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.

2 comments:

  1. Fan, I think this is my favorite piece of art yet that you've shared. Rich colour and potent with memory.

    I can't believe you write about the Isaiah justice chapter! My students and I have just recently discussed it; it has been a part of my heart for a long time.

    You need to read up on the Belhar confession (it's history and the actual confession itself). Have you heard of it? It's a confession that is currently under discussion right now in the CRC about the possibility of it being added to our doctrine. It's birthed out of apartheid in South Africa and is a cry for peace and justice. I think you'd very much appreciate it.
    A little taste:
    "the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream"
    "in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others"

    AMEN.

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  2. Miss Candice!
    Thanks for the feedback :)

    Also thanks for sharing that excerpt from the Belhar confession, very powerful! I want to learn more about that whole initiative and will definitely look further into it.

    The Reformed Church in S.A had a complicated and disturbing relationship with Apartheid polices, it looks like from that there has been some birthing of a kind of social justice consciousness that is very cool to see. Let's hope that it takes root and grows out into other worship traditions and that as a Church we can take our seat on the global table of anti-oppressive policy making.

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