Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mzigo



Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear . . .

I was born but had minimal lived experience in a fishing town on the banks of the majestic African lake inappropriately named Victoria.

The shores of these vast waters are shared by three nations one of which is my home country Kenya. The town of Kisumu where I was born shortly before my family moved and settled in Kenya's capital Nairobi in my first year has since grown into a port city.

Most of my childhood memories of Kenya reflect our life in the capital Nairobi, I do recall though that during December holidays, when school was out and the Christmas sun was blazing, it was an annual practice for families living in the capital to travel to the rural parts of the country referred to by nationals as ushago.

We would go to ushago to see grandmother cook on open fire, to laugh at grandfather's fables told in broken swahili, to eat mangoes and roasted groundnuts, chew on sugar canes, and try not to contract malaria, it was the best time of the year.

The long trip to ushago was often half the battle and experience. We would board on of the special buses that traveled outside the city. As a child I could tell them apart them from ordinary city buses in the Nairobi station because the buses were painted in brighter colors and had the travelers' mzigo (load/luggage) piled and tied to the roofs of vehicles.

Squeezed on a bus seat next to my sisters and mother, I remember bracing myself for a long and tiring journey across the country. I remember between naps frequently inquiring where we were more times than I'm sure my mother desired to respond. My persistent inquiries were in anticipation of a special and longer stop made in Kisumu by buses traveling up country. Over the years I had come to recognize the station, even in the thick of night by the bustle and market noise, however this did not stop me from inquiring: "Where are we now? Are we there?".
And my mother would smile and answer, "Yes, we are in Kisumu, where you were born". At this my sisters and I would lean our foreheads against the bus window.

The experience was even more exciting if the stop was made before the sun had set. Kisumu was established as a market port in the early part of the twentieth century because of it's prime location on the Great African Lake; the very name Kisumu means "to barter trade". We would watch the market women approach the buses. The image remains strong in my mind of these women, recognizable by the mzigo they had balanced on their heads.

They would walk right up to the bus windows that were now open in anticipation of transactions that were delightful for the traveling children. Immediately my mother was subjected to a chorus of requests for sweet bananas, or passion fruits, or whatever traveling snacks were on the baskets resting on the heads of the market women.

As the engine of the loud and colorful buses would start up, and the driver would call out the name of the next destination, snack in hand, I remember staring out the window in admiration, as these magical market women drifted away from the bus and back into their day's activities, livelihoods carried on their heads.


I would describe my season right now as being an eclectic one; I thank God for this, because I'm still very much that agitated girl on the bus, restlessly content.

In my day to day experience and in the spaces and systems that I find myself weaving in and out of, I am becoming increasingly conscious of the overlaps and disparities. In this eclectic season I can say that mostly I mother and more and more I am learning to wife. I also write and think quite a bit. As a student of social work I spend practicum days in an office uptown trying to contribute to policy change, talking about social justice, wearing uncomfortable shoes, talking to politicians and social agency representatives at meetings I can't believe I'm in and more or less just not getting paid.

Just a few days ago I had to attend a Justice Dinner in my community that is organized by the Council office of my practicum and frankly I was dreading it a bit (mostly because I hadn't won a formal dress since my one year old Babu was born and I was not in any particular hurry). But in reluctant anticipation, I planned to at least get my hair done. For this purpose I needed to navigate away from my pretty and clean uptown space.

So I arrive at the small salon by an old and narrow city street appropriately named Pandora. I like this place, the area is a bit grungier than my previous location but my lady's prices are cheap and the conversation is life giving.

Business is slow, the white prostitutes are still part of her clientele. She's an intelligent English born daughter of a Jamaican immigrant. We talk about it all, the shit about immigration, the black boys getting locked up, baby madness, her biracial grandson, my biracial son, her two dead sons. I need to get my hair done more often she says. I want her to shave off the sides, maybe the whole head, I want to wear it shorter, she won't do it, you still have to look like a woman she says. She wants to know about my work again, she feels she can be a social worker she says, I know all about it, the Children's Aid, all of it. I tell her she would be brilliant. I pay her and leave her broom in hand, balancing it all on her head.

I weave back into my space, through the pretty uptown, back to our suburban rented space. There he is, my beautiful boy. Your hair looks good, doesn't mommy's hair look good? I smile. How was your day. . . start the evening routine, restlessly content.

In 1994, I was ten years old and the Motherland was screaming out as tens and thousands of her sons and daughters were slain in the Rwandan genocide. Her majestic waters carried and cradled some of them, as if trying to draw them back to her womb. My family had gotten our first small television set the previous year. I remember the images of fisherman on the banks of Lake Victoria, arranging the bodies washed ashore for burial.

I also remember images of mass crowds on dusty roads, refugees, fleeing to the Congo. There were the women, so much like the dark skinned Kisumu market women that we watched from our bus window, but there wasn't bustle or the smell of fruit; just a slow steady progression on my television screen. I sat there, understanding enough but not all, and wondering still how it was that they could carry their mzigo on their heads.


So I went to the Justice Dinner and was rather surprised by all the biblical references made by the keynote speaker. It is more typical in my field to appeal to Alinsky, Dominelli, or other kinds of anti-oppressive thinkers. But as well as integrating insights from Islam and Aboriginal spirituality, John Calhoun seemed to feel that the prophet Isaiah had something to say about public policy.

Calhoun says pain is valuable, don't waist your pain he says. Sitting there I feel I have to agree, It is valuable, not to be hidden, but to be announced and raised high, to be shared, to be carried like a crown, maybe thorny crown, a mzigo, balanced on your head. And then he reads from the book of Isaiah, he reads it like poetry:

Is this the kind of fasting I have chosen?

He stops. He looks at the crowd of socialist types, feminists, LGBTQ rights advocates. "By fasting Isaiah is talking about religious stuff" he explains.

Only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one's head like a read and lying on sackloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen:
To loose the chains of injustice,
To untie the cords of the yoke,
To set the oppressed free and break every yoke.

Is it not to share your food with the hungry,
And to provide the poor wanderer with shelter.
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,

He stops again "You see, he is talking about your light" He points at the crowd, the very likely non-religious crowd. He points at the wounded healers. He points at me. "The prophet is talking about your light" He repeats.

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
And your healing will quickly appear.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mama Awendo's Afternoon




Heal me, oh Lord, and I will be healed....
A good leader that recently entered my journey in a season of hardship drew my attention to a biblical author (Jeremiah) that writes rather nakedly about his inner thoughts and tensions about the place of the Creator in his sufferings. Among the curses, ramblings, laments, complaints, and random declarations of praise and faith, the following statement in the Book of Jeremiah captured my attention; "Heal me, oh Lord, and I will be healed..."(Jer 17:14).

I am in one of those spaces where a piece of charcoal between my fingers is like a cigarette to the smoker, I pretty much know I will feel a bit better when I'm through, and once I get the nudge, I can't shake it.

Sitting on my kitchen table, while they boys were napping, I could feel that inner ache that we all know to well, that accompanies a season of darkness, creeping in. You may know the feeling: It's like as soon as you stop laughing or working, or chatting with a friend on the phone, and your mind is still, suddenly your thoughts return to the loss, or painful event. The feeling is like an unwanted visitor that sits at your table, sipping his tea and never leaving....

Well anyway, this is the space that I was in and I knew I needed some "art therapy" which comes these days in the form of newsprint and charcoal. I pictured in my head a place of serenity, which took me back to childhood, watching my mother, or an Aunt, or a friend's mother hanging clothes on a line. "Mama Awendo's Afternoon" is being occupied by this task; so tedious, and routine and necessary and beautiful, it's almost spiritual.... it is spiritual. From childhood, to this day, I always loved the smell of clean laundry drying in the sun, and I wanted to capture the simplicity and stillness of the task, to give my aching soul relief and magically return to this place in my childhood past when all was safe and happy. Life however in seldom simple or still, and even in this creative process, I found my fingers frantically bending the shape of the stalks of maize, moving the wind to blow just a little stronger than I had planned for Mama Awendo's afternoon.

When I was a younger girl I believed that my pain, and the pain of those around me would be healed by the Creator, this was the deepest expression of my faith. When I was an older girl, like Jeremiah, I felt deceived (Jer 20:1) by the creator, I was not healed, those around me were also still in pain. And so the lesson, I felt was that the deepest expression of my faith was to continue to worship the Creator, in-spite of the pain. And now as a young woman, again in the company of this unwanted visitor, I am drawn to this prayer by the honest Jeremiah "Heal me, Oh Lord, and I will be healed" My heart cannot help but feel that I cannot walk that path again, I cannot trust the Creator to take away the pain only to be failed, deceived and disappointed.

But I don't know, maybe it's like doing the damn laundry. The repetitiveness of the task sometimes feels like it's in vain. I mean, Let's face it, the clothes are going to be soiled again in no time.

Kaskitémahikan (Micheal Hart) is a citizen of Fish River Cree Nation and a social work practitioner. He has written an incredible book about an Aboriginal Approach to Practice, in it he has the following to say about healing:

"Healing is not only seen as the process of recoving from a problem or an illness. Healing is also viewed as a journey; it is something that people practice daily throughout their lives. it is the broad transitional process that restores the person, community and nation to wholeness, connectedness and balance," (Hart, 2002).

So maybe I had it right as a child when I saw Mama Awendo's work as being beautiful for what it was, maybe the clothes will get dirty again, but that's not the point. Maybe the purpose of clotheslines and breezy days wasn't to keep clothes clean but rather to capture the imagination and senses of those around and to inspire charcoal drawings on Sunday afternoons.

Maybe like Jeremiah, I will ask you to heal me, to heal us, Creator, simply because I feel a bit held when I do, and maybe I will be healed.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Abantu

Chris Abani muses on humanity | Video on TED.com


ABANTU

Eh Mwana, sitting on the red soil,
Rise to your feet,
Why are you crying?

My hair is tough
And dry like sisal
I cannot pull it straight.

Pull it straight, whatever for? Forgive your mama, I failed to disclose,
You have abantu in you.
You can love it, hate it,
Hide it or shave it,
You cannot rid yourself of it,
You can grow it, explain it, relax it or burn it,
You can braid a new shape into it,
You can proclaim it or deny it but understand
You have abantu in you.

Eh Mwana, on the city street
The sun has slept,
Why are you dancing?

This city is a slum,
But I hear the drums,
And my will and feet keep moving,

Ha! That’s no surprise, Listen to your mama, I’ll tell you
You have abantu in you.
You can fight it, minimize it,
Syncretize it and analyze it,
But you can’t rid yourself of it.
You can demonize it, criticize it,
Christianize it or colonize it, but recognize
You have abantu in you.

Eh Babu, under the tree,
Can I sit at your feet?
Why are you smiling?

Come my daughter, don’t you see it? It’s coiled right in this dry hair,
I have abantu in me.
I heard they came and renamed it,
They call it dark, they call it Africa,
I heard they took some of it with them
I heard it’s scattered and starving,
I heard it’s still brave and proud and rising,
Rest your head Nafoyo,
Just like me,
You have abantu in you.


~ Awiti: for my son

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

For Many Nights



On many evenings, for many nights,
I have sat on this jacaranda tree branch,
Watching you in your shanty town
Just over the hills

I remember when the nest was warm,
Surrounded by the purple flowers
You could here our morning singing
You always asked for more
We always gave you more.

Perched right here I haven’t blinked once,
Even after the kerosene lamps went out,
And suddenly I was alone,
Vulnerable to this Nairobi night wind,
My greatest allies are the soft feathers on my chest.

These hills that grow between us,
Are made by man and God
Are made of red earth and trash

On many evenings, for many nights,
I have sat on this jacaranda tree branch,
You could never tell by looking at me,
But I feel I’m about to fly.


~For Fla, Fan, Foyo, Faith, and Flora
For our mother
And even for our father