A Visit to Kenya, East Africa

by Ed Cohen

From the Editor: Ed Cohen is a member of the Indianapolis Chapter of the NFB of Indiana. The following story of his trip to Kenya and his activities on behalf of blind people there appeared in the Winter, 2000, issue of the Hoosier Federationist, the publication of the NFB of Indiana. Here it is:

Little did I realize when our daughter Angela announced her desire to be a Peace Corps volunteer in sub-Saharan Africa how much impact it would have on me and, indeed, on Africa. Less than a month after she graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in Forestry, she left for her two-year assignment in Kenya, East Africa.

During her first year there my wife Karen and I decided to visit her. After all, how often do you have a chance to visit one of your children and go to Africa at the same time?

Angela lives in a little wooden house outside Bomet, a small town in western Kenya not far from the Masaii Mara National Game Preserve. She lives much like her neighbors, who have no electricity, telephone, or running water. Her bathroom is a mere twenty steps from her side door. Yes, it is in a lovely location, but our only communication with her is by the post--what we call the mail. It takes about two weeks for a letter to arrive. E-mail and phone calls are a welcome treat but a rare luxury.

As we discussed our possible plans, I asked Angela if she ever saw blind people in her area. She said that she had not but would do some investigating. While asking around, she learned that the Kenyan Union of the Blind had a chapter in her area. When she spoke to them, they said that they would be pleased to meet a blind person from America. This had the possibility of turning into a great opportunity.

I contacted our state president, Ron Brown, and discussed the idea of taking canes and Braille materials with me on the trip. We also agreed that we should make sure that we left behind the idea of making canes using local materials. He was all for it, so we began to put ideas together.

At our next monthly meeting members of the Indianapolis chapter enthusiastically supported the idea and offered to pitch in with various donations of canes, slates and styluses, and Braille-teaching books. The state affiliate donated a dozen NFB folding canes and twenty extra tips. Rounding out the package were spare bungee cord, Kernel books, the book on Dr. Jernigan's life, and a muffin tin with six tennis balls. The last item was a great Braille teaching aid I had seen at a NOPBC [National Organization of Parents of Blind Children] meeting at our last state convention.

We knew that the Kenyans would need training in the use of their new canes. Though I use a long white cane, I am not an O&M [orientation and mobility] instructor. However, our Indianapolis chapter is fortunate to have Ron Brown and Mike Neese as members. They are recent graduates of the Louisiana Tech master's degree program in Orientation and Mobility in cooperation with the Louisiana Center for the Blind. With their help I felt prepared to impart the basics the Kenyans would need to know to get them started.

The day before Halloween we bid farewell to the USA and began our adventure. After nine hours of flying, we landed in Amsterdam. Here we spent two wonderful days exploring the city on foot and by canal boat. The long stopover helped us adjust to the many time zone changes and gave us a splendid peek at a European city, our first taste, but hopefully not our last.

After another eight-hour flight we arrived in Nairobi, Kenya. At last we were with Angela, whom we had not seen in one-and-a-half years. The first week we went on a safari, which is Swahili for "trip." With the skillful aid of a Kenyan driver/guide we had the pleasure of traveling to four different game parks. Throughout our safari we were amazed and delighted with Kenya and its wildlife. Being close to and seeing such creatures as elephants, lions, and buffalo in their natural setting was a thrill of a lifetime.

At the end of the safari we moved into the second week and phase of our trip. We rented a small jeep, and Angela drove us to her home. Living in America, we don't realize how different our life is from that of the rest of the world. Good roads, directional signs, and reasonable drivers are not something Kenya is over-burdened with. We also learned it is possible to be comfortable without all the modern conveniences that we all take for granted. For example, we learned how little water you actually need to brush your teeth or even to wash your body when you have to boil all the water first.

The morning came when we were to meet with the local blind group. Even though I had a plan and am comfortable speaking in front of groups and Angela had prepared us for various possibilities, I did have some butterflies.

We drove into Bomet and down the dirt road that led to collections of one-story, concrete-block municipal buildings. We pulled up to one where a number of people were milling around. We three carried our packs, bags, and boxes into the long room and began to organize and spread everything out.

Soon we met Ruth, who provides various services to the handicapped in this area. We learned that, for the purpose of receiving services, the blind were combined with all others with any sort of disability.

We were also introduced to Wilson Kipkururi. Wilson is the chairman of the Bomet Chapter of the Kenyan Union of the Blind. We learned that his area includes a number of other towns and local chapters. He informed us that officers of several of those chapters were present and would later get a chance to speak.

As the time to begin approached, the horseshoe-shaped table was filled with over a dozen men and women. The men were all in suits or sport coats while the women were in brightly colored dresses. The one obviously missing item was their long white canes. At last the program began.

This part of Kenya is populated by members of the Kipsigi tribe. They of course speak Kipsigi, which I do not. Therefore, a translator was an integral part of the program for the next three hours. After Karen, Angela, and I were introduced, I was given the floor. I began by explaining that I brought greetings from the President of the National Federation of the Blind of Indiana. Indiana, I mentioned, was a state near the center of the United States. I then read a letter I had brought from our state president. It was well received, which I took as a good omen for the rest of the program.

After this the pace picked up a bit. About nine of the twelve people present were blind--about half totally. The others were here on behalf of a blind person. They had heard that canes were going to be distributed at the program and seemed excited at the prospect. We had purchased canes in three different lengths, so we had to match them as best we could with those who were to receive them. With much explanation and assistance, we passed out the canes. Try to imagine a dozen blind people standing in a row and opening their folding canes for the very first time. The look of joy on their faces was a wonderful sight, not to mention the gasps and laughter as the canes came tumbling open on their own.

The second part of the program was devoted to presenting the basics of using their long white canes. With help from all of those present who were not receiving a cane, and much one-on-one assistance, we managed a couple of turns around the room. The group of onlookers staring in from the open front door let me know that a dozen blind people moving in a circle, using their newly acquired long-white-cane skills, was a rare sight in these parts. Yet the broad grins on some of the faces of those using their canes told me it was an important and special moment.

Once everyone returned to their seats, we moved on to the third and final portion of my part of the program--the making of canes. During our planning we had recognized that I could not bring enough canes or even tips to meet their needs. The Kenyans should and would have to make more canes using local materials. A cane designed and built by Kenyans specifically for their unique conditions would be a key to their continuing to make progress.

All this is not to say that no one in attendance that day already had a cane. A couple of locally made canes were present. One was a stick, curved at the top into a "U" that came up to the short man's belt. They found my term for it, the "navel-stick" very funny once the translator got finished with it. I can't help wondering what he actually called it. The other cane was carried by a tall man. It came up to his ear and was as big around as my wrist. I commented that it was more a weapon than a cane. After the translation of my comment it seemed, based upon the nods and laughter, that many agreed with my assessment.

I urged people to examine the metal tips and screws that I had brought as repair parts or as a starting point. If makers used locally available bamboo and other woody materials, canes that were light, strong, inexpensive, and attractive could be fashioned to the exact needs of the user. Pointing out the possibility that blind people elsewhere in Kenya might want canes that they could produce and sell caused a ripple of interest that I hope may blossom.

The program closed with Wilson's speaking and asking many people present to speak as well. Speaker after speaker expressed deep gratitude for our donation of resources and time. I learned that there are approximately 200,000 blind Kenyans. Rehabilitation and training services are few and far between. I also learned that our dozen canes alone represented a significant monetary donation when calculated in Kenyan shillings, the local currency.

The most heartening comments were made by Wilson. All Federationists would be pleased to hear that in this small town in western Kenya the blind believe that with proper training and opportunity they can lead self-reliant, productive lives.

I walked out of that building with the profound feeling that many lives had been touched that day. Far more than the transfer of some canes and training had taken place. The outpouring of gratitude and well wishes to the NFB could be felt in the air. We had touched each other through our common desire for the advancement of opportunities for the blind.

For ten more days we continued to soak in the sights, sounds, and smells of Kenya. Yet throughout that time my mind kept turning back to the men and women I had met in that small concrete-block building that day. Our visit with Angela continued for another week and a half; the last week was spent on the coast near Mombasa. It gave us a chance to relax and think.

I am now back home in Indianapolis, and the demands of work and family again arise to occupy my mind and time. Yet I think about and wonder what is happening to the blind Kenyans I met. What sort of life will they have? Was our meeting worth the effort? Would our donations result in any positive changes in their lives?

During Angela's remaining time in Kenya she will monitor the group and report back on what impact we had. Even after she leaves, the address on the letter from Ron that we left will be a link to us. I sincerely hope that from this small event greater things can occur. Only time will tell. I feel a link was established between our two worlds. They now know that there are people on the other side of the planet who care for them and wish them success.

On those long white canes we placed small stickers stating that they came from the NFB of Indiana. We can all share in the knowledge that a small part of the NFB was planted in the small Kenyan town of Bomet that day.