On a rainy day one August, I had a dead body in my Land Rover. Her name was Caroline, and she was 16. She had drowned on a Tuesday. Her body was found that Friday.
Not being from the area of Kenya where I was living at the time, Caroline’s body had to be transported up into the Nandi hills, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from my village. When I was asked if it would be possible for me to help by driving the body home, I didn’t think twice. My car was big. I would do it.
It was only after I had said, “Yes” that reality set in. It’s not that I’m afraid of a corpse. It’s just a shell, after all. But the young girl had been dead for three full days, and her body had been in the river the entire time. As a precaution, I grabbed some Tiger Balm to put under my nose, and left for the house where I was to pick up the body.
My upper lip was still burning from the Tiger Balm when I rounded the corner to the hut. I greeted the solemn crowd, not sure whom to convey my condolences to. One man stepped up. “Thank you for coming. Now, are you brave?” Before I could answer, I was led through the crowd and into the mud hut.
Except for the body, there was nothing in the living room, not even a single chair. “This is it,” the man said somewhat nonchalantly, pointing at the body. “Now, let’s see who will drive with you.” Before my eyes had adjusted properly to the darkness in the hut, we were once again outside.
I folded the back seat down to make more space in the very back of the truck, and spread out a tarp. Some men carried the body to my car on a stretcher of sacks and a sheet. The eerie silence was interrupted by the shuffling of their feet on the soil and by the sound of the sheet sliding onto the tarp. No-one cried. Everyone simply stared. Then, someone said a prayer in Nandi, and I wished I could speak the local language so I could understand more of what was happening around me.
People started piling into the vehicle. A grandpa was helped into the front seat. The girl’s dad squeezed past the body to sit beside it. More and more people crammed onto the two narrow, drop-down seats in the back of the truck: An uncle, three kokos (grandmas) from the community, and John, the neighbor who was with the girl when she fell in the river and drowned. Caroline had died alone. Now, she was surrounded by loved ones. Someone covered her face with a veil, and off we went.
As we passed through the market, John asked me to stop. He needed to buy Doom. While we waited, the rain started pouring down. The roads were already drenched and streams were flowing on both sides of the road. John came back with the can of insect repellent and emptied out much of it onto the body as well as onto their feet of those sitting close to the corpse. “To keep the flies away,” he responded to my puzzled look.
I wasn’t sure which of the smells were the strongest: That of the poison, that of the corpse, or those of the old men and women who don’t have the luxury of regular showers, all of which trumped the smell of the Tiger Balm. To make things worse, I couldn’t open my window because of the downpour.
David (the director of our ministry on the Kipkaren River) called soon afterwards. “Adéle, are you scared?”
“No, David,” I assured him. “What is there to be afraid of?”
The answer came to me hardly two minutes later, as we started fishtailing on the muddy road. To add insult to injury, the road we were on was incredibly bumpy. All of us were bouncing in our seats while I tried my best to keep the car on the road. I felt badly that Caroline was having such a bumpy last ride, but what could I do?
I passed two small cars that had ended up in the ditches on the side of the road and prayed that God would protect us from sliding into a ditch, too. Not much later, as I rounded a bend in the road, going at no more than 10 kmh (5mph), there were two trucks that had gone off the road… It was clear that we wouldn’t be able to pass.
“No worries,” an agui (grandpa) exclaimed. “Go back.”
Very carefully, I made a U-turn, and we headed back to where the road had forked. This put us onto an even worse road, one that would take us through two, strong rivers with water way above my tires.
And so the journey continued, all the way back to the Nandi Hills where I had picked up orphans the year before. I recognized many a beacon on the road, including three of the homes along the way where I had picked up children. How ironic, I thought, last time I was here, I brought good news for the children and their guardians. Today, I’m the bearer of sadness.
The last stretch of the journey took me down a road that had likely not seen a car in ages. And then we were there. It had taken two hours to cover the 25 miles.
I got out to say, “Pole” (sorry) to the family while some men carried Caroline’s body to the small hut. Women started wailing. This was family time, and I needed to make my way back to my village. One koko agreed to drive back with me to show me the way home. She knew a shorter way home, one that would take us past many more stranded vehicles, but not through the rivers again.
I was relieved to pull into our compound 90 minutes later, just as the sun started setting. “Two more children fell in the river at Turbo today,” a colleague told me while I washed my vehicle. “Their parents are now around here looking for them.”
Sad as they were, river drownings weren’t unusual in our village and certainly not in many other villages around my continent. This is Africa. And life in this part of Africa can sometimes be tough. Yet we have hope. I cannot imagine life without it.
Tell us a wild story from living internationally, wouldn’t you?
Adele Booysen currently lives in Thailand and works for Compassion International.
She is relieved that her job with Compassion doesn’t included any undertaking responsibilities.