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.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

our own inner mystery

When we do not protect with great care our own inner mystery, we will never be able to form community. It is this inner mystery that attracts us to each other and allows us to establish friendship and develop lasting relationships of love. An intimate relationship between people not only asks for mutual openness but also for mutual respectful protection of each other’s uniqueness.

-Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out 

(photo: reflection at st. james episcopal, lancaster, pa)