An Ode to Ali Gautham Krishnaraj, Madrasa Early Childhood Programme - Kenya

It’s 3:15 AM, and my phone is ringing. I’ve grown used to waking up through the night – one of the many skills you gain from living in two time zones. As my time in Mombasa comes to a close, the number of emails from Eastern Standard Time has steadily increased, and waking up at 2:00 AM for a Skype interview has almost become normal. Today is different though. The call is from Ali: his new daughter, Malaika (angel in Swahili), has been born, and both baby and mother are happy, healthy, and resting.

Ali, like most things about my time in Kenya, came into my life while making the best of a less than ideal situation (exploding fans, drawn out elections, organizational restructuring). I had just arrived in Mombasa, and had made an arrangement for a driver to pick me up and drop me off every day from work. Ready for my first day at the office, I called my driver – his car was broken down. I quickly hailed a tuk-tuk, the three-wheeled wonders of the developing world, and hopped in. Nineties’ pop was blasting through a small pink speaker bolted to the roof, a huge YMCMB sticker along one ‘window’, and Hannah Montana stickers everywhere else. In the rear-view mirror, Ali flashes me a smile I’ll never forget and hits the gas. I knew I was in safe hands.

Matatus and tuk-tuks on crowded Mombasa roads.

From that fateful first day, Ali has become my driver, my fixer, my translator, and my friend. He has met all the other fellows who have visited Mombasa, and they have all had the same innate response to the warmth he exudes. From the back of his tuk-tuk, I have learned a great many things. His brother became my Swahili instructor (“G, you have to feeeeeel the word!”), and Ali himself holds a wealth of wisdom accumulated from customers past. Among my favourite stories was his response when I asked him why I should continue taking his tuk-tuk instead of the much cheaper matatu buses:

G, once a British man told me this: Cheap is expensive. You can take a matatu and save 10 dollars a week. Imagine one day, you leave your phone or laptop in the matatu. You will never see it again. For saving 100 dollars, you have now lost 1000 dollars. If you take a tuk-tuk or driver, you may pay a little bit more now, but you will be safe, and you will have peace. So cheap is not cheap. Cheap is expensive.

I often have to remind myself that Ali and I are the exact same age. When he smiles, his cheeks crease like elastic bands being pulled taut and resisting his happiness. It is a hard time to be a young person in Kenya: unemployment is at an all-time high, and ongoing political uncertainties have driven tourism to severe lows. Work, if you can find it, pays little, so everyone has an entrepreneurial side hustle here by necessity, not boredom. As I step into the back of the tuk-tuk this morning, I ask why he wasn’t in Mariakani with his wife and new daughter. “I have to work!” he laughs, but my heart breaks. I insist that he hold his child today, and tell him I’ll take half the day off so we can go together. His face lights up with a smile that expresses a happiness beyond anything I’ve seen before – and before I know it we’re pulling up to a small grouping of clay and concrete houses with tin roofs in the middle of a field.

Houses like these are common in Mombasa.

I walk into their family home – concrete floors with cardboard windows, and a curtain door that blows in the wind. Three couches line the walls, and the seats are quickly filled with family. All the things I’ve learned about Early Childhood Development during my time at Madrasa rush into my head, and I try to share it in broken Swahili as his mother-in-law laughs among a gaggle of neighbourhood children who have congregated to see the muzungu (foreigner) and the new baby. I present my gift – Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go – and ask Ali to read to her every day, and to hug and hold her close whenever possible. I know he will.

Feeling honoured simply to be in the room, I look over and see him holding Malaika, beaming with pride.

She has his smile.

Gautham Krishnaraj was part of the 2017-2018 cohort of the International Youth Fellowship Program. He participated in the International Development Management stream of the program and was placed at the Madrasa Early Childhood Programme in Kenya.

Since 1989, Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) has been helping to develop young Canadian leaders in the field of international development through its International Youth Fellowship Program.

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Gautham Krishnaraj


Gautham Krishnaraj

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