“You are throwing away food in a poor country?”
She was helping me make lunch for the office happy hour on Friday.
I’d made a big pot of chicken stock out of a couple of chickens, handfuls of red onion peels and other vegetable ends. The stock was the base for my latest recipe: pumpkin, chicken, collards and groundnut stew.
When I looked up from the chicken, Agnes had one corner of her mouth upturned and the opposite eyebrow raised.
She was teasing. Kind of.
“I know Kenyans love bones,” I said. “But everyone is expecting a North American meal from me, and most people in North America only like bones in barbeque ribs and T-bone steaks.”
My turn to tease, but Agnes and I both knew we were talking around a real question.
|We talked about how bones aren't considered food back home. We debated over the stock too, after I left the cloudy dregs in the bottom of the pot.
“But that‘s the best part,” Agnes said.
I talked jokingly about the French ideal of perfectly clear, golden stock. She shook her head.
“Here, we like thick soup. You have to scoop the marrow out of the bones and mix it in that broth to make it right.”
We compromised. I left the bones in the soup, but kept the broth clear.
Doing the dishes after lunch, I saw George and Alex had both picked the chicken bones clean, but left the collards and half-bowls of stock behind.
“Sister, sister, please. Give me something.”
The boy’s hand is about four inches from my face. He’s stroking his open palm like he’s wiping away a persistent crumb.
“Uhn uhn,” I say.
We are walking down the road outside Yaya Center: ex-pat central. As with so many Kenyan kids, I can’t guess how old this boy is. The top of his head is about even with my shoulder.
“I‘m hungry. Please. Give me some money for food.”
“You can keep asking,” I say. “But I‘m not going to change my mind.”
The boy’s been walking along beside me for about a block. I’ve got my arms crossed and my head down. I can’t quite bring myself to look at him.
“Mama, sister. Please. Buy me something to eat.”
I’ve made a rule that I won’t give money to kids who are begging on the street. It’s not based on any clear philosophy, except that I’ve heard about swarms of kids who appear when you hand one child a few shillings. I have a hard enough time saying no to one kid, let alone a crowd of them.
My rule is, I suppose, some kind of psychological fall back position.
I think the boy can tell I'm uncomfortable. He's getting more insistent.
“Why not? Please. I am hungry.”
“No,” I say.
I keep right on moving as he stops and watches me walk away.
Behind my back, I hear him say, quietly, “Fuck you.”
Heavy-headed and sullen, the small boy looked as bad as I felt. He was crouched on the ground outside the Coptic Hospital’s pharmacy, his head resting on the old wooden bench where his mother and I were sitting.
Guessing by the envelope that read “Chest X-Ray”, the boy had just been diagnosed with some kind of lung infection. I’d just found out that I had typhoid and bronchitis.
I empathized with his drooping eyelids and generally lethargic air.
Coptic Hospital is a good, church-run medical center in Nairobi. For general care, the service is fast and decent and not as expensive as Kenya National or Nairobi Hospital.
Patients at Coptic have to pay for every service in advance. That means four or five trips to the cashier’s desk. For me, that meant, $7 US to start a file, $4 to see the doctor, $7 for a blood test, $18 for antibiotics, expectorant and Ibuprofen.
I had made my final payment and was waiting for the chemist to assemble my drugs.
Just as she started talking to me, I noticed the woman beside me was still holding the bill for her son‘s medicine, not a cashier‘s receipt.
“I am defeated,” she said. “They want 1100 shillings. I only have 600. ”
She dropped her hand with the receipt into her lap. Her other hand held a red cloth change purse. It was conspicuously flat.
I looked at the x-ray envelope again and wondered about the price of the test.
I took a closer look at the mother and son. She was wearing a decent second-hand dress and his pants and t-shirt weren’t too worn. But it’s the shoes that give people away. Her sandal soles were worn thin in the heal. The vinyl around the buckles was deeply cracked and looked about to snap. The boy was wearing plastic flip-flops, the universal indicator of poverty here.
In Kenya, plastic flip-flops are solely for bathroom use. You only wear them in public if you can‘t afford anything else.
Another Kenyan woman sitting farther down the bench talked to the sandal-wearer in Kiswahili. After a short exchange, the mother left her boy sleeping on the bench and walked over to talk with the chemist.
I turned to the woman farther down the bench. “She needs 500 bob, huh?”
The woman nodded. She was wearing black leather high heels with buckles over the pointed toes. The toddler in her arms was wearing a frilly pink dress to match her pint-sized Mary Janes.
“I told her to ask if they have any cheaper medicine,” she said. “She wants to see if she can buy five days‘ worth of drugs and then come back and buy the rest.”
Once the boy’s symptoms start to abate, I was thinking, she won’t come back... not with the cost of the rest of the drugs, plus the expense of time and money to come down to the hospital from Kibera or Eastleigh.
I was shaking my head. So was the woman farther down the bench. Skipping the full course of antibiotics, the boy's infection might return in a couple of weeks. Also, over-use and misuse of pharmaceuticals is helping all sorts of bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.
“So, if she can‘t manage, do you want to split the difference?” I ask. “Each of us pay 250?”
“Let‘s hear what the chemist says.”
The boy’s mother came back to the bench empty-handed.
The woman in heels and I dug through our bags and handed over bills. The boy’s mother didn’t quite look me in the eye when she said, “Asante sana, sana. God bless you.”
The boy was still sleeping, head on the bench as I left.
It’s only when I got home that it occurred to me, once his symptoms abate, she might just sell the rest of the medication to some other mother with a sick kid and use the money to buy them new shoes, or food.
The Rift Valley, Kericho and Nandi Hills are the primary agricultural zones in Kenya.
The green terraced hillsides and maize-covered fields produce a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables for sale across the country, as well as tea and coffee for export.
My colleagues are negotiating prices. They get one woman down to a little under 75 cents US for a perfect, yellow pineapple. People here have food, but not cash.
In the colder climate of the Rift Valley, the roadside goods are potatoes, carrots and peas. I buy a bushel of fresh peas for about $2 US.
That evening, the peas are in a big pile beside me in the front courtyard at home. I’m sitting on an overturned bucket, slowly working my way through the pods.
“You look like a girl from a village,” saysJoy, my landlady.
She is teasing. Kind of.
Joy's daughter Ruby is my roomate, a 28-year-old lawyer with a shoe fetish.
Ruby’s shoes are scattered around this courtyard: there are open-toed pumps with flowers by the gate, ruched black ankle boots and pink mules near the door, old-school Converse high tops and black Vans on top of the cistern.
There are more shoes inside. More than 25 pairs are arranged on a shoe stand at the bottom of the stairs: zippered, buckled, pointy-toed and round; bright green, orange, pink, white, silver, black, gold; Mary Janes, kitten-heels, sequined stilletos, flats, sling-backs, beaded sandals.
I have never peaked in Ruby’s bedroom, but I bet there are more shoes in there.
“I will help you with some of these,” Joy says. She reaches down to grab a handful of peas. “I cook sometimes at the house. For fun.”
“I hate to cook,” Ruby says, walking away.
She has told me that she also hates cleaning. And doing laundry. Her mother sends a house girl over ever Saturday to clean the house and wash Ruby’s clothes.
As we shell, I am watching a bucket slowly fill with water for my washing, which I will do by hand.
I am happy to pick peas and wash clothes, but as Joy stands over me on my bucket-perch, I’m thinking about cultural differences and wondering if she is judging me. I say, “Cooking is relaxing for me. I love to cook for my friends.”
I also acknowledge that I might not like it so much if I had to do it, if I never had the option of paying someone to scrub my dirty clothes or cook for me.
Joy helps me shell peas for a while, but I only get through three-quarters of the bushel that night. They go into another new recipe: fresh pea soup with cumin.
A few days later, when I’m looking for the soup, I see the remaining three pounds of unshelled peas in the fridge. I know I’m not going to get around to using them.
I pull them out and for about two minutes, I stand in the middle of the kitchen, wondering what to do.
I remember when I was a kid, people saying, "Finish your supper. Don't you know that people are starving in Ethiopia?" It never made sense to me. How was eating every soggy carrot on my plate going to help anyone in Ethiopia?
But here, left-overs do make a difference. I know that just a 30 minute walk from here, kids in Kibera are digging through garbage piles, looking for dinner.
In my memory, I hear Agnes ask me, “You are throwing away food in a poor country?”
I tie up the bag and toss the peas in my backpack. I don't know who I'm going to give them to, but I am sure that someone close by can use them.