I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya between 2000 and 2002.
Twenty-seven total months in country.
Three months at the training center in the stunningly beautiful town of Naivasha. That training center, by the way, was named Malaika, which means “angel” in Kiswahili.
Then, twenty-four months as a Deaf education volunteer at a school constructed atop a lush mountain, one hour’s hike from the nearest paved road and a five-minute stroll from one of the most powerful waterfalls I’d ever experienced, near the town of Murang’a.
The gig required that I become as fluent as possible with Kenya Sign Language as well as spoken Kiswahili. Additionally, I needed to learn basic greetings and simple small talk in Kikuyu, the mother tongue of the same-named tribe among whom I’d be living. In addition to teaching whatever subjects were required, I would also engage in HIV/AIDS education as well as girl empowerment endeavors. What I never could have anticipated is the fact that I would be unwittingly ushered into the world of Autism as well.
Kenya is one of several British post-colonial remnants of Europeans chopping up the continent of Africa as if it were a disputed garden plot. Kenyan society as I found it in 2000 was a complex interplay of various tribal histories, British rule and ravage, and a monotheistic, predominantly Christian battle for the souls of previously unassuming, culturally rich, animistic people.
One vestige of British rule included an authoritarian, punitive, hierarchical, almost caste-driven school system. Things were done a certain way, and any aberration from the norm was met with vitriol and violence, public reprimand and shaming.
So in steps Gregory Del Duca. A progressive white guy from the United States. An idealist. I wanted these children to learn, to communicate, to achieve their unique dreams, to stand up and speak up, to challenge unfair and inappropriate authority…in other words, to be precisely NOT Kenyan in so many ways. (On a side note, perhaps the greatest lesson of spending 2+ years in such an unfamiliar and different culture was the nuance, sensitivity, and patience required of serving people while not falling into the cross-cultural comparison trap. That is, a foundational attitude that my way is better than your way.)
The children came to like me. Some of them loved me…and I them. But they often laughed at me, the message clearly, “Ah Gregory. Mwalimu. (Teacher) Mzee. (Elder) You are asking us to be that which we are not, and that is impossible. Please just give us all of you and allow us to be what we will, what we must.”
But there was Moses Chege.
Moses Chege would never, under any circumstances, look an adult in the eyes…or even the facial region. He flinched. A lot. I saw Moses whipped daily with a switch, which was the most popular form of punishment for insubordination. Seemingly indiscriminantly. If there were no switch immediately available, a belt. If neither a switch nor a belt, an open hand. I never knew what he’d done wrong, and I didn’t know the other children well enough, nor did I have fluency enough with their particular Kenya Sign Language vernacular to communicate with them. I wasn’t yet familiar, wasn’t yet trusted. So when I approached him…he flinched. Or he ran and hid. Or all three. Moses didn’t really hang out with his male peers, but several of the girls took care of him, soothed him, provided maternal support, and friendship. These were the only humans permitted to touch Moses, the only faces at which Moses would look, and communicate directly.
I had Moses in my class. Grade 4.
When we had art class, all of the students would compose scenes as they’d been taught by previous teachers. There was no individual creativity…only factual, soulless scenes from daily life. These children literally didn’t know how to express themselves through art. No, that’s not quite right. Rather, they were so completely discouraged from doing so that they seemed to have forgotten. Except Moses. (And yes, he was beaten for this as well.) On a wall, among various renderings of shambani (farms), traditional families, agricultural animals, and streams, there would be stark, mesmerizing pieces of emotional abstractism. Deep, dramatic, moody tones separated by thick black outlines…as if Moses were focusing his inner vision on various emotionally-tinted stained glass windows and then zooming in and out. Moses’ art captured me, and it gave me an insight into his mind that I wasn’t able to recognize in any of his other behavior.
I asked Mercy, one of the most maternal, confident, and expressive girls in the class, and thus prophetically named, to help me talk with Moses about his art. I communicated how much I adored his vision. Eventually, he peaked up at me, a brief smile flittered across his face and his eyes cleared for a second…then a flinch and a retreat.
We continued forward in this fashion, Moses trusting me a little more day by day, week by week, month by month. I, for my part, honoring and cherishing the relationship and meeting Moses wherever Moses needed me to be along the way.
Eventually, I accepted the responsibility of organizing the school’s yearly play.
In Kenya, the annual drama was wrought with the same post-colonial structure which dictated the students’ art and expression within the confines of the curriculum and larger school culture. The stock drama was much like a Tyler Perry play, except without any of the humor or music. It was really just a tragedy that ended with someone dying of AIDS and everyone accepting Jesus. But not really Jesus. This was pseudo Christianity that the proselytizing, missionary Wazungu (white people) had managed to miscommunicate and misappropriate through violence, coercion, non-native languages and a complete ignorance of cultural or historical sensibilities. (This is to say neither that Kenyan Christians are not Christians nor that their beliefs are invalid, but rather that the tactics of early colonialists and missionaries were far from Christian and often inhumane and degrading.)
At the school, we had one communal television and a VHS player. There was a small library of movies and an antenna that would inconsistently pick up signals from the capital city of Nairobi. These wonderful, expressive, beautiful Deaf children had come to adore Mr. Bean, Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, the Three Stooges, and all manner of physical humor and storytelling.
I introduced them to the picture book, “Caps for Sale.” I performed it, and they loved it. We reimagined it as an ensemble play, and we performed our interpretation in front of an adoring, attentive, and enthused student body while the hearing educators and administration stood around the edges confused at best, offended at worse.
I didn’t care…because my students didn’t care.
And there, on a table which stood in front of a poorly constructed but passionately created set involving just a large, misshapen tree and several other pieces which implied an isolated grassy spot, stood Moses Chege. The lead monkey.
He stomped his feet in cheeky mockery of the peddler, played brilliantly by a mustachioed Mercy. (God, that name was so fitting.) He gnashed his teeth, pointed, howled, mimicked Mercy…and he tossed his red cap to the floor after she, the peddlar, exasperated by the situation, tossed her checkered cap to the ground.
Moses…proud, creative, accepted, loved; no longer flinching, no avoidance of visual regard, no more hiding; in front of a paper and cardboard tree that included his bold colors, outlined dramatically in black…his inner vision now public spectacle…a mosaic of many months as he embraced himself and his community. And they him.
And me…unable to comprehend the depth and profundity of those years spent in Murang’a.
Now I know. Now I embrace all manner of diversity, oddity, unusualness, creativity, and atypicality.
Now I am ready for the lessons of Moses Chege.