All I want for Christmas is a Swahili word.

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On Christmas Eve 1966, Mary and I drove to Igoji with our baby Joseph to have dinner with the American and Canadian nurses.  Although Igoji was only 16 miles south of our village Nkubu, driving the narrow dirt road after dinner, i.e., after sundown, meant feeling our way in the dark as we twisted through many switchbacks and over culverts carrying roaring streams that dropped precipitously into the gullies they were carving into the slopes of Mt. Kenya.  On the equator there is no evening and no variation in the length of the days through the year.  Every day around 6 p.m. the sun sets.  Bam!  It’s night.

After we had gone a couple of miles, the car’s engine started banging loudly.  I had no idea what was wrong.  Of course, like the greenhorn I was, I had not thought to bring a flashlight, much less any repair tools.  First, I stopped to ask one of the local people who spoke English if he would take a message back to Igoji that we were having car trouble.  I tried to go on, but the banging just got worse.  I had to stop again.  In the dark I couldn’t really tell if the radiator was empty, though the steam and the heat of the engine indicated that it was.  Some of the people who had gathered to see what was going on helped me down a steep incline to the stream below and lent me a container to bring water back up to the car.  When the radiator took a lot of water, I figured that was the problem.  With the car running again, I had to go back almost all the way to Igoji to catch the person I had asked to tell the nurses.

After profuse thanks, we were off again towards Nkubu.  As we were approaching Kanyakine, about halfway home, the car boiled up again.  I went into a duka and said to the men inside, in the best Swahili I could muster, Nataka maji kwa motokaa.  “I want water for a car.”  

Duka is the Swahili word for a shop or store.  In the case of a crossroads like Kanyakine, at least in 1966, the entire “business district” consisted of this tiny duka, which carried a small inventory of necessities like petrol, kerosene, batteries, and other small items that people needed before walking 8-10 miles to larger markets like Igoji or Nkubu.  In a place like Kanyakine, the duka also served as a gathering place for people to socialize.  At night it would serve for men to sit around sharing pombe, the local beer.  It was just such a group I encountered in the duka that night.

The shopkeeper reached behind the counter and pulled out a tin can, called a debe, with some dirty water in it.  I was stuck.  I needed clean water, but for the life of me I could not recall the Swahili or the Kimeru word for “clean,” if I had ever known it.  I tried unsuccessfully to explain in English.  Finally, the men found someone who could speak English.  He took me to a water tap near the store.  Because I figured I would need to fill the radiator again before we got to Nkubu, I asked if I could buy another debe so I could fill it and take it with us.  Another problem.  The shopkeeper wanted shilingi mbili, two shillings, for the debe.  I only had one shilling and a fifty cent piece with me.  Since I had already proven my ineptness at traveling in the backcountry, he overcame his skepticism that a mzungu would only have the equivalent of 21 cents American on him and let me have the debe.

We made it home around 10 p.m on the water I put in the radiator at Kanyakine, but the motor was steaming when we arrived.   We didn’t care.  We just fell into bed, exhausted by our misadventures on the road.  

We overslept and arrived late for Midnight Mass and then again for the 7 a.m Mass.  We weren’t feeling well when it came time for the 10 a.m. Mass.  As a result we only attended two half Masses on Christmas 1966, which did not really meet our obligation.  Such things still bothered us. Instead of our usual breakfast of tea and toast with red plum jam, which we bought in large cans that seemed bottomless, we had sausage, bacon and eggs. In the afternoon we went around the mission distributing Christmas cards and cookies.  A “sundowner” (drinks at sundown) at the home of the other American freelance couple was followed by dinner at the church rectory hosted by the pastor, Fr. Ori.  

During the day I checked the car and found that a water hose was leaking.  I also consulted my Swahili dictionary to find the word for “clean.”  It’s safi.  To this day, almost 50 years later, I remember the sentence I needed that night, and memorized the next day in case I should have need for it again: Nataka maji safi kwa motokaa.  It also reminds me of the generosity we received that Christmas Eve.

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