Tag Archives: campfire

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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A Masai Warrior, A Roasted Corncob, and a Life Lesson

For some unknown reason, as I sat to write this FIRST EVER personal blog, a flurry of thoughts and images confronted me, each vying for primacy of expression.  I chose an image from early childhood – that of a tall, slim Masai warrior, standing just on the edge of my family’s camp fire, leaning against his long, double-edged spear, the sharp point of which was anchored firmly in the ground beside him, and with evident boredom or fascination – I could not tell which, observing and listening to an incomprehensible white American family’s interactions and conversations (*Note: the individual in the photograph below is only representative of my memory).  During these once or twice-a-year safari outings, my family had become accustomed to these semi-nomadic, fireside gawkers, who arrived almost on cue each day accompanied by their herds of cattle, irritating-to-your-face-and-ears flies, plus insatiable curiosities – for many of them: admiring their faces for the first time and at great length in the side mirrors of the camp’s resident Land Rover Defender.

Masai Warrior  This image is seared in my consciousness, in part, because of what occurred between the warrior and myself – a small, insignificant incident, perhaps, yet full of meaning these many years later.  I must have been 8 or 9 years old at the time, 3rd or 4th grade.  I was eating a roasted ear of corn, while seated on a camp chair, within leg reach of the boundary-setting stones of our campfire. I had consumed at least half of the ear, if not two-thirds, when I become intensely conscious of the fact that we were eating, and this very visibly and culturally “different Other” persisted in standing, staring, and maybe, even, wanting some of what we were eating.  Painfully aware that my family and I were attempting to ignore him with the hope that he would grow bored and return to his cattle or family kraal or both, I eventually could not fight my discomfort any more, and got up from my chair, walked over and extended to the warrior my partially eaten ear of corn.

His response to my act of “generosity” unexpectedly and sharply drew deep embarrassment to my white face.  I don’t recall whether the warrior even took my gift, but for certain he did mutter something to himself in either Maa or Kiswahili, and then spat on the ground.  He was clearly offended and unhappy with his “gift.”  Surely he was upset by one or all of these reasons . . . I had already eaten the choicest kernels off the cob.  I offered him remnants of a measly corncob, when the rest of us were eating a meat, potatoes and all the trimmings kind of meal.  I didn’t invite him to sit in a chair around the fire with us.  And, I offered nothing to drink as an accompaniment.

What likely most offended this Masai warrior was not the pathetic “gift,” or the lack of invitation to join my family in our noontime meal, but rather my naively innocent yet demonstrated antagonistic attitude and perception toward difference.

This warrior was someone my culture had instilled in me was inferior, uneducated, “unsaved,” and primitive – all without ever having said as much in words (i.e., hegemony).  Winthrop Jordan, in White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812, noted that “difference” – and more importantly, perhaps – sustaining a sense of difference, is dependent upon isolation and/or segregation, whether sustained by voluntary or legislated means.  Or more blunt and to the point, as Andrew Sinclair noted in The Savage: A History of Misunderstanding, “The unknown is usually the enemy, while the misunderstood is always the savage.”

At that time I did not live isolated from “different others” because of a legislated segregated society like apartheid South Africa.  My individual isolation and that of my family’s was mostly voluntary, induced in part by education and economic privilege, plus post-colonial realities, but hardened by a rationality and practicality influenced in large measure by fear.  A fear of crime.  A fear of over-exposure to poverty and its effects upon the psyche of oneself or even one’s children. A constant unspoken fear and awareness, perhaps, that life is tenuous and unpredictable, and in the briefest moment of time good fortune and societal standing could be reversed.

So  . . . lesson learned and wisdom acquired from this life incident of more than 30 years ago?  A person doesn’t necessarily have to give up what one has inherited through privilege of birth, or acquired through individual hard work, or even to assume another person’s life and identity in order to experience empathy and thereby show relational kindness and respect for those different or less fortunate economically, than yourself.

BUT, I believe people – you, me, we – need to consciously and intentionally live measurably less isolated lives, and more relationally engaged on a day-to-day basis with our respective “different Others”, so that we can in varying measure, shape and form share collectively in life experiences.  This is not socialism, as many attempted to brand President Obama, but a healthy ism of societal relatedness.  And from shared life experiences and relational moments lie the seedbeds of new and transformative thoughts, relationships and paradigms, which can help mend our world’s many fissures.

My significant shared life experiences and relational moments with “different others” regrettably did not occur until postgraduate studies – much to my own self-impoverishment.  Up until my early to mid-30s I was quite confident that I was right and “the other” was wrong (especially the religious other).  It took a little dash of so-called “liberal education” and a big dash of a willingness to be vulnerable and risk my faith and traditional cultural/ideological thought in a much less homogenous and less power-presiding position, before I recognized and experienced first-hand just how small I had shaped God and the “Other,” and just how much I had projected “enemy” upon the “different Others” of the world.  What I’ve since discovered is that contrary to my Puritan-laden heritage, it is not sin that defines humanity, but rather a search for meaning amidst the inexplicable realities of life (miracle of birth, the problem of suffering and the enigma of death), hope and the aspirations for “becomingness.”  As my primary mentor used to tell each class of university students:  “You are not merely human beings.  You are human becomings!”  I wish I had been so wise that campfire day, so many years ago.  Maybe I would be emailing that Masai warrior as friend, requesting a proof read of this blog, and asking whether his recollection of that day and event is anything similar to my own.

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