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)