Last year on Christmas Day, I stood at the front of Bumbo Friends Church in western Kenya. Colorful strips of torn cloth hung overhead for decoration. Waiting for me to speak was a sea of worshippers who filled the simple sanctuary of concrete, wood, and corrugated metal. By my side stood Silas Vidolo, a finance officer at nearby Kaimosi Friends Theological College, who was going to translate my message into Swahili.
I was in Kenya for two primary reasons. One was to meet with African writers in connection with a novel I am writing, a coming-of-age story about a young Quaker boy in Kenya shortly after independence. My deeper reason for the trip, however, was to return to Kaimosi Friends Mission, where I lived 45 years before.
My return to Kenya almost didn’t happen. Originally, I had planned to attend Summer Literary Seminars (SLS) Kenya, a month-long writing seminar that I had been accepted to in Nairobi and Lamu. I had paid my tuition deposit, bought my plane tickets, gotten my shots and supplies, and made arrangements to be away from work for a month.
Then, at the last moment, the seminar was cancelled due to security concerns. I was distraught. Not only had I reorganized much of my life to attend the seminar, I had also hoped that once in Kenya I might travel to Kaimosi for a few days. The writing seminar was to be my way back to a place that had changed the course of my life nearly half a century before.
So I chose to regard the cancellation of the seminar as the opening of a new door. I decided I would take the trip by myself and spend the bulk of my time in Kaimosi. That decision, however, meant figuring out a whole new set of logistics and accommodations on my own.
I began by reaching out to an educator and youth development officer in Nairobi whom I had written about in the past. I hoped that he might offer advice on hotels in Nairobi. Instead, Chris invited me to stay in his home. He was an extraordinary host—warm, generous, and a lover of both good conversation and good coffee. Had I gone nowhere else in Kenya, I’d still have come home with an inspiring tale of the kindness of strangers.
Chris turned out to be just one of many “strangers” throughout my trip who formed a chain of generosity and hospitality. Through the director of SLS (Summer Literary Seminars), I was able to meet a number of Kenyan writers, including the editor of Kwani? (Swahili for “So?”), one of Kenya’s leading literary journals. The head of Africa programs for American Friends Service Committee put me in touch with the field officer for Friends United Meeting’s Africa Ministries Office, who welcomed me into her home in Kisumu for several days and provided both essential assistance and wise counsel.
I also received generous hospitality at Friends Theological College, where Quaker pastors are trained for lives of Christian ministry and church leadership throughout east Africa. I was moved by the warmth and graciousness of everyone I met there. Hesborne, a faculty member, invited me to his class on church administration. Josphat, the school’s finance officer, took me to visit his 97-year-old grandfather who, amazingly, had taken care of my family 45 years before. Isaac, a theology student, took me on a 40-kilometer trek to meet his family in the Idunya Hills of the Great Rift Valley. Another student, Ruth, arrived each morning with milk and water and cared for me when I was ill my first week.
But most attentive of all was Silas, who greeted me immediately upon my arrival in Kaimosi. We discovered we were the same age and both grew up at Kaimosi in the sixties. He shared with me stories of past and present Kaimosi and introduced me to friends throughout the mission. He also led me on numerous travels into the surrounding towns and countryside, including that Christmas Day’s visit to Bumbo Friends Church.
It wasn’t until I was standing in front of the congregation, however, that I realized I was expected to speak.
With Silas translating, I talked a bit about my history with Kenya. I told the congregation that back in the 1960s, when I was nine and ten, I lived at Kaimosi with my parents, Edwin and Marian, missionaries who trained teachers for the new nation’s schools. I told them that this was my first time back to Kenya since then, that it was a deeply meaningful homecoming for me, and that I was very grateful for the opportunity to worship with them on Christmas Day.
There was more I might have said, particularly about my parents. I might have explained how they had dedicated their lives to Quaker service and education. How they had started and led a number of Friends schools over the years. How my father had directed the Pasadena AFSC office and Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center near Philadelphia. I might also have talked more about my parents’ great leap of faith many years ago that brought them to Africa with four of their seven children to fulfill a vision of international Quaker service.
But instead I kept my comments brief. I thanked the congregation for opening their arms to me so warmly, and I returned to my seat.
My message was by far the shortest part of a program that had already lasted much of the morning. The service had been filled with sermons, prayers, music, dancing, Bible readings, and even church business. I was raised in the silent, unprogrammed tradition of Quaker worship, so I found this vocal and energetic service quite moving—literally, in fact, as the aisles repeatedly filled with spirited singing, clapping, drumming, and bodies in motion.
After Silas and I were seated, he whispered that the service would still continue for quite a while yet, and that if we were to be on time for dinner we should leave. We quietly slipped out of the church and began our walk along forest trails and across creeks and valleys to arrive at his hillside shamba. There, at his home and farm, Silas and his large family treated me to a feast that included chicken, rice, cabbage, ugali (a cornmeal dish), and most moving and delicious of all, a tasty goat that Silas had sacrificed for the occasion. It was a meal that will nourish me for the rest of my days.
After dinner, Silas led me on another walk through the countryside back to the Friends Theological College. Our route took us to the top of the Hill of Vision, where in 1902 a small group of Quakers climbed to survey the wilderness and were led to select Kaimosi as the site for their first Kenya mission. When I lived in Kaimosi as a boy, the entire region was thick with rainforest, and I spent many hours wandering the jungle-clad hillsides and playing along the forest trails.
I was eager to climb the Hill of Vision again. The title of my novel is Busara Road, and “Busara” is a Swahili word for vision and insight. I had hoped that by climbing the Hill of Vision I might gain some vision and insight of my own. But today the expansive rainforest that once covered the hillside is almost entirely gone. The hill’s crown, once a thick tangle of trees and growth, is now clear-cut and barren. Where once I climbed and swung from vines amid the chatter of birds and monkeys, a massive cell-phone tower now rises, surrounded by a sea of bare dirt and concrete.
This was not the vision I had hoped for.
I’ve not had much luck with hills of vision. A few years ago I climbed to the top of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England, where George Fox had his vision of a great people to be gathered. The day of my climb, however, I stared blindly into a driving rainstorm.
At least in Kaimosi, the weather was beautiful. I could look past the cell tower and out over a verdant landscape that stretched below me. From that vantage point, I could trace the route that had brought me there. I could follow my path down the hillside, back through forests and valleys to the shamba where Silas had welcomed me into his family. I could follow my route over hills and creeks, and imagine my way back to the church where I’d joined in celebration of Christmas.
I could imagine following that path even farther still. Back to all of the people who had helped me realize my Kenya trip. Back through time, beyond Kaimosi, beyond Kisumu and Nairobi. Even beyond my present life in Philadelphia. Back through the years and decades, all the way back to parents who, long ago, had made my childhood in Kenya possible.
And now I realize that, standing there that Christmas Day, I had my vision after all.
David Hallock Sanders attends Arch Street Meeting in Philadelphia and is a regular sojourner at Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center, where he goes to reflect and to write Busara Road, his novel-in-progress.