On this sunny, snowy Valentine’s Day morning, I woke to a beautiful bouquet of roses from my love and we baked a chocolate heart shaped cake to enjoy for dinner. As we are still on a Covid-19 lockdown here in Ontario, it’s a quiet February 14th at home with no dinner out or movie to attend.
As I scroll through my Facebook Memories, I’m soon reminded of a Valentine’s Day that was anything but a quiet day at home. In fact, I’m not sure that any Valentine’s Day will ever top the one I had in 2008, while I was living in Kenya. A day that included singing, Valentine date requests and a slaughterhouse. Of all the travel stories I enjoy telling and re-telling, this is definitely one of my favourites!
For many people, Valentine’s Day brings about thoughts of love and chocolate and memories of a special someone. For others, it’s a silly holiday that only reminds them that they’ve yet to find that “special someone.” But for me, each year on Valentine’s Day, my mind heads back to Kenya – to a day I think will be pretty hard to beat!
I’ve never been the kind of girl who makes a big deal out of Valentine’s Day, most years, it’s just another day. However, there is one Valentine’s Day that stands out more than most days. Valentine’s Day 2008, while I was living in Kenya volunteering in an orphanage is one crazy day I’ll never forget!
Joseph, the man who ran Manaseh children’s home, is definitely what you would call a character. On this particular morning, he burst into the kitchen saying “Crystal, will you accompany me on a short journey?” By this point I had learned that a ‘short’ outing with Joseph could mean anything from a couple of hours to a full day adventure.
After convincing the two other volunteers not to leave me alone, we set out through the village and made our way to Christine’s home for tea. This sweet, tiny woman became my Kenyan grandma while I was living there and I always enjoyed our lively conversations over tea or a meal. However, today after greeting us, Christine disappeared outside. After waiting in the sitting room for over half an hour we began to wonder what the hold up was just as Christine rushed back into the kitchen with a boiling pot of chai. She apologized for the wait, explaining that she was out of milk so before she could make the tea she had to send her son to milk the cow! This was definitely the freshest cup of tea I’ve ever had! As we drank our chai, Christine asked if I was married. When I told her no, she told me I’d be welcome to get married at her house and she said she would be honoured to slaughter a goat to celebrate, maybe two if I married a Kenyan man!
Already 2 hours in to our ‘short journey’ Joseph decided it was time to move on and we walked another mile or so along a dirt trail to one of the local schools. After greeting the principal, we were then paraded through all the classrooms as the students silently stared at the Mzungus standing in front of them. After being introduced as a dancer, which anyone who was in my ballet class clearly knows I’m not, Joseph would announce that I was now going to perform a song for them. This happened everywhere we went, so luckily by this point I had my Hippo song armed and ready to go.
‘Hip, Hip, Hip, Hippopotamus, Hip, Hip Hooray God made all of us, ‘Hip, Hip, Hip, Hippopotamus, Hip, Hip Hooray he made us.” By the time we made it through all six classrooms an hour later, we had a parade of kids following us singing the Hippo song and laughing hysterically.
Our next stop was lunch as Joseph steered us into the back of a butchery and ordered us each a big bowl of ugali and cow innards. Luckily lunch also came with an orange Fanta to wash the cornmeal paste and bones down with!
Back on the street, I realized the long red dress I chose to wear for Valentine’s Day might not have been the best choice for someone who already stood out like a sore thumb. However, it did provide entertain for the others as a number of men asked me to be their Valentines using a variety of tactics.
We made our way through the Dagoretti Slum until we came to the open-air slaughterhouse to pick up some meat for dinner. The sign posted on the door read ‘If you are entering this yard in the morning wear your goggles and apron to avoid blood spatter.’ Great! Lucky for us by this point it was mid afternoon. Now I’ve never been in a slaughterhouse before and even if I had I’m not sure any of us were ready for what we saw as we pushed through that stained white gate. At least half a dozen cows hung from the ceiling as their decapitated heads stared at us from the side. Each butcher was in charge of selling meat from his own cow, meaning chaos ensued as everyone fought to have us buy from their cow. Joseph explained that to ‘order’ the meat all you had to do you was point to the part of the cow you wanted and the butcher would hack it off with a machete. Ok. As we looked for a cow that appeared even slightly appetizing, the blood birds began to dive bomb the slaughterhouse drinking up the blood and making our decision much faster. “I’ll take that section please.” As the butcher raised his machete to hack off the chunk of cow I’d pointed out, another man appeared beside me. “Excuse me miss, but as you know it is Valentine’s Day and I was wondering if you would be my Valentine?” he asked just as the butcher dropped the chunk of raw cow meat into my bare hands.
Eight hours after our short journey began we made it back to the orphanage to eat a feast of beef and stale pink Valentine cupcakes with the kids. With my hands still reeking of dead cow, this may not have been a very romantic day, but I’m not sure any other Valentine’s day will ever be quite as memorable!