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My Mud Story

November 8, 2010

I told this story a while ago and somebody asked that I type it up for them, so I’ll throw it up here. It’s a long story, but if you haven’t heard it, you’ll probably like it, because it clearly illustrates me making some poor decisions. Which is always fun. This took place in Bondo District near Ndori in Kenya in January or February 2000.

10 years ago I was a young, strong, smart, can-do kind of American living in rural Africa. For the first time in my life, I was living alone–there was no family, no roommates, and no companions. Also, of course, no running water or electricity, and definitely no access to working phones. Just me, my mud house, and books and candle-light to keep me company all evening, as I was advised not to be out and about after dark. By the end of my first week of teaching there, I was ready for a change of scenery and made up an errand for myself: I needed stamps. I could procure them at the post office in the town near the tarmac. Also of interest in that town: daily markets for fresh produce and (most importantly) cold soda. This town was 12 kilometers from my house through certain paths that were well-worn by foot traffic and the occasional vehicle that squeezed through the bush, but I decided to take a bit of a detour–a longer route my colleagues had told me about because, after all, I was looking for a change of scenery. That alternate route was on a better-established road, but added about 2 kilometers to the trip, and when you are powered by your own sweat, that is rarely attractive. I was glad to have taken it once, but planned to use the more familiar and shorter route home.

Once I got to town, I was out of the catchment area for the secondary school at which I taught. Although people in town had no reason to know who I was, many had a pretty good idea of who I was and where I lived and taught. I did not blend in. As I went about my business, many people greeted me and engaged in varying levels of conversation, often including a caution about the weather: it was going to rain, and I should try to get home before that happened. I always thanked the person for that warning, but laughed inwardly: I was not afraid of the rain. I would not melt. Having served a mission in Japan, I had biked in the rain many many many times. So I got my stamps, my tomatoes, and my cold coke, and the sun was still shining. I was ready to head out when the sky darkened suddenly and the heavens opened. It had not rained in several months, and I had not expected much, but this was some serious rain. I sought shelter in a friend’s house and the rain was deafening, pounding down on the tin roof. It was so loud, I was pretty sure it must be hailing. After about twenty minutes, and with no mellowing, the rain suddenly disappeared, and by the time I stepped outside, the sun was coming out from behind the clouds

At this time, we were about an hour from sundown and under normal conditions, the ride would take about 30 minutes to cover the 12 kilometers. As I had no particular interest in being outside in the dark with the hyenas, I started off right away. The first two kilometers were on the road running south out of town that I had come in on—the well-established dirt road. Six people flagged me down in that distance to warn me about the mud. Like I said, these were people I didn’t know, but they knew exactly where the white girl lived and knew the path I would take home. So did I. I knew it pretty well. I knew it was the shortest route and that I was going to take it. I thanked every person for their advice, and rode on, shaking my head: they were warning me not to take that shorter route because of the mud. It was a dirt road. And yet, I was ON a dirt road (a longer one that might have gotten me home after dark)–how different could the mud be? In my mind, a dirt road was a dirt road.

I got near my cut-off and just as I needed to start my turn to the left, I thought to myself, “maybe I should listen to this advice and take the longer road…nah, it’s the shorter road for me!” and left I turned. Only 30 feet down this path, my wheels stopped, as if I had slammed on the brakes. I had not. I got off my mountain bike (which was the only one I had seen in the region–everyone else who was lucky enough to have a bike rode Chinese-made bikes that were single-speed and very heavy–they are probably the exact kind of bikes your grandparents rode in the 1930s) and inspected my front tire. The mud had caked up on those treads so thickly that the tires could no longer rotate through the bike frame. Sure enough, this mud was VERY different from the mud on the other road; it was the red clay kind of soil very common in East Africa and, apparently, when it got wet, it made very heavy mud.

A smart person, and even most dumb ones, would turn around at this point, push their bike the 30 feet back to the better dirt road, and take the long road home. I, however, told myself that the soil would change to a less troublesome kind pretty soon, and I was going to tough it out through this patch. It was a decision made on equal parts stubborn pride of wanting to do it my way, and punishing myself for not listening to the ample cautioning I had received–I had gotten myself into this mess, and I was going to work myself out of it, by golly. Determined to do it myself, I continued down the shorter, but muddier path, now just pushing the bike and stopping every few minutes to find a stick to peel/push the mud off the tires so the wheels could rotate again.

Walk, stop, scrape.

Walk, stop, scrape.

Walk, stop, scrape.

I was confident the mud would change around every bend

I wore these kick-ass Doc Marten sandals my whole time there, and wouldn’t you know it, those had some treads, too. The mud caked up on the bottoms of those, making it hard to walk. Sure, there were Africans passing me with significantly less trouble than I was having. But they had bare feet. It just went against every intuition in my body to expose my bare skin to murky mud, especially after several months of medical and health classes detailing all the parasites that could infect us. So I kept those sandals on, and added that to my penitence.

Walk, stop, scrape, scrape, scrape.

Walk, stop, scrape, scrape, scrape.

Walk, stop, scrape, scrape, scrape.

I heard a bell being rung beyond the trees and eager elementary students poured past me, headed home after 9 hours of school. A pack of about 6 boys approached me and offered their help. Of course, I didn’t want it, and wouldn’t have accepted it even if I did, because they likely had long distances to cover to get home and do their work for their parents. I turned them down in three languages. Apparently not very well, because I could not shake them. They all had at least one hand on my bike as they pushed it, taking turns to sit on the seat and get their hands on the handlebars and gears (click click click click, oy vey–now my bike was going to be broken, too). I stopped talking because clearly nothing I said was going to matter and resigned myself to their “help,” figuring they would soon tire of it and head home. Not so. We continued on together.

Walk, stop, scrape, scrape, scrape, exchange riders.

Walk, stop, scrape, scrape, scrape, exchange riders.

Walk, stop, scrape, scrape, scrape, exchange riders.

The sky was steadily getting darker, and I was trying to figure out something to say that could really convince the boys to go home, but was coming up with nothing new, when I heard an authoritative voice behind me. I have no idea what was said, but it was effective and the boys scattered instantly. Very grateful, and determined to serve out my sentence of walking and pushing and scraping, I turned to thank the owner of the authoritative voice. She was a woman in her 60s (I would guess), walking toward me barefoot with a bag of beans balanced on her head, as is the practice in that region. Africans would call her a Mama, which is a complimentary and respectful term. I started to thank her and when she was within a few paces of me, she reached up to pull the bag from her head and, without breaking her stride, handed me the bag of beans with one hand and took my bike in her other hand and, in one movement, swept the whole bike over her head, rested the frame on the top, and carried on walking. Wordless. She and I both. I am not sure if she did not speak to me because I was clearly such an idiot or if it was because she did not expect us to have a common language. I was just speechless. I watched her, disbelievingly, for a good twenty paces before I thought to catch up with her.

With her beans in my arms, I caught up with her and tried to talk her out of helping me, too. Again, I failed. It became clear that the only language she was going to use with me was Luo (the local language in that region) and that was a language I still couldn’t speak. Still, as we walked side by side, I feel like I got a sense of this Mama: even if we could have communicated easily, she would not have suffered my foolishness. It was clear that the only way I was getting home that night was with her intervention, so she was doing what needed to be done.

About one kilometer from my house, the soil did indeed change, and the troublesome mud was no longer an issue. The woman stopped for the first time since our initial encounter, brought my bike off her head, took her beans from my hands and replaced them on her head, said goodbye and left.

Not to get too three Nephites about it, but I thought I would probably see her again over the years (I seemed to see everyone else around a few times a day), but I never did. I am sure, though, that my foolish decisions gave her a good story to tell about that “Pis Korpse” (local pronunciation) girl who was so smart she came around the world to teach the students of the village (heaven help them).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Libby permalink
    November 9, 2010 9:56 pm

    Hi! I’m Abbey’s mom and I just want to say that I enjoyed your story. Abbey has encouraged me to read your blog and it has been so interesting. You’re doing a great job.
    I wanted to tell you (briefly) about an experience I had last spring in Italy, which in some ways is similar to your story. I had done a day trip and late in the afternoon had returned by train to the town where I was staying with my friend. Being ever frugal (and also not speaking Italian and thus being unable to ask questions about the bus routes and schedules), I decided to walk from the train station to my friend’s apartment. I figured it couldn’t be THAT far! I got some basic directions from somebody at the train station and knew that I was headed essentially in the right direction. So, I walked, and walked and walked and walked until I began to wonder just how far it really was to my friend’s place, and was I really headed in the right direction! I went into a small (what we would call) drug store, and hoped that someone there would speak enough Italian that they would understand my question and be able to direct me. There was one clerk helping customers, so I had to wait for quite awhile for her to be free to listen to my dilemma, and she took me outside to the sidewalk and attempted to tell me how to get to where I wanted to go. It seemed very complicated. There were rights and lefts and straights and diagonals and carry ons and I was beginning to despair that I would ever understand and follow her directions. Then I noticed that an old woman on a bicycle was overhearing our conversation and she said something to the girl in Italian and indicated to me with signs that she would lead me. I thought surely it must be very close for her to be willing to go out of her way to do this. So, I followed. She walked her bike and I tried my best to keep up with her. I don’t know her age, but she was certainly a good deal older than I, at least in her 70’s. It did turn out to be a complicated route, not obvious at all, and it went on for…well, I don’t know how long or how far, but let’s say VERY long and VERY far. And on she went, without a word. Finally, she showed me the road sign that indicated I was on the street where my friend lived. I was so grateful to her, and said over and over “Grazie, grazie, grazie”, one of the few words I knew in Italian. Before we parted, I asked her if I could take her photo because I wanted to remember this remarkable and generous woman, but she shook her head no. So, I said grazie a few more times and went my way, and she turned around and went the opposite way. She had quite a long journey to return to where we had started.
    I have no idea where I might have wandered were it not for this sweet lady who was willing to help a dumb American tourist. I could be walking still…….

    • November 9, 2010 11:28 pm

      Libby–welcome! I’m a big fan of Abbey’s, too. Your story sounds SO familiar–doesn’t distance always seem relatively small on the map, but then to actually wander a path you don’t know FEELS SO LONG….

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