Finding Family in Kenya

- JoAnna Haugen


My stomach knotted as I walked down the dirt road outside of Naivasha, Kenya, to the house I would live in for the next eight weeks. A fence surrounded the compound; inside I found a simple but large house in comparison to other homes I'd passed along the way, a couple cows grazing on the grass and laundry drying on the line.

Copia Magazine: Kenya In the house I was greeted by my new mama, a smiling woman with a jovial laugh who would make sure I was well fed throughout my Peace Corps training. She offered me a mug of chai, and I instantly felt at ease.

Later that evening, Brian, the youngest of Mama's five children at 19 years old, arrived home from a day in town.

"What is your name?" he asked me, extending his hand in greeting.

"JoAnna, but my friends call me Jo."

"Well then," Brian said, taking a seat on the couch. "I'll call you Jo."

When we travel, we usually expect to have new experiences, taste new food and visit new places. Occasionally we make new friends. In Brian, I found someone who shared a passion for writing.

Over the course of the next eight weeks, while my husband helped our mama with cooking dinner in the evenings (a cultural reversal of roles that always seemed a little strange to the other family members), Brian and I would relax in the living room, talking about everything related to the written word.

Prior to joining the Peace Corps, I had worked in a marketing position that allowed me to write, and I'd also sold a few freelance pieces in my spare time. In Kenya, I simply called myself a journalist, something that Brian was both familiar with and interested in becoming.

He had recently graduated from high school and wanted to study journalism in college. As we sipped chai in the evenings, we talked about the writing profession. He wanted to know what my classes in college were like, where I found ideas and inspiration, what kinds of things I wrote, what it was like to interview strangers and how I had started writing in the first place.

Brian's enthusiasm for knowledge and information was insatiable; it was a curiosity I rarely found in a country that ran on "whenever" time. His questions about writing blossomed into questions about the United States. From there, he asked about politics, religion, cultural differences, traditions and holidays. Sometimes he'd begin our evening conversation with, "So last night you said " and we'd pick up from where we left off.

When we packed our bags and prepared to move out of our homestay, Brian wrote down his parents' home address and his email on a scrap of paper. We promised to keep in touch throughout my service; I was eager to hear about his college experience.

That was in July 2004.

Just a few months ago, Brian graduated from college. A picture he posted to Facebook showed him proudly wearing his cap and gown at graduation. Today he works as a busy journalist in Nairobi, but he still finds time to email me a couple times a month with stories of his success and still more questions about my writing career. He recently interviewed Serena Williams for an article, and he was glowing when he discovered that one of his articles was pinned to the wall in a prominent office building in Nairobi.

We travel expecting to have new experiences and make the occasional friend. But when I walked up that dirt road six years ago, I didn't expect to find a person like Brian. In him, I discovered the brother that I never had and a colleague in a fun but often lonely profession. It only makes sense for him to call me Jo.




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