Joseph Kamau remembers the string of events clearly.
He was 11 years old and had lived with his grandparents since he was 2 in Kabara, in rural central Kenya, where he went to school and helped tend the subsistence family farm. Life away from the city in Kenya was hard. When the kids played soccer – the only sport they knew – they made a “ball out of rags,” Kamau said.
One day, his grandfather had news for him and one of his older brothers.
“We were told we were going into town. I was excited,” he said. The boys stayed with their uncle and, three days later, he took them to the airport.
“I was like, wow, a plane. That’s really cool,” he said. First stop: Dubai, the futuristic city in the United Arab Emirates.
“The infrastructure there is crazy. The buildings and cars, everything’s cool,” Kamau said. Another day passed, and another plane flight. They were on their way to the U.S. But instead of Georgia, where Kamau was born, they landed in Spokane, where his mom was working as a nurse. Kamau, who was sent to Kenya with his four siblings as his parents divorced, hadn’t seen her in four or five years, when she last visited Kenya.
“When we saw her, it was a really cool moment,” he said. “It was in the wintertime and we didn’t know what snow was and we thought it was so cool too.”
Five years have passed, and Kamau is now graduating from Shadle Park High School. He speaks three languages and is on his way to a fourth. Besides English, which he learned in the British style, he knows Swahili, the official language of Kenya, and Kikuyu, the local dialect in the region where he was reared. He’s working on Spanish.
On first arrival to Spokane, language held him up, he said, but not by much. One day in math class, he asked the teacher for an eraser. Problem was, in British English, it’s not called an eraser, but a rubber.
“And I had an accent, too,” he said, before adopting his old accent: “‘Can I get a rubber?’ No one knew what I was saying. For four minutes, I was trying to get an eraser.”
Finally, a fellow student whose parents were from Kenya took off his headphones and realized what was happening. The eraser was acquired.
Sports were also something of a revelation. In Kenya, the long school days and household chores left little time for athletics – not to mention the homemade soccer ball.
“All you did was go home and feed the cows and milk them. After all that, the day’s over,” he said, noting that the rural life of his grandparents was made harder by the lack of technology. “For farming you don’t even use tractors. You use a hoe for the whole farm. You have to irrigate it with sprinklers.”
But in Spokane, where his life is decidedly less pastoral, he discovered something new, and began to appreciate the names of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.
“I fell in love with basketball,” he said. “When I was in Kenya I didn’t know basketball existed. That’s my No. 1 sport right now.”
Now, he’s graduating from high school at the age of 16, thanks to being academically advanced when he arrived and bumping up from sixth to seventh grade. As a student previously at Central Valley High School, he was drawn to architecture and computer animation, thanks to the courses offered there. His family moved from the Valley to the city, and at Shadle he found a new passion: acting.
“I really like acting. I want to be an actor eventually. It’s not that easy,” he said. “So what I want to do right away is a trade job, trade program, a two-year degree that I can have, save money to go to Vancouver Film School or Toronto Film School or New York Film Academy.”
Kamau, young as he is, appreciates the life he’s led. His earliest memory is standing by the window in Georgia, identifying what he saw with the only words he knew: “school bus.” Now, just 14 years later, the multilingual young man sees the world before him. When he graduates on June 8, his grandfather, who is in his 80s, may see him walk, only the second time they’ve seen each other since Kamau moved here.
After a life of adaptation and movement, of mastering new words and experiences, Kamau knows what he wants.
“That’s my overall main goal,” Kamau said. “To take risks when I’m young.”
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