Some years ago Dutch journalist, Paul de Schipper, was sent on assignment to Western Kenya.
“They had sent me here. Luoland, Nyanza province, Western Kenya. To find a group of women: widows who refused to be inherited by a brother or a family member of their deceased husband. Stubbornly trampling the iron code of tradition in the process”.
Meeting Fr Fred Heptonstall mhm, at the parish of Awasi, proved a memorable experience.
The man sat dozing at the table, snoring softly. In front of him three empty bottles of Tusker, Kenya’s most popular brand of beer. I watched the mud on my feet, fertile soil, fruit of the rainy season and the angry river that had burst its banks, flooding and flattening some houses too. Collapsed, mud walls gone, thatched roofs blown away.
Somehow the man noticed me, lifting his head. Glassy reddish eyes watching the visitor. “My fish have gone”, he said, softly. I shook my head: “I’m sorry…?” With a slight movement of his arm he pointed to the open backdoor. “The river flowed swallowed my pond, my fish have gone, all of them, my poor fish…” He sighed, his hand touching the small cross on his chest, twisting the necklace.
Clearly I ‘d found a man in mourning, clearly this was the village priest, getting a little too much spiritual consolation from the national brew too early in the day..
They had sent me here.
Luoland, Nyanza province, Western Kenya. To find a group of women: widows who refused to be inherited by a brother or a family member of their deceased husband. Stubbornly trampling the iron code of tradition in the process.
This morning I arrived in the sweaty, steaming city of Kisumu.
That’s where I left the train nick named ‘The Lunatic’.
The train and the rail track that created Kenya. In 1896 Indian coolies laid the first rails. About ten years later the track reached Kisumu, then Port Florence. A devils place offering dysentery, black water fever and the plague to a new tribe that was conquering East Africa: missionaries and white settlers. Winston Churchill took the train in 1908. He wrote to his mother: “I was sitting in a seat hooked to the front engine, rifles ready. As soon as I saw game, I made a gesture and the train operator stopped…
I watched the dozing priest and left his house.
“Come, go to the next village, there is a mzungu, a white man, yes also a priest.”
A man took my arm and kindly guided me over a narrow path, a kind of a dyke, water at both sides. “The river is rising again”, he said, “there has been rain in the hills.” After a few hundred metres there was no path anymore. More collapsed houses on the riverbank, families waiting in a few dry places, small islands of refuge. We passed a herdsman evacuating his cows.
“The headmaster has died”, my guide told me, “he was in a coffin in his house waiting for burial. The river came and took him. He was floating around. You should have seen it. Some boys went after him, pulled him to a dry spot.
He laughed: “You’re ok?”. I was. We got to higher ground, the main road, feet soaking in my shoes. Dry tarmac, there the noisy African hustle and bustle of everyday life continued as if nothing had happened. Cars and buses hurrying along. My guide got me a ride with the simplest form of public transport: a ‘boda-boda’, a motorcycle taxi.
A prosperous, green panorama, maize plots, brick houses with steel roofing and mud huts with the same cover, scents of charcoal fire and cow dung, people walking along the road escaping death in front of speeding lorries, mostly fuel tankers, coming from Mombasa harbour, destination Uganda. Drivers avoiding potholes, blessed with a bat’s navigation ability.
The next village, a crowded junction, bars, small shops, women selling vegetables, maize and fish. Then, on the right, fifty metres from the road a sturdy building: the church. And a compound, a carpenters yard and a house with an open front door.
My boda-boda driver: “Here the white man is living.”
I took my travel bag, paid the motor cyclist and entered the house. A small entrance, then the living room. Noticing the ‘mzungu’ (white person) the lady housekeeper welcomed me: “Sit down, Father is around, he may come any minute.” I sat down on the sofa and scanned the sober interior: a sofa, two seats and four chairs around an all day dining table with thermos flask, jugs, cups, a jar of marmalade and a loaf of bread neatly covered.
I heard footsteps at the entrance. A stocky small, white haired man appeared, smiling. No sign of surprise, just a handshake and “Welcome to Awasi… make yourself comfortable.” That’s how I met Father Fred.
In a remote Kenyan village, already working in Central Africa for forty years: the quintessential missionary, doing God’s spadework.
He sat down next to me on the sofa’s armrest. Head slightly crooked always in the listening position, ready to serve the little people and the Big Boss. One of those Mill Hill men I often met in the darker corners of this planet. A busy man, ready to get up again and communicate with needy parishioners who walked in and out of the room next to the living room that appeared to be his office. If somebody walks in, his tea gets cold and his sandwich is left half eaten.
What struck me most: he was not asking what I came to do. Having the kind decency to wait for his guest to talk.
Which I did.
Yes he knew about the group in the other village: “We do not have any here yet.” Hearing about my fish- and beer experience he smiled. Meanwhile I noticed that my travel bag, which was next to the sofa, had gone. Father Fred: “It’s in your room…” “My room?” “It will be my pleasure to be your host.” He pointed at the table: “Have some tea…” Then the stocky missionary left.
Well, one doesn’t have to be big to be impressive.
I enjoyed a cuppa and a slice of bread. Then I went outside for a stroll. Next to the church in a shed I saw a carpenter working on a children’s coffin. “We have many infant deaths”, he said, while hammering nails. He turned out to be a catechist and also father Fred’s driver and assistant. His name was also Fred. The following days he introduced me to the village. A small settlement along the main road from Kenya to Uganda and a truck driver’s stop too. Of course with the requisite nightlife, noisy bars, beer and willing butterflies.
Paul de Schipper