Motorcycle Diaries: Nyumbani

Kitui County, Kenya

Despite my recent fascination with the show American Choppers, until Tuesday, I had never ridden or been on a motorcycle. Thus, almost needless to say, I had never been in a motorcycle accident. Well, then, Tuesday was my lucky day. I got to have two life firsts within 10 minutes of each other. Yes, my streak of accident free motorcycle riding lasted mere minutes until I found myself laying on my back watching the clouds go by at the bottom of a gully with Dee and a dirt bike on top of my left leg.

And now, as usual, I will fill in some back-story. Lilian, Dee, Suzanne, and I spent two days this week travelling to 3 primary schools in the surrounding area testing the preschool children for malnutrition. There is a really simple test that can be done involving measuring the circumference of the upper arm, and if the kids are in fact malnourished, there is a program of prescription food that they can be enrolled in through USAID.

The work itself is both interesting and heartbreaking. The interesting part is that is it very different from the work that I have been doing so far. Up until now, the work that I have been doing has looked a lot like pasturing or being an IT guy. I have worked with young people, preached in the primary school, prayed with families, and exorcised demons from two computer labs. This work represents my first foray into the ins and outs of public health fieldwork. A lot of what one does as a public health professional is gather data to make informed decisions about programs and resource allocation. To me, this is a good lead into my first year at Rollins School of Public Health in the fall.

The heartbreaking aspect is perhaps more obvious. At each school, we found 6 or 7 children who were malnourished. Their upper arms have a circumference less than 5 inches. Many of their stomachs are swollen because they suffer from intestinal worms. They are thinner and less energetic than the other children. Nowhere we have gone so far was it the majority of the class, but for all the talk of ‘starving children in Africa,’ it is an entirely different thing to meet them first hand. There are lighter moments too in these school visits. We play with the kids. They love having their picture taken and will chase you down the drive as you walk out. However, this does not take away from the human tragedy that is malnutrition in a world that produces more than enough food to feed its population.

Back to the mixture of comedy and tragedy that I opened with, boda-bodas are dirt bike taxis that are a common form of transportation out here because many places are either not accessible by car or are just too expensive to operate. For instance, here in the village, we are about 10km from the nearest paved road. I have spent a lot time riding in the back of the village’s flat bed truck or pickup truck riding into the nearest bar to watch the Euro Cup Final or riding with the primary school’s drumming and dancing team into Kitui. A lot of these bouncy, hair-raising journeys in the backs of trucks, often sitting on wooden benches, were to avoid the ubiquitous boda-boda. As my father will tell you, I have never had much skill in riding a bicycle. I bought one for college but swore off riding it after I launched myself over the handlebars going down a hill into a brick sidewalk. We also have family lore about my great, grand-something having a wooden peg leg because of a motorcycle accident. In short, I don’t do two-wheeled transport.

However, it was unavoidable in order to make these school visits. The distances were too far to walk, and the villages two trucks were needed elsewhere. This meant that on to the boda-boda, I went. Now, they way that they normally work is that the driver and two other people pile onto the relatively small dirt bike. Most of the time, the drivers do not have helmets, and none are on offer for the passengers. The saving grace of these things is that they do not go very fast.

On my first ride, it was Dee, the driver, and I. Dee was in the middle, and I was on the very back holding on as best as I could. We got to the bottom of a gully, and the bike stalled and came to a stop. We all flung out our legs to stop the fall, but it was no good. The bike went over in what felt like slow motion. I landed first and rolled a little to my side. Then, Dee and the bike landed on my leg. Despite the accident, there were two pieces of luck in this. One, the bike was completely stopped, when we fell, and two, it was not the side of the bike with burning hot exhaust pipe that landed on my leg. It is about as lucky as a motorcycle crash can be.

In the subsequent days, I have been on three more boda-boda rides, all without incident. We learned a valuable physics lesson in that since I had usually the person with the most mass on the bike, I need to be the middle rider to decrease unsprung weight and thus, increase stability. This does not mean I like riding the blasted things. It just means that I am having a little more success staying on them.

In other less humorous news, my historically unreliable digestive system is once again staging an all out rebellion necessitating a lot of time with my eco-toilet. This might be somewhat of a result of the all American feast that we held to celebrate the 4th of July (see the photo gallery for details), but either way, please be in prayer that I can go back to my normal work and not have to stay within dashing distance of my dear friends the eco-toilet and my “pet” bat more lives in there.

As always, thanks so much for your thoughts, comments, and prayers. There is link to the photo gallery below. There are about 60 new images up.

Link to the Photo Gallery

Mungu Akubariki,