Monday, May 29, 2017

call to prayer

Here is how I knew I was in Somaliland. As I slept on the floor atop a flimsy mattress covered by a cheap, scratchy sheet, distant voices called sleeping souls to prayer. In those deep, dark hours between night and morning, they woke a whole city. Then, louder: the mosque next to our school started its call, weaving in and out of the other softer voices already singing. The strange words were carried on a tune that sounded at once eerie and ancient to my Western ears. I pulled the soft, fuchsia scarf I used to cover my head by day, my sleeping body by night, up over my head and willed myself back to sleep. After the call, the still, silent morning returned.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

looking intently (or, trying)

I used to write in places where I was anonymous or alone. Coffee shops or my kitchen table. Now I write in a garden where guests and friends interrupt me, even when I wear my headphones. I write less this way, but most of the time I have more fun.

A man today told me God will bless me with a well-paying job after my time in Kenya. The other week, a guest told me God has a gentleman set aside for me. I wonder if these words are from the Spirit of God; I wonder about the spiritual lives of these bearers of blessings, if I can trust the blessings to bring their fruit. Either way, can't I trust that there is something good and full in the words they have spoken -- a wish for a full life?

I was supposed to teach English at a community center today, but instead I took the day off. Which actually led to deeper work than I probably would have done if I'd carried on with my schedule.

Kenyans ask me for things. They see a mzungu and assume I can help. It's not a magic wand they seek, but the advantage of privilege. Money isn't just money; to give is a sign of friendship. I am learning to respect that, and to understand the ways I really am able to help.

Kenyans are also extremely generous. Don't discount the treasure of a smile, a spoken blessing, friendship, English, welcome, tea.

At first, time here seemed long and slow. Just the other day, it turned fast and short. And a lot easier. Now I realize how the struggle of those early days demanded my attention, required intention. I don't want to float through these last few weeks and realize I still wanted to more. (I want to want more now, and go after it.)

I want to see need here the way it is to be seen, not through my own lens of what should be had. I want to see provision and help through the lens of those who will receive it.

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.