Sweets By Any Other Name Would Be As Sweet

We have all experienced this.

You’re standing curbside at your high school or university alma mater’s homecoming parade. Marching bands and elaborately decorated floats crawl past.

Sweets/candy by the handful are tossed to excited and eager children bystanders. They run, dive and vie for the choicest of sweets – bite-size chocolate bars, Tootsie Rolls and Pops, Jolly Ranchers, and Sweet-Tarts. Pockets already overflowing with candy, and mouths full with giant Jaw Breaker gum, exultant hands and arms intermittently raise high and shouts express, “YES! I beat you to it! I’ve got more than you!”

Imagine now an entirely different setting, with children who have no experience with, let alone any notion of what a parade is.

They’re walking back at the height of a Tropic of Capricorn day. It’s hot. They’re weighted down by the heavy-in-proportion-to-their-body loads, tired, hungry and thirsty from having wandered far from their family in search of firewood and water.

Given the absence of any motorized warning, only the rubbing of foot and skin against coarse small pebbles and the golden dry grass of the Kalahari Desert, the Khoisan children round a misplaced hillock and come face-to-face with a white adult male – a geologist, perhaps? A government health worker on an inoculation tour? Maybe a missionary? Whichever or neither; it doesn’t really matter.

They stop almost by command and greet one another. The European is taken by the children’s kindness and respect shown to this white stranger, and before bidding them adieu reaches in and draws out the inner lining of his pant pocket, because prior to leaving home that morning he had placed in it a handful of sweets to suck on and keep his mouth moist during the long hours of trekking in the African sun. Immediately he’s embarrassed by his attempted act of kindness because he realizes that only one sweet remains in the pocket.

Too late, though. The children see the sweet. Putting it back without offering it would be even more rude. He extends his hand to the eldest of the five children. She shyly yet eagerly takes the lone sweet. He thinks to himself, “Now I’ve done it! What next? Fighting? Arguing?”

Neither and nothing of the kind! What she did will forever remain with him. She carefully unwrapped the sweet, placed it in her mouth, and sucked on it. After a brief moment, she took it out of her mouth and handed it to another child, who similarly sucked on it for a moment in time before passing it along to the next girl, and so forth and so on until the sweet was no more.

I read the above autobiographical narrative from a book when I was conducting research for my dissertation.

A decade and a half earlier . . .

I experienced a similar act of sharing from African children, but this time at the base of the Aberdare Mountains near the Equator.

The occasion was Interim, a weeklong cultural-study excursion my Kenya boarding school of Rift Valley Academy allowed junior and senior students to participate in once each year. There were a number of “interims” one could choose from, including piki safari (pikipiki = motorbike in Swahili), Malindi (Indian Ocean), Tsavo (game reserve), and mine – hiking in the Aberdares. I like camping and hiking, but in honesty, I chose this interim more to save my parents money than anything.

As you can imagine given the option of hiking and tent versus vehicle and safari lodge, we were a small group led by a “Mr. S,” a tall, wiry RVA staff member. The first night we were to stay in an old spartan brick building near the Aberdare Reserve main entrance. Two rugby friends and I, Francis A and Wilson M, went exploring soon after arrival. We came upon a nearby flowing stream, serene, with lush green grass; a perfect bivouac.

With everything so green (wet) the first task was getting a fire going, both to cook with and sit and sleep around. A few small children wandered down to water’s edge to fill their family’s water containers, before hauling them back up the winding footpath and over the steep ridge, all the while balancing them on top of their heads. Given our anomaly, they lingered with their daily task, during which they repetitively glanced our way, wandering I’m sure, at what brings one white and two Kenyan teenage boys to their neck of the woods.

As best I can recall the sequence of events . . .

Since it was almost dinner time, Wilson asked the boys if they would ask their mother if we could buy a head of cabbage from them.  We wanted to cook it alongside our ugali (a thick, almost bread/porridge staple made from cornmeal) and in place of Kenyans’ traditional ugali accompaniment, “sukuma wiki” (a collard green, which literally means “to push the week” – a reference for a cheaper food that supplements and makes more expensive food, like meat, last longer).

Ugali, Sukuma Wiki, plus meat.

Ugali, Sukuma Wiki, plus meat.

One boy set off back home and returned shortly informing us that their mother was not in a position to sell us a head of cabbage (no reason given, although it was likely due to their poverty and leanness of food supply).

Obviously this response did not set well with three boarding school young men, who lived on the edge of starvation, anyway, due to the “culinary reputation” of RVA’s kitchen at the time (I recall several of us once eating an entire bottle of French’s mustard in the dorm one evening, because we were so hungry!:). Nonetheless, we thanked the boys before they set off back home, and in an effort to be hospitable, shared a few sweets with them.

With about 30 minutes to spare before darkness set in, one of the boys returned with not one, but three heads of cabbage! We tried to pay his family for the gifts, but he had been instructed by his mother not to accept payment. We could only suppose it was a gift to thank us for sharing a few paltry sweets. We feasted that night, leaving 2 uneaten cabbages with park rangers, but not before we ourselves climbed the ridge, making slits in the stumps/stalks of several harvested cabbage plants, and inserting into each slit several shillings – more than enough to cover the cost at a local market.

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1 Comment

Filed under Africa, Culture and Africa, Memories, Perspective, Relationships

One response to “Sweets By Any Other Name Would Be As Sweet

  1. Francis Ngumbi

    Scott, thanks for taking me down memory lane with the cabbage story. I had forgotten about that trip. Those were great and simpler times.

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