I had gotten a volunteer job at the polytechnic through sheer stubbornness. I knew right away that I wanted to stay in Lamu for a few months, so I decided to find volunteer work that would let me do something useful while giving me a reason to stay. My search started when I went to one of the two clinics in town to sell my malaria pills.
Dr. Rodger’s clinic was on the waterfront, behind some heaps of dirt where donkeys regularly milled around. A hand-lettered sign on the main road pointed the way down an alley to the clinic. Inside there was a waiting room often crowded with women and children. In most cases Dr. Rodgers was the only man to have seen these women besides their husbands. On the wall was a poster of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, shaking hands with the present President Moi, saying, “Take care of our nation.”
I entered the office. Behind a desk sat a tall lanky man with a huge smile that lit up the small room. He stood up and we shook hands.
“Please, take a seat.” He spoke excellent English; I found out later he was from Kisumu, in the west of Kenya. “How are you liking Lamu? Have you been here long?”
Africans never launch right into a conversation. Small talk is a crucial part of personal relations, and you’re never supposed to answer negatively.
“I love it here,” I said truthfully. “I spent almost four months working in Mombasa and I ended up hating that city. All the matatus, the traffic – it was too much.”
We talked about Mombasa, Lamu, Swahili, and his kids before we got down to business. “I want to sell my Lariam pills. I stopped taking them after three months because they were giving me nightmares. Do you think you could buy them? I’m a little short of money.”
Dr. Rodgers’ laugh was infectious. “You’re not scared of getting malaria?”
“Not really, not anymore. Africans get it all the time. You get sick, go to the doctor, get an injection and some pills and then it’s over. For you it’s like the flu, isn’t it?”
“It’s very common. We Africans don’t use antimalarial pills. That’s only for mzungus.”
“So you don’t know anyone who could use these pills?” I pulled out the boxes and laid them on the desk. Dr. Rodgers considered for a moment and then agreed to buy them, although he would only give me enough for a few good meals. The deal made, I asked if he knew if there were any volunteers or humanitarian organizations that I might be able to work with. He knew a Canadian VSO volunteer, Lisa Klein, who worked with a women’s group, and promised to take me to her house.
Lisa sent me to another volunteer, who told me to visit the curator of the museum, who was out of town but whose secretary directed me to the boys’ secondary school, whose headmaster sent me to the Department of Education, where the District Education Officer sent me to Department of Social Services. It went on like this for a month. Everyone was interested and a bit surprised that I was willing to work for free, but they were too afraid to let me work without a working permit. Getting one involved a trip to Nairobi, possibly a bribe, and a few months’ wait. So they sent me around in circles, telling me they first had to talk with one person and then another, and the key person was always in Mombasa or Nairobi.
The good thing was that I was meeting people. One week it seemed that I would finally be able to start a youth group with the local soccer team, the Shella Super Stars, and never mind that some of them were older than me. However, the coach wasn’t the one who could make that decision, and Mr. Mwatela from Social Services was avoiding me, so that idea died, along with the tutoring, handicraft cooperatives, and business classes, all because no one was able to tell me yes or no. But by this time I knew half of Lamu. I was going to the Super Stars’ practices, complaining to Dr. Rodgers, and coming home to find three kids waiting for me for help with their homework.