Starry Night

We are the crazy Wazungu that bring disposable diapers and peanut butter. Diapers for the new baby and peanut butter for the mother. Peanut butter comes in a large tub resembling a bucket. It is the cheap stuff, with oil and wispy particles floating to the top, the bottom is stiff and compact. I switch to a knife as my attempts to mix it become more like stabs into a raw chunk of steak. All Momma wants to eat right now is bread, “but she needs the protein,” Lisa says, so I’m mixing cheap peanut butter over a board and bucket counter top. I think Lisa also wanted to get it because Robina likes it too. “Karanga! Karanga!” She says over and over again, impatience clear in her voice as I aggressively stab the peanut butter that in the United States, blond college graduates wearing LuluLemon will buy in dainty glass containers with expensive labels from health food stores. The separated mess of oil and groundnuts somehow made “designer” by the need to mix it together by hand, convenience is for those who cannot afford quality.

Mama and baby are both weak, her milk hasn’t come in yet and baby is hungry. The duka didn’t have size one diapers, just size two. So the fussy baby is laying in a diaper that swathes him like a kanga worn by an expecting mother, from his chest to his knees. Momma and big sister are eating  the peanut buttered bread and little brother is quietly squirming on Bibi Lisa’s knees. I good-naturedly argue with the Dadas that have come in full force to help. “Unamgeni,” they say, you are a guest. Each time I pick up a broom, reach for a pot handle, or fill a tray, “unamgeni!” So I sit on the sofa and pretend to look at my phone in this house with no electricity, where drinking water is collected from the rain storms, and cloth diapers dry on the line out front. These are the peaceful hours. These are the peaceful hours for the father who, moments after the birth told me to, “go home, the hard part is over.” These are the peaceful hours for the crazy Wazungu who brought disposable diapers and peanut butter. These are the peaceful hours for Dada Kubwa Robina, who is learning how to be careful and look after her new Kaka Dogo. These are the peaceful hours when we drink fresh chai from the garden, the kind that tastes like Fruit-loops when you add just the right amount of sugar and milk.

For this land, all of the hours have been peaceful. Last night, when I said, “piga simu taxi,” call the taxi,  the land said, “Don’t worry, you will be fine. You are not the first Mama whom we have ushered safely to the hospital.” When we, Mama, Baba, and Aunty Bena stumbled out of the house, with wash basin, kangas, a clean blade, birthing pad, and sterile gauze, the land was calm. As we pushed through rough corn fields, the stalks bent willingly, “you are not the first,” they said, “good luck.” As we stopped in the pitch dark and waited till Mama could walk again through the pain, the uneven dirt road led us around the potholes and mud puddles.

I remember looking up into a starry night in Big Bend years ago and thinking that it was the inspiration for the masterful piece of art bearing that name. Last night, it was as if we were wrapped in the stars. Electricity has not arrived here yet, and amidst the granite black vastness, each glittering jewel was close enough to touch, even to pick out of it’s burrowed nest. But like each night time traveler, we chose to let them glitter in their settings, fearing a future night without the stars. So they remain for another needy wanderer, may they too leave them as they are. For Mama, like her baby she now swaddles, she did not see the stars, or the ink black night, she didn’t see anything. She just kept walking, taking hold of a hand offered, stepping around the deep ruts that cut into the earth. But the sky, the cooling air, swaddled her in that blanket of glittering jewels. “Don’t worry,” it said, you don’t know what is coming next but to survive now, you don’t need to see. Just keep walking.

I placed the baby next to Mama on the bed, helping him find her nipple, praying the milk would come soon. At the touch of her newly arrived son she shuddered, having not forgotten his violent entrance into the world. Perhaps remembering also Robina’s birth. Remembering how the Doctor saw death in her eyes and left the room, baby still half inside of her. This tiny thing that needs her, reminding her only that she is now needed and there is no respite from that. A new baby does not mean that Robina is now independent, but instead that she must find from somewhere twice as much love, or at least energy.

“The hard part is over now,” her husband had said, which for her meant that her struggle now, in the peaceful moments, was hers alone to bear. Baba is overjoyed at the birth of his baby boy, he has fulfilled his duties and pressures. He is now peacefully, through no fault of his own, more of a man, with approval from his father and men of this village, and he has given his wife the blessing of a son. And Mama cannot stand over the choo alone. She must forgo dignity in order to keep upright. The hard part is over now. Her body still retaining her pregnant shape, the pads still have blood, reminding her of the tearing, then the stitching. And always her son is sucking. Searching for the milk she doesn’t know how to find. The hard part is over now. She hears that as the pain seizes her stomach when she shifts to her other side, an echo that will not let her forget the pain of her husband’s gift. The hard part is over now. And she remembers the first conversation she ever had with Aunty Bena and Bibi Lisa, about ways to keep from having children. Baba didn’t want her to take the pills. Maybe now that he has his son he will not care as much.

In a lighter moment, when baby has fallen asleep, she lets her tired show for Bibi Lisa. There is joking, she smiles once, and maybe the hard part is over. Then the unknowing comment, “you should wait at least six months the way you are healing.” Ah yes, she remembered again how this worked. The hard part is over. Baba is a good husband, not afraid of cooking, willing to help out while she is weak, overjoyed by his new son. But the hard part is over now. She recalled Robina as a baby, and saying no to Baba. He is a good husband, but still there is an edge, he is kind as long as she lets him make the decisions, as long as she does not put her needs before his. She recalled before then, Robina the not-yet-named peanut growing in her belly that ushered in a discreet union. A passion they couldn’t wait for in the beginning she now dreaded. She told him it still hurt. He never saw her weak naked body in the choo, ready to faint, changing the bloody pads in her underwear. Each cramp reminded her again that her life was not worth as much as that Doctor’s good name. Baba didn’t known these things, but she couldn’t ask him to help. Not for his sake but her own, some things she didn’t want him to see. She needed him to see her only as strong, capable. Some things were too personal, too sacred for him. So the hard part is over. He told her once that birth-control would make her fat. Now that the hard part is over, her belly remained swollen, though empty on the inside. She smiled, he couldn’t get everything he wanted. She was ashamed that she found pleasure in this. And she was ashamed of the other thing she couldn’t tell him, that she was not yet ready to be happy, that with every suck on her dry nipple, it felt like the tiny infant was leaching away at her soul. Her body convulsed again, forgetting that the baby had already been born. Refusing to let her forget how afraid she was, she is.

It is the third day of her being a mother of two. She can finally walk to the other room on her own. Her milk has come in, and the baby cries less, poops more, eats all the time. The more she gains strength, she knows the Dadas will go back to their own homes, that Baba will begin to grow impatient, that he will want the Wazungu to leave. She visits with Aunty Bena late in the evening, hoping she will fall asleep by her side. Her Mother in Law, Mamkubwa, is here too, lurking close by, offering feminine advice. The same advice her husbands family gave her. It was not advice for healing, but how to conceal pain, how to swallow fear, how to return to her duties as servant and mother as soon as possible. She cannot be sure, but in the rough touches, in the quick words of Mamkubwa she feels resentment, like she too is remembering her scars, that when she had given birth and wanted warmth and rest she received only rough touches and quick words.

So she gives Mamkubwa as many errands as she will take, and Aunty Bena sits with her instead. She wants to be swaddled, wants feminine hands to bather her in warm water, to feed her from a milky breast, to sleep by her side under the glittering sky. Her husband prays in the evening with all of the visitors gathered round, thanking Baba Wetu, Our Father, for this blessing of a child, especially a son. She knows Robina is also loved, but she is loved even more so because she now has a brother, as if her father was reserving love for his whole family until he had the thing that would make him the most proud and give him the most respect. Robina would never be that for him. So while he and his Father God rejoice that the hard part is over, her secret prayer is to a different God.

God who feels my pain

God who sees my scars

God who weeps because I cannot

Because the hard part is over,

 

Love me

Swaddle me

Give me the jewels of the sky

Nurse me with your breast

Stop my blood

Heal the wounds within my head.

 

God who feels my pain

Feel it on the nights long after

The hard part is over

When I still feel the stitches

When again I remember that the doctor left

When the pains come even though the baby is out

 

God who sees my scars

May Robina never know her Father’s love

Is conditionally linked to her brother

May she never have these scars.

 

God who weeps because I cannot

Weep for my Husband who prays to a false God

May he know you one day

And by knowing you

May the hard part not be over

May it never be over so that one day

The hard part will be over.

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The Divine Child

Despite my location I could have been buried in the thick lazy descriptions of a Truman Capote summer afternoon. Perched uncomfortably on a too skinny bench, the shade of the tree provided no shelter from the UV rays seeping into my skin which was ever deepening to a more violent shade of red. I had long ago given up on shooing the flies away, and they did swarm to me like the cooking piece of meat that I was. My discomfort had drawn my focus completely to maintaining a lady like sitting position, having regretted the choice of a dull yellow knee length pencil skirt after hour two of the meeting. I was coveting the brightly patterned Kitenges worn by the stately Tanzanian women, they fell to mid calf or to the ground and many had pulled out extra lengths of cloth to lay over their heads, shielding their necks from the relentless sun. A low- hanging branch would occasionally tap me in the back of the head, each time causing me to reach up and vigorously scratch my neck, which was also reddening in the sun. Little Anabeth would wander over to her mother, the headmistress of the school, and then wander away again, quickly distracted as two year olds tend to be. I could hear the greedy sucking sounds from the newborn nursing as her mother perched next to me, somehow balancing much more successfully than I.

I am not usually this observant, though I am known to wax poetic when in extreme discomfort. This time, my observations came from having nothing else to notice. We had sat in silence for about five minutes. Meetings generally are distracting affairs, there are screaming babies, people stand to walk around when they are tired, there are murmured conversations between neighbors that pull attention away from the appointed speaker. But it had all ceased. The question had stolen their voices and pinned them down, slowly suffocating each of the brightly clad women where they sat. As if strapped down they each looked straight ahead or down at their laps, hands at their sides, feet planted.

The region of Mara is infected with bad spirits. Where they come from is unclear. Perhaps they are as ancient as time, perhaps they were imported with the British and German colonists, taking root in the unfamiliar buildings and languages of a conquering regime. There are stories of spirits overtaking homes, hurting children and reducing guard dogs to whimpering puppies. There are stories of finding snakes in shoes, of invisible bodies sitting at the foot your bed, and of a deep deep dread that settles at the pit of your stomach when you walk down the wrong street. There is a thin veil here between our world and the spirits. A veil as thin as the cotton cloth the women use to shield their bare skin from the sun. And the spirits were making their presence known. They dared to creep as close as the church yard.

Though perhaps they had always been here? Is ground made sacred or does is become sacred by the deeds done upon it? Well, it didn’t matter, they had arrived bringing terror, fear, and hate. Perhaps they were here by our conjuring. I had opened the meeting by talking about fear. I spoke the things I had seen and felt in Gamasara. I said that homes are not restful, blessed places but violent and fearful. That this fear is not allowed to be mentioned and so it festers and boils under the surface until it explodes out of us, in a fit of rage, and it imbeds in our spouses, our children. But still we do not talk of it. I said that all of our “praise Gods,” and prayer did not cleans us of this darkness, but sent it deeper into us, making it harder and harder to extract. And our children learned from us and also did not speak of it, or if they did we ignored it, or beat them to silence.

As I spoke the spirits rose as if called, loosening from the pits of our stomachs to the fronts of our eyes. “This fear,” I said, “makes it harder to work, makes us less patient with our children, makes it harder to go to church, makes it harder to breathe, for it is like a broken leg that we do not know is broken. So we carry on limping, and the longer we carry on the worse it gets. It breaks further, it bruises, it grinds into the muscle around it. We feel it but we do not know what it is, it is the only thing we can think about, yet it remains a mystery.” Yes we were in dangerous territory, there was no option for retreat now. So I pressed on, “tell me what your broken bones are.” A slow trickle of confidence ground out the soft rock below it until it was a thunderous fall. The outpouring of words flooded our circle. “I am afraid that my husband will beat me every time he drinks,” “There is no money for food if I bring it home, my husband takes it all and I don’t know for what.” “My neighbor almost died in childbirth last year and now she is pregnant again,” “my child keeps getting in trouble in class and he was a perfect student a month ago.” And they kept speaking, each word bringing the spirits out, summoning them all to this place, pooling around us until we all sat exhausted. We were spent, and a deceitfully lazy silence fell upon us. What was at first an oppressively hot afternoon became threatening. No longer was the oppression a lulling to sleep, to rest, to lay down our words until a later, unknown time. no, the sirens were revealing their true forms and they were ugly.

“Who will start to end our fear?” In a final stand the evil which had been dragged into the unrelenting sun revolted. Pinning us all down, silencing us where we sat, we were unable to answer. As if that question had stolen their voices and pinned them down, slowly suffocating each of the brightly clad women where they sat. As if strapped down they each looked straight ahead or down at their laps, hands at their sides, feet planted. The words, “I will,” sat just behind their teeth. Closed mouths became prisons for their own liberation, and the evil we had spoken was sewing our lips shut, resisting our stand against it. The branch tickling my neck became a jagged thorn bush, trying to silence my mouth by way of burrowing through my neck. The flies were not an oblivious nuisance but miniature terrors slowly eating away at me. Yet we remained frozen. I could do nothing else, it was for these women to finish.

And Anabeth wandered over again, the goodness of a child slicing through the evil that was thickening around us. Indeed we had summoned all the spirits to us, the evil and the divine. This divine child cut us loose from the trance we had entered. “I will,” said one voice, followed by another and another. Not every woman spoke, but the evil in each of us had been loosened, weakened by the promise of healing. I don’t know the origin of this evil. I do know that it shall not win. I also know that the grace we need is also found in this place, it is not imported. It is heard during the women’s discussion over morning Chai, it falls over the mountains with the battering rainstorms, and sticks to your white canvass shoes like squishy mud. I don’t know when the evil arrived, but the Grace has been here since She breathed over the face of the waters. There is no place too deep in a woman for this Grace to reach.

We are learning to feel our broken bones, there will be much more pain, but there is yet another dawn.IMG_3967

Gumbo?

So this is definitely a part of a long running campaign to get a recipe of mine put into the next edition of my family’s blue recipe book. The competition is fierce and I am not sure that the recipe that follows is actually legal in Louisiana.

Let me explain.

Firstly, to understand the dire straights I am in food wise, I mentioned to some other Americans I was with for Easter that I really had a craving for Boudin because I saw several people from home including Boudin in their Easter feasts. Ok these people couldn’t even pronounce Boudin. So yes, I do forget that Louisiana is not America. Then there is the sausage situation. There is sausage sold in some stores, but it isn’t smoked and is not spiced at all. And I have never seen a stalk of celery here.

That being said, food abounds here. Green vegetables, tomatoes, okra, avocados the size of a baby, bananas, potatoes, I could go on. I cook a lot, and cooking here is a real treat both for my stomach and for my understanding of the foodways of my home. My Tanzanian friends are continually surprised that I already knew how to cook greens when I got here, and okra, and beans. Yes, Louisiana is greatly influenced by African culture, but I am also reminded that “African” culture, is not unified- also Africa is a continent not a country (just incase anyone needed to remember that). I live in East Africa, in a country with a lot of Indian and Arabic influence due to it’s costal location. Also a country with high levels of poverty. An area of the country where everyone knows how to cook but cooking is about filling your stomach, it is not fun, just necessary. Therefore food is quite bland€¦ for a South Louisianan.

Nevertheless, I press on, trying to create meals that remind me of home and that allow me to cook the way I learned from my mother. So yes, I have a gumbo recipe. I am very much aware that everyone has their own recipe and no other gumbo can ever compare. Fine. I get that some people are disgusted by tomatoes in their gumbo. I get that potato salad is quite a divisive issue. And I get that claims of dark chocolate roux are sometimes akin to “catching the biggest fish.” Yes, I understand that Gumbo is in Cajun and Creole cuisine and that sometimes arguing too hard about what goes in the right kind of Gumbo is perhaps stepping into the territory of race and power, less about the cuisine. I understand that I am a young white woman who has not spent that long in East Africa, and that my perspective is quite flawed and informed by my own expectations and understandings (misunderstandings?) of my experiences.

So here is my gumbo recipe.

 

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

Ingredients:

•Boar’s sausage, or other available sausage. I would stay away from the Chicken sausage just personal experience.

•One Whole chicken- take note that you may have to remove the innards yourself.

•Green Bell Peppers

•Purple Onions- also known as just onions

•Ginger

•Garlic

•Optional- Tomatoes and fresh Okra.

•Flour

•Oil

•Seasonings of your choice

Directions:

Boil chicken whole and pull meat off bones. Also slice your sausage and chop your vegetables (peppers, onions, ginger, garlic). In the pot that you boiled the chicken, return the chicken carcass and as you pre-chop your vegetables, put the stems and other unusable parts in the pot as well. You can also add carrot if you have any lying around. Fill the rest of the space with water, add salt and set the pot to boil on a back burner and forget about it. This will be stock to add later.

If you want to do okra, now is the time. Chop your fresh okra and tomatoes and sauté in a pot for a few minutes adding red pepper and salt, then add just enough water to cover the okra and tomatoes. Cover and let it stew for a while, adding water as needed.

As you wait for your stock and okra to stew, take a break and have a cup of coffee, have a bathroom break, and then get ready for the tough bit!

Now make a dark roux. Equal parts flour and oil in the thickest pot you can find (which may not be very impressive). Don’t stop stirring and don’t forget to scrape the edges of the pot. From experience I find that it is good to have an encourager for this part. That means someone to reassure you that it can still be darker. In hand cramp emergencies they can also take over the stirring for you. When you are happy with the shade of your roux, add in the Boar’s sausage. If your sausage is anything like mine, it will immediately crumble out of the casing and resemble something more like ground meat. Don’t panic, it will still taste good. The roux should continue to darken with the browning sausage. There should also be a distinctly barbecue smell. I don’t know why. Add your chopped vegetables and continue to stir. After several minutes (it’s your call really), add the stewed okra and tomatoes if you like. If you added the okra, then let it sit while you drink another cup of coffee. If you didn’t then add a few cupfuls of your stock. Add your chicken too.

After coffee, add spices to taste and add more stock depending on how much room is left in the pot. Keep adding spices till its right. But don’t forget that they get stronger the longer they sit and boil.

Keep the gumbo on the stove for a while longer. If you are eating it the same day you make it don’t forget to make rice- which means cleaning it. It’s like just a whole thing, I’ll cover how to clean rice in another installment of Cooking With Bernadette. Potato salad is fine too, or just boil potatoes if you don’t have the ingredients for potato salad… surely that isn’t too much of a sin?

While I don’t know the File’ situation here, yes there is Tabasco sauce.

Enjoy and try not to gag when your non-Louisiana American associates refer to it as a “good soup,” bless their hearts they mean well. Also, because they are not Louisianan, there is no need to justify using ginger or tomatoes, and they also probably don’t know that the sausage is not usually the consistency of ground meat- they just don’t understand these nuances, so why complicate their gumbo experience?

One more thing:

So the outcome is still delicious if not quite a typical Louisiana gumbo. I do however think the sentiment behind this gumbo is very true to its origins. It is about transforming basic foods into something unrecognizably delicious. It is about using the cheapest options and still succeeding. It is about using things that are fresh and local. It is an extravagant brag in the face of need and hardship. It is the luxury of taking precious time for a meal even though a quicker one would be easier. It is the explosive blending of cultures that do not always get along, that strive still to gain power in spite of or over the others. So yes, this is my Gumbo, chicken innards and all.

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Dedicated to my sweet Brother. Happy Birthday Bud. I hope there is celery in Savannah.

My Control

I really appreciate the quiet. I need some quiet both for my mental health and for my spiritual health. I like to pray in silence, I like to think in silence. Silence forces me to confront myself, for in the absence of distractions I am left with nothing but the things that are part of me. I thought that silence was intangible, meaning illusive, an absence of sounds, of distraction, a widening of mental space that I have the choice to fill or not fill with whatever I choose.

What a shock then to discover that, at least in Tarime, there is a price to quiet. The price is so specific I am not sure the next time I will encounter a little quiet. The price is one Coke, well, the monetary price. I was waiting for my roommate to return from work with the keys to our house, so I went to the closest restaurant to wait for her. I would have just waited under one of the shops out front of our apartment, but it was raining pretty hard and it had been a long day. So I decided to walk a little farther in hopes of ultimately being more dry and enjoying a little caffeine during the wait.

That is 1 coke + A walk in the rain

Well it rained so hard the power went out. This is important because restaurants will always have a tv playing or a radio on if the power grid allows. Having taken refuge at this particular restaurant before, I know that the television is usually on too loud when there is power. And if I had been at home I probably would have had to listen to my roommate’s music. Sure I like music, but I have noticed that Tanzanians are comfortable with a much smaller music collection than I am. My roommate will play the same song on repeat for hours, she says she just forgets it is playing. I guess I’m more sensitive to sound, cause I hear every second of that contemporary praise song that has been playing on repeat for three hours.

That is 1 coke + A walk in the rain + A power outage + An absent roommate

Besides electronic noise, there is a constant flow of what we shall call “ambient noise.” Buildings tend to be more open to the outside world here, doors and windows do not seal tightly when closed, and no air conditioning units means lots of open doors and windows any way. Well this allows the sounds of neighborhood kids, busy street traffic and calling vendors to assault my ears from the crack of dawn to late at night when sometimes the street dogs get into fights right outside my window. This rainstorm either drowned out the ambient noise or the moisture chased everyone inside for a few hours.

That is 1 coke + A walk in the rain + A power outage + An absent roommate + A whole community choosing to stay inside

I ran into the restaurant breathing hard and a little wet. I bustled in and sat in the corner, hoping to not have to field too many questions from locals about my presence here.  It wasn’t until I placed my order, and sat back to catch my breath that I registered I was the only one in the room. This is when I had the revelation about quiet. About what a privilege quiet is. I have always thought of quiet as an absence of, lack of, sounds. At that moment in the empty restaurant, silence was profound and miraculous. It was heavy like a satisfying burger in your stomach, it was clean like a starched Easter dress, and it was as rare as that bird we looked for on vacation to Big Bend National Park that we never found.

That is 1 coke + A walk in the rain +  A power outage + An absent roommate + A whole community choosing to stay inside + An empty restaurant

Alone in that empty room I realized that it was quiet. Perhaps for the first time in Tarime, it was truly quiet. So I sat in the quiet and drank a Coke.

I think that I like quiet because it evokes calmness the in a way nothing else has ever been presented to me. I learned long ago that quiet was natural, an idea that paints images of serenity and peace. I think quiet also allows me to think I am in control. Maybe I am in control, but that has not equipped me for living in Tarime.

Quiet must be created here, the “natural” is far from silent. And I think the spirit of this community thrives in the freedom to make noise, the control of using your own voice, not by eliminating sounds that do not come from you. Imagine the feelings of helplessness, of dependency, of no control, that I faced amidst the constant noise, believing that control and peace were inherently and (more importantly) exclusively, in the quiet.  Indeed sound is still very much about control. My roommate would rather lose herself in a repetitive sound of her choosing instead of the distracting random noises of the outside world. In church our individual prayers are spoken aloud, simultaneously but different, together the collective noise seeping out of the rickety sanctuary and covering the noises of the competing churches and street sounds. Control is in joining the cacophony. I think we can all learn from this idea that we should use what we can control, our bodies, or voices, to affect the things around us. We cannot passively wait for the quiet that may never come.

There are many jokes about “African Time,” the heart of the jokes come from a frustration at how long it takes to do things “in Africa.” I would say this is true to my experience so far in Tanzania. But the longer I am here, the more I wonder at the root of this frustrating bit of culture. Perhaps it is not a lack of awareness of time, or a lack of regard for other’s time. Perhaps instead it is a rebellion against sound. Against noise. I spend many mornings drinking uji with the staff of the Emmanuel Center, it is a ritual that says, “we shall do our work, but while there is still mist in the mountains, we will sit here and appreciate it.” It is an attitude that accepts the noise of the world that we cannot control, but in exchange, we demand time. It is a slow-moving battle that does not require weapons, or money, or even food. It just requires a slow walk, a few extra words to your neighbor before you leave for work, the choice to finish the cup of coffee before getting out of bed. In the intangibility of noise, the untouchable sounds from other sources, Tanzanians have figured out how control time in a way very different from the American grasp of time.

So This holy week I will be learning how to pray and contemplate at all times, at unexpected times, at times that are seemingly wrong. I will not look for quiet, but I will accept it if it finds me. I will give thanks for being able to recognize quiet and will pray that it will be just one tool of many that I possess to connect with God and to recognize  the holy spirit moving.

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Once Again

I had the unique experience of getting to visit Arusha this week for an Evangelism conference for leaders of the Tanzanian United Methodist Church. This leadership included the District Superintendents, Missionaries, and Men’s and Women’s chairpersons. I will just go ahead and say that I … Continue reading Once Again

Vumbi

I am working towards a very intimate relationship with dust, vumbi. I walk a lot, most people do, sure there’s other transportation but my momma already paid for my legs. I am learning how to put my head down when a car passes to minimize inhaling the small particles, I am learning to walk quickly past the burning trash piles, and I know what color to expect when I sneeze. Dust cannot be avoided. Dust hides in the creases of my jeans, it sticks to the fibers of my hair (little of it that there is), and it never leaves the undersides of my fingernails. Even as I sit here in the office, the open doors look out onto a dusty red street and I hope the wind blows away from me, or I will have to sweep all the dust out of the office again, which I have done once already this morning. When I return to my home after a day of walking, my feet are stained a reddish brown, and real scrubbing must occur to remove the dust. Being a person of great visible difference from the majority of my colleagues and friends here, I receive well-meaning attention both for the visible collection of dust on my body and for the lack of skin care products appropriate for maintaining my skin. There is a greater occurrence of acne on my face and arms because of the dust, which people are very willing to notice and worry about (I would much rather pretend it wasn’t there at all). And while we all possess the same insides, Vaseline does much less good for my outsides than most others here who use it as lotion, hair oil, lip balm, and probably instead of Tylenol.

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On Ash Wednesday we wait in line to receive a glob of dirt on our faces. It is special dirt; it is ashes, usually from the Palm Sunday palms of the previous year. It is dirt that is particularly black, it is very fine, it smudges well, but not so well that it falls onto carefully pressed white collared shirts or dry-clean only dresses. Ashes are clean dirt. Ashes are a way for us, at least for a day, to wear on the outside a part of our faith that is very difficult to admit. It represents the part where we mess up. It is when we get to talk about the fact that as humans we think we know. So we act. And only after acting do we realize that we did not know, that we were wrong, or that we knew but did it anyway. Ashes remind us that bodies are just bodies when the life is gone. And that a Black teen murdered by a cop becomes the same earth as the body of an old woman who died peacefully in her bed, as the body of a victim of a school shooting, as the body of a soldier shipped home in a casket. We wear ashes to remember and learn. We remember how we asked, “what were you wearing?” because that was easier than admitting that person whom we respect is hurting people. We learn that they kept hurting people because we refused to listen. We learn that even in repenting, and knowing we are forgiven, time does not reverse. A life that leaves a body does not return, spoken words cannot be unspoken, a country will have always been colonized. We remember that it is not God’s job to fix our mistakes.

 

We pour all of our guilt, all of our icky feelings and regrets into the fire that burns the ashes just as we dumped colorful sugar on braided cinnamon bread the day before. By submerging these feelings in the cleansing flames, and wearing the remainder of them, the ashes, on our foreheads, we are finally able to say the things in our hearts. We can say “yes, I did that thing, I didn’t even know I was doing it.” The miracle of Ash Wednesday is the fire, the purging of the good and the bad- for we should neither rest on our laurels nor wallow in guilt of past wrongs. The ashes are a covenant with God. God promises reconciliation of the past and of our mistakes to come, we must only press on. We must press on even though we only hear anger or fear or hurt in the people whom we may hope for reconciliation; but our responsibility is to each other, our reconciliation is with God.

 

While Ash Wednesday is one day and Lent is one season to make these reflections, we must wear the dust, the vumbi, every day. Lent is the start, the training wheels. The structure of a church service and a resolution to be mindful each day are our helmet and kneepads. For the road is rocky. We fall, we remember when we fell before, and we will fall again. The question is will we get back on the bike. The road is dusty. The dust settles in the creases of our jeans, it sticks to the fibers of our hair, it clings to the undersides of our fingernails; it takes real scrubbing to remove all of it. Will we go outside anyway? In a world where there may not be the right lotion or the right shampoo to be fully cleansed, will we accept the dust anyway?

 

Wear your dust with pride today, then wash it off and prepare for the dust tomorrow, there will be dust tomorrow.

Alpha and Omega

In Revelations, it is written that God is “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” I assumed that meant that God was also in the things in between. Having graduated from a university with an extensive Greek system, I am aware that there are more than two letters in the Greek alphabet. A recent trip I took to Mwanza has given me a new vision of Alpha and Omega.

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I went to Mwanza for a funeral, while there, a baby was born. The funeral should have happened the day I arrived in Mwanza, an ending at the beginning of my trip. However, it did not happen till the night before I left. In fact, my trip was longer because I was waiting for the service.

 

Upon arrival, instead of being immersed in the stressful and heartbreaking preparations of a grieving family preparing their final goodbyes, I was enlisted to help with the stressful and heartbreaking preparations of a swiftly coming baby. Except the baby took its time, took too long. It is not always clear who knows most about giving birth. Is it the doctor? Is it the Mama to be? Is it the plethora of murmuring Mamas and Bibis that crowd and worry around the expectant mother?

 

Well the baby came finally, an end to waiting, a beginning of discovery and growth. But babies are so delicate, they are indeed life and lively, but death lingers for a while in the doorway, ready to slip in at the darkest part of the night. Baby is fine, and with each small intake of breath in this new world she is stronger. Would Mama be okay though? How does such a blessed beginning of a life change by the possibility of a different life ending? Mama’s life? How does it feel when the doctor, who should be the secure passage of new life into this world, also bears the dark shadow of death?

 

So we held our breath, we gathered experience and wisdom, we talked, we prayed. We prayed for the new life, we prayed to keep the life that lay drained and exhausted, fragile as her small child. I came to Mwanza for one funeral; I did not intend to go to two.

 

Mama and baby are both well and healthy, but I shouldn’t say that death did not touch the family, for death is in fear, and there was much fear. The funeral was sad, it was an end, and people carried on as people must. When the sound went out, the choir kept singing, food came from somewhere, an alley between houses became a sanctuary. There is worry and stress about the future, but the fear is past. I have yet to hear of a person who’s fear is vested in something already done, The fear comes with anticipation, with waiting. There are hard times for this mourning family, but the sting of death, like a mosquito bite, is faded. Where, O Death, is now thy sting?

 

I came to Mwanza for a funeral, while there, a baby was born. Each thread of life has a beginning and end. It is the weaving together, the patterns, the designs that lead us each from our beginning to our end. Karibu. Welcome.

 

In our end is our beginning,
in our time, infinity;
in our doubt there is believing,
in our life, eternity,
in our death, a resurrection,
at the last, a victory,
unrevealed until its season,
something God alone can see.

(Hymn of Promise, v. 3)