"Come in." This is the typical invitation to enter one's house. "Pasa adelante." Welcome to my home page.
Hi. My name is Tom. My wife Nutie and I live in Waspam, Nicaragua, the central hub of the lower Coco River, a sector of the indigenous region known as RAAN (Región Autónoma Altlántico Norte). Waspam is a real town, grown from a village; it now has electricity, a water system, cement-paved streets, a gravel airstrip which receives flights from Managua 6 days a week, and a population of around 10,000 people, almost all of whom are native Miskito (or Miskitu) speakers. I stick out, at least a little bit, because I am white. Well, reddish. Ruddy. A white, reddish, ruddy guy who speaks Miskito and feels pretty comfortable being here. I'm locally famous. Miskitu Pihni. The White Miskito. Lapta Luhpia. Child of the Sun; the albino. During these years since I first came acorss the border from Honduras, the people of Waspam have made me feel welcome.
Frequently, Nutie and I travel down to the villages in the swamp near the mouth of the river. We help support 7 elementary schools and a junior high school in this area through a Christian Mission called Seek The Lamb. There is no road to these villages except for the river; neither are there electric lights to obstruct the glory of the night sky. There are no shops, no watches or other electronic devices like cell phones and tablets that are able to tell you what day it is. You just have to remember, to count the days from Sunday, when they rang the bell and had church at a very approximate hour of the morning. Altough the inhabitants of these villages are also Miskito, this is a different world. Most of the children have never seen Waspam, but they want to know about it. They want to know about the world outside.
Knowledge and technology can be used for good or evil, but it cannot save anyone. There is a a war being waged over the human heart. There is no noble savage, and Stephen Hawking stole his best friend's wife. Yet God is good and His word works wisdom everywhere. Yesterday, today and forever. "That which has been is that which will be. And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun."
I will endeavor to help these people face the onslaught of global change with eternal truth.
Bluefield Bread & Jam (with Cleveland, Henry, and Nutie)
Our friends Cleveland and Henry came over early one morning and we had a little jam with our bread. This is how we roll:
Meet my family:
Nutie. Nutie worships God. Nutie loves me. She's my wife. Her real name is Elin Solveig Melrose Keogh, but everyone here just says, "Nuti Nuti Nuti." Everyone wants her to sing, "Hey Lord." Children rush to the banks of the river as we go by, throwing their arms up in the air and shouting "Eh Lo!" They want us to stop, and for Nutie to sing it with them.
Here's a clip of Nutie on Easter Morning, preparing to sing the traditional "negro spiritual", Were You There, in English and Spanish. I created the Spanish version on Good Friday in the afternoon, and in the video you can see Nutie has to get it right before church, even though some of the Spanish words and grammatical structures are new to her. Nutie takes risks. That's why God likes to use her so much.
Tommy. He's my older son. He was born in a bamboo house in Brus Lagun the day after Christmas. His mom and I had been out dancing Tambaku under the full moon until dawn, then she went into labor. When Tommy arrived in this world at 11:00 in the morning, the room was full of aunties, who clamored loudly when his hairy head first appeared. I heard them from outside the flimsy door of our hut: "He has black hair!" He was dark.
All the aunties wanted to be the "Lapia," the Miskito version of godmother, to the child of a Miriki. Auntie Prisi was given the honor because she was so simple, so unassuming. She tied his umbilical chord at two points with pieces of white cloth torn from his mom's blouse, but cut it on the placenta end of the two ties. When finally I was allowed into the room, I cleaned my son up and saw that his belly button was going to be a "super-outie" if I didn't re-cut the chord in the proper place. So that's how I became Tommy's godmother.
We took him down to the Registro De Las Personas to give him his name. My Friend Delbert's Dad was the registrar. Miguel Bendles was not used to Irish names like Keogh, so he took great care to get it right. The problem was, he didn't concentrate on the middle name. It's WILMOT. Yes, that's my middle name. It was my father's mother's maiden name, but Miguel Bendles thought that in English, words ended only in TH, not in T. So my son became Thomas Wilmoth Keogh, not Thomas Wilmot Keogh Jr. I was cross about that for six years, but in the seventh year I became a Christian. I read in the Bible that when God met Abram and Sara He put an H in their names, so I stopped being mad at Miguel Bendles. I figured that it must have been God who gave my son the H too, because He didn't want Tommy to be just a knock-off of his father. He wanted him to be His workmanship instead. I was OK with that, once I got it straight. Any way, his full name is Thomas Wilmoth Keogh Jackson, because in Spanish countries people get to keep their mother's last name.
Since he had my name, everyone called him Tommy growing up to avoid confusion. It was really endearing until he grew up, then I started to feel bad because he was a man and everyone still called him Tommy. I hope he doesn't mind, because he's bigger than me now. There is a lot more to his story than just this little bit, but God is still writing it, so, for now, my words end here.
Jessica was first, before Tommy. Jessica Laisan, after her grandmother, Laisan Nutt. I became her father, for all practical purposes, when she was around 5 months old. The Chinese guy, the son of the man who owned the Chinese restaurant and the old movie theatre a block from Parque Central in Tegucigalpa, eventually went back to China without even having set eyes on his little baby girl. At least that's what her mother said. Jessi had little button eyes, black as coal; coal way down in the mine.
At the American Embassy the consul looked at me hard. He had no problem with the baby, Tommy, even though he also was dark, but he didn't believe me about one year-old Jessi. Actually, I had not said anything; I had merely handed him the Honduran birth certificate -the long form- that her mother had paid Miguel Bendless to change, making me the father. The Chinese guy was relieved of his duty.
"Are you the child's biological father?" the consul asked sternly, and before I could answer, he added, "...Because if you say yes, we will do a DNA test, and if you are lying, you could go to jail."
"I am not," I gulped. So Tommy got a blue passport and Jessi got a red one. Honduras issued red passports in those days.
"What means do you have of supporting your family in the United States?" He asked. He was not letting up.
"I'm just getting out of Peace Corps. I'll find a job as soon as I get back."
With no visible means of support, I could not get Jessica a green card. Tommy could go, but Jessi could not, nor could my wife. So I had to leave them behind, go find a job, and come back to get them. That was December. I had a fine arts degree.
In April I was studying to become a bilingual specialist teacher with an emergency California credential. In nine weeks I could be in the classroom, getting paid in a year-round school a block from the corner of Venice and Hoover. That was the landing place of the Salvadoran immigration in those hard coldwar days of the early eighties. Back in Brus Lagun, Honduras, they were holding a vaccination campaign. All children from 6 months to two years were to be innoculated for polio, DPT, the works. That morning, the little brigade flew out from La Ceiba on a DC-3, a one hour and forty-five minute flight, and then a 5 k walk into the village in the blazing sun, carrying the precious vaccines in tiny igloo coolers that had been budgeted by the Honduran health department. The ice they'd gotten in La Ceiba would have to last; there was no refrigeration in Brus Lagun. That night there was great wailing in the village. All the babies were burning with fever.
In the morning, most of them had recovered, but Jessica was stiff as a board. She was unable to move her limbs. Her mother flew her to Tegucigalpa and put her in an asylum. They told her she had polio. Martana wandered around the city, Tommy tied to her back with a bedsheet, the way Miskitos used to do it. I was in LA, going to class.
I wasn't even student teaching yet, and if I came across a dime I would send it to Brus Laguna, thinking they were all there, safe. Then I found out. Not only that, but Martana's aunt, the postmaster's wife, was opening up my letters and taking the money out. I moved into an apartment in El Monte, East of East LA. It was EMF territory, El Monte Flores, and all my neighbors wanted me to smoke PCP with them or else we wouldn't be friends. I owned a pillow, a bedsheet, and a cookpot, and ate a large can of Rosarita Menudo Soup every day, along with two quarts of beer that I chugged after playing basketball with the homies. In an Ed Pych 101 class that I had to take at USC, Dr Bannai introduced us to Maslov's Inverted Pyramid of Human Needs.
"In order to achieve self-actualization," she said, "one must first have one's basic needs met. Survival needs: food, shelter, safety ... later a sense of belonging..."
This can't be, I thought to myself. I don't have any of that stuff, and if I don't make it, Jessi won't either. There's got to be a loophole. I raised my hand.
"What about all those stories you hear of successful athletes who grew up on the street? Aren't there any exceptions?" I asked. Dr. Bannai was old school Japanese. You don't ask questions and you don't challenge the teacher. She was head of the education department. In order to self-actualize, I had to keep my opinions to myself. That's when I first started thinking about God.
I did my student teaching in a kindergarden. My mentor, Mrs Thomas, was very kind and convinced the principal to hire me. Magnolia Avenue Elementary School. I started work in June, and in December, my track went on vacation. I promptly flew down to Tegucigalpa and found my family living in squalor, in a cuartería a half a block from the old landmark building they called "La Barca," which was subsequently torn down before the whole barrio got wiped out by Hurricane Mitch. At 11 months, Tommy was walking already, but Jessi, who had been running happily when I left her in Brus Lagun, now only dragged her useless legs behind her on the dirty floor of the cuartería. But she had use of her arms!
We went back to the U.S. Embassy where I proffered proof that I could support my family, albeit in an apartment in El Monte. The Honduran worker at the consulate who was in charge of handing over the approved green cards scowled at the Miskito Indian mother as she reviewed the paperwork. "Vienes del monte y te vas a El Monte," she mocked. "You come from the woods and you're going to The Woods."
I didn't care. I had joined the Peace Corps a single man, just kicking around. They stationed me out in the jungle all by myself. I screwed up, I got a girl pregnant who already had a daughter. I left Honduras after two years married with two kids. How did that happen? My head was spinning. When I first arrived in the States, back on the planet, I was alone again; almost like being single. Maybe, I thought, I could get my head back together. Could I blow them all off? I even played around a little. Then the news that Jessi, an innocent baby with no other father than me and an alcoholic mother, had contracted polio from a bad vaccine. That clinched it: I could not abandon them. Not Jessi nor Tommy, who was my own blood. After all this ordeal, Jessica was my daughter now for real.
Brian is PLAISNI, the youngest child. In the Hebrew scriptures it's the firstborn who gets prefered treatment, but in the Miskito tradition it is the PLAISNI. Plaisni gets everything. Yet in the Hebrew scriptures God doesn't always pick the firstborn. There was Jacob and there was Joseph and Judah and David and then there was Samuel who wasn't even Eli's son. In the Miskito community God doesn't always pick Plaisni either. Many Plaisni's acquire a sense of entitlement that God does not like, but this did not happen with Brian. God chose Brian. He didn't choose him over Tommy or Jessi, no, but He chose him in a very special Plaisni kind of way.
When Tommy was eight years old, Martana decided she wanted to have another baby. She was not afraid. For me, there was plenty reason to fear. Martana was not stable. Her continued substance abuse was like a gaping hole in my pocket. She was not a full time mother to the children we already had. Her inability to feel comfortable in her own skin also limited our options as to where we might live. Martana wanted to live in her native village of Brus Laguna. I had a job with USAID just up the coast in Puerto Lempira, but Martana complained that she was too far from home. When the job ended abruptly at the close of the contra war, Martana was happy. Angry mobs burned the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa to protest the kidnap-extradition of popular drug lord Juan Ramón Matta, and suddenly the US decided to cut 67% of all aid to Honduras. USAID offered to relocate us in Guatemala but Martana said she would not go. So we headed back to Brus Laguna. My job prospects were not very good in the jungle. Martana wanted to have another baby, but I was scared.
"Why are you afraid to have children?" said God one fine day.
"What? I'm not afraid to have children," I replied.
"Can you look me in the eye and tell me straight up that you're not afraid to have kids?" He repeated.
"I can't look you in the eye at all," I said. "I can't even see you. If I could look you in the eye I would be a dead man." I was giving Him the old Nicodemus shuffle. You know, feigning ignorance: "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?"
"Precisely," He said.
"Well, Tommy is my son and I didn't abandon him. I took Jessi and loved her just as much as if she were my own daughter. What you say is not fair."
"Yes you did step up and I am pleased," He said gently. But you are afraid, aren't you, to have a baby with Martana."
Before I knew the Lord, there had been abortions. I had not mentioned them directly in the sinner's prayer that I prayed when I gave my life to Him. The prayer had called for a simple confession of Sin, not for the entire list of murder, cheating, lying, and the rest. This was fortunate because I couldn't have done that even if I had wanted to; I had blocked out many things from my memory. God was very gracious now also not to bring all this up, but wanted me nevertheless to deal with the root motive for having done what I had done: fear.
"Who wouldn't be afraid to have a baby with Martana?" I protested. "Everything about my relationship with her points to disaster."
"I have already told you that I will be with you," He said.
There wasn't any burning bush or tongues of fire, just a voice very different than my own rattling around in my head, saying things with absolute authority. I decided to trust Him in spite of all my doubts. A few days later, Martana decided to enter an AA group in La Ceiba. I had tried for years to get her to seek help, to no avail. She stayed in La Ceiba for two months, and remained clean for two years afterward. No alcohol or drugs passed into the little fetus inside her, nor was there any in the milk that Brian took from her breast. Plaisni did get weaned until he was a full year old.
Before we even knew she was pregnant, an American doctor told Martana that a medical group had arrived somewhere near Tegucigalpa that might be able to help Jessica walk. She mentioned something about an operation. I didn't think there were any operations that could fix polio victims so they could walk without a brace, but I wasn't a doctor. She and Jessi would have to stay at an "albergue", some kind of shelter, while they evaluated my daughter. So I gave Martana pretty much what remained of our money, and she went off to the "albergue" with Jessica, Tommy, and the stowaway, Brian. I went off to the 40 acre provision ground we had on the beach across the lagoon from Brus, to plant coconuts and to see if I could make some money fishing.
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