I’m going to take you back six years down the dusty worn out pages of history – Aah, wondrous history that still lives on. I want to tell my one larger than life story. What is good, I always promise to deliver what I would be proud of to read if I were in the receiving end. Meaning, this article is going to be worth your time as you get the privilege to simulate the experiences of a first time overseas traveler. I will treat you to some beautiful journalism and excellent work of art as well.
Knowing pretty well that this is not the optimal time to release this material but owing to the growing demand by many readers to pen down something about my trip, I choose to write therefore. Though, I have one ask of you as your writer – the same way you have been dedicated to my previous posts, do to this long one as well. Welcome.
Introduction: Preparing you to get the most out of it
In one of The Management Magazines I read years ago, Kenya Institute of Management (KIM) CEO Dr David Muturi clamored that we should put pen to paper. He maintained that great stories in the world lies within our life’s experiences. That there is no better place we will ever get inspirational stories to write about if not within us. He said and I am saying again that everybody has got a story to tell, stories that could shake the world. I want to quote what he wrote in the magazine that has had profound impact in my writing life. And that I feel will change your life magically:
“As I read Obasanjo’s memoirs, I am totally convinced that we all have something to tell the world. You may not be a former president like Obasanjo but you have a story. As corporate leaders we are required to mentor and coach. However we may not have the time due to many engagements. As we cruise through busy schedules, we need to get to a point of reflection so that the coming generation may benefit from our experiences. Where do you start? You can start by keeping a simple notebook to record important events. I am amazed at Obasanjo’s book especially about his younger years. I am sure at his level, he had a big research team.You may not have that luxury. Even worse, by the time you are in your 80’s your memory may not be that good and most of your age mates may have departed. Think about it and consider putting pen to paper.”
I want to extract certain points that are really meaningful and important:
- We all have something to tell the world.
- We need to get to a point of reflection so that the coming generation may benefit from our experiences.
- You can start by keeping a simple notebook to record important events.
- By the time you are in your 80’s your memory may not be that good and most of your age mates may have departed.
It is therefore in this realisation that I intensified the recording of events in my life in pieces of paper that often got lost. But in real sense, I began doing this in form three, after my American trip that I will talk about subsequently.
So, the story that follows is adapted from: My Testimony; Picked out of water – A boy’s unusual journey from grass to grace. This is a book about my life. It encompasses odyssey that make up the miracle that is Moses Auma today. I hope it will shake the world to its foundations and tell another African story. I intend to finish the writing and release it in God’s good time. He is faithful.
I am only exposing this with faith that nobody can steal your life’s story – because it is uniquely yours. But even if they have to steal, you still have the same brain you used to write it….heheee.
How Historic this Trip was to me
My trip to the States must be one of the most unusual things that ever has happened in my life. My first cross-cultural experience. And one of the most intriguing and defining events that has remained etched deep on my memory. And any time I recount this, I give all glory to the almighty God, father of all humanity who causes time and chance to happen to everyone, in His own set time.
I am the first person in my lineage to step into America, up from Achieng’a and down to Amaloh then to Owiti to Opundo to Auma to Benard – my father. A host of six generations! That’s a no mean feat to me.
Any story about going to America must answer certain fundamental questions such as: How did it come about? What were you going to do there? For how long? Who funded your trip? Which state did you visit? How did you experience the American automobile and fast food culture, dressing code, entertainment industry and religion? How was the temperature? Plus many more questions that people may be curious to know of. But the question highly likely to be asked by rational stay-behind Kenyans is – How was the experience and how did it shape your life? I’m going to make a stab at answering these questions, and I can say my trip was markedly extraordinary, something that will make this story completely different from all other travel stories you might have heard of before.
How my mind was before America happened
By the time the idea of the trip was communicated to me, I did not know so much about North America, I did not especially know whether her real name was The States, North America, Northern America, The Americas, America or USA or US. However, this is baffling to far too many people – just as the difference among Britain, United Kingdom and England is confounding to many. To school you a bit, and as a by the way and corollary, there’s the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The U.K., as it is called, is a sovereign state that consists of four individual countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Within the U.K., Parliament is sovereign, but each country has autonomy to some extent. For the most part, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments defer to the U.K. Parliament in “reserved matters” that deal with things like foreign policy and EU membership, but retain authority over “devolved matters” that deal with things like education and housing. Though bound to the Crown and tied together in unity, the individual countries within the U.K. retain their own local identities and even their own regional languages. [Welsh, for example, is the official language in Wales even though the official language in the U.K., as a whole, is English.] But things may have changed with the advent of Brexit which I no longer read together with Trumpism.
I had only but a rudimentary understanding of North America. To be clear, what I knew was that America was a super power – able to reduce the world into tiny pieces with her deadly bombs as did Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. That was the definition of what hell a super power can cause – trending in a rather tiny-fifteen-year-old brain box or lack thereof.
Another thread known to me then was that Barrack Obama, a black American whose roots are traceable to Alego Kogello, my backyard (Hey, I come from Siaya county), was her 44th president. Recently a friend asked me if Obama has ever written a book! Oblivious to the fact that book writing is what has given Obama the billionaire tag. Yea, there is blessedness with writing.
So, those were the only noticeable things known to me about her. I did not know about American teenagers, American football, FBI, Secret service, CIA, Hillary Clinton, Donald Drump hehe Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Beyonce, Justin Bieber, Don Moen and TD Jakes just to mention a few religious authorities. The problem with diversity is that you have to mention everything, if you make reference for example in Kenya by just mentioning a couple of tribes: Wakale, Wakikuyu, Wajaluo, Waluhya and ignoring other tribes by collectively calling them ‘and other tribes’, be very sure they won’t vote for you if you are a politician because they feel left out.
You now can see the danger it poses to be away from television, newspapers and internet as we were in the Johannes Andiego Central Sakwa ward. You will not know as much things except for the ordinary stories like whose cows invaded whose farm or which kids went to disco matanga.
I was always too far from America, just so, you know. I used to see her in atlases which belonged to my classmates [I never owned one; I also never owned a dictionary, Kamusi, RSV Bible and calculator in my entire high school life, the journey has been tough, bravely won and now, here I am, writing, with the preciseness of Jackson Biko, the current holder of 2016 Kenyan Blog award tittle].
What I saw in the atlases was a country located far away from African continent, towards the end of the world [as if the world has got an end] and surrounded by large water masses. Thoughts of going to this God’s country never came any closer to my Alara village head. What everybody knew in my village is this: To go to the States, you must be very rich yourself or coming from a wealthy family or you are extravagantly talented. You must be something like a government minister or an exceptional athlete like Wesly Korir going to compete the Boston marathon. Even worse a drug criminal wanted by FBI and therefore may get the privilege to be airlifted by a chartered jet to go rot in San Quentin State Prison, Marin county, California.
Through out the process of going to the states, I was in disbelief, asking myself questions like: Am I fabulous enough to go to the States? Am I worthy to go places? Isn’t my family the least in my country? Is there anything significant I can offer the Americans? I pummeled myself with narrowed, pointed questions that compromised my self – worth, and esteem, and dignity and innate capabilities, and my position in the eyes of God. Actually, who was I not to go to America? The inane questions must have stemmed from the truth that in Kenya or Africa as a whole, value is attached on getting into USA or Europe or any other likely great countries. To put it more succinctly, the more someone travels the world, the more the people respects and admire you, which augers well with my personal belief that one is defined by the places you go, the friends you have and the books you read.
So just how did it begin
Until now, I am very sure you are beginning to get a bit uneasy because you feel I’m not delivering satisfactorily on what the heading of this chapter promises. But such is writing, you unfold events step by step, episode by episode. It is more like a series movie or a thrilling documentary. But I am happy I asked from the outset your endurance to the end and you are disciplined. Well, let me now take you through the genesis.
It all began late 2010 with one unusual announcement made by our school principal on a typical Monday morning. All students were gathered around the assembly to get the usual notifications of the week like which teachers would be on duty, with which prefects? We would be reminded to be in ties through out the day. Day students, like me would be reminded to get to school on time, boarders to spread their beds and hung their wet ‘ngothas’ outside the dormitory always to prevent dampness.
I was a library prefect, therefore standing in the prefects ‘parlor’ as we hardly mixed with wananchi in the assembly, wearing a distinctly red tie, white shirt, black trouser and black leather dress shoes which separated me from the ground. After good morning, the principal, Mr Daniel Ng’iela made this unusual announcement; “Next year, some of you will get an opportunity to go to USA for an exchange programme. ” What? It is like everyone wondered a loud within themselves. We were surprised beyond measure. He went further to explain that the chairman to the schools’ board of management [BoM] – my friend it is no longer board of governors [BoG], professor Nicholas Otienoh Oguge, Associate professor of Environmental Policy, University of Nairobi had organized a program in which some students from Akoko would participate in. There was going to be a tough competition where several students would be subjected to an essay writing about qualities of a good leader and the best five would proceed to the next level of the programme which meant going to USA.
As we dispersed for classes, it was evident most students were going through such a roller coaster of hope, panic, faith, fear and prayers. My cousin and a classmate [ I attended school with relatives whose names begun with capital O for a male or A for a female ] came where I was meditatively seated waiting for a Chemistry double class and made a declaration with a sense of finality, that he had made it to the states, that was fait accompli. He emphasized that this could be his first and last chance to go West and there was just no way he could miss on this God-sent-life-saving token. It was not going to be easy. It was a do or die.
Everyone believed in their abilities to win in the essay competition. I may have been tempted to bank on my being on top of the class always but there was just no way I could be automatically selected for the programme. I had to be subjected to the same procedures and hard work. I realised I needed prayers and the grace of the Lord more than before. It reaches a point in life when we don’t need to believe in our own fundamental strengths to succeed at something. A time when we entirely look upon God. This was the that time for me.
After a few weeks of reflections and hope, everybody literally forgot about the impending trip until late 2011. Towards the end of second term, a large group of form twos and threes gathered in font of the library. I was a library prefect and therefore, was pushing and shoving my way into the library to do my work of issuing and receiving books from students and teachers. Barely had I made my way through when I was stopped by the teacher in charge of library, Mr Oliver Winga who also doubled up as the head of languages department. He asked me to join the group, that I was supposed to be there. I did not know what was going on all this while. Listening keenly, I heard America and essay writing in his talk. This made me remember the principal’s unusual announcement made the previous year. That was my first unusual step towards my American journey. Unusual because, clearly, I was already left out. We were told the American trip ” Is here with us.” We were then given guidelines on the essay writing and told to submit our work the next day to be used to eliminate most of us.
By that time, I have to admit, I was not as good at English, to say that I was completely ignoramus in it is just an understatement. I had heavy mother tongue influence tinged with miasma of adulterated words. I had not read much of story books. There was nobody to give them to me in my suburban environment. But a man can try, I fumbled with the essay the whole night. Nitpicking, undoing, redoing and organizing and reorganizing. The next day, I presented what I assumed was a well thought out, a well detailed qualities of a good leader.
After marking, the teachers in charge of the competition eliminated over thirty students. Leaving twenty of us to proceed to the next level. My sister, Susan, was also lucky to be among these twenty people. She was in form three. Me form two. In the next level of the competition, we had the scripts returned to us. We were to edit our work and make improvements on the content rather than beat about the bush, relating the unwanted trivial details of our village’s woes. I thought I had done my best only to realize otherwise.
Necessity is the mother of inventions. This time round, I went through some of the big books in the library where I read about former American president, Abraham Lincoln. Trying to get some witty catchphrases with aspects of leadership, to add to my earlier ugly work with the notion that if you can’t make it good, make it look atleast good. This thrilled me that I was finally ‘there’ going to beat some people and appear on the list of ‘Colorado five,’ as we later referred to ourselves. After submission and marking, we remained fifteen of us. My sister and I were again lucky to be among the fifteen. We edited again, got sifted and triaged and remained 10 of us, my sister included. We curved the ten of us a name, Ocampo Ten. This name was inspired by the indictment of six Kenyans, who were referred conventionally as Ocampo six at the Hague based court, ICC due to the 2008 bloody post election violence that rocked our country killing more than 1,400 and displacing about 600,000 civilians. My team and that of ICC exhibited some similar characteristic. That is, both parties went through some emotional turmoil and uncertainty. Also, both paries were sifted as Ocampo guys remained six and we remained the magic number you will read below.
I knew It was not going to be easy. It was a fair competition involving vibes and logic. I talked myself out of the competition a couple of times. Anyway, I was not to give up. I count the role of God in passing the three preliminary elimination stages. Later, the teachers sort of held our hands and helped us improve our work from looking garbage-like and worse to something worth presenting to higher interviewers in the US embassy. After a series of re-editing, our final work was presented to the office of US diplomat in charge of immigration, Mr. Stephens Raymond. It was to be used later to eliminate us to five.
Indeed this was the first time I was exposed to a real struggle of life and death. After the primary eliminations, I came out exhausted and worn out. It was challenging because the competition coincided with end term exams which I had to do well and maintain my reputation as the unbeaten student in my class. Fortunately, I managed the exams and retained my position one. During the holiday, the ten of us who qualified to the final were notified to report to school a day before the actual opening day. On that day, the US diplomat and his entourage came to our school to get the best five.
My sister and I trekked from home to school early enough to face the mzungu, maybe from Minnesota or Tennessee. That day, It was heavily raining in the morning but without umbrellas, we had to brave it and try our luck. I learnt that luck is not something that is random. You have to put yourself in the path of luck by doing certain things that creates an impression that you are someone who needs help and deserves reward. All through, I was panicking. It was going to be my first time to speak to a mzungu. My fear was that I could not understand what he was to say due to their accent. It was everyone’s fear nonetheless. They begun by categorizing us into two large groups of five for interview. I don’t know whether one group was a control experiment.
Some of the questions we were asked were among others, what we would do with K sh. 50, 000. What we did not love in the society. The things we would want changed in our country. After that, there was a session of individual interviews. We were given numbers. Moses Auma was to appear the seventh person before the panel. This further took hostage my emotions, compounding my fears. I had never appeared before a panel. No, I could not bare this challenge, it was too much for the average me. Finally it came my turn to make appearance. I answered such questions as how old are you? How many kids are you in your family? What do you enjoy doing at your free time? Do you own a pet? What do you think about America? How long have you ever been far away from your family? Do you love your teachers?
I gave out answers that made me look more needy, more hungry and more vulnerable. For example, when asked what I thought about America, I ensured I related aspects of neediness somewhere along the way. I answered that America was a superpower and a very rich nation that was better placed to help poor African families which owned big leaking grass-thatched houses with walls and floor smeared with cow dung from Ochido, their neighbor’s cow. I might have jeopardized my ability to qualify for the programme because, this was entirely an academic interview and not a philanthropic undertaking or a public relations rhetoric seminar.
I wanted them to know the real state of things – poverty – in the village. To me, their questions were overly inane and prosaic. I expected questions like: how far is your home from school? By what means do you come to school? What is the floor of your house made of? What is the roof of your house made of? What does your parents do for a living? How many times do you eat a month? Basically, I anticipated questions that touched on my difficulties with paying school fees, my inability to eat three square meals a day, whether I sleeps on a bed or floor, the types of vermin we lived with in our house, whether I owned a blanket or not, whether or not I had sandals at home. I thought they could ask whether I took breakfast that morning or even inquire about why I was wet and looking forlorn and woebegone.
This first interview in my life kept me in an awkward social situation. One of the most awkward social situation I find embarrassing is when you can’t hear someone. This situation is compounded when you have already asked “What?” two times and still don’t hear them the third time so you just hope a laugh and a nod will answer whatever they said/asked. That is what happened to me in the presence of mzungu. After the interviews, I saw the two panelists race to the principals office and re-emerge, with the principal himself, back to the interview room. We were all sat around the wooden laboratory table for the release of the results that heralded a bright future to whoever could be lucky. This was the penultimate stage in the process, which was to culminate in the award of the trip. This critical stage would dictate whether I could set my feet into America or not. And it was the time to pray hard.
For once, we were privileged to sit on teachers soft chairs. After all, we were very important people. After a brief speech that involved pre-consoling those who would be left out, Mr. Raymonds began to call out the names of successful participants. One was to stand up upon hearing his/ her name. Number one, Evans Naika Rubia. As Naika stood up, I felt certain unprecedented uneasiness within me. Number two, Saul Otieno Owiti. “Oh my God when will my name be called out.” Number three, Adede Kennedy Odhiambo. By this time, I had known I was already left out. Akoko was a mixed school and the two remaining slots must have been exclusively earmarked for ladies. I did not want to begin blaming God prematurely because my sister could have been one of the girls and that could still be well with my soul. Number four, Diana Anyango Ochieng. She was the first lady to qualify. Anytime these people stood up, they put on a big smile, they were extremely happy. I longed to be that happy too, even once in my lifetime.
Before Raymond could call out the last ‘girl,’ he paused and made it clear that they actually intended to take four people from our school but since they loved our school, they opted to take five finally. So this fifth person was going to be even more lucky. Number five, on a full breath, ready… go: Onyango Moses Auma. Yea that is my name. Though at first I did not believe it is me. Firstly, because he pronounced my name out strangely as ‘Ouauyagu.’ – something like that, thinking it was his driver’s name. Secondly, it ought to have been a girl. You know during those times, gender equality campaigns were rocking every side of Kenya and it was not for a diplomat to be so remiss as not to consider gender balance in a fiercely mixed school. However, and to my advantage, we were made to understand that they had picked four girls from another school elsewhere for the same program. That’s why they only picked one girl in Akoko. All in all, that is how my fate was sealed, something I will forever remain grateful for to God. I never deserved it.
That was the turning point in my life. The apogee. The first time I ever tasted happiness. That day, I learnt that God’s way is not our way. He works in ways we can’t see. He makes a way where there seems to be no way. I felt good. No, I was on top of the world. That marked the end to the painstaking and uncertain interviews and my ultimate selection to join the programme.
Preparation and activities that followed
Now, I want to take you through the activities that followed, my experiences and lessons. After the five of us had qualified, serious passport and subsequently visa application kicked off. This sometimes meant that we could be out of school for a couple of days. And it helped me visit places I had never set foot. For example, during the processing of passport, we visited the former provincial headquarters in Kisumu, I enjoyed climbing and falling off a storey building for the first time. And because this was the first time I went to a city when big, I feared crossing roads and mostly depended on the principal’s directive on when to cross and when not to.
The most important pre-travel event was my experience with my parents at the US embassy for visa application. The sole reason why our parents were made to come along us to Nairobi was to officially consent on our going to the States since we were all under or just 18. Just being inside that glamorous building made me think I was already in the US. I did not even think of Osama Bin Laden and his 1998 bombing of the same embassy. Nevertheless, I would rather die in a US embassy than the snake-infested jungles we used to cross to school. At night, our parents and us were hosted for a dinner at the diplomat’s home. Raymonds wanted our parents to see and taste the kinds of food their kids were headed to eat in the states and ascertain whether or not they were compatible with our ugali-loving stomachs. Mr Raymonds also summoned a native Colorado dweller who told us how the city of Denver looked like and the experience we were to anticipate. She told us to be on the look out for a statue of a blue horse with red eyes on our way to the city centre upon leaving the Denver International Airport, the largest in USA by total land area. It is at Raymonds residence that we met and chat with Precious Blood Riruta principal, Jacinta Akatsah, who told us the number of Biology books she had written with Longhorn publishers. She gave us nuggets on how we could do well on subjects we deemed hard. She was doing something in me. I was listening. I asked her email address which has refused to work for me till today. Stephens Raymond is a very hospitable man, he gave us clothes and rewarded those who could answer certain questions with cameras. Saul Owiti got a nice diary book. But what surprised everyone including our parents was Raymond taking food to his gate keeper, something many African high rollers can not even imagine of doing. I learnt the art of humility.
Several other pre-travel preparations happened later. We travelled to Nairobi, now for the trip, on 26th November, 2011 and settled in YMCA hotel, near the university of Nairobi law school. The next day, we enjoyed ourselves, strolling the city, eating, packing, preparing psychologically. We were advised to walk at least in a pair of two, lest we get lost ahead of the trip. We left Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) on 27th November 2011 at exactly 11: 30 PM via British Airways, American airlines BA 064 airbus or was it 065? And headed for Heathrow international airport in London. I loved the airport itself. It was big and fabulous. It is in JKIA that I first saw and used an escalator and even differentiated it from lift [Americans call this thing elevator]. I made lots of use of observational and common sense learning, seeing how people stepped into it and then out successfully without being sent off-balance. Though, I must admit that I was terribly naive and panicking. At the airport, we were subjected to security screening with cutting edge computer technology. In other places, I temporarily lost my earthly belongings to the machines, like belt, shoes and my wallet which had 5 bob and $ 60 US. The dollar was given to us as pocket money. Never mind I had 20 bob but had bought lollipop in Nairobi thinking it was costing 5 KES only to be returned for what the opposite! What is good, these machines gave us our alms back as immediately as we crossed to the other side. Call them conveyor belts.
Through out the trip, I was so determined and keen on observing some of the tightly held ideas about traveling by plane but with the intention of debunking most of it. For example, my village mates and of course my schoolmates, in their collective wisdom or lack thereof, told me that I was going to throw up as the plane takes off and even advised me to carry a polythene bag for such an emergency. Some said the plane would tilt at more than 45 degrees as it leaves the ground. Some said the plane would shake uncontrollably through out the journey. All these, I proved by myself to be sheer myths held with excessive quasi-religious admiration by people who have never even seen a plane. Perhaps this is how I acquired my inquisitive mind. From then, I don’t readily believe what people say. Instead, I do my own research. I think for myself.
As our plane left the ground, I enjoyed watching red lights splashed all over the city of Nairobi. Sending an alluring reflection of the buildings and forests. I was privileged to sit next to the window. There is something interesting that happened inside our plane. Before we left Nairobi, a delectable damsel christened a flight attendant brazenly sprayed the entire plane with what I first thought to be perfume – maybe to increase our comfort or prevent anyone from vomiting. And because I celebrated Physics so much [by the way, I was a poor Math student but the best in Physics, I led twice in our regionals and even became number one in Physics in the entire county at Mock exams, I have the certificate], I concluded, in my reasoning capacity of a gaggle of chickens, that she was balancing the pressure inside, that could be Bernoulli’s principle of pressure being applied practically.
I certainly did not know the meaning of all that until one day in college when my FOST 101 lecturer, Dr Peninah Njiraini revealed that she also witnessed the same thing while going for her masters in Britain, upon inquiry, she gleaned that the ‘perfume’ was meant to disinfect Africans so as not to transfer pests abroad, so what I thought was aromatic and Physics turned out to be a chemical designed to disinfect and purify a ‘pest house.’ It could be true because on our way back, there was never disinfection of any kind. Because there were no pests abroad to warrant that, so I should think.
Away from disinfection. I am not going to speak about our landing in London. But just have this brief and rough statistics:
- We took 10 hours from Nairobi to Heathrow.
- We were served food three times before landing to Heathrow.
- I wanted to go to the washroom inside the plane but feared it might need computer knowledge or technology to open the door and I might get embarrassed.
- We spent about 3-6 hours in Heathrow before connecting to another plane.
- I begun to bare the brunt of extreme temperatures in Heathrow.
After London happened, we boarded another plane BA 065 or was it 064? And arrived in Denver, Colorado in the evening 9 hours later. I thought I was in the seventh heaven. As we navigated our way over the city to the airport, I abandoned the worm’s-eye view and adopted the bird’s eye view that lets you see everything from above, from the sky. What I was able to see was a beautiful city, tiny vehicles moving smoothly on the road. I saw as if the town was a farmland divided into paddocks. The beauty of the farmland below was spectacular and intellectually provocative. Then I heard this announcement from the cockpit, “Ladies and gentlemen the plane is about to land, fasten your seat belts and sit upright, thank you”. After a couple of minutes, another announcement followed “Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Denver, Colorado.” This was the only point through out the travel that I panicked. I almost lost my breath.
The last announcement stirred in me an ambivalent feelings, I was a little bit afraid, a little nervous. As much as I knew that great achievements lied ahead of me, I equally knew that great challenges lied somewhere ahead too. Several questions criss-crossed my mind. How would I understand the American swallowed dialect? Esteeming that they pronounced differently the very things I knew for example water bottle as warah baru, name tag as neim teg, work book – wek bek, statue body –startshu badi among others. How was I even going to eat vegetation disguised as salad? Or what the Dickens was I going to do with half-baked chapatti? And how was I going to eat insects, snakes and frogs [I had it long time ago from our village snobs that such stuff provided the bulk of diets in ‘these European countries,’ and I had religiously subscribed to their narrow scope of view long time ago, when savco jeans were still in style and teenagers rewound tapes with biro pens].
Now the greatest wonder that even compounded my fear was how I would operate machines considering that America was technologically advanced way too long and I was completely ignoramus in basic computer application, even how to switch it on and off. That was the state of my predicament in part. But I know you can easily understand it. Actually, for someone like me who had never gone beyond Bondo town, at any rate, coming out of the dusty Kopollo village and getting into the ultra-modern USA, at my lowest point in life, was really a great transition, I needed the clairvoyance power to gel with the fast paced Americans and their attendant technologies.
Meet the BoldLeaders staff
On landing, the BoldLeader;s staff received us. I was surprised they already knew all of us by name! BoldLeaders was the organization working side by side with the US Department of State, which sponsored the programme to train us on leadership and community advocacy. This was sub-Saharan Africa Youth Leadership exchange programme and there were other ten students from Tanzania with their chaperon, Harry Elly Makandi who joined us later. Among the staff was terrific Michael Donahue, Co-Director of Critical Mass Leadership (CML), Corinne Hancock Domahidy [ you should name your kid this way if you will have]. I don’t remember other staff who received us at the airport. But these are the rest: Brady Rhodes, Co-Director, Wendy Talley, Charlie Smith [Camera man, video recorder and couch], Jenipher Rusky, don’t remember her role but thinks she was a top level manager, she is the first person to tell me about Martin Luther King Jnr, then Kim Conrad and Tamera [ I thought they pronounced it as tomorrow]. Tamera was based in Washington D.C and we were to meet her two weeks later.
We headed to a hotel in Denver where we spent a night since we were to travel the next day to Rockies mountains where we would stay for one week for intensive training. If you are going to altitudes higher than 8000 ft (2438 m), it is advisable to spend a night at a medium altitude before going higher, to prevent altitude sickness. For example, in the United States, one need to spend a night in Denver before going to the Rocky Mountains. On our way to Rockies mountains, we branched to Metropolitan State College of Denver [I think now Metropolitan University of Denver] where I met and chat with a Kenyan student from western Kenya, David.
The training and its impact in my life
The date was 29/12/11. It is at Glacier View Ranch, an hotel atop Rockies mountains that we received much of the leadership training. The BoldLeaders curriculum is the most formidable and change-making I have ever been exposed to. Forget about the 8-4-4 that exacts rote memorization and emphasises on passing exams. The training itself drew from a powerful quote by Alexis Carell, this quote was the reference point through out the programme:
“We become adapted to the lack of use of our basic human resources and they respond by becoming unfamiliar to us.”
In light of this quote, Michael and his team led us to discover our unopened birth gifts- talents, capacities, privileges, intelligences, opportunities – that would remain largely unopened except through the training. I really had no idea what a person is capable of. This stuff should be taught in every high school and college, but we’re often on our own. That means you have to take initiative.
Some of the birth gifts we studied [which we generally referred to as Basic Human Resources – BHRs] were the use of voice, creativity, imagination, wonder, touch and tears. Of all these, I was fascinated by my ability to find my voice. And my dream upon arrival to Kenya was to help countless number of youths find their voices too. I learnt to speak in public for the first time, to express fully my thoughts and ideas. Generally, what I learnt from Alexi’s quote was that my deepest fear is not that I am inadequate. My deepest fear is that I am powerful beyond measure – this is true to you. So this is the time I debunked the inane questions that seemed to occupy my mind each day before the trip. Before the trip, I could ask myself questions like, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, fabulous, talented? I was a child of God and my playing small was not going to serve the world.
We were taught about the art of listening. And the best type is committed listening or what boldleaders refer to as listening like your life depends on it. Such a listener is called an active listener. An active listener cares about the person and what they are saying. It involves asking questions. It also involve self awareness and courage to first notice where you are currently [In that moment].
Another lesson I found of great import, that the Michael Donahue-led team brought home with grace and with style and with grit and good humor was: Two Paths of Development for a Human Being- Knowledge and Being. This one is so critical but conspicuously misses in our Moi era education system. Knowledge has to do with information and transformation. People tend to concentrate so much on knowledge acquisition while paying scanty regard to Being. Being has to do with living an examined life. Discovering your purpose in life. Finding what you care about and can die for. Remember Socrates assertion that unexamined life is not worth living.
To crown it all, we learnt about six codes of a boldleader: Participate, Collaborate, Mind the gap, Mindful Language, Tenacity and Go one step beyond. These are amazing principles. They have hitherto goaded my life. I live by them. I have written so many times about the last code and it even inspired the name of this blog site; OneStepBeyond.
Among other important lessons. And then among others.
I enjoyed swimming and hiking at Glacier View Ranch in the mornings. I walked on top of a frozen lake. Saw ice and differentiated it from snow. I also saw Indian peaks, snow ways and trees like aspirin and acacia on Rockies.
We also got to ski. I was assigned two trainers, one a former pilot. The training took me half a day as I found it hard and scary to walk in those boots. It was fun inspiring experience.
Our Rendezvous with Host Families
After spending a week of intensive training on top of Rockies mountain, we met and got distributed to different American host families on 3/12/2011, an event that had been pre-determined and pre-organized. We were no longer going to spend in a hotel, we were going to live with the Americans as we continue with our programs. In the US, there is always this system in which families decide to host visiting individuals, so they can learn from them. Mostly, these families accept young people to interact with their kids, tell their kids stories from other parts of the world. A kind of arrangement in which they simulate their beliefs, societal agreements, motivations, learning, and social orientations. It is a beautiful mutually beneficial thing.
My host family was called the Robinson. I am going to talk extensively about them in the next chapter because there is need to.
The primary role of the host family was to stay with us, provide food and all basic necessities for that period of one and a half weeks and also to avail us every morning to where the BoldLeaders staff would pick us for training and tours. The host family would then pick us up in the evening.
I never asked to be hosted by the Robinsons. I just got myself with them. It was a predetermined pre-organized arrangement as I intimated in the earlier chapter. My feeling is that they were the most suitable family I could stay with, hard to imagine of any other.
I received a beautifully written letter from them, just some hours before the rendezvous. It was a summary of who they are: The mom was Diane Carlson, the dad Douglas S Robinson and five kids, yes five kids: Jack, 21, Tom 19, Billy 17, Clare 14 and Matt Robison 10. I was 15 years old. The letter talked of how they were happy to be hosting me and encouraged me to feel I can say anything around them. The mom wrote that nothing was worst than when I am unable to eat and requested me to be recommending how I may want food cooked. She also apologised that Jack and Tom were so sad they were unable to meet me as Jack was away in Guatemala for humanitarian efforts and Tom in college.
They all walked me through the house showing me resources I needed to use and how. Matt showed me how to use the tread mill. After a couple of minutes, I was pleasantly surprised to see the dad in a red apron cooking in the presence of his wife. I promised myself I would be a good husband to my family too. Anyway thats American culture. We have ours and I appreciate cultural diversity – allowing others to be different from you and being allowed to be different from others is peace.
After pizza evening [why do you really add a ‘t’] I went to sleep in my room underground. But was asking myself how I would begin when I wake up. Do I go upstairs, downstairs, left stairs, right stairs? To do what? But this is how I learnt the Robinsons were minding the gap: After sleeping for some hours, I was woken by a sight of a tall man, all smiles, holding his hands, he was the dad. He came for me. He had wanted me to go out with Billy and Clare that night and I was so happy of him.
Billy and Clare took me to their school, Chery Creek where I experienced first hand what American high schools are. I made friends. Clare really had many friends who asked me to tell them something about the great Rift valley and al Shabaab. The two Robinson sung me their national anthem. We often played pingpong [we call it table tennis] I never beat Clare on this but occasionally trounced Matt and Billy. I felt great being with this family, they made it easier for me to fit in like the Jigsaw Fit. Billy helped me send an email to my brother and my teacher of English, the Mr. Oliver Winga, remember him? And they all responded immediately. Why do some people take centuries to reply emails?
The mom bought me many stuff including a Nixon camera worth more than 13, 000 KES that I used to take as many photos as I could. The most important thing she bought me were three books: A picture book about the life of Thoroughood Marshal see, the first African-American justice of the supreme court of the United States [ he changed his name to Thurgood because it was always too long for him to write]. Another picture book about the life of Martin Luther King Junior and the last one; Peace Begins with You. This book made me find my own defination of peace: Allowing others to be different from you and being allowed to be different from others period.
My American mom is the first person who made me realise the value of books, of investing in my brain, of continuously nurturing my mental resources. Riches and beauty are fleeting and frail but mental excellence is a timeless possession. There is no poverty for one who has decided to invested in his/her more than 14-billion-celled brain and many other connections.
Talking about books, they make you exist in so many ways. You rise above discrimination. They are the most wonderful creation of man! They make you interact with the distant and the dead pouring their souls and thoughts into yours. This is what I wrote about books in magazine Reel drawing from Ben Carson’s words:
“If your intention is to influence only those who live in your house, then you only need to know about those things that are important to the people with whom you live. If you intend to influence those in your neighbourhood, you have to broaden your knowledge ongoing. If you intend for your life to make a difference in your city, how can you do so if you don’t know whats is going on? If you want to help shape the nation or the world, you need still more knowledge and learning about what is significant in national and international scope. That knowledge and learning solely comes from books and materials, for books are ‘things’ and powerful things at that.”
I took my time to study how a successful family behaves, simulating their characters, personalities, beliefs, learnings, motivations, perspectives and social orientations. One beautiful thing that happened was how I differed constructively with Doug on matters American politics, while I supported Obama re-election, he supported Mitt Romney who was his uncle. He explained to me that Obama administration had got problems with the GDP as it recorded a slight recession. My support to Obama was based merely on one thing; He was a Kenyan.
And many more stories with the Robinson. We still keep in touch and they are selflessly paying my fee and living expenses. That goes without saying.
Bye Colorado and Here we are D.C
We had a culmination extravaganza at Aspen Academy on our last night in Denver, before moving to Washington D.C for another two weeks. All the families that hosted Boldleaders were invited plus other guests. We presented Kenyan songs as our Tanzanian counterparts did theirs. But we got embarrased at our inability to fully sing our own country’s national anthem.
Many Kenyans are only conversant with the first stanza and we were among this nondescript citizens, too much unpatriotic. During the culmination event, I was selected to give a vote of thanks to our host families, everyone had got a role to play. It was my first ever challenge to address a multitude of professionals. I mustered some courage and gave out a speech that I remember to date, because I gave it amid standing ovations. “The Boldleaders staff, host families, other guests and my fellow Boldleaders good evening, let me begin by introducing myself, some of you already know me but majority can only imagine who this person is, well, my name is Moses Auma, a boldleader from Kenya. I am here, on behalf of my fellow boldleaders, primarily to say thank you to our great host families. If you look around, you can’t help the joy and smile written all over the faces of boldleaders. Courtesy of these hospitable Americans. Thank you host families for accepting to live with us for close to two weeks. You have given food and all the basic necessities freely. You have curved time in your demanding schedules to transport us to and fro the meeting point. But above all, we are overwhelmed by your love and warmth. Thanks for understanding us, sharing about your own stories. We know it lies not within human power to repay you guys. I will be remiss if I did not single out the Robinson family who hosted me, they are great people given to lots of love and humility. May God bless you host families, we love you and we are going to miss you.”
In my speech, I had to learn to abandon “I” and adopt “we” because I was representing a group. But I stole an opportunity to pat my host family, the Robinson, on the shoulder. I don’t know whether or not I behaved professionally on a public platform. Nevertheless, I had to put everyone on notice about how great my Robinson sounded.
We were back to the hotel life. Staying in Washington Suites hotel. It is in D.C that we did much of the tours visiting American iconic and historical sites: The extensive Arlington cemetery, American space museum, African art museum, Martin Luther King [MLK] memorial, Washington monument, JF Kennedy center, Lincoln memorial – I stood where MLK stood while giving his ‘I have a dream’ speech, it is here that I recorded I AM poem with Charlie Smith.
We also visited Vietnam veterans memorial and we wore a haggard face seeing names of more than 58,000 gallant male and female soldiers who died in the war. Michael Donahue cried himself because he lost a relation in the war, can’t remember whether it was his father or not. I later learnt that this spectacular memorial monument was designed by a little known 21 year old Maya Ying Lin, a Chinese student at Yale university. Beating all other candidates who also submitted their designs.
We visited the white house and visitor center. The state Department offices. We met and talked to the then Colorado senator Michael Bennet, down to earth and easy to talk to. He is the first politician I have ever met in my life a
part from my village elder.
We visited the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). An establishment built by
Congress in 1984 as an independent institution to prevent, mitigate and resolve violent conflict around the world. I was too young but so keen. To many people, I might have resembled an ordinary tramp but my thoughts were those of a king! The biggest misconception people have about me of late is that I look older than I am.
Another place we visited that had experience of its kind was the Kenyan Embassy, located in the Dupont Circle. We felt being at home. Though we could not meet the ambassador as he was away on official duties, we were welcomed by John Chesoni who was the counselor and Joyce Kasugar, the education attaché. I interact with Joy via email to this day. She keeps me aware of the opportunities like scholarships Kenyan students in the US can get from the embassy, in case I may be interested to study there someday.
Through out our stay in DC, we commuted every morning and evening by electric train, for the first time. Travelling underground, some places on top of the city. It is damn fast and very shaky. It had this automated notification I remember to this day – “Step back door is closing” and another one I could not quite get clearly – “When boarding move to the centre and bluh bluh bluh”
And how was the weather
We overwintered in the US which means the temperature was not as much favorable for people who lived their lives in subtropical and temperate climate. In my Siaya county for example, you would want to walk naked most months of the year. Denver has freezing temperatures during winters. For example on 2/12/11, we woke up to find the buildings, vehicles, roads and trees buried with snow! Machines were working on the roads, I saw first hand how crude salt I only studied in form two Chemistry is used to melt the snow. To prevent these extremely low temperatures from robbing us of our comfort and concentration, we wore heavy clothes, 3-4 jackets depending on your size lest you will be unable to pass the door, mittens, thick socks, hats, thermal pants and another one which the BoldLeader’s staff and host families provided. The prevailing winds in D.C were especially very acute and the draught was hitting our eyes, we walked with eyes half closed. What saved us is that the rooms and vehicles had heating systems.
Trip Back Home
East or West home is the best. And it is true we really missed home, so much. While you may think we did not want to come back, it was our consuming desire to get home. It would be like the sense of going to the moon and back so everybody is curious and want to know your experience. Waiting for you in a celebratory mode.
The main reason we longed for home is because we were tired as the tours and trainings took the whole day and the better part of the nights. Sometimes we got trained until hours associated with witches and witchcraft. The duration was short but the curriculum was extensive.
And the subsidiary reason was that we missed ugali. Staying on course for one month without a taste of your staple food can be tricky. Brethrens, If you are travelling to US for one month or so, carry a packet or two of Jogoo or Jembe or Dola…Hehe.
We missed a flight in London and had to wait till the next day to re-book. And you are in the cold and you feel sleepy and food is expensive and you don’t have as much money. Look at our state of dilemma: if you buy french fries for $ 13, you have spent 1,300 KES! So, we had better commit ourselves to unexpected fasting. By the way, I regret buying a handkerchief for $ 10 in D.C. That’s a whooping 1000 KES. Which you can use to aquire100 handkerchiefs in Gikomba market and sell in Muindi Mbingu street for 50 KES each.
In the course of the trip, I was embarrassed at my greenness in the face of very simple things like using the automatic urinal pit. Somewhere in London, I just needed to pass water and, hey presto, a technological force would swallow everything up vuuuu and disappear into nothingness, instead, I fumbled with a knob like something, trying to flush, I certainly touched mzungu’s urine.
I had this white pair of sneakers that I thought could separate me from the ground once in the US. Carefully wrapped in a new, white Nakumatt polythene bag. I did not use them in the trip. On our way back in London, the airport authority confiscated them. And were taken for a protracted investigation inside a certain chamber and returned wet and dripping something liquid inside a transparent British polythene bag. It raised questions: Were they disinfecting my shoes or just washing them? Whenever your belonging are confiscated in the airport for security examination, you need to be given report of the results, something the authorities did not do. I felt the urge to tell them that I was not a terrorist but feared they could ask ” And how does a terrorist look like?” This is how I caused my group to miss the Nairobi flight. I’m sorry.
And many more embarrassing stories that are unprintable for my own dignity’s sake. In this blog, some stories must die. But I was learning.
Expectations of Kenyans upon our arrival.
You know Kenyans pretty well, the misconceptions they have about life in the diaspora. That the ambitious and optimistic Americans must offer much more promising to our country. They imagined we moved to a land flowing with milk and honey. Where life is smooth and things are free.
Now their expectations of us were many and wild. One asked “Where is your laptop computer from the US?” another “May I see how a dollar looks like?” With others asking how much money we made. This makes you understand we were supposed to be money-making automatons in the US. Generally, majority thought we would come back rich, with many electronics and money. American adults don’t just give money. You have to work for it or there must be a definite purpose and perhaps that explains their stronger economy.
Others wondered why we even came back. Jokingly, one suggested I should have hit an American with a stone, get detained and corrected back to the American society much later and my visa would have expired and the world would have moved on!
Nobody really seemed to care about what we learnt. Not one thinking about the contents of our brand new American heads that, at the slightest provocation, we were so ready to unleash with much intellectual thunder.
So what is the impact of the trip
There is no better feeling than meeting people from different cultures and you become friends. I made friends across the shores, including the Tanzanian participants. We email a lot with Margaret Melkiori and Jackline Mlay who currently studies Civil engineering at the university of Dar es Salaam. I should like to keep in touch with others beyond Facebook.
I have used codes of a boldleader to make a difference. To participate and collaborate, I have volunteered articles to Magazine Reel for more than half a year, minding the relational gap between me and the Kenyan youth whom I have been addressing, tackling contemporary issues like drug abuse, peer pressure among others that have stealthily crept and living with my youth. On creativity, I started my blog, OneStepBeyond where you can always hear the whole story in the manner you should hear it but I don’t write to impress, to tell the story properly. I create out of the box stories that lets you go one step beyond, bringing even the most ordinary and boring of stories with grace and with style and with grit and good humor. And of course I’m very tenacious, I would not have written this long post, well, I could choose to sleep, bet or watch a movie but that doesn’t help in the long run. So when you see a contrivance, a thrilling piece that is unputdownable know that it took tremendous amount of effort.
It is very easy to notice the impact of the trip in my life as I have grown a hundred fold all round.
I am grateful to professor Nicholas Oguge who worked very hard to bring such a brilliant idea to our school, located in the most forgotten parts of Kenya.
To our principal Mr. Ng’iela, the most humble man I have met, for being a great chaperon before, during and after the whole process of the trip.
To the “Colorado five” for being such a great team and for easily understanding me.
To the BoldLeaders staff, I ask what thanks can I ever offer you, when you have given me a new lease on life?
To the Robinsons, thank you for finding time in your demanding schedule to host me with much love. It lies not within human power to repay you – I can only pray that may God bless you.
To myself for being willing to face new challenges with vigour and with hope. But most importantly for my uncanny ability to employ observational and common sense learning.
Last but not least, Almighty God, father of all humanity who causes chance and time to happen for everybody.
I can’t wait for a return visit to Trump’s country. Should that happen, I will be more keen to keep a journal, observe the situation and write about it. And I promise to not fumble with a urinal knob. If it doesn’t, I will go to Luxemburg or Bangkok. I’m positive.
Thanks for reading. Hope you got inspired. Share widely.
NOTE: This is the second edition of this article and below is a copied earlier praises and reaction with readers.
Moses Ogeu said:18 Mar 2017 at 5:31 AM
What an interesting article of your throwback Moses. I always believe that if God wants to lift you high, He will despite what your background is. Keep on inspiring bro.
Liked by you
MosesAumaSpeaks responded:18 Mar 2017 at 8:10 AM
Thank you. And consider putting pen to paper.
Kipyegon Willy said:18 Mar 2017 at 8:54 PM
Moses, what a great story! It’s been a great inspiration to me. I won’t forget the bit on “We become adapted to the lack of use of our basic human resources and they respond by becoming unfamiliar to us” …I’m challenged
Liked by you
MosesAumaSpeaks responded:18 Mar 2017 at 8:57 PM
Sounds great Kipyegon Willy. Please find what human resources lies within you and capitalize on them. When I look at you, I see a successful young man! Thank you.
Liked by you
Kipyegon Willy said:18 Mar 2017 at 9:00 PM
Your articles always inspires me. Thanks and keep writing bro
Liked by you
Kennedy Adede said:18 Mar 2017 at 9:44 PM
Moses, thanks for reminding me about our silver experience in the US. It was more than we can express fully to the people. I like this article..keep it shoulder high bro
MosesAumaSpeaks responded:18 Mar 2017 at 9:56 PM
Thank you boldleader. BE BOLD.
Prince Victor said:19 Mar 2017 at 4:13 PM
Leaders are made not born.
You’re an epitome of one, this is just the preparation of a great thinker and master communicator.
Keep up. Les Brown, Robert Kiyosaki, Dr David Oyedepo e.t.c are the present positions of your future!
MosesAumaSpeaks responded:19 Mar 2017 at 5:57 PM
What a thoughtful and inspiring comment Prince Victor! Thank you. Stephen R Covey emphasises leaderdhip as a subject of choice rather than formal position. Yes we all can become greater than Oyedepo, Kiyosaki, Brown and the rest. Only if we believe. Thanks again for reading.
Titus Opiyo said:20 Mar 2017 at 10:29 AM
I love it… that luck doesn’t avail itself on your path, you have to put yourself on its path that it may find you
Miss Mwaura said:21 Mar 2017 at 5:18 AM
Once again I got inspired… Doors will open up for you Moses even before you realize. Am certain, I admire your focus you know…
#Writing Is A Labour Of Love ☺