Sarara and Maria – Could they be the Africans we saw on the cover of National Geographic?

I think I just interviewed two people in Kenya that could have been on the covers of National Geographic magazines that my grandma had when I was 8 years old….back in the 70s.  I was so excited to meet people over the age of 80 in Kenya while I was there on a medical mission.  How amazing would that be, right?!  How many people are over 80 years old in Kenya?  Maybe more than I or anybody really knows.  You would have to have beaten every odd against you.  The Migori Seventh-Day-Adventist Pastor recommended Sarara and Maria.  He made the calls and arranged our meeting.

Once I met my guests, our interpreter, Judith who is a beautiful woman and social worker for KenyaRelief, all sat together at a picnic table in the shade.  It was a beautiful day with plants and flowers around us.  There was a rooster crowing in the background.  I was nervous and I could tell they were very nervous.  They came dressed in their finest Sunday best.  I was so naive (so American), I thought they had been picked up in one of the vans by a KenyaRelief driver.  No, they had paid for a ride on the back of a motorcycle and had ridden for quite some miles. They paid hard earned money that I am sure was needed elsewhere.

We started talking and conversation just naturally flowed.  Sarara is from the Karia tribe and Maria is from the Luo tribe.  We had 4 languages going on – Swaheli, Luo, Kuria, and English.  Our group, with Judith at the helm, communicated with ease and understanding.  I did not take an agenda of items that I wanted to talk about.  I wanted to know what was on their mind.  We were getting to know each other.  We became friends.  I recorded the conversation which I have shared with you.  Just like any conversation where people are getting to know and trust each other, there is no order to it.  It is purely organic and raw.  Sit back and enjoy the discoveries we had with each other.

Maria started out speaking about her granddaughter.  Her daughter, the girls mother, had died and so had the father.  She was the primary caregiver and was worried.  She thought it was her granddaughter as the reason for her being asked to come see me.  Her granddaughter had been at KenyaRelief because of a sponsor from the U.S.  She had completed secondary school and had started a technical school.  She had quit and had ran away.  She had gone off with a boy and had become pregnant.  “Where are her brains?” Maria said.  “I just want to get the government to bring her back and beat her.”  She was hoping I was the girls sponsor coming to get her and save her.  Maria talked about convincing her granddaughter’s husband to get her back in college.  But, she said the husband was a drunk and had no job.  Sarara spoke up and said “No, the husband will not allow it.”  He continued to advise Maria that no one would be able to convince the husband.  (By the way, these two had never met each other before coming to see me).  Maria had even gone to try to find the girl.  She got up from the table to act out how she had tried to find her granddaughter.  She acted out how her granddaughter had hidden from her when she had knocked on the door.  She could see that the baby was there.  She called to a woman she could see in the house to open the door.  She called out “Why do you see me and hide?  Why do you keep running?”  She went on to explain how annoyed she was with the husband.  He could take her to school.  The sponsor agreed to pay if she would come back to school.  But, the husband is a drunk.  If she, Maria, passes away, the granddaughter will have to carry a heavy load.  The husband is not a good man.  It is a burden in her heart.  She is only 15 years old.  She was taking a tailoring course.  She had started meeting boys there.  As I am listening to my recording, I think I should have just shut up.  I am hearing me encourage her and speak hope and faith.  I told her we face the same challenges in the U.S. with our children and grandchildren.  I don’t know if that was the right thing to say.  I just know that maybe they look up to the U.S. as such a wonderful place, which it is, but many face the same situation she was facing.  I tried to give her hope she is not alone.  There are many grandmother’s in her same situation, even in the U.S.  Sarara spoke up again upon Judith asking him some questions.  Sarara’s advice was for Maria to be careful.  “If you go and pick her from there, the husband will get her back.  And, she with her husband, will conjure a plan to harm you or even kill you.  Maybe he would put poison in your sugar….something.”  Maria tells Sarara “I don’t want anything from them.   I would not take anything from them.”  Sarara replied “She (Maria) should get cattle from the husband.  Maria should get heads of cattle for the granddaughter from the husband – a dowry.”  Maria responds “The husband has nothing.  He’s just a drunk.  In the Africa tradition, you cannot take cattle for a granddaughter.  Tradition does not allow it.”

Sarara started talking about his life.  He has a young son at home.  The mother was at home.  He said “I only married one.  Allot of things within them if wives are many.”  He explained how it had been over a year since he had any milk or cheese.  He just uses vegetable flour for porridge.  He said “It is very hard to survive at home.  The child is 18.  I tried taking the child to school but cannot meet the fees.  He went up to primary school.  He is not married.  The son is just there.  He just does manual jobs at home.”   At this point, Judith spoke of her appreciation and understanding how important it was to hear them and for them to be together listening to the challenges they faced together as aged people responsible for the lives of their family.  Maria spoke up and said she was “feeling very nice to have someone to talk to.”  She said she has no one to talk to.  She stays at home alone.  At night she prays and just goes to bed.  (She has no electricity.  Neither does Sarara and the sun rises and sets the same time every day around 6:30 a.m. and p.m.  Kenya is on the equator).  She is lonely.  She said “If I go to peoples homes, people just think I am coming over for food.  So, I just stay home.  I don’t want people to think that.”  She told us “I went to a friend and my friend gave me 50 shillings to get here and back.”  Sarara then told about the young men who he works for and that they gave him 20 shillings to come to see me hoping there was something good for him.  He had to walk a long road and then get on a peekee peekee (motorcycle).  Sarara washes the young men’s motorcycles to earn money.  Maria told me she wanted to go home to the U.S. with me so that she could be brown like me.  Interestingly enough, I explained to them that I care for elders.

I could tell Sarara was contemplating while Judith was interpreting my explanation of what I did in the U.S.  He then asked several random questions such as how long does it take to fly from the airport in Nairobi to Migori?   Is India bigger than Kenya?  How big is London?  How many presidents in the whole of Africa?  It dawned on me during the questions to ask if he or Maria had ever seen a map.  He had not.  She had.  I then drew a map.  I tried to Google one but the WiFi signal was too poor to bring up an image.  So, they got my crewed drawing.  It was a fun experience where I was learning and Judith even said “I’m also learning allot.”  I drew the U.S., Europe and Africa.  I then drew my path from Colorado to Migori.  In the conversation, I explained I was a pilot.  He asked me “there is allot of wind when you fly, what do you do?”  He also asked how much fuel does an airplane use to come from U.S. to Kenya.  So, I Googled it.  Thank the Lord Google was working for that.  I ran the math and did some calculations and oops….I needed to give it to him in liters.  Then he asked how much oil.  His knowledge of engines came from working around the younger men who had the motorcycles.  I asked him if he was a mechanic.  He said “No, it takes allot of money to buy tools.”  I asked him if the young men would lend him tools.  He said “I have asked and they would not agree.  They want money.  There is a saying in Swaheli ‘A hand only leaks if there is something in it.'”  We kept talking and with Judith’s help we came up with an idea where Otis, a driver for KenyaRelief might be able to help Sarara to borrow tools and teaching from some young man with the motorcycles within Migori.  Now, as I am listening I am thinking ‘Wow, he is an older man who is on a mission to learn more and to improve his situation.’

Maria works on a farm.  “All of my family who would be helping me has passed away.  KenyaRelief gives me a little money every month.”  She explained that the government gives to the elderly.  She applies but she never gets it.  They don’t enroll her.  “I have been there many times but I never get the help.”  Sarara said “I have also applied but there is allot of corruption in those offices.  People who are younger and drink get the money.  I asked Judith what she knew.  She did not know how they did the enrollment.  Maria said “There is allot of tribal discrimination with the officers.  You white people are very good.  You are straight forward.  If you say something, you get it done.”  Judith said “It’s very hard to get things done without parting with some money.”  I asked them not to give up.  God will work a miracle.  Keep trying.  Judith said the same thing.  Maria then said “I know when my name goes through, it will be God doing His work.”  She said “The Chief is not a good person.  Chief Gibori – he has been tucked away.”

If you look close at Sarara’s picture, you will see his ears lower lobe is tucked around the upper part of his ear.  He is from the Kuria tribe where within tradition they stretched the ear lobe.  Judith tells me he must be very old.  It is very rare to see a man with his ear lobes stretched out this far.  He is 91.  As I am writting this, I am searching for pictures from National Geographic.  I remember, as a young child, seeing pictures of people who had over years been able to stretch their ears to amazing proportions with big discs in them.  The more I search the more I realize Sarara is very rare.  Wouldn’t it be so great to have someone with National Geographic interview him as an older man who very well could have been one of the people in stories in the 1950s?  He was born in 1925.   He had his ID.  He proved his age to me.  He would have been around 25 to 30 in the fifties.

Maria spoke about getting sick when she walks under the trees to the farm.  As she was explaining, it occurred to me she probably has allergies.  It was cute.  At first while she was speaking and explaining it, her story sounded very strange – as if the trees were cursing her and purposefully making her sick.  When it dawned on me I bet it was allergies, that made sense for us all.  She also spoke about how she would like to take care of a baby for work rather than farm.  The farming was too difficult.  What a great idea.  I bet she would be a wonderful babysitter for a young working mother.  Wow, I would much rather have my baby with her one on one than some sitter who has too many children.  I could just see Maria coddling and spoiling the baby rotten.  My kind of babysitter.  What peace of mind for a mother or even a father.  Fathers who have children who need babysitters could really benefit from someone like Maria.  And, this idea….what about moving her in and you have an instant nanny to care for your children.  She would be so grateful and would care so well for the children.

We finished up our conversation.  I could tell they were needing to get home.  KenyaRelief drove them home personally.  We parted hugging each other and with laughter.  We had started a lifelong friendship.  I am really looking forward to seeing them again.

What struck me about these two is several things:  1) They were just like the elders at home in the U.S. having the same worries.  I don’t know what I expected….it was Africa, right?  They were going to be from a story book situation I had in my head – cared for by their children in a village and looked up to as the great elders of wisdom and knowledge on which to build young lives.  The children are too busy trying to make a living for their families.  The aged are on their own just like in the U.S.  2)  They were so sharp.  Their cognitive ability was healthier than what I see from the same age group here in the U.S.  3) Their physical ability was incredible.  They both were able to sit at a picnic table for 3 hours after the strenuous journey to the compound.  It is rare that I see that physical ability with our elders in America.  You have to wonder…..they work hard, they eat simply and they have their families depending on them.  Is that the secret to their success?  They are successful.  I don’t think they see themselves as successful.  How true is that for all of us?  We really don’t realize how blessed we live.  Is it because we take so much for granted?  Is it because we forgot what God has blessed us with….did the blessings become too common place in our lives?  Anyway, so much for philosophizing….. They have sharp minds, healthy bodies and love coming through their hearts.  Interviewing them was a privilege I will never forget.  They were inspiring!


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