Which Way to Jeremiah Wamachio’s Compound?

“It was a Thursday morning in 1984 and I was at a breakfast prayer meeting at church,” Dad said. Seriously, I thought, thirty-one years ago and he can remember what day of the week it was?

“I was sitting next to my friend Ahmed Haile who was born and raised in Somalia. He was director of the missions program that our church, Eastbrook, had established with the government of Somalia and we got into a discussion. He asked me if I would be willing to go to Bula Berdi and help with architectural type needs. We happened to be low in work at the office at that time but had a pretty strong cash position, so I said yes.

“I was also serving on the board of Habitat for Humanity which was just getting started in Milwaukee. I had learned from that program about a project in Kenya that did not require the corrugated metal roofs that were typically used on the Habitat homes in Africa. The Habitat builders in Kenya were making everything out of brick and I was curious to see if it would be applicable to our work in Somalia.

“I talked to our pastor, Marc Erickson, and decided to combine the Habitat project in Kenya, sponsored by the churches in Milwaukee, with the new mission program sponsored by Eastbrook in Somalia. Marc and I agreed on a time that he would be in Somalia to get the Eastbrook team settled which could correspond with my trip to Kenya. I planned to take care of my business for Habitat and then meet up with Marc.

“I called the National Office for Habitat and said I was aware of the houses they were building outside of Moi’s Bridge in Kenya. They told me it would be alright if I came to check them out but I would have to get there on my own because their volunteers didn’t have time to pick me up. I could take a bus to Moi’s Bridge, and then perhaps find another means to get to the Habitat site.

“I got directions to the site, which were pretty vague, and prepared for my trip. At the time, a client of Wenzler Architects’ was the Usinger Sausage Company. When Fred Usinger heard what I was going to do, he said, ‘Bill you need to take along some sausage in case you get stuck somewhere. Our all beef summer sausage doesn’t need to be refrigerated.’ So I put a significant amount of sausage in my suitcase and was ready for my trip.

“Marc had arranged for me to meet a friend of his who was a missionary in Nairobi. I arrived a few days before Marc and joined in the missionary sidewalk work. There were many students coming from class. I would talk about Jesus, if they’d listen. I don’t think I won anybody over but you never know. It was a good experience.

“The next morning, I took off on my trip to Moi’s Bridge. The first bus was standard, like a small greyhound. That part of the trip went well. Then I had to transfer to a small matatu which was a pickup truck with a cabin on the back. The directions I received from Habitat were to take the bus going to Kitali and get off at the first major intersection outside of Moi’s Bridge. I caught a local bus and talked to the driver who fortunately spoke English. He knew where I was going and said he would watch with me for the ‘first major intersection’.

“We started off for Kitali. When we reached the first intersection the driver asked me, ‘Here?’ I looked around and said, ‘No.’ We reached the second intersection in the middle of nowhere and again he asked, ‘Here?’ I looked around and again said, ‘No.’ Then he suggested I go to Kitali and call someone to come pick me up. I had been told to get there on my own and I didn’t want to interrupt the work of the Habitat volunteer so we drove on to a third intersection which looked more like a major intersection. I told the driver to let me off. He looked at me and said, ‘Are you sure?’ It felt right.

“I got off the bus and just then, along came a matatu that was making a turn the direction I wanted to go. My driver honked his horn to get the other driver’s attention and the matatu stopped. I got in and sat next to a woman who I discovered spoke English. We got into a conversation and I told her where I was going and that I was looking for the Habitat volunteer. She pointed at some metal roofs off in the distance and told me it was Jerimiah Wamachio’s compound.

“As we were sitting there waiting for the matatu to take off, I noticed two women coming across the road with their cages of live chickens. Now, from time to time, I have claustrophobia and it was quite crowded in this matatu. When the women climbed into the bus, I got up and said, ‘Let me off.’ But I got a nudge from the woman sitting next to me. She said, ‘No. Too far. Stay with me. I take care of you.’ So as the ladies with the chickens got settled, we took off down the new road, now heading west.

“It turned out to be about seven miles to Jeremiah Wamachio’s compound which was where the Habitat volunteer was staying. The matatu driver stopped and told me, ‘This is where you get off,’ and pointed me towards the path to take. I had with me, a duffel bag which contained a sleeping bag, a sheet in case there was a bed, my first-aid kit, a canteen with water, a change of clothes and the Usinger sausage.

“I was ready to head down the path when another matatu came along and a young man got out. I told him I was going to Jeremiah Wamachio’s compound, he nodded and we started off down a path through the grass. We came to a small stream, crossed it and continued west for a while before he stopped and pointed for me to go north. After a short distance I saw a group of grass huts. Just as I entered, a man came out of one of the huts and said, ‘Bill Wenzler.

“The man was a Habitat volunteer from Canada. He greeted me and said they had been expecting me the week before. I said, “I know, but things got changed in Milwaukee. I’m here now.”  He showed me where I would be staying then told me that President Moi would be coming through the country the next day. He wanted to get his truck washed in preparation. He invited me to come along and told me the easiest place to wash the truck was in a nearby river. When we got to the river, he drove the truck right into the water which was already being occupied by a small herd of thirsty cows.

“We got back to the compound in time for supper. Among the suggestions that Marc Erickson had given me before I left Milwaukee, was to be sure to drink good water. He gave me some water purifying pills to take in case the source of the water was doubtful. The safest way  to drink it, he said, was to get bottled water.

“One of Jeremiah Wamachio’s wives was preparing the evening meal. He had four wives and had married them all before he became Christian. Each would take a turn making dinner, as was the custom. I was pleased to see a large bottle of water on the table. I was also aware that we were very much into a rural countryside and asked, ‘Where did you get the bottled water?’ He said, ‘From the river!’

“The next day, he took me around to the Habitat houses I had come to see. I found out that they substituted brick vaults for the metal roofs. The clay they used for the bricks was unique to their climate so it wouldn’t work for us in Somalia where the land was mostly sand. This approach to constructing roofs wouldn’t help us. So, my trip to Kenya was eventful but not helpful. However, I did learn it was important to take a purifying pill when the source of the water was doubtful.”

There were so many details in this story I had to put it away several times. Dad would become impatient with all my questions and I got impatient with his. ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’ He would ask holding up his hand to signify the direction he was travelling. He bought a map to make sure I understood that west was west and north was north.

I went to bed that night, wondering if it was silly to write these stories down. I laid there thinking about all the hours we’d spent on them. Was I just clinging to the past, and to Dad?

When I woke up the following morning, I reread what I’d written. Dad had few instructions on the direction he was headed. Every intersection provided a choice, and just as he has lived his life, it was a trip of trust—he was off the bus before the matatu showed up at that ‘first major intersection’.

When claustrophobia crawled into the matatu with him, a person was there to calm his fear.

When the matatu driver told him he had arrived at his destination and pointed to a path, Dad got off with his duffel bag to head into the woods. At the right moment, a young man showed up to lead him on. And then, when he finally arrived at his destination, the first words he heard were, Bill Wenzler.

I stared up at the ceiling and felt my eyes well up. There in the quiet of the morning, I understood that, like all of Dad’s stories, this was an adventure but also a story of faith. I know what it is to wander around unclear of my direction. I have come to many intersections in life, free to choose and taken the wrong turn. If there’s anything I can learn through Dad’s life, it’s that God’s purpose is always bigger than ours and sometimes we just won’t see it at the time. But, like the man who greeted Dad at the hut, I believe God knows us by name and is always there ready to guide us.