Tears in Africa by Joan Wahl Countryman

“You can’t go to Africa on your own, Mom” my daughter, Deirdre, exclaimed when I showed her the brochure for “Wings over Africa.”

“To see Kenya has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. Now that you and your brother Tony are all grown up and I’m alone, I feel drawn to Africa. The travel agent has worked with me, helping me use my air miles, and finding the very best trip for a widow traveling alone,” I assured her. Everything would be fine.

Landing in Nairobi in October, 1994, I began to have second thoughts about my decision. Maybe I am biting off more than I can chew, I thought. What if I get sick or even die? What if the kids are right and I disrupt their lives due to this dream of mine? The airport looked shabby and everyone was coal black. I wondered, would I understand the language? Fear took over. Then, right in front of me stood a tall, handsome, African man. “You must be Joan; I’m John from Abercrombie & Kent. I will get your luggage and take you to the bus,” he said. His dark grey well-tailored suit displayed the A&K name tag with John’s name on it. His English and communication skills put me at ease. Now I could begin to relax and enjoy the experience.

On the bus, John introduced me to the three American couples that would join me on the trip. Everyone seemed very enthused except for one man, Mr. Negative. He informed all of us, “The only reason I’m here is because my wife wanted to see Africa.”

I took the front seat in the van next to the tour guide. “Didn’t your husband want to see Africa?” she questioned. “He would have loved to,” I replied, “but he died a year ago from lung cancer at age fifty eight.” Silence reigned in the back as the newly acquainted travelers searched for something to say. I took a deep breath and swallowed hard. Someone in the back made a comment about courage, which went over my head.

After a night in a hotel in Nairobi, we flew in a small plane to Amboseli. The next day we went out in a Land Rover type vehicle to view herds of elephants on a preserve. We stopped along a grassy area and were asked to be quiet out of respect for the animals, as a very large herd approached. The lead elephant, a female, stopped in her tracks, looked into our eyes and refused to continue until the driver backed the vehicle out of their path. Her message was: this land is mine.

Flying over the Great Rift Valley on the way to the Masai Mara, we could see great herds of wildebeest on the march for water. Viewed from the air, they reminded me of ants. When we got closer to the Masai Mara, an occasional spot of red and some cattle appeared on the ground. The spot of red was a Masai herder watching his flock.

The Masai, a very tall regal people, greeted us. We were treated to native dancing and a craft show in their round house, which was made of dung and straw and large enough to hold fifty people. I noticed a little boy who was half clad with bare feet and a snotty nose. Flies flew around him. Oh, how I wished I could take him home and give him a bath. As we left the round house and took the path for the bus, the little boy walked up to Mr. Negative, took his hand and gave him a big snotty smile.

Waving goodbye from the bus, Mr. Negative turned to us and with tears in his eyes said, “That little boy was the highlight of my trip to Africa. If I live to be 100, I will never forget him. He made this whole trip worthwhile.”

Next stop, Nanuki. Flying over the dry savannah we saw an occasional acacia tree giving shade to a few wild animals. The tour guide pointed to a heard of African antelope, known as eland, taking shelter. Our next stop was the Mount Kenya Safari Club. This luxury hotel at the foot of Mt. Kenya promised experiences one could only dream about.

Along the road to the Mount Kenya Safari Club, I saw coffee plantations and an occasional village of painted huts, some with galvanized roofs. Children played outside among the colorful clothing hanging on the lines to dry. With my nose pressed against the van window I saw a woman who was carrying a huge bale of wood on her back. Bent over almost in half, she put one foot in front of the other as the road rose in front of her.

“What is that poor soul doing with all that wood?” I asked the tour guide.

“She is collecting wood to build a fire to cook the food for her family,” the guide replied rather matter-of-factly. “I wish she could have a bike to carry all that wood,” I said to no one in particular. “These people can’t even afford a wheelbarrow!” the guide replied.

I was shocked and saddened thinking of my own wasteful habits.

The hotel was luxurious. Mount Kenya was snow capped and majestic. We were greeted at the entrance with a cool fruit drink while the guide registered the group. I was escorted to my own cottage by a nice soft-spoken gentleman wearing a brown uniform. I wanted to tip him but did not understand the exchange rate. I pulled out a bill, which, when I saw the look on his face, I realized it was much too little. Later he knocked on the door around 4:00 pm with a cup of tea and biscuits. By this time, I had figured out the exchange rate and was able to give him a decent tip. “I will be back in a little while with wood to light the fire in the fireplace. Don’t miss the sun as it sets behind the mountain,” he offered.

This is really being spoiled, I thought. He came back and lit the fire. I settled in with my cup of tea. All alone with no one to share the moment, I watched the smoke and flames rise as the picture of the poor soul trudging up the road, bent under the bale of wood, filled my heart with sadness. Her image was all I could see in the flames. My tears could not change her life in this vast country, where life seemed so unfair.

When the sun went down, the night skies were very black. A buffet table displayed an array of salads and fruit to choose from. I took a seat at the table with our tour guide and another couple and enjoyed the meal, the wine, and the talk about what we had seen and what was to come. A guide with a flashlight helped me back to my cottage after dinner. Animal sounds played like music in the night air. Mount Kenya Safari club members and many famous people from around the world finance the rescue of injured wild animals that can no longer survive in the wild. The animals are adopted, living out their lives in this great reserve where well-trained, caring staff and volunteers make them comfortable.

Our next stop was The Ark in Aberdares National Park. The Ark had the feel of a tree house, overlooking a water hole and a salt lick, which were floodlit at night. The staff rang a bell in the rooms at night to let everyone know the animals were at the water. I got up and joined the other guests on the deck to watch a black rhino drinking from the pool. The next day a large stealthy leopard walked right by the window in the lounge where I sat having a drink. Amazing!

The roar of the male lion waking from his afternoon nap, the speed of the cheetah on the chase to take down an eland, the sounds of the exotic birds and the sight of other wildlife took me to a place where I hadn’t ventured before, emotionally or physically. My broken heart opened up to my new reality.

In the dark of night, on the edge of the Masai Mara with a chorus of wild animals calling out to one another, I sat outside my tent and cried like never before. I cried for the lost moments, the unshared thoughts, the love never voiced or put off for a better time, and the many things left unfinished. I had to go to deepest, darkest Africa to share my sadness with the animals.

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December 7th by Marice George

I was playing on the shady grass under the monkey pod tree waiting for my ride to Kohala Union Church Sunday school. I wore a blue dress with a white pinafore and sandals, which I wore only to Sunday school. Otherwise I was always barefoot.

My mother came out of the house and called to me, “There won’t be any Sunday school today. Your better come in the house right now. The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.” I came in, as I recognized the worry and sadness in her voice but did not understand why it was there. I didn’t know Pearl Harbor was a big Navy base close to my own island of Hawaii. My mother must have felt the way I felt on 9/11/2001. I thought of my parents often as we experienced that shocking event and how they must have felt when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

The only Japanese I knew back then were our maids and they were very nice to me, taking me to their rooms in the “maids’ house,” letting me share lychee nut candy and showing me their magazines with strange letters that read from right to left.

Back in the house my father was sitting very close to the floor model radio and was very attentive. My mother was busy looking for dark fabric to cover the windows in the bedroom that was to be our gathering place that night when it got dark. I gradually learned of the seriousness of what had happened but did not realize at that time how it would affect me.

My parents did everything to keep me from being afraid. We gathered that night with our houseguests. My mother often had friends from Oahu visit and they would paint pictures, hook rugs, and play games. That night we played “Go,” a Japanese game for all ages. The object was to get five discs in a row on a board with squares before your opponent got theirs lined up in the same way. There was not an age or language barrier in this game. I played it for hours, most recently when I had to entertain a Czech speaking student who was living with my daughter and her husband for the summer. That night of December 7, I was given a teddy bear that was meant to be a Christmas present three weeks early. Only nine years old, I thought it was all great fun.

The next day I went to school as usual. I was taught by the mother of my two best friends, Barbara and Ellen McGillivray. Mrs. McGillivray taught the three of us in the home schooling system called Calvert School. She taught reading, writing, math, and history. My mother taught art and music. Those lessons came after we had a rest. We took a rest because my father had to get up at 4:30 am to get the sugar plantation workers out to the fields and he needed a rest.

Christmas came and went and we mostly continued our life as before though now the war was close by. The blackouts continued and my father was a patrolman and had to check to see that no light was peeking out from people’s windows. He also served on the Draft Board.

My father hired some plantation workers to dig a bomb shelter in the hillside behind our house. It was supplied with dirt benches, a short wave radio and some canned food. The battle of Midway had not yet happened and nobody knew whether or not Hawaii would be bombed or taken over by the Japanese.

We kids heard the adults talking about hiding their valuables, which led to a discussion about our valuables. Barbara said to Ellen, “Our most precious things are our books so we better bury them.” Ellen went along with that and they buried their books in the wet dirt. Soon they were ruined. I was not wiser, but I was luckier. I buried my collection of old rhinestone jewelry that we girls traded back and forth. I found it in the ground two years later.

My parents wanted me to be safe, so I was sent to South Pasadena, California to live with my mother’s sister, Aunt Kit and her family. Mrs. McGillivray took Barbara and Ellen and me from our island of Hawaii to my grandmother’s house on Oahu, The day we left, March 22, 1942, was my 10th birthday and I got dreadfully seasick. Once we got to my grandmother’s big colonial house we were furnished with lots of entertainment. We cut out paper dolls, sewed doll clothes and tore around her garden playing hide and seek, jumped rope and generally kept happy and busy, aside from when I hit my head on a garden bench necessitating stitches. I still have the scar under my eyebrow to prove it. During the occasional air raid drills we would go into the bomb shelter in Grandmother’s back yard until the all clear siren sounded. I felt more excited than scared. We waited at Grandmother’s house for two weeks for the ship to arrive. It was part of an Army hospital convoy. We got on the main ship where we shared one stateroom and had nice dining room service. We zigzagged across the Pacific to avoid Japanese submarines. I can’t remember anything I didn’t like about the 10 day trip.

When we arrived in San Francisco, my sister was there waiting. She was studying Home Economics at Mills College in Oakland. I was glad to see her. I had always idolized her, though we were 10 ½ years apart and were not close. In her memoir Wild Onions she wrote “Sister Marice was barely noticed by me in those days. I was a teenager, self-centered, and in school on Oahu.” She went away to school on Oahu and lived in the boarding department at Punahou School when I was just two years old. Her teenage clothes, music, and friends were fascinating to me. After I arrived in San Francisco, she and I traveled on the Daylight Express railway to Southern California. She gave me a book, The Bluebird of Happiness, which I thought a nice present and we read it together as we rolled along. I kept that book for many years. I found out later that my sister had given up a long anticipated trip to Sun Valley to go skiing in order to take me to my aunt’s. I hope she has forgiven me by now.

I exchanged letters with my parents every week, though the letters took two weeks to arrive. They were often censored and would have chunks cut out of them. One occasion for censorship was when my mother quoted what my orthodontist said about the way my tooth straightening was to continue. His name was Dr. Kubo, and perhaps the censors thought this business about my teeth was a code. My mother was very clever when she wanted to tell me the volcano was erupting. This was information the Japanese might want. She wrote, “Dr. Jagger’s baby is spitting up.” I knew Dr. Jagger was the volcanologist and that he did not have a young child. The censors did not catch that.

My Favorite Place by Marice George

My favorite place to savor a cup of warm coffee in the morning, to sip on a cold glass of wine while watching the yellow, orange and red sun set in the evening, or to read a book anytime is on a cement platform on the beach at Lalamilo, Hawaii.   The sunset reminds me that this place is magical and that memories are still being created each time I visit.

These memories began when the plantation doctor, Richard Treadwell, (known as R.T.) and his family lived next door to us in Hawi. The youngest child, Florence, was my age and a good friend. Dr. Treadwell bought a strip of beach front property along the Kohala Coast. On one end of the beach he had a house built. I was lucky to be invited there several times. There were no roads to the beach so we came by boat from the port of Kawaihae, about five miles away.

The house had three small bedrooms, a big living/dining room with a kitchen in the corner and lots of windows facing the beach. The “bathroom” was a halelii (Hawaiian for little house) up a slope from the house. The path was overhung with kiawe trees which dropped kukus (thorns) that would stick into our bare feet. In the halelii were two adult size holes and one lower, smaller child size hole. Once Florence dropped her flashlight into one hole. It was not retrieved! The shower was in a room under the house and accessible from the beach. We were told to be sure to pick up our bathing suits off the floor or a scorpion might hide underneath them. The only modern convenience was the telephone in case the doctor needed to be contacted.

Florence and I collected hermit crabs with a variety of colorful shells. We kept them as pets in a big tub with a little water and sand in the bottom. When it was time to go home we set them free. I wonder if children are still catching hermit crabs. I have not seen any.

Right on the beach, down about 10 steps from the house, was a round cement platform about 12 feet across with a table and chairs and lounges. I loved to sit there and read my “Big, Little Books”, so called because they were about 3” by 3” and 2” inches thick. I knew even then, at 8 years old, that this was a very special place for me.

I have rented the house from Florence’s agent (I get the “family and friends discount”) twice as an adult and it is just as wonderful as I remembered. Now it has all the modern conveniences, even a flush toilet at house level. The first time I rented it was with my old friend, Ellen McGillivray Luhrs and two other friends. The most recent time was August of 2014. I love to sit on that platform listening to the waves rolling in, feeling the warm breeze on my skin, and remembering the evenings long ago when we dug in the warm sand, following the holes searching for the crab that dug them. In the twilight we would watch for the first star so that we could recite, “Star light, star bright, first star seen tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” I wish now more than anything to get back to that platform on the beach of Hawi.

Hold That Trash! (by Janet Clark)

In the late 1960’s, I suddenly found myself with no independence and no income of my own. Overnight I became a non-person. My husband and I packed our household, sons nearly 3 and almost 5, and moved to Northern California where he would become a college professor. I had to leave my job with a brokerage firm where I was finishing studies and testing for a stock broker’s license, paid for by my employer. Having been our family’s main bread winner while my spouse finished his Masters, I not only left behind a big paycheck plus generous bonuses, I also parted with my main source of self-esteem and suddenly felt adrift. In our new community, a total stranger informed me he could tell I was a “city girl” because my skirts were “too short for this town.” And so I was—a city girl stranded in the middle of almond orchards, rice fields and a daily 10 page Republican newspaper. It would take many years for me to appreciate almonds and brown rice.

First I tried a few months of typing and secretarial work for the campus English Department, but they were housed in the same building as the Art Department my husband worked in and I soon overheard that the staff was unhappy with him because he blatantly used the “F” and the “Sh” words in public. My job did not pay as much as the cost of day care for my children, so one day I responded to an ad for part time evening work with the Blue Diamond Nut Company. It seemed like the perfect solution. My husband could watch the children while I worked the evening shift sorting nuts, which couldn’t be a far cry from what my life was like already. The pay was fairly good.

The interview was brief and I was hired on the spot. Provided with a big green hair net—the kind worn in medical facilities—I was introduced to the conveyor belts. There were three of them, each divided into six sections so that the women perched on stools on either side of the belt had a total of three “trays”. The tray closest to the employee carried almonds that had been cracked by a big machine. The other two trays were for broken almonds and the last was for the trash—bits of shell, leaves, sometimes unspeakable things. I was instructed to pick the trash and broken bits of almond out of the first tray, leaving only the perfect almonds, drop the broken nuts into tray two, and anything not edible into the third tray. Made sense. Sounded pretty easy.

I was provided with a backless stool and someone helped me adjust it to the proper height for working on the conveyor. Settling in, things went well until the belt was turned on. It moved much faster than I imagined and I immediately began to laugh out loud. Trying to pick out the trash and damaged nuts and drop them into their proper places on the conveyor was like some kind of dexterity game you might play with children at a party. And then, all of a sudden the belt seemed to stop and it felt as though I was moving. I must have looked alarmed because the woman sitting next to me (we had never been introduced) hollered over the noise of the machinery, “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.” The next couple of hours until break time were grueling. All the motion made me nauseous and the noise made my ears ring. Every ten minutes, my supervisor, a wiry little woman with a southern twang, stopped behind me, glared in my direction and screamed, “Hold that trash!” It was like being in the middle of a Felini movie and I no longer felt like laughing. I wanted to cry.

It only took a couple of days for me to develop a very negative attitude. Driving off to work I’d pass my neighbor, a doctor’s wife, outside chatting with the pool man, another neighbor riding her big Arabian horse back out of the park toward their stables. I imagined what they’d think of me if they knew what I was doing. I started hating my husband.

The job lasted for two weeks. One morning I couldn’t get out of bed until I’d called the Diamond office and told them I was done. They didn’t sound surprised. They were probably relieved. The supervisor had started referring to me as “I Love Lucy” and asked me several times, “Girl, what are you doing here?” Each time I looked at her—wearing a T-shirt from a local bar, missing a couple of front teeth, recalling the battered Ford pick-up she plowed into the company parking lot every afternoon—well, I just never found an explanation I thought she might appreciate.

Upcoming Events for DYLS

Readers and writers,

We have some exciting events coming very quickly as our semester speeds to a close.

First off, I am about to post our first student blog submission for the session, an essay from Janet Clark. Hopefully her fellow students will follow in her wake and soon there will be a broad sampling of some of the wonderful works that these writers have been working on right here on the blog.

Secondly, the due date is approaching for submissions from our writers for the Fall 2014 Writing Anthology. This printed compilation of student work will serve as both a keepsake from the class, as well as a physical means of sharing work with one another. Submissions are due by the end of November. Copies will be available at our reading on December 10th.

Which brings us to an exciting announcement! Document Your Life Story will be hosting its first ever Celebration of Writing Class Reading, during which members from the class will share some of their incredible stories. The reading will take place in the Elderberry Room of the Lafayette Community Center (500 St. Mary’s Road) on Wednesday, December 10th from 2:00-3:30 pm. Refreshments will be provided. Family, friends, and members of the community are invited to attend. Hope to see you there!