The group “By Invitation Only” has chosen Unity for today’s theme. I had planned to write about a few of the many successes of the European Union, but something came up that struck near to my heart. So bear with me.
When my kid was in preschool, the extraordinary teacher, Mme. L., decided to structure the year as a trip around the world. All the lessons—learning the alphabet, colors, counting—would relate to different countries. Some parents thought it was too much for four-year-olds to learn geography and concepts about other cultures when they should be getting drilled on writing S and E in the correct direction. Maybe even learning how to add. But Mme. L. persisted.
The children made “passports.” They “visited” China, India, Mexico, Senegal and the U.S., and they also talked about other countries. They learned songs, were read stories and ate food from those countries. They learned phrases in other languages. They made musical instruments and miniature houses of the countries’ style.
One day my kid came home with red clay all over. “We made huts today,” my kid explained, going on to describe how the clay walls kept the interiors cool in the warm climate. (BTW, a teacher friend informed me that young kids should always come home from school dirty, as it shows they did things and didn’t just sit like zombies at a desk.)
Mme. L. opened the world to these kids right at the moment when they were curious and not yet inculcated with negative stereotypes. Our village isn’t exactly diverse. Carcassonne is a little better, but it’s a sleepy town with no industry and limited economic opportunities.
One day, I was at a shopping center with my kid when a black man wearing a colorful, beautifully embellished robe walked by. My kid was curious: Which country do you think he’s from? Do you think he likes the weather? The food? Do you think he misses his country?
I was most struck by the fact that my kid’s reaction was not fear or rejection of someone different but interest. Also that my kid knew, at age four, that Africa was a continent with many countries, and that in those countries live individuals who might eat different food or live in different kinds of houses, but who are basically the same as us.
Another time, my kid, surveying the bounty of toys on the bedroom floor, declared gravely, “I am spoiled rotten. Some kids don’t even have one toy.”
Not everybody is lucky enough to have had a preschool teacher like Mme. L.
The title of this post is “Umoja,” which is “unity” in Swahili, the national language of Kenya and of Tanzania.
I have not been to all 54 countries in Africa, but I have visited five and lived in one. They were all beautiful, but beyond the natural beauty what I loved most was the beauty of the people, the culture. How many people have gone on safari and swooned over the animals while shunning the people?
I landed in Kenya in October 1985, as the drought that ravaged Ethiopia was still going strong. That was the famine that killed a million people and that inspired Michael Jackson to write “We Are the World,” which you can listen to here, and the lyrics are here. It’s time to read them again.
I saw many things in Kenya. Lions so close I could hear them crack the bones of the wildebeest they were feeding on. Giraffes grazing with cows. Majestic mountains (the top photo is of the Kibo peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, which is in Tanzania, right on the border). Exotic flowers. I saw incredibly hard-working people, many of whom did back-breaking labor for all 12 hours of sunlight. I saw very devout Christians who didn’t just attend church every Sunday in their best clothes but who walked the walk, taking care of each other though they themselves had so little. I saw very devout Muslims unloading sacks of cement at the port in hot and sticky Lamu, sweating profusely but not drinking a drop because it was Ramadan. I saw a culture where children were revered. Where education was paramount, worth every sacrifice.
I also saw starving children, especially in the north, their empty stomachs distended, their hair orange from malnutrition, their energy too sapped to swat away flies from their faces. I saw their parents, in no better shape, working desperately to save them.
Once, when leaving “Hoggers,” a hamburger joint in Nairobi so devoted to America that it played tapes of a U.S. radio station, complete with the D.J.’s banter and weather and traffic reports between songs, I saw a young man, barely clothed, filthy, ravaging through the trash in the alley outside Hoggers, and stuffing jettisoned food into his mouth. That image will never leave me.
On a trip back many years later, taking the overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa, I was booked into a sleeping car with two other women, both Kenyans. They were businesswomen; we were all about the same age, and we drank Tusker beer and talked about life. At that time, I was just visiting from New York; their lives and mine differed only in the details; the vast majority of our experiences were the same to an extent that startled me. Life is life. Around the world.
Every trip, I visited a former student. Her Christian name was Editor, which her mother, who didn’t speak English, had thought was pretty. Editor was always my favorite. Not my best student, but hard-working and honest and ambitious. She had a coffee and tea farm not far from where she’d grown up. Married, with two kids. She named her daughter after me.
Editor introduced me to her “big sister,” who wasn’t a blood relative at all but a mentor. In an area with no banks, women formed savings clubs, pooling their money and giving the pool to one member. The member would repay it and the pool would go to the next member. Often they would use it to buy a cow, which was not just a kind of savings account but which provided milk that could be consumed and sold, and each year would produce a calf, which also could be sold. Dividends, basically. New women would be brought in, sponsored by established members who were on the hook for their recruits’ repayment. As a result, the older women kept close tabs on their mentorees, helping them work through difficulties.
The “sister” also had two kids. She had a farm, as everybody did or tried to, because growing your own food means you won’t go hungry, whatever else may happen. She also had a job, and so did her husband, so they not only had a car but their house was made of bricks and had electricity and a TV. I lived for two years without electricity and I can attest that having it or not doesn’t make one a good or bad person, but it most certainly makes a person more efficient. The same with running water.
Over dinner, we talked and talked, and I kept thinking that they would have fit right in with my friends in my Midwestern hometown.
My school had about 450 kids. No electricity. No running water—they had to go to a stream at the foot of the hill to get it by the bucket (not easy because it wasn’t very deep). No glass in the windows. About 40 kids per class. Three kids sitting on two chairs at one desk with one book (yes, the poor middle kid had to straddle two chairs, but had the best view of the book). You could hear a pin drop in class–they were there to learn. It was a boarding school. They got up at 6, dressed into their uniforms, cleaned the classrooms (sweeping, then mopping not with mops but with buckets of water wiped up with big rags, on their hands and knees), studied, had breakfast (always a millet/sorghum porridge called uji). Then class. Lunch and dinner were always githeri, a maize-and-bean soup with vegetables, served with ugali (polenta). they got a little meat stew with potatoes or more ugali at lunch on Sundays. They had a little free time after school, spent doing sports or clubs like drama, and then studied again after dinner. There was one kerosene pressure lamp per classroom, and they arrayed their desks for a sliver of light.
I loved them. Even the naughty ones. Especially the good ones. They had many questions about the U.S. They thought it was hilarious that I would go jogging, bizarre that my hair was smooth and my feet soft and that it was crazy that there were people who did so little physical work and who had so much to eat that they had to exercise or they would be fat.
I had a bottle of fresh milk delivered every morning, still warm from the cow, with cream at the top. I had to use it all each day because I didn’t have a refrigerator (that electricity thing again). One day, next to my milk were a pair of flipflops I’d thrown away when the thong ripped a hole in the sole, so they wouldn’t stay on any more. They had been repaired, by hand, by the young man who delivered my milk. Such good flipflops shouldn’t be tossed because of such a small problem.
We’re spoiled rotten.
We know the price of everything and the value of nothing. We have such abundance that we are choking the planet with our waste. We are terrible stewards but we have the arrogance to tell everyone what to do.
With a little humility, we can see that we’re all in this life game together.
We are the world.
You can find the other contributions to “By Invitation Only” at Daily Plate of Crazy. Please read them all–very different approaches to the same topic.