow. I quickly climbed the skill rankings to “not horrible” which is the minimum level at which the cow didn’t seem to mind. Of course, this just raises the question of how I got involved with cows. In short, the high school was a boarding school and had its own farm.

High school was not universal in Kenya. There were a limited number of schools – all of which required entrance exams; it was quite competitive to gain admittance. Some of the schools were government run, some were government supported, and some were sponsored (e.g. religious organizations, individual sponsor, etc.) and all had varying levels of fees. If you were super lucky you could walk to school. If you were lucky you could take local transportation to school. But most, especially outside the larger cities, boarded at school. If your mind has conjured up a picture of an English countryside boarding school, you can dismiss that image…except for the uniform. Blazers were required….for the students, not the cows.

Many of the boarding schools – especially in the countryside – also operated farms of some kind. The school at which I was living grew corn, beans, and collard greens; they also had chickens and cows. Some of the cows were for milking, but some were raised to feed the students. The cows were pastured on a rotating basis through several of the soccer/football fields. Football is perhaps the national sport of Kenya, along with basketball.

It made sense to “dual purpose” the fields, but it was left to the Form 1 and 2 students to… shall we say, ensure that the “calling cards” of the cows were either removed or leveled out so that the field was suitable for a football match. Nonetheless it was still a pasture and there were cows to support. One of the things they need is salt. For pasture-feed cattle that required the occasional block of salt be available to them.

Part of the adventure was going to Kisii town to acquire said block of salt. More on shopping in Kisii town in a later post. But with the salt block acquired we returned to school and here’s where the adventure begins. At this point in the story I would ask you to re-imagine the setting as at a western cattle ranch. All the old grizzled cow hands are standing around the corral, one booted foot up on the stockyard railing, their cowboy hats rakishly tilted back on their heads – all except the tenderfoot, the new guy, the city boy. It is to the latter that the rancher suggests the tenderfoot take the salt block and go drop it out in the middle of the corral. Ever wanting to be helpful, off goes the tenderfoot with said salt block in tow in a gunny sack. As he wanders deeper into the unknown the cowboys are already grinning in anticipation.

As I got further into the field, the cattle picked up their heads. I thought it was simply glancing at the human passing through. Little did I know that they could sense what I was carrying. In my memory as their heads picked up, their eyes got larger, and they turned towards me. Their slow gait became a full on gallop and I was standing at ground zero of a full-on cattle stampede.

Emptying the contents of the gunny sack on the ground, I quickly moved away. In an instant it was obvious that their focus remained on the salt block at “ground zero.” If you are still imagining the western cattle corral, this is the point at which the grizzled ranch hands are roaring with laughter, eyes tearing up, bent over in joyous knots as the tenderfoot hightails it out of harm’s way.

The salt block didn’t stand a chance. It’s in-the-field life span was less than 5 minutes.

The next time I was asked, the now grizzled tenderfoot in me, just pushed my imaginary cowboy hat to a rakish tilt, hauled the salt block out to meet its fate, and calmly walked away from the impending stampede and carnage.

And that was one adventure while on mission.

1 thought on “Notes from the In Between

  1. What a great story! Looking forward to your full blown publication, makes for an interesting book.
    Thank you for sharing.

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