Sammy and the Wandering Heifer

The old school way of cutting wood by hand.

It was just before lunchtime and I was making my way towards the two older gentlemen cutting wood with the old fashioned crosscut saw. This was the type of saw where you rolled a whole tree up a makeshift ramp, one man stood on top, the other underneath and then through hours of rigorous labor and measuring, cut handmade boards. 1997 in rural Kenya, two men sweating and laboring to mill wood like they did in the 1800’s in America. For the 5 months I lived in Kenya that year, these men hand cut hundreds of boards for the construction of the primary school we were building.

The men and neighborhood boys rolling the Eucalyptus tree up for cutting.

As I approached the men to get another huge 30ft long 2×8 board for the trusses, I heard a great commotion over my shoulder. What I saw next will forever be engrained in my mind and has long been a lasting reminder of the power of friendship and community.

For context, I was in Kenya in 1997 to help build a 6 room primary school for the African Inland Church on the outskirts of Eldoret. Working with lifelong missionaries, Tony & Rose Dickens, I was serving as sort of a construction foreman on the job site. On any given day I had between 8-20 men working with me to build the school. Some of these men lived around the corner, others from hundreds of miles away but had come to the city to find work and send the money back to their families. The group of workers was made of many different tribes from within Kenya and a diverse group of personalities. There was John the mason, the two older woodcutters, Haga & his brother, Edward, Thomas and Sammy. Those were my core group of workers.

Sammy, he was the wiry one. Maybe weighing 110lbs and about 5’3, Sammy was as strong as an ox and fearless. Whenever we ran across a snake in the wild, Sammy was the one who would capture and release it. Whenever we needed someone to do something high on a ladder or a truss, Sammy would volunteer. Not only was Sammy fearless, he also had the kindest persona, a gentle soul with a heart of gold. He was, and still is to this day, one of the best humans I have ever met. Then again, a lot of those men are.

Visualize for just a moment what a roof truss looks like for a house, now expand that to the width of a school classroom. Over 30 feet long and just shy of 25 feet off the ground at its peak, these things were massive and in America would have easily required cranes to set in place. In Kenya, that was not an option.

Our crew sliding one of the trusses up onto the school classrooms.

On this particular hot and humid day in mid November, our team of men and even a few school children from the neighborhood were busy putting up the trusses for the bright blue tin roof. The trusses, built out of Eucalyptus trees, weighed a ton. Not literally of course, but they were by far the heaviest things I have ever been apart of manually moving. It took 15 of us to carry, a ramp to slide up on to the hardened concrete walls and nearly 20 people to stand upright using ropes and makeshift ladders.

After the tree was cut down by hand, after the tree was rolled on a ramp and hand cut, after the trusses were built, after they were carried and slid up onto the classrooms, after all of that, was the process of standing each truss up. Groups of men holding ropes would pull, another group would push the truss up with sticks and boards, and a third group of men with another rope would hold on to prevent it from tipping over in the other direction. Once the circus of standing a truss up had taken place, someone needed to climb up the teetering truss to nail the saplings in place to create a temporary connection to the other trusses.

Without hesitation, even with the truss sometimes swaying a foot to the right or left, Sammy would scale right up the side and help place the truss where it needed to be. A grown man, walking up an angled 2×8 as if it was just another normal day in his life.

Sammy walking on the trusses waiting for us to raise another one, just moments before this story unfolded.

I distinctly remember that moment I looked over my should when I heard the commotion. As fast as I could turn around Sammy was running down the truss and jumping off the roof, after he landed, he bounded a few steps and wrangled a wandering cow around the neck and tackled it to the ground. I recall thinking to myself, “What in the world is going on?!”

In the midst of the stress of moving and setting up the trusses, the day was lost on me, the day was Thursday.

What is so important about Thursdays?

You see the men on our job site were paid an extremely fair wage, above the country and regional average; however, most of the men were sending the money away to other family members and spouses. Most of the men lived in pretty rough conditions, sacrificing any resemblance of comfort for their families. Everyday on the job site the men would have an hour for lunch. Sometimes women from the village would come around and sell lunches to the men, the original food truck if you will but nearly all of the men couldn’t afford lunch and most days the men would just take naps instead of eating.

I noticed the first few weeks the men were pretty unproductive towards the end of the week out of pure exhaustion and malnutrition. Early on in my stay I decided every Thursday I would provide lunch for the crew. Some days I would pay the ladies from the village, other days I would barbecue and on some days meals had to be prepared quickly and on a budget. On this day, it was a simple meal of PBJ, some chips & Coca-Cola (I know, real healthy).

Well it turns out, that of the dozens of wandering and grazing cattle, one sneaky heifer decided to grab a bag of sandwiches and make a trot for it. Sammy wasn’t having it. After tackling the cow, Sammy ripped the sandwiches from her mouth and jumped up in victory. Some of the men were laughing, others like myself, were in disbelief of what we had just seen. At that moment, we all decided it was best if we stopped for lunch. A few of the slobbery sandwiches were lost but all of us ate until we were content and we had a good laugh over a few warm Coke’s.

In that moment and for the all the years since, I never questioned why Sammy risked injury for a few sandwiches. Sammy wasn’t saving them because he was poor or because he was hungry, maybe that could have been part of it, but I firmly believe that he saved those sandwiches because of what they represented. . .

Friendship. Camaraderie. Brotherhood.

Some of the men enjoying PBJ and cokes in my apartment one Thursday afternoon.

Every Thursday for months on end, we would pause for lunch, but it was more than lunch. It was the best time of the week. The men and I would sit and talk sometimes longer than an hour about life, our families, growing up in our respective regions, our joys and struggles. We became so deeply intertwined in each others lives we would become brothers. Thursday lunch was more than lunch, it was more than co-workers sharing a meal, it was more than rich or poor, white or black,American or Kenyan.

It was about men becoming brothers.

It has been 20 years since I last spoked to Sammy. I know without a doubt if I saw him tomorrow or in 20 more years, our friendship would be as strong today as it was then because of the time we shared together. Sammy was not only my co-worker and friend, he was my brother.

No, I never doubted why Sammy jumped off the roof that day and took down the heifer for a PBJ.

A side view of the school the day before I left Kenya in December 1997

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