Thursday, April 18, 2013

Day 10: Rebirth

I come to this blog when the need to write and process outweighs the various blocks that get in the way: exhaustion, lack of clarity and sometimes, fear. Still, it remains one of the most honest outlets I have - because though I know that in the coming years my "reality" will continue to change and I may not always think/feel/believe what I do here - in the moment in which I write, it is my utter truth. I bring to this page honesty, and the attempt to document the larger truths that life removed from the world I once knew has brought about.

Often, in the past year, I have felt lost. I have been detached from the clarity of purpose that brought me here. I'm no longer a student, no longer a representative of a global organization, no longer new and that exquisite combination of naivety and total openness to truth. In the past week I have heard myself warn expats contemplating a move to Nairobi with the same callous and arrogant attitude I used to loathe in long-time development professionals. I cringed as I heard the words come out of my mouth.

This remains one of the most challenging parts of a life split between countries, and the general passing of time therein. In a moment, I can indulge in all that I have guarded against - and in another, experience the land and people here as if for the first time.

On Tuesday, I drove just 20 minutes from my office to Kiserian, one of many towns in Kenya whose name I've heard countless times, but had yet to visit. As I journeyed up a rock-strewn drive, the Ngong Hills reined on the horizon. The trip followed a few days of rain, and the earth around us had that renewed quality of life springing forth. I could not stop marveling at the view, and the visit got better when reaching our destination. I was visiting the workshop of one of our brass suppliers; a twenty-four year old named Emmanuel. I had not realized that Emmanuel's missing bottom teeth were symptomatic of his Maasai upbringing, nor that he employed a staff of Luo street boys - significant in a culture in which tribe continues to dictate a fair amount of business and community engagement. Emmanuel demonstrated the jerry-rigged furnace and system he and his brother Moses use to melt old brass fixtures in order to recycle them into jewelry. I filmed Emmanuel's hands as he sifted the sand and molasses he uses to cast metal into jewelry pieces - including the starfish his workshop is making for a special Mother's day order for Sasa Designs. Amidst the back drop of one of Kenya's most famous landscapes, a handful of people are making their way and creating the best quality brass pieces I've found here yet.

Before we left, Moses asked me if I have hiked the Ngong Hills - I told him I had years ago when my best friend visited. He is a well-known guide of the area, and he quickly ran inside to give me a copy of the wild flower book he provided consultation on for the hills, proud to point out his picture and name in the authors' listing. Like his brother, he exudes generosity - somehow sensing the poverty of spirit that can plague even those who represent wealth in this country still fighting the ravages of poverty.

One our way back from Kiserian, Emmanuel told me about his years as a moran, the time in which he lived in the forest with other Masai youth in order to learn how to be a warrior. Emmanuel is soft spoken and delicate, yet he came alive as he talked about how each of the youth had to hold the lion's tale before it was wounded, before they killed it. It is illegal for the Masai to kill a lion anymore as a right of passage, but as a group they participated in this ritual - also staring it in the face as part of the process. In a dusty and borrowed SUV, I dodged potholes and thought of the danger I am so frequently aware of in Kenya while listening to one who has looked a lion in the eyes and lived to tell the tale.

As we drove, my phone rang for the fifth time that day, flashing the name, "Daniel Doc." Daniel has been saved in my phone for years that way - the "doc" referencing the fact that when I met him he was recovering from being hit by a car, and asked for assistance in paying his medical bills for the leg surgery that was not healing correctly. Daniel has no hands.

The day before I met Daniel roughly four years ago, I had made an internal decision that it was time to learn to say "no." For the majority of my life in Kenya, I have received requests for assistance on a daily basis. When the phone doesn't ring, the silence is peppered with the small hands that greet my window and many of the intersections that any daily commute entails. When indirect, the request is still there in the faded folds of kangas draped around babies on the backs of mothers who trek into town to beg. As I hear in the U.S., "they only want to buy booze," here the talk is of women who make more in a day begging than they would at an honest day's work. Somehow the blank stares and the rare conjured smile belay this suggestion.

So I told myself I couldn't afford to keep saying yes - no matter how small the pittance I offered was. I was a student of Development after all, these small fixes were only perpetuating a culture of charity and reliance - they failed to honor or empower the people they were meant to help. A piece of me still strongly believes this.

But on the day I met Daniel, I felt as if my quiet identity as a believer was being shaken to its roots. For here stood a man with no hands, reaching out nonetheless, asking for help. In what world could I justify saying no?

Thus began years of raising money, identifying lawyers to help him plead his case, providing school fees (both via my Rotary club) to help him learn how to use a prosthetic provided by another supporter, and more recently, support for his daughter's college diploma fees. Throughout the experience I've grown weary of working with Daniel, impatient of his inability to look beyond the day's needs - wary of his insistence that he has a plan to have a farm and earn his own money if only I can give him what he needs today.

When his daughter, Dorothy, started asking for money something didn't sit well. Her requests were always urgent - always exceptionally pleading - and often, when I first responded with "I do not have anything to give right now," followed up by what became a common phrase, "I won't ask you again." All of these requests came in extremely crudely typed English, discouraging to someone who has made peace with the fact that I can't help everyone - but the brightest students deserve help the most.

In her last request I received the following text, amongst others:

"plz just save my future."

Does this not get to the root of the reality of poverty? Here I am spending years trying to learn how to say no in order to in some way compensate for a career path that invokes a fear of ending up penniless and alone - and this young girl is literally begging for the money to take her final exams.

There are no words to describe how much I loathe being in this situation. To represent wealth, to be a vehicle for wealth thanks to the generosity of family, friends and my extended community who entrust me with donations to dole out to those in need. Years ago I had the only proper fight I've had with one of my best friends about the merits of giving to homeless people on the street. I maintained that it wasn't about changing their lives - they may very well spend that $.50 on booze and cigarettes. But who am I to play God? Who am I to question in that moment of passing them how they'll spend the few coins I deign to offer? Now, these many years later, I question constantly - even those who I have known for years and count as my local family. The weight of holding these precious funds too small to go around is ever heavy on my heart.

Today, a colleague shared the following verse, and told me that I was on her heart when she read it.

"Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.” Daniel 4:27

She told me that she sees me working to serve the poor, and she wanted to encourage me in this work. What an honor, and yet what further need to somehow document how hard this continues to be for me. And I cannot say how hard this is, as if it is definitive and universal. I truly believe there are saints on earth who find service to be far more natural, and far less complex, than my path has become. 

Yesterday, I finally picked up one of Daniel's calls. He asked how I was and told me the place he stayed in the slum had been damaged in the rains. He asked for help paying for a new place, and as my anxiety grew I told him I don't have anything to help him with. This is a half-truth. I do not have enough money to support this and get through the month based on my salary, but though my time in Africa has greatly dipped into my savings, I still have some left. While I am scrambling to figure out how to increase my income, the reality is if I needed to - I could give Daniel a little money. But where does it stop? And how do I create a life for myself alongside a life as the person who will always pick up the phone, even if I put it off - even if I don't talk nicely once I answer?

Many of these thoughts spilled out after my colleague shared Daniel 4:27 and Isaiah 58:10-11. Her moment of encouragement turned into that subtle scratch of only a thin-layer of surface skin, giving way to the anxiety and battle life in Kenya has become for me each time the request comes.

After we'd talked for awhile, she told me the story of a Kenyan friend of hers who was recently walking through downtown Nairobi and passed a mother begging with a crying child beside her. "Mama, why can't you take your baby out of the sun? Can't you see she is crying?" she asked. The mother moved the baby, but the crying continued. "Mama, are you hungry?" She walked to buy bread and milk, returning and giving them to the woman and her baby. The crying continued and the woman noticed that the baby had a very soiled diaper. Weary and starting to feel frustrated as she was in a rush, she still went to a local shop and bought diapers and baby wipes. Returning, she changed the child's diaper and said goodbye to the mother as she returned the baby to her arms.

As she walked away, a man tapped her arm and said to her, "It has been a long time since I have seen God. But I saw God today."

1 comment:

Allan Wills said...

Hey Megan, you should read this: very a propos...

What Happens When You Live Abroad