I spent a third day in the company of Ojullu, and his friend Angango who I just met in February. These orphaned refugee men spent a day with me at my home on the campus of Kenyatta University in February. Our visit was on my home ground and everything was new for them. In March I visited them at their secondary school, the Heights School, where Ojullu is a fourth year student and head boy, and Angango is a third year student and a prefect. They are 24 and 23. Everything was new for me as I learned about the world of a boarding high school in Kenya.
Today I traveled to Ruiru, a town 20 minutes up the Thika Highway by matatu (a small crazy van) where Ojullu and Angango stay when they are on holiday from school. They are between terms and return to classes in May. I rode six different matatus today with their help, a feat I could never accomplish alone. To this old American mzungu a matatu ride is a nerve-racking, exciting, terrifying, exhilarating experience. Our rides cost twenty shillings or ten shillings, depending on distance. That’s like paying a quarter for a ride down the rode. They escorted me on every trip, as the matatus are unmarked, unregulated, and confusing unless you know the system. They are packed tightly with people, and somehow there are always more bodies than there are seats. They are always FULL. I shared a seat for one short journey and I learned ways to balance without hurting the people around me too badly. My knuckles were white as they gripped the seat in front of me. I’m glad you didn’t have to see me squeeze past people through the tiny aisle to the back seat on another ride as the matatu began to move before I was in my seat. Inelegant doesn’t begin to describe my collapse onto the back seat.
This visit with Ojullu, who I first met in 2011 as part of the Dadaab Theatre Project, was again completely different, as I saw these men on their home ground, outside of school with their ties and uniforms. They were at ease in the muddy lanes of Riuru, confident and happy to show me their corner of the world. I followed their confident steps as we leapt from rock to rock down roads choked with puddles and mud. As the matatu pulled in to Ruiru Ojullu said to me, ‘We live in the mud.’ Goats and chickens wandered free; a doorway to a hair salon, covered with lace, suddenly fluttered and three goats exited the salon together, pushing past the lace.
They greeted people, shook hands, and shouted greetings across fields. Children everywhere said ‘mzungu’ as they saw me, an American in their midst a rare sight. They greeted me in English ‘How are you?’ and I answered in Kiswahili ‘Mzuri sana’ and the astonished faces made us laugh every time.
Angango means ‘What do I know?’ and Ojullu means ‘Second born’. If I were born in Ethiopia I would love to be called Angango. ‘What do I know?’ That’s perfect.
I know that Ojullu and Angango, who have smiles that can kill you, know much more than I do about things I have never had to consider. They live in two rooms, both about 10’ by 12’. The first room had one mattress, and the second room had a bed and a mattress. Seven men live here together. There are no closets, no cupboards, no bathroom, no water, nowhere to cook, no, well, no anything except four walls and their smiles. It was clean and organized, a proud home. I brought them Ritz crackers, Marie biscuits, a notebook and pens.
Ojullu and Angango have two tall stacks of books in their back room, proud students. They seem to have more books than clothes or possessions, a very rare pair. We talked about Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, required reading for Ojullu. We talked about the world, about refugee status, about the genocide in Ethiopia and the challenges still facing survivors today, about terrorism in Nigeria, about Ukraine and Russian and US involvement, about the world.
Ojullu read the poem LOST by David Wagoner to us out loud that he had copied into his notebook, a poem sent to him by Julianna Bloodgood. I am always so impressed with the world engagement of these two bright young men, aware that their knowledge and interests shame many young Americans who have lost their connection to world events. They are interested and interesting and they care.
They mentioned the day recently when they were unable to find any food, saying, ‘It’s not so bad. We can survive a day without eating.’
Ojullu makes my heart hurt a little, that good heart-hurt that we should all experience more. Our hearts understand more than our minds.
Ojullu loves American country music. He played us songs on his mobile phone. He likes the stories. He knew every word to songs I had never heard. He said ‘You should hear Bobby Kennedy.’ I thought, ‘I don’t know any country singer named Bobby Kennedy.’ He hit play and I sat transfixed, listening to a speech from 1966 given by Robert Kennedy in South Africa. It lasted ten minutes and we all sat together nodding in agreement. Why have I never heard this speech? I was five at the time. Why was I listening to this famous Day of Affirmation speech for the first time sitting in Kenya with Ojullu and Angango? Amazement. They were my teachers and I was the student.
The reason for Robert Kennedy’s famous speech? Ojullu practices speaking English by downloading American speeches. I was ashamed of my ignorance and full of awe at the spirit possessed by this young man.
What a great day I had with these guys, hanging out in their room, leaping through the mud past goats, shopping in the town center, riding in matatus, and treating ourselves to chicken and chips in a place they had never eaten. Sharing their life. Today was a favorite day.
Ojullu. Angango. I have no more words.
Look at these smiles.