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It crept up on us like the hyenas I heard at night from my window, drawn to us, Kanoro said, by the smell of death. It was 1919, and because the Great War was over, we had thought all the deaths were at an end, but it wasn't so. All over the world the cruel influenza had been taking lives. In America half a million people died; in India, many, many millions. In British East Africa, where I was living, the influenza began in the seaport of Mombasa, traveled three hundred miles to the city of Nairobi, and from there crept onto the farms and plantations and into the Kikuyu and Masai shambas. At last it reached Tumaini, the mission hospital where my father was a doctor and my mother a teacher. The influenza killed my parents.
My parents had been sent from England as missionaries to the Kikuyu and the Masai. There had been a minister at our mission, but he had left to serve in the war. Father had tried to carry on with the church work, but he was often too busy with the hospital. He said, "When a man lies with his leg sliced open and the bone sticking out, there is no time for preaching." My parents had been in Africa for fourteen years. I was born the year after they arrived. Africa was the only home I knew. I could not imagine living anywhere else.
The beds in our hospital were filled with Africans and the wards and hallways crowded with their families. Father treated sleeping sickness, plague, smallpox, and leprosy. He helped mothers whose babies had a hard time being born. One miracle especially filled me with joy. I watched as blind people were led to the hospital. When Father removed their cataracts, they walked home on their own. I would close my eyes and imagine I could not see. After a minute of darkness I would open my eyes to the sun and all the bright colors that were Africa. Later, when I had to live in England's bleak winters, I wished for my own miracle to give me back Africa's brightness.
The families of the patients who came to our hospital camped out on the grounds of the hospital, for they would not leave the care of a family member to a stranger. All day long you could hear the Kikuyu chattering to one another and smell the smoke of their fires as they roasted a goat or cooked their maize porridge, posho. The men of the Masai wore togalike cloths draped over their shoulders and carried spears. The men of the Kikuyu wore blankets or sometimes nothing at all. The Kikuyu women were clothed in leather aprons or hundreds of strings of bright beads. When the Kikuyu came to work at the hospital as nurses and assistants, the men wore khaki shorts and shirts and the women plain white dresses and caps. They were like birds who had shed their rich plumage.
Father had begged the mission board in England for another doctor and a nurse, but the war had taken all the doctors and nurses, so Father trained the Kikuyu to assist him. One of the men, Ita, was already performing minor surgery, and one of the nurses, Wanja, was the anesthetist.
The Masai would not be trained and seldom came to our church. The Kikuyu first came out of respect for Father, but soon they were enjoying the singing and many eagerly took up the new faith. Mother had taught me to play hymns on the piano, and the Kikuyu would call out their favorites and I would turn the pages of the hymnal to their choices, until after a while I knew them all by heart and could play as loudly as they could sing.
We were only a small hospital. There was a large hospital in Nairobi for white people and another for the native Africans, but the city was a long drive over bad roads. When I went into Nairobi with my parents to McKinnon's store, it was by oxcart. My favorite place in Nairobi was the Indian bazaar, with its wonderful smells and its counters heaped with spices. My parents didn't mix with the wealthy English planters and would not have been welcome in their cricket and tennis clubs. "With their drinking and foolery," my father said, "they are like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. They are headed for destruction."
On the very few occasions I had been allowed to accompany Mother and Father to Nairobi, the planters we saw going about on the streets appeared well behaved. I supposed the middle of the day was not the time for drinking and foolery.
One of the farmers I disliked, a Mr. Pritchard, had a sisal plantation near our hospital. Occasionally he sent over one of the natives on his plantation who had taken ill, but he would never inquire as to how the man was doing. Once a Kikuyu who worked for him had been brought to the hospital by the other workers because he had been beaten by Mr. Pritchard. He was covered with blood, and his ribs were broken. It was the only time I heard Father use a curse word. Mother and Father did not gossip, but on that evening Father spoke again of drinking and foolery. I heard him say, "Pritchard is sure to gamble away that farm in one of his drinking bouts."
During the war many of the Kikuyu had been drafted by the British to serve as porters in the British army. British soldiers had fought the Germans in nearby German East Africa. After the war the Kikuyu came back with nothing but bits of their worn uniforms, but they had seen a world beyond the native reserves. They no longer wanted anything to do with men like Mr. Pritchard, but they had to pay hut taxes to the British government, and the only way the Kikuyu could get the money for the taxes was to work for the planters.Listening for Lions. Copyright © by Gloria Whelan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan
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