By placing my characters in an Internal Displaced Person’s Camp (IDP) and starting my research and our journey in such a place this story was completely real for me from its very first word.
We drove to the camp from Nairobi–about 100 kiliometers away. The people in the camp had graciously agreed to meet with us. We were strangers but they wanted to tell their story. Here, more than four years after the violence that had driven them from their homes, they resided, still unable to return home. They wanted us to know. For most they’d come to the realization that they’d never be going ‘home’ again.
We walked through the camp, accompanied by the chief, asking questions and seeing the lives circumstances of the people. With some money from the government and from international organizations like Habitat for Humanity some would be able to buy some land and start the process of re-settlement. But meanwhile, this camp was now very different than the canvas and plastic emergency sites that had been thrown together at first. Small mud and brick dwellings had been constructed. There were pens for animals, a well had been drilled, sanitation had been constructed, some fields had been planted, and a large plastic “greenhouse” was being used to raise seedlings.
We spoke to people and found out their circumstances. We provided supplies for their school. My daughter Julia dipped into her pocket to pay the medical expenses of a woman who needed care. Ruth-who is essential to everything to do with the Creation of Hope charity my wife and I founded–joined us for that visit at the camp. She paid for a special weaving machine for a woman in the camp who was blind–her special loom had been left behind.
It always helps for me to visualize a character. Playing the role’ of Muchoki is Mutua. Mutua, is presently in Form 2 and is a resident of the Rolling Hills Residence. I described the personality of the character in my story–kind, serious, caring, mature–and the children in the residence almost unanimously yelled out “Mutua!” He is a remarkable young man who I could see doing just what my character did in the story–preserving while caring for his sister. Here he is:
An interesting note: We were going to take pictures of Matua and Jossy dressed in character. Matua was dressed–as always–in a very nice clean outfit. I asked him to change into something that would be more representative of a young person living in an IDP camp and traveling across the country. He came back in another set of equally clean and well cared for clothing. I asked him if he had something that was more worn or even dirty. He looked rather offended and told me that “all of my clothing” is well cared for and clean. We finally lent him one of Connor’s T-shirts–one he’d worn as we walked across the country–to wear!
It was this man and his his story that I was thinking of when I wrote this scene. I am still struck by his manner in this clip. He was describing a terrible situation but doing so in a way that was straightforward and matter-of-fact. If you just watch his expressions and listen to the tone of his voice you don’t realize the suffering that underlies the underlies these details. Here he was talking about how, for the fourth time, he was forced to flee his home under fear of death. I listened, asked questions and stood there in wonder. I was writing a story, a work of imagination, about what he had really experienced. I felt like an intruder, a voyeur, who had no right to be there.
I thought back to the time I was writing the book Wounded, about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in soldiers. I received permission to be on the tarmac when Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan were brought back home. Along with a group of journalists I was in a little penned in area away from the plane and the families. I watched and took notes that I’d use in my book. It was then, across the open expanse of the tarmac, that I heard members of the family crying. I folded up my pad, put my pen in my pocket and turned away to give them the privacy they deserved. At the IDP camp, talking to this man, I’d wondered if I’d once again walked too close. This man should have been anger, bitter, and upset for what he had lost, for the injustice of what had happened to him and his family. Instead there was a calm sense of acceptance, a gratitude for what he had – his grandson and a place to start over again. What bravery. What humility. At the end he took my hand, shook it, and thanked me for baring witness, for telling his story. I offered him money to help him to help him and his grandson and I worked hard at not crying. I walked away feeling like I’d been given a life lesson in the first fifteen minutes of our journey. I sometimes refer to myself as a “method” writer. I like to get inside my characters, often by putting myself in the physical place and possibly having some of the same experiences, doing interviews or witnessing situations. Sometimes it all gets too close. Sometimes just close enough.