When we agreed to spend two weeks assisting the local Baha’i community in Mombasa, we didn’t put much thought into what the conditions of our accommodations would be. Our group of six was set to stay at the Baha’i center, which would be our home base as we went out to visit the local Baha’is and help them to strengthen and enliven their community building activities.
We got in after a nine-hour bus ride from Nairobi over the vast grassy savannah between the capital and Kenya’s second largest city. We arrived around 9:30 pm sore, tired and ready to make dinner and get to sleep. After dropping our bags in our rooms, we plodded to the kitchen to find that the multi-burner gas stove we were expecting to use to cook up our rice and daal was actually a single burner charcoal stove called a jiko. As I never advanced very far in boy scouts, the caretakers Aziz and Janet helped us light it (a twenty minute process we would repeat twice a day for the next two weeks) and, after some confusion on how to cook rice without being able to adjust the heat, an hour later we settled down for a warm tasty meal.
After dinner we all went off to our rooms to get ready for bed, but then realized that there were not enough mattresses for our entire group! Not only that, but the two rooms that we were split between were uncomfortably hot and the prospect of sharing a bed under a stifling mosquito net was even less appealing. Luckily, we solved both problems by moving all the mattresses out into the common room and having a slumber party under the building’s single fan, which not only kept us cool, but was also strong enough to keep off the mosquitoes!
The next morning brought more challenges as we learned that although there were showers, faucets and a toilet, there was no running water. Although this is the case for multiple months of the year, this apparently does not stop the water company from demanding to be paid every month, despite the fact that the meter reading does not change. We instead had to pay for water carriers who push long wooden carts filled with fifteen-liter jugs to come and fill up a tank behind the main building. Then, (because the pump was broken) every time we needed water for showering, cleaning or going to the bathroom we would grab a bucket, jump down into the hole where the tank was and scoop the water out by hand.
Perhaps one benefit of this process is that you only use water when you really need it, and you are much more economical with the water you do use. It is hard to take a luxurious bucket bath and you can’t waste water by leaving the tap on when shaving or brushing teeth if there is no running water in the first place. :)
This brings me to the refrigerator, or more accurately, the absence of one. I had never quite realized what a luxury it was to keep food chilled or frozen until that was no longer possible. The lack of a comfortingly whirring electric icebox not only meant that we had to go shopping almost everyday for fresh produce but we also could not have many food items that you can’t eat in one sitting, such as cheese or yogurt, which spoil quickly in the coastal heat. Perhaps most sadly, leftovers, normally a significant part of my diet, were also a victim of our lack of artificial frigidity. If you don’t finish it after the next meal, it went to the garbage (or rather, the pile in the back continually raided by morning monkeys).
Our Kenyan friends, who were used to many of the conditions we found challenging, helped us to see the brighter side of these conditions. Using a charcoal stove allows you to leave a pot of food cooking for hours and not worry about it, the original slow cooker. No running water means that instead of everyone individually washing hands before they eat, one person goes around with a pitcher and basin pouring water on the hands of everyone sitting at the table, giving the process a very communal and almost reverent feel. And sleeping out under the building’s only fan brought us all together at night for prayers before we all went to bed. Perhaps most importantly, giving up material comforts seems to enliven prayer and makes it easier to move into a state of communion, something that was certainly essential for our trip.
As our train pulled away from the Mombasa station at the end of our two weeks, we left behind a new children’s virtues class, a reinvigorated youth empowerment group and many wonderful people starting the first in a series of courses that help to strengthen community life and train people to become agents of change in their own lives. What we took back with us to Nairobi was a profound feeling of gratefulness for being afforded such an incredible opportunity to serve, learn and grow. That, and a newfound appreciation for refrigerators. :)