Thursday, December 17, 2009

Promoted To Glory

My friend Kumiko called me in distress one night. She had lived less than two hours away from me in Kenya, and now lives two subway stops away from me in Brooklyn.

"I was on Facebook and just saw that Dave posted a new profile picture that has a Kenyan flag and under it says, 'In Loving Memory of Jack Opiyo,'" she said. "Do you know anything about it?"

I didn't, but the news had traveled quickly through the Kenya RPCV community. I scrolled through my Facebook news feed and saw three or four other status messages about Jack. Everyone was stunned.

I called another friend who lives in DC. I thought she might have heard more through the extensive Peace Corps Kenya grapevine down there.

"Yeah," she said. "He died in a matatu accident in Nairobi."

I felt ill as I imagined the gruesome circumstances of Jack's death. I just felt so sorry. What is that called? Sorrow?

Over the next few days, I heard more details. He was hit by a matatu while walking on Thika Road in Nairobi.

Jack Opiyo died on October 19. The three years and half the earth's circumference that had already separated my world from his made the news a strangely muted shock, but still horrifying.

Poverty and injustice are homicidal lunatics, and they prey far too frequently in Kenya. There were times when my co-workers would attend two or three funerals a week.

But epidemiologists and demographers know that the educated middle class are less likely to die. Jack was from a modest rural village near Lake Victoria, but had earned a masters degree. A slight man with the trademark chiseled jawline and high cheekbones of the Luo tribe, he had made his way eastward across Kenya to work for international NGOs in Nairobi. He was not the low-hanging fruit that death prefers.

Jack was one of our technical trainers during pre-service training in Kitui. He taught us what AIDS looked like in Kenya, and deciphered Kenyan culture for us, and shimmied barefoot down a rope to the bottom of a half-finished well to show us how much work it was to dig for clean water. And sometimes he let his Luo accent get away from him.

"There's a lot of feces in Lake Victoria," he would say.


"Yes," he'd say. "You know we Luos like to eat feces. We are feecermen and we catch feces in Lake Victoria."

My friend Steve explained, "All the guys in Peace Corps are in love with Dr. Patti, and all the girls are in love with Jack Opiyo."

In my opinion, all the guys were also in love with Jack Opiyo. I certainly had my own crush on him. I relished his goofy sense of humor as well as his passionate calls for us to do something. We all had stories about Jack. He was a mini-celebrity among adoring Peace Corps volunteers.

We adored him because he was one of the only trainers who seemed to want to change things in Kenya for the better. I can't fault anyone for taking a job for the money rather than for idealism - unemployment in Kenya was over 60 percent at the time - but Jack always seemed grounded in a vision of an improved Kenya.

"If you get to your community and you see corruption, say something," he said to us in class. "Don't keep quiet. Everyone keeps quiet and that's why corruption keeps happening."

I didn't know what corruption looked like yet, and I wouldn't realize for a long time how immensely courageous it was for him to say that when most people looked the other way or felt powerless to change anything.

Jack had a deep passion and drive to help the vulnerable in Kenya, especially girls. I heard one story of how he was in a vehicle and saw a young girl walking home from school. He asked his driver to stop and give her a ride. As he chatted with her, he said, "Study hard, Kenya needs you to be its president one day." Then he went on one of his rants about how the country would be much better off if women ran it. The girl looked at him in confusion and surprise, then broke into a comprehending grin.

Jack believed in possibilities that everyone else dismissed as foolish or unrealistic. He had a faith in his fellow Kenyans that sometimes seemed naive. Most of us, Americans and Kenyans alike, thought that we knew better. But that didn't stop him from planting seeds. His idealism and hope inspired people.


Of course, we also liked him because he was cool. He had a curiosity about Americans and American culture that was free of judgment or even surprise. One day during training, after the sexy Dr. Patti had given a female condom demonstration, we gathered outside for a tea break. One volunteer told us that female condoms were also popular among gay men for anal sex.

"Really," Jack said, not batting an eye. He'd been around Americans long enough not to be surprised by frank talk about homosexuality and graphic descriptions of sex. And a graphic conversation had indeed ensued, which included sharing personal experiences with anal sex between men and women as well as between men. Jack just listened and nodded. I'm sure he was more than slightly amused. After all these years, he was still learning something new.

It was rare for Kenyans to engage with us about sex and homosexuality. Anyone who didn't become uncomfortable, or accuse us spreading immorality to the rural masses, would at least explain patiently that there are no gay people in Kenya.

Jack knew that a surefire way to win someone's affection was to know about popular culture in their country. He loved to imitate characters from American TV and movies. One of his favorites was the comedic supporting character on Will and Grace.

"Guess what?" he'd say, framing his face with his palms turned out. "It's 'Just Jack!'" Everyone agreed that whether or not our Jack knew the character was gay, he didn't care.

"You know," he said another time with a very serious look on his face. "There's more to life than being really really really ridiculously good looking."

Why are we so attracted to people who understand our own brand of humor? Is it because humor is so culture-specific, and someone who gets why something is funny must inherently get something deeper about us? Because I had a crush on him, I wanted to make him laugh as much as he made me laugh. It was as intimate as I dared to be with him.

"Jack, I have something important to tell you," I said to him one day.

He got a concerned look on his face. "Yes," he said.

"Ninakunywa pombe kama samaki," I said. I drink beer like a fish.

Jack stared at me. He was apparently unfamiliar with the American saying. More apparently, it didn't translate well. "Kwa nini??" he said finally, throwing his hands in the air in a colossal shrug. Why??

Clearly my attempts to lure him with my American humor didn't always work. He was far more adept at wielding the humor baton on an audience than I was. That same day we were on a bus going to a field-based training site. He had been bantering loudly with another volunteer about American music.

"Tevin Campbell?" Shinita said. "But he's so cheesy."

"I like his music," Jack said. "He's good."

"You have cheesy taste in music, Jack," Shinita repeated. "You're just so cheesy."

When we stopped for a bathroom break, Jack pulled me aside.

"Justina," he said. "Can I ask you something?"

This time I got a concerned look. "Sure, what is it?"

"What does cheesy mean?" he said.

"Oh!" I said. "It's like, well, you know, like corny."

Explaining an American colloquialism using another American colloquialism didn't seem to help, so I said, "You know Yanni?"

Jack shook his head. No.

"Oh," I said. "Well, he's this cheesy easy listening singer. If someone said they like Yanni, you could tell them they're cheesy."

As we piled back into the bus and took our seats, Shinita was still harping on Jack's taste in music.

"Totally cheesy," she said.

"Shinita," Jack said, raising his voice so everyone could hear. "YOU. RESEMBLE. YANNI."


Not long after we finished our pre-service training in Kitui, Jack took a position in the Nairobi office as a project assistant for the small business development volunteers. It was an administrative job, not a teaching post where he could do what he did best - inspire, motivate, and make us laugh. But it put him three hours closer to his wife and young child whom he traveled to Kisumu to see on weekends.

We attended periodic training meetings throughout our two years of service, but he no longer had an active role in them. We would see him in the evenings after our sessions, and he would sit at the table with us, watching us fish.

That night he explained the subtleties of gender relations that exist in Luo culture, which were otherwise invisible to us as foreigners. "It's a man's mother who tells her husband to tell their son what to do, so the men save face but the mother ends up getting her way."

I remember doubting whether it was really true, since I had been in Kenya for a year and a half and nearly everything else I'd seen in my village indicated that women never had a say in anything. Instead I had seen every injustice perpetuated against females for no better reason than not being male. But I decided that since Jack said so, it must be true. Few people's words, especially a Kenyan man's, held that kind of power for me.


I just discovered a Facebook group created for Jack called The Legacy of Jack Opiyo. I devoured everything posted on that page, and then I clicked through all the photos. I wanted more details about how Jack died, but even more I wanted to know about how he lived.

I started to see hints of hardship and suffering in his life. He was 34, long enough to suffer plenty in Kenya. Friends and colleagues posting on the group's page had alluded to a difficult past two years for Jack. He had been badly injured in another road accident about a year or two ago. Afterwards he had sent out an earnest email brimming with gratitude for God's grace during his recovery, which had made the Peace Corps email rounds. Tragically, it seemed that he and moving vehicles were not meant to live harmoniously in this life.

In a way, this post is an attempt to compile the scattered tidbits that I know of Jack into a single cohesive portrait. But I didn't know Jack in a single cohesive way. He was a teacher, an inspiration and a friend, but also a mystery. Not because he was a private or mysterious person, but because his job required him to enter and exit our lives only a limited number of times.

It wasn't enough times. We miss you, Jack Opiyo.

Photo by PhoenixInKenya

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I burst out loud laughing about calling someone "you look like Yanni."
A wonderful close to my day at work reading several Justina posts in a row.
I knew Justina when she worked at an insurance agency. I bet a lot of people don't know that history of her.