Mary Walker: Volcano eruption’s effects reach Africa

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Mary Walker

Editor’s note: Clark resident Mary Walker volunteers at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya. The center was built in 2002 and provides a safehouse for Maasai girls who have escaped or been rescued from female genital mutilation and forced childhood marriage. Walker’s updates from Kenya appear periodically in the Steamboat Today.

Late last week, the impact of the volcano in Iceland was made clear to me by a friend I’m staying with in Nairobi. I had traveled from the rescue center in Narok back to Nairobi for what I thought were my scheduled flights to London and on to Denver. Although I read the Kenyan newspapers, at this point, there seemed little impact on life here in Kenya as far as I could tell. Then, my friend told me that Heathrow Airport in London was closed. Throughout the day, things seemed to snowball as more airports closed. Of course, it was inevitable that Nairobi’s international airport would come into the picture. In Swahili, “Akuna safari ndeges leo na kesho” (“There are no airplanes today or tomorrow”) became the frequent scroll on television programs.

By Sunday, the impact was hitting Kenya full force. Most people would assume that the result of such an unprecedented airline shutdown for so many days primarily is inconvenience for a lot of people, maybe some missed weddings, birthdays or business meetings. And maybe you are thinking that this inconvenience is felt only in the largest airports, where a secondary result becomes new social structures created by the hundreds (or thousands) of people stranded in airports. It makes me think of the Tom Hanks movie, “Terminal,” by the way. Maybe you are thinking, “But why would anybody be stranded in an airport? Why don’t they just leave the airport while things get back to normal; after all, it’s not a blizzard, right?” Maybe that is possible for a businessman from Chicago, who can find a hotel in London and wait things out. But in Nairobi, Kenya, many, many people, even those able to travel by air, simply cannot afford hotels.

There is no ash over Africa. There are, however, millions of shillings’ worth of Kenyan flowers rotting at the Nairobi airport. Bound for London and Europe, there’s no place for them to go. There’s talk of donating them to churches in Kenya. Also vegetables, which hopefully some innovative and “out-of-the-box” thinking nongovernmental organization will find a way to distribute to orphanages, rescue centers or hospitals before they also rot. The impact of these two Kenyan exports’ demise will damage the Kenyan economy. This kind of economic catastrophe is very troubling in a country where everything seems to need government subsidy, the subsidies are promised and then usually the allocated funds are lost either through inept oversight or outright corruption.

The news reports say hundreds of people are stranded at the Nairobi airport since April 14, when flights to London first were canceled. I am intimately familiar with this airport, flying in and out of it three times a year. As airports go, it’s not so bad — there are long corridors to walk to pass the time, bookshops and curio shops, and even a Java House (the Kenyan Starbucks). And plenty of well-stocked restrooms for all the western safari tourists. Throughout the years of travel to Kenya, I’ve found an electrical socket there where I can sit as long as I want and drink coffee while using my computer. I, however, am not eager to go Saturday for my five-day delayed (so far) flight. It will be a long afternoon, culminating hopefully in the departure of the 11:30 p.m. nine-hour flight to London.

I am one of the fortunate ones being affected by this event. Don’t get me wrong, I am eager beyond words to be at home. I’ve been in Kenya since November, and I have spent the past two months helping one of the girls from the rescue center get situated at public university. This is a remarkable achievement for her, for the rescue center, her family (although her father’s appreciation for her determination will be long in coming, if ever), and yes, for me. Public universities in Kenya are the pinnacle of education performance, and I am so very proud for her. She has worked against enormous obstacles to reach this point, and it has been worth every minute of the stress and emotional strain that I’ve been under to make sure that things went as smoothly as possible for her. Indeed, to even hint at complaining about my stress is absurd given what she has been through.

So this unexpected delay caused by the volcano is really just a blip on my emotional radar. I have to keep this in mind as I look ahead to Saturday and the inevitable frustrations at the airport. Missing Michael, longing to hear the sound of my beloved Elk River from an open window at night, and eagerness to get back to work on behalf of the girls at the rescue center from my “office” at the Bud Werner Memorial Library — there are stronger emotions than airport frustrations, for sure.

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