Our African Odyssey: the adventure ends fast, high… and dark.


We were watching the kids in the playground centered between the cottages. They laughed and chased each other while the dogs barked whenever they ventured too far. We were mesmerized and fully content. It was Sunday and the relatives of the children were welcome to attend mass at the chapel on the grounds of the complex.

Not all Nyumbani children are from poor families, and sometimes a child would be left with a “purse”… a purse the rest of the family may covet. If these relatives could find their young niece or nephew in an unfortunate death, the family would be the beneficiary of the purse.

There were several families at mass on this particular Sunday. One by one, they said their goodbyes to the children of their sister, brother, or very distant cousin, and made their way back home. We noticed the staff running from cottage to cottage while others scanned the playground. They were looking for someone. It was only later we were told of the story that had unfolded at the front gate.

The relatives of one of the young girls had kidnapped their little niece, hiding her in the back of their vehicle. One of the housemothers realized the girl was missing seconds before the car passed through the front gate. She telephoned the guard house and the Maasai warriors stopped the car. An argument ensued, the uncle swearing the little girl was not in the vehicle. The guard insisted on searching the vehicle, the uncle threatened the guard. The guard stood in front of the gate with his machete held high and said, “Give us the girl, or someone is going to die here today and you will be the one who dies!” The girl’s aunt finally allowed her to climb out of the back of the car.

We were still talking about the events of the day when the administrator rushed to the kitchen to inform us of a visitor. Our visitor said he had met us on our flight from the Maasai Mara to Nairobi and, being in the area for the day, thought he would stop by to say hello. There was only one problem….we did not meet anyone or talk to anyone on that flight. The administrator was familiar with the area he said he was from, but when she questioned him, he came up short and couldn’t answer her questions. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. Suddenly I did not feel safe, and I didn’t know why.

We decided it would be smart if we did not pursue our curiosity as to what this man wanted. The administrator made excuses on our behalf and the man went away. We would never know who this visitor was, or why he had chosen to visit us that day.

Aerial view of the Paradise Hotel after bombing news.bbc.co.uk
Aerial view of the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa after bombing

Life in Africa had been so consuming that we were well unaware of news outside of our little world. This ignorance ended abruptly when we called to confirm our flight arrangements and learned International flights to and from Kenya were suspended in response to the perceived threat of missile attacks similar to the one in November 2002 in Mombasa.

The U.S. Embassy in Kenya had closed for five days amid threats of imminent “terrorist” attacks, including the flying of a plane and the driving of a truck full of explosives into the new U.S. Embassy buildings in Nairobi. My husband spent the next 6 hours on and off the phone with the airline trying to confirm a reservation out of the country before everything shut down. He gave me a big hug when he finally got the call that we had two seats on the last flight out the next day. I cried.

As frightening as the thought of being stuck in Africa may have been, we were sad to say goodbye to our new friends, and especially the children. It was customary at Nyumbani for the children to be invited to accompany visitors to the airport, and all of the children from the St. Carol cottage wanted to ride along.

It was dusk when we arrived at the airport and made our way through the checkpoints and barricades blocking the airport from the road. Nothing gave us warm fuzzies that everything was going to be ok, but finally we were at the gate and by all accounts it appeared a flight was going to leave this airport. Then the lights went out.

The airport’s power was going on and off constantly, but eventually we boarded the plane. Everyone was calm, but the tension was thick. We settled into our seats and the plane began to push back from the gate as the pilot made an announcement that due to the terrorist threats, we would be taking off fast, high…. and dark.

I’ve been scared in my life, but I have never been in a situation that I feared might not end well. We quickly taxi’d onto the runway cloaked in darkness, and without warning the pilot floored it. Seconds later the nose shot straight up. No one made a sound. Secretly, I waited for a blast.

Fortunately, a blast never came. Our steep climb leveled out and before long we were out of danger and on our way home.

Africa changed our lives forever. It helped us become different people with a greater appreciation of nature and the wildlife that lives there. We left with an intimate understanding of the effects of HIV and AIDS on the people of Africa, and a humble appreciation and admiration for the people that work to make their lives better.

For me, this was an education on how fragile life is.  I believed this would be my last visit to Africa and knew I would treasure the trip forever.

Eleven years later, it is not to be my last visit….

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