Thursday, April 13, 2017

abundance is what grows wild and free

I wanted flowers to fill the empty vase on the counter. This felt especially important since my move from a small, updated guest room to the back cottage. The space feels empty and impersonal, furnished with a few old, mismatched pieces. Hooks and nails jut from the wall wear past inhabitants might have hung a painting or a framed photograph -- but I had none of these to add. My first day, I opened all the cabinets to take stock of what was available and what I might need. In one of them was that vase, which I pulled out and set on the counter. I would find flowers.

The green grocer I sometimes visit sells bouquets, and there are stands I've seen with buckets of flowers for sale. But I live in a literal garden. Surely I could cut something from what's already here? Tom is the gardener, and a self-appointed Swahili coach. I approached him as he re-potted a red stalky thing and bumbled through our typical greetings. Then I asked, can I cut flowers to fill my vase? He laughed, not understanding at first why I was asking. I told him I didn't want to ruin any of the plants or cut at something I shouldn't take.

He laughed again. They are all wild, he said. You take what you want. To him, I realized, nobody owns what grows freely. His job is only to cultivate what's here.

I went for my scissors and the vase, looking around for something that would fit. Only a few cuts and it was filled with green leaves and a few purple flowers. I once thought abundance meant knowing I could spend money on things like flowers, and perhaps that lesson is an important one to understanding the concept. You can buy and not be afraid. And yet now, having been invited to find all that I needed from what's around me, for free, and so simply, I realized there's more to abundance than buying. There's also recognizing what you have around you and seeing that it's more than enough.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

what it was about

But when the words mean even more than the writer knew they meant, then the writer has been listening. And sometimes when we listen, we are led into places we do not expect, into adventures we do not always understand. 
Mary did not always understand.  But one does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding -- that intellectual understanding, which we are so fond of -- there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing, knowing things which we are not yet able to understand. 
A young woman said to me, during the question-and-answer period after a lecture, "I read A Wrinkle in Time when I was eight or nine. I didn't understand it, but I knew what it was about." 
As long as we know what it's about, then we can have the courage to go wherever we are asked to go, even if we fear that the road may take us through danger and pain.

-Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water

Sunday, March 5, 2017

like a new dance that stirs old feet

Nairobi requires a new set of skills. I have been training at killing the mosquitoes buzzing around my cramped room before I go to bed each night, which requires quick reflexes as well as an ability to spot them, and patience. I am also learning how to tuck my mosquito net and position myself just right under it so that any remaining buzzing pests will not be able to bite my skin. Any failure shows itself in the morning, red dots pocking skin left exposed or (I didn't know this was a liability) touching the net. 

I am learning how to walk. Most roads are wide enough for only two cars. The edges are torn and cracked, like the smoldered edge of a paper set to fire. Pedestrians walk on these craggly edges, but then side step onto the dusty paths when cars hoot their horns and speed past. From what I can tell, there is no right or wrong side, wherever there is room is where you might walk. My feet and shoes are covered in a thin film of brown dust, which I wash off only for it to be replaces by another on my next walk.

I walk to the bus stage and learn to ask the names of the places where I go, learn to crouch down so I can see out the window and discern where I am by the landmarks that are becoming more and more familiar, learn to signal when I need to get off, sense the rhythm of when the conductor (is that what you call him?) will reach over and tap my shoulder to ask for 20, 30, 50 bob (shillings) for the ride.

I walk to the duka and learn to ask for fruit that will be ripe one or two or three days out. I walk past people calling out mzungu on streets where I am still unfamiliar (always in the informal settlements) and learn to look friendly but keep walking. I learn to push past men who try to touch my skin. I learn to give my passport to the policeman asking why I am here, to smile and tell him I'm enjoying my stay in his country.

I am learning that rains come when I am sleeping, that the sun is hot but the shade always offers its relief, that rocks are preferred to mud, mud to the dust that gets stirred up and settles on everything around it. I learn to put more minutes on my phone, to cross a highway of traffic, to bite mango from its skin and let the juice cover my hands as a child would.

When I woke this morning, the sun was shining, bright and glad. I agreed with it. Though learning can be wearisome, I think of all that I didn't know and now I do, like a new dance that stirs old feet, like a candle re-lit on the table of a couple long married.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

only rumbling over potholes

I sit in the taxi with Peter. I sit in the passenger's seat on the left side of the car, which still mixes me up. Peter has driven me before, and he has a kind smile, and a lazy eye, which makes him seem more friendly somehow. I try to carry on a conversation, but I run out of things to ask, and I know that in this culture, taxi drivers are not accustomed to being friendly with their customers (even if we are regulars). In the silence, I think about how I wish I had more words -- more things to say to people, more Swahili words to say it in a way that expresses a deeper commitment to their culture. I also think about how I want to write more, but the words are just not there yet. All I hear is rumbling like this van over the potholes in the road we are driving. And then I remember a writer's advice, how the lack (of details or information or whatever) is sometimes what you build the story around.  


We had an hour training on language acquisition. It's about culture learning and relationship building, too, not just memorizing a list of words and stringing them together to make sentences. You start by listening and pointing, not even saying a word. The idea is that listening in context, paying attention, finding language in its home and making that home more and more yours will be what shifts your thinking and fire new neurons until you produce new words. This means you will be quiet at first, and maybe for a long while. But when the words come, they may flow.


I am making lists of words I learn in their context, which stick more easily that the ones on my flashcards. Mtoto, child, who were invited up for prayer during church. Bwana asifiwe, praise the Lord, a refrain in worship songs. Hatari, danger, the name of the security company whose name is posted on all of the surrounding compounds. Lipa, pay, on my M Pesa account. I brainstorm ways to be around Swahili more just to hear it and put life to words and words to life. I am not ready to speak yet. When the staff speak to me to help me learn, I look back at them blankly, and then we laugh.

I'm hoping the language acquisition training was right, that the words will soon flow.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

the art of nairobi

You have to learn the art of Nairobi. 
     -taxi driver, talking about driving in the city

The quick, unexpected slap of hard rains on tin roofs. And then, quiet.
Short hoots from passing cars to warn pedestrians on the side of the road.
Music blaring from passing matatus.
Bridges over ditches fashioned of strips of wood and old, torn tires.
The sultry, smokey smell of exhaust fumes, cooking fires, frying food.
The colors of flowers: canary yellow, passionfruit orange, bright magenta, deep indigo.
The colors of dirt: brown mud, red clay, sandy dust (depending on the day and the path you take).
Bright, melodic voices of children speaking English, like a song.
The fun and fast syllables that form Swahili spoken by duka owners and pedestrians on their phones.
Spreads of used books by the side of the street in Central Business District. 
The rhythm of walking through lanes of passing cars, the dance of entering and crossing to the other side.
The solemn faces of people waiting, walking, wanting.
Clothes: bright kitenge, worn t-shirts, proper gray suits.
Hanging bananas, yellow streaked with brown. Piles of mangos, avocados, oranges, pineapples, all their shades of orange and green and yellow and brown.
Chapati, flattened from a ball into a disc, fried with a hiss and a string of smoke.
Roads carved around topography, tracing the curves of earth and water, indirect directions to where people need to go.
The illumined glow of mirrored windows of new apartment buildings that hide what's inside.
Soundtrack: hammers and saws of new construction, wind through trees, birds each with their own song, people calling to one another, matatus tumbling past over potholed roads.
The pose of boda boda drivers leaning against their bikes or sitting, ready to take you with them.
The swerve of cars around potholes in the road, snaking past each other. The slow crawl of traffic. 
The rising buzz of a single mosquito, first a faint hum and then a taunting song. The red pocks on light skin, reminders in the morning that it wasn't a dream.
Karibu sana, you are most welcome, the repeated refrain that brings it all together. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

more than lists

I am in Nairobi now, living at a guest house. Travelers lodge here for one or two nights, or for weeks scattered among travel around the region. The place has a rhythm I am slowly learning. I introduce myself to people but rarely say goodbye. If I see them before they leave, I wish them safe travels or blessings on their work.

I am also acquainting myself with staff, who I hope will be my friends. There are some cultural norms to navigate there, since I am seen as an authority figure of some sort to most of them, and friendship wouldn't typically be appropriate. Still, I want to know about their lives and understand what it is they do when they're not working here.

I have started the habit of writing names in my journal, along with a list of at least three details that help to identify them. These short lists of words create a sort of image of the person by which I can remember and pray for them in what are becoming daily habits of prayer (morning and evening).

Last evening, as I was waiting for my dinner, I spoke with Joshua, a server at the guest house. From our conversation, I have a long list of facts: Mombasa, coal carrier, married, 9 months, 2 buses and about an hour (he worked in Mombasa carrying coal, he is recently married, he has worked at Amani for nine months, it takes him an hour and two bus rides to get home).

These lists give me something to hold on to. But what I realized this morning is that more than lists, I want stories. So far, most of my interactions with guests and staff have been fairly brief and have consisted of introductions and some questions. List-making. Stories take longer and require different questions as well as a bit more trust.

Yesterday, I met Abby at breakfast. She is a white American woman, around my age, single, working overseas on a small island. I felt an easy connection with her, probably at least in part because of these things we have in common. After I met her, I walked to the store, and I regretted not thinking to ask if she wanted to join (she had mentioned possibly making the same trip). Then, this morning, after praying for her before breakfast, I had the opportunity to hear her story (or part of it): how she got to that island and what it's been like to live on it. A story that's changed her, and impacted many people.

There's fire under there! She told me that was how she'd responded the first time she hiked around steam vents on the active volcanoes on the island where she lives. The steam could warm your hands, and it can also melt a bottle meant to capture some of it. As soon as she said it, I knew there was some metaphor there, and maybe that's one. What's inside these people, just below the surface, is a substance that can bring warm, comfort, change the state of things. It's beyond the lists, it's in the stories.

(photo: outside my window)

Thursday, February 2, 2017

action that has ripened in our hearts

When I was young, my best friend once told me she wished I'd have more words for her. She wanted a verbal response when she shared things with me to demonstrate that I was really listening. We'd been friends more than ten years at the point, since we were five. I tried to explain to her that I did hear her, but just didn't have anything to say in response. What I didn't know how to communicate is that I was learning to hold what she shared -- whether it was the new alternative rock song she played for me on her tape player, the recent conversation with her crush that she analyzed, her dreams for the future. I heard it all. I just didn't have words, not yet anyway.

I've been thinking about this exchange a lot lately. It was a passing interaction, a conversation I remember having only once, and yet it marked our friendship because of what we were expressing to each other: the desire to be heard, loved, understood and supported. I've been thinking about it because of how I'm feeling about the world right now and what the events of each new day demand of me. People want words. Many others have words, or feel the need to have them, and share them on social media or in seemingly never-ending conversations at coffee shops and over text messages. Just today, my sister and I went to a coffee shop where we shared a table with two other women. As they scooched their things to offer space for us, they warned us that we'd be subjected to their political conversation. We laughed but also knew they were very earnest, because how can we not talk about what's going on?

I had the same feeling over the summer. It was the weekend after a few more black people were killed at the hands of white police officers, and just before I was to leave for two weeks in Kenya. I didn't know how to respond in my own heart, let alone on social media, where likes and comments might judge how well I was doing at this whole responding thing. As I scrolled through Facebook, feeling my lack of words, one friend shared a response from one of his friends, introducing it as "the perfect response" to what was happening. And that's when I began to wonder, are all these responses coming from our hearts, or are we putting on a show, all trying to have what someone else will call "the prefect response"?

Prayer yesterday morning led me to Isaiah 30, where a disobedient people are told that strength will come in their learning to be quiet. And again, in Psalm 46, where I have been stationing myself with hope and prayer, we are told to be still. Pay attention is what it says in another version of that psalm, know that God is God. And now I can't get away from wondering if the first response isn't a reactionary declaration or a search for who we can align ourselves with on social media, but is rather stillness. Quietness. Holding the pain, listening to our friends, and searching our hearts for what we are called to do or say.

Henri Nouwen says it this way:
It is not so difficult to see how "reactionary" we tend to be: that is, how often our lives become a series of nervous and often anxious reactions to the stimuli of our surroundings... we should ask ourselves how much of our reading and talking, visiting and lobbying, lecturing and writing, is more part of an impulsive reaction to the changing demands of our surroundings than an action that was born out of our own center. ... It seems of great importance to know with an experiential knowledge the difference between an action that is triggered by a change in the surrounding scene and an action that has ripened in our hearts through careful listening to the world in which we live.

And so I am content to pray and trust that meaningful sentiments, compassionate actions and deepened relationships will be nurtured in my heart through knowing that God is still God.