A unique benefit of visiting a country as a volunteer tourist is meeting the people of the nation in their own environments both at work and in their homes.
One of those special people is our friend Thomas Moritim. John met Thomas in 2009 on his second trip leading students in Kenya. Thomas was the principal of the elementary school in Pimbinyet, Kenya. John and Thomas became fast friends and we are still in contact with him today.
Thomas is one of those wonderful, open individuals whose smile literally lights up a room. As a result of their relationship, every time John has been to Kenya (sometimes with me tagging along), Thomas has sought us out. Whether we connect in Nairobi or a street corner in Mulot, Thomas hops on his motorcycle to be sure to have a visit with John or both of us.
Our trip to Oloosiyoi in 2010 was no exception. Thomas knew we were in country and drove to Oloosiyoi to see us on the day we were travelling past Pimbinyet. Talk about getting your wires crossed! As Thomas is riding cross-country to try and see us, we are travelling by bus in his direction. Nevertheless, we finally did have a visit at a corner in Mulot. It gave us the opportunity to introduce Josh and Hailey, our son and his wife, to him.
During our adult trip in 2012, we made a special trip to Pimbinyet where the whole school came out singing and dancing in our honour. They presented John with a beaded walking stick because Thomas knew that John’s knee was suffering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
But the real zinger was the gift of a goat. Needless to say, we left the goat at the centre after christening him JJ (John Junior). John really didn’t want to name the little guy as he was envisioning him ending up on someone’s plate. I discouraged the folks at the centre from eating our new acquisition, but do not know what ultimately was his fate.
We also put together a song for the school, knowing that they would have many wonderful, musical offerings for us. Our effort was paltry in comparison, except for the part where we encouraged the students to join in the chorus. Happily, despite the language barrier, I was able to convey my intent to the students and they sounded glorious joining in our song. It was a highlight!
Unfortunately, Thomas thought we would be able to join him and his family for dinner that evening. I felt terrible when the NGO we were working with nixed that idea. They felt, and rightly so, that they were responsible for our safely as one of their trip participants and they did not want to chance something happening that was beyond their control. I could see the disappointment on Thomas’ face and lost sleep over it.
However, we made up for it in 2014 when we returned to Kenya to work with the Dignitas Project. I told John that I felt it was essential that we spend the money to hire a car and go visit Thomas at his home.
I’m so glad we made the effort as we had a spectacular day visiting with Thomas and his family! The trip to Mulot from Nairobi was unremarkable except for the herds of zebra, giraffes and various other wild animals. These are certainly sights that we would never see in Canada. Once we arrived in Mulot, Thomas met us at the corner; the same corner we met him at in 2010. Mulot is not that big, so we anticipated a short, uneventful ride. Boy, were we wrong! Thomas climbed in the car with us and began to direct us to his house.
John and I thought he actually lived in Mu- lot, but in fact, we had to traverse over a low mountain to one side of Mulot and then make our way into the valley on the other side. The road was almost impassable. We kept asking Mwenge, our driver, if he wanted us to walk, and he kept saying, “Not yet, not yet.” He managed to get us the whole way to Thomas’ by car, which was no mean feat.
The drive into Thomas’ valley was spectacular. It was breathtaking. I said to Thomas, “Oh my goodness, you live in the Garden of Eden.” He seemed very proud to be able to show off his environs.
Fortunately, the day was bright and warm, which added to the beauty of the countryside. Thomas gave us a tour of his valley as we made our way to his home. He said that as far as he knew, we were the first mzungu (white people) to ever come into this basin.
As we had hired Mwenge for the day, we made arrangements for a pick up around 5 pm and he started to motor back to lot. John gave him money for his lunch, which he tried to refuse. Our position was that he would have to purchase a lunch and it was only fair that we incur that cost. Mwenge finally said okay.
Unbeknownst to us, Thomas was not only the principal of the school in Pimbinet, but also a working farmer. I believe his wife Anne did much of the farm work, and his brothers also worked farms in the valley. Once again, I was made aware of the hard work most Kenyans had to do to eke out a living.
Entering Thomas’ home took our breath away, not because of its particular beauty, but because the living room was full of his relatives. They had all come to meet Thomas’ mzungu friends. Unfortunately, the women could not speak English and I could not speak Swahili. However Thomas’ brothers, like him, were all able to speak very good English, so the men served as our interpreters.
Once I sat down on the couch opposite the front door, I noticed a large eight by ten photograph of John and Thomas over the door. John was very touched by this.
There was an older man in his nineties sitting across from John and I. He started talking to John through an interpreter. As it turns out, he was Thomas’ uncle. Although Thomas and his family are Kipsiggi, his uncle was Masai. He had moved into the valley as a young man and married into the Kipsiggi tribe.
Large platters were brought in and we had our fill of every kind of fruit you could think of—melon, banana, oranges and mango to name a few. Then, one of Thomas’ brothers came in and asked us if we were ready for lunch. I said, “I thought this was lunch” to which he replied that these were just the appetizers.
I was next brought a large plate of beef cooked in a sauce with potatoes and rice. I ate so much fruit that I had trouble eating all of my plate; I asked John if he could help me, but he was also stuffed. To my embarrassment, I had to admit that I could not finish my plate. In a society where food is so precious, my guilt was tangible.
After lunch, Thomas asked us if we would like to go for a walk. I hadn’t really worn the right shoes for walking—I was after all going to the village of Mulot not into the countryside. So Thomas tried to find me a pair of shoes, but nothing would fit. Sandals it would have to be.
We were outfitted with walking sticks. All of the brothers came and so did the children even though they were dressed in their Sunday best. It turned out to be quite a difficult walk up the small mountain behind Thomas’ house. Nevertheless, the weather was glorious and once we got up to the top, the view was magnificent.
While at the top of this highland, we could see across the valley to the towns of Mulot and Pimbinet, which were on the heights across the valley. There was also a river below where the women had to go to get water during a drought. I couldn’t imagine walking all the way up one side of the mountain then down the other side to the river and then hauling a fifty-pound jerry can back up on the return journey.
When we returned to Thomas’ home, his family had set out a couple of chairs in the yard. Not knowing what was happening, John and I had to be directed to sit in the chairs while the whole family sat on the lawn. Then they began singing to us in Swahili. It was really beautiful and touching. Thomas gave a speech about how important we were in his life and then gifts were exchanged. I was so happy that I had thought ahead to bring some presents for his family. I would have been so embarrassed if we hadn’t had something to offer to them.
The proceedings were not done yet. After the gift exchange, John and I were taken further down the valley to see the greenhouse tomatoes the families were cultivating and the irrigation system they had developed to keep the tomatoes watered. And then even further down the hill, we came upon two large holes that had been dug. Beside each hole was a banana palm. Thomas had planned for us to each plant the palm trees in honour of our visit and so that a part of us would always remain in his valley. We were so moved!
Our driver, Mwenge picked us up at the predetermined time and, sadly, it was time to return to Nairobi. As we headed up the mountain towards Mulot, the brothers followed us on their motorbikes and the women and children walked beside us. Believe me, our car couldn’t move much faster than a snail’s pace on the very rocky terrain, so they had no trouble keeping up.
Thomas asked us to make one final stop. He wanted us to meet his one hundred and four year old grandmother. She was an absolute delight! Again, through an interpreter, she began asking us questions about our lives in Canada. She greeted us with hugs and kisses, but did not get up from her chair. As it turns out, she was the sixth and youngest wife of Thomas’ grandfather. So, in fact, she and Thomas were not blood relatives. Thomas’ blood grandmother had been one of the other wives. However, within the communal philosophy of Kipsiggi people, that distinction was not considered very important. Consequently, the woman we met was considered to be every bit Thomas’ grandmother as his own.
Saying goodbye was very difficult! I felt quite emotional leaving this beautiful setting, wondering if I would ever have the opportunity to visit Thomas and his family again. It hasn’t happened yet.
By taking a ‘holiday’ of this ilk, some participants are able to feel guilt free about another vacation. I have heard the argument from both sides. Critics of the kinds of trips I have taken focus on how large my carbon footprint must be because of all the travelling I do. Others, on the other hand, (like my brother Jim) point out that people will travel whether or not they end up doing some kind of humanitarian work. So, since travelling is something people in the developed world are doing, at least I am combining it with the enhanced value of working on a development project in the country I am visiting. Or perhaps this is just another way to assuage my guilt.
Many of the students who have travelled with us to these exotic locations have been able to enhance their resumes, changed their majors at university, received high school or university credit, shared their experiences either first or second hand with friends and family, and expanded their world view.
The adults who have travelled with us have largely come away feeling like they haven’t just visited a foreign country as a tourist, but have made lifelong friends with shared experiences not only amongst the trip participants, but also with community members we have visited. For me personally, I feel that I have amassed a great deal of knowledge and insight that I could never have received had I not gone on these expeditions. My life has been enriched as my family and I have grown as people.
The rationale for embarking on a journey like this is generally because people want to engage in positive change. Most travellers of this type “volunteer in order to increase their international awareness, to contextualize poverty and its effects, as an education opportunity, and to help people while having a morally rewarding experience. Many believe that the trip will change the way they think when they return home”. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_volunteering)
And in my experience, it does.
This event happened in 2014. Sadly, John Knapp passed away in June 2022 at the age of 69.