Tag Archives: Kisumu

(Humorous) Lessons of Life from Tee Offs to Fairways

I’m not a lover of golf; at best a friend, and these days a mere acquaintance. Up until 2000, however, I played maybe once a month, and that, because it was my dad’s game of choice. When I began the over clichéd doctoral life of “poorer by degree,” a minimum $40 green fee and six hours of play commitment inevitably weighed too negatively against my family’s need.

Still, in fairness to the leisure sport, my life has benefited in a number of ways from the game, and it’s my hope that a few of my yesteryears’ recollections might be of at least humorous benefit to some.

Earliest golf memory? Infancy post-colonial Kenya, specifically Nyeri (near Mount Kenya).

Through a memory glass faded I see my first or second grade self: hot, thirsty, exhausted, then swinging, no, hacking at a dimpled, small, white ball, with a much-too-long-for-a-young-boy adult 3-iron.

The typical result of all my early swing effort? Well, let’s just say this . . . I now understand only too well the humor of my South African mentor’s telling of how the Zulus of southeast Africa came to name certain European sports unfamiliar to them. Since in isiZulu a noun is frequently prefaced by an “i” (pronounced “ee”), the Zulus, for instance, gave to soccer the name “i-football,” and to cricket “i-cricket,” but with golf they were in a conundrum. Therefore, they decided to give it the name they all-too-frequently heard on the course—”i-dammit.”

No lesson learned, save maybe one. Interested in introducing a child to the sport? Invest in a junior set of clubs, and sacrifice $100 for a video taped one-hour local pro lesson—to establish the basics of grip, stance and swing.

The next golf memory originates from Nyanza Club in Kisumu, a city nestled up against Lake Victoria, purportedly the second largest fresh water lake in the world, where I spent my fourth to sixth grades.

My golf skills evidently didn’t increase much, because my older siblings grumbled each time my dad allowed me to accompany “the men,” presumably because the pace of play suffered. One new entertainment addition to the game, though, were spectators! By this I mean local Luo teenagers and young men, who would gather en mass at all water hazards waiting and watching for errant golf balls.

By water I mean mostly the murky, foul-smelling variety. On one particular Back Nine, par three hole, you had to hit over a snaky looking, sewer tainted waterway. In case you’re unfamiliar with the game of golf, players with the highest score each hole hit last at the next hole. Of course, that was always me! As I teed my ball up I heard the usual excited chatter and rustling of feet as all our caddies hastily repositioned themselves, one against the other, so as to be nearest the projected flight path of my almost always miss hit ball.

On that occasion I fooled them all, however. After completing my customary pre-hit swing routine, much like baseball batters nervously do when they spit and tweak their cap, shirt, cleats and private parts prior to the ball being pitched, I finally followed through with a full swing.

Well, I have no recollection of my golf ball’s arc—if it even made it off the tee—but what I do remember is the panic I felt when I saw my 3-wood flying through the air in the direction of the waterway! Ka plump, into the water! Let’s just say that the usual ball finder’s fee went up a few shillings on the particular day.

Lesson learned: Someone is always ready and willing to do someone else’s shitty, dirty work. Do not think of them as less than yourself, for most certainly so too were your forebears in earlier times—and, in this era of globalization, so might you, too, one day.

I laugh as I wrote this remembrance because the incident reminded me of another, unrelated to golf incident that occurred during boarding years at high school—also in Kenya. My dad, best friend (also Scott) and I were bass fishing near a reed bed off a boat in Lake Naivasha, a lake with a healthy population of hippos, when all of a sudden I heard a huge splash. It caused my heart to skip a few beats, not knowing whether a hippo had broken the surface near our boat. LMAO (Facebook lingo), but if it wasn’t Scott jumping in to the lake to quickly retrieve his fishing reel, which had somehow detached from his rod!

From Kenya my family moved to Tanzania, specifically, Moshi, a town at the near base of Mount Kilimanjaro. Golf at Moshi Club was a combination experience: like a pristine and prestigious country club in terms of prime and scenic location, yet pasture and scrubland like in terms of playability—it wasn’t uncommon to have to play around grazing cows and goats.

This course is memorable for two reasons (apart from visible Mount Kilimanjaro). First, it was a newlywed shared experience during a six-month stint between undergraduate and graduate studies, when I was able to introduce my new bride to Africa. And, secondly, for the horrendous play my dad exhibited on one particular par-four hole.

From tee to green he seemed happy playing in the extreme rough (thick grass). Typically he’s a very respectable player, skills wise, but on that occasion he must have swung at and hit the ball ten to fifteen times, each time the ball traveling no more than a few meters forwards—or sideways, it seemed. I don’t think I’ve ever heard my dad curse, but on that occasion he kept mentioning two individuals’ names called Pete and crying-out-loud, as in, “Oh, for Pete’s sake!” and “Oh, for crying out loud!” Anyway, I recall suggesting to him, “Why don’t you just pick your ball up and either play on the green or from the next hole?” His reply: “No, I know it’s (his game) eventually going to get better.”

Lesson learned: There is a sun shining above and behind most dark and dreary clouds. Keep slogging, while simultaneously striving to be conscious and thankful of the gift of life, beauty and relationships that are most certainly around and about you during that difficult period of life.

One final golf remembrance, a links course called Prince’s Grant, situated alongside the Indian Ocean, 70km north of Durban, South Africa, and within minutes of the town of Stanger, where my family and I lived for four years. It’s my understanding that Hugh Baiocchi, a South African professional golfer and winner of twenty-plus U.S./international tournaments, together with his dad, also a golfer of some renown, developed and were part owners of Prince’s Grant.

One sunshine December day my older brother and I were teeing off a stunningly picturesque first hole, a par 4. My brother hit first, and regrettably, from my perspective as contender, split the fairway in half—a very good first shot, given our relative body stiffness that morning. As I teed my ball up and went through the pre-hit motions that attempted to assure any would-be club house guest that I was a competent golfer, I sensed a foreboding presence at my back. Turning, I saw Hugh Baiocchi standing with his arms crossed against his chest on the retaining wall located almost within arm’s reach of our tee. Worse, he was standing and staring at me.

“Never mind, I’ll show him,” I thought to myself—after all I was at that time a relatively self-confident early 30s male! I swung, felt nothing, but looked forward anyway down the fairway path to see where my ball went. Seeing nothing I looked back down at my tee, where the ball was lying inches away on the grass. I had whiffed the ball (hit air). Catching my pride, I quickly turned to Baiocchi and with a smile on my face asked, “Do you give golf lessons?” He replied in his English accent, “You don’t need lessons. You have a good swing, you just need to keep your head down and your eyes on the ball!”

Lesson learned: So many lessons to choose from this experience! Only one, though . . . When you’re young and overconfident it’s easy to think you’re invincible, and that you can contribute to solving many of the world’s problems. And, in each and every place of work you find yourself, there will always be relationships in conflict, with each side clamoring for your input or participation. DON’T!  FLY ABOVE the bickering, backbiting, and baiting. FOCUS: keep your head down and your eyes on your own work responsibilities, and on relating to and treating others as you yourself would appreciate being treated.

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A First Act of Life Was Learning To Walk | Why Have We Forgotten How?

I was Born To Run. At five years of age I was The Flash. Like the gingerbread man who ran away from the farmer’s wife, I recall breaking free from the confinement of a nurse’s home office in Nyeri, Kenya, this, despite people’s restricting grip, and bolting panic-stricken across the lawn, like a young Thompson gazelle pursued turn-for-turn by a cheetah, toward what I perceived to be a sanctuary–a distant dairy shed. Despite playing dead (hiding), as a gazelle might do, eventually I was caught and carried kicking and squirming back to the nurse’s inoculation needle.

Come third grade I ran to impress, showing off my calloused feet and speed by sprinting barefoot round-and-round our family’s crushed quarry stoned driveway in Kisumu (“kiss-a-moo” as my grandmother called it).

From then until high school graduation I ran like the wind of Forrest Gump, obeying his Jenny’s instructions, “If you’re ever in trouble, don’t be brave. You just run, OK? Just run away.” Run I could. Run I did. Despite my young age it seemed I always was the Lone Survivor in the tag/tackle game of American Eagles, and my running athleticism earned me the rugby nickname “shadow dancer.”

Teenage sprints morphed into young adulthood jogs, where I ran non-competitively in mid-to-long distance races.

In young middle age I now occasionally run, but more often walk. If pressed for why I blame my wife (her ailing knees prevent us from jogging together), but truth be told I prefer walking.

Why, you ask?

Partly blame it on life having more problems than I can reasonably manage, accommodate and resolve.

FIRST, walking, unlike running, helps you think on your feet.

As Willard Spiegelman notes in Seven Pleasures: Essays on Happiness, for those of us whose profession has more to do with words and ideas, than motorized giant Caterpillars, sledge hammers, or physical exertion, walking involves and unites “mind, body, and breath (spirit) in a harmonious process that at once releases and excites different kinds of energy.”

Walking, therefore, is an effective prod or facilitator of self-knowledge, meditation and contemplation. In a real sense, walking enables, even encourages self-change, self-revision, self-remake, self-reinvention, and self-modification. In this, Spiegelman is spot on.

Søren Kierkegaard reputedly wrote his niece, “When I have a problem I walk, and walking makes it better. Do not lose your desire to walk; every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

If Kierkegaard felt compelled to instruct his niece on the importance of walking in the early 1800’s, how much more we, who live in so-called developed twenty-first century countries need to be reminded!

During a 2001 academic conference in Geneva, a Scottish colleague’s first, and apparently lasting impression of a recent visit to the West Coast of the United States was how shoppers park in front of one shopping mall entrance, enter, purchase, exit, then drive to others points of the mall versus walk its relatively short length.

Accustomed to motorized transport, we forget that walking used to be our primary means of transportation.

A SECOND reason I now prefer walking over running is that walking offers a combination experience of ordinary plus the unexpected.

Each time I walk in the neighborhood across from my home, which unlike my own adjoins a nearby eco greenbelt, there’s a constancy that combines allure, monotony, and the unexpected.

To date, I’ve discovered about $20, found myself suddenly parallel and within five feet of a skunk on the prowl, come upon a house that was lit up like a bonfire replete with emergency personnel and an entire neighborhood present for what seemed a giant s’mores or weenie cookout, informed a home owner of a large yet harmless snake that crossed the road in front of me and slithered up alongside their house, pitied a young screech-owl that evidently was hit by a passing motorist, seen near collisions of car and deer and witnessed newborn fawns with their mothers, documented neighborhood political rivalry, and seen first-hand the aging and changing demographics of a neighborhood, which mirrors that of our nation.

If I’m able to document these few or more type experiences–from mere one-hour walks, several times per week–how much more of the ebb and flow of life am I, or you, or we, missing out on because we’re speeding past in a motorized “two-ton piece of metal” or entombed within the protective yet insular walls of our own home castles?

The FINAL, perhaps most important reason to become a more frequent, intentional walker, is that “like dancing, walking becomes an exercise in civility.” It results in an increased “inner awareness and an imaginative sympathy with, and for, other people.”

I’m a new participant in Richmond’s Community Trustbuilding Fellowship, a training initiative begun by Initiatives of Change. It’s a five weekend program that develops “community trustbuilders.” A trustbuilder is an individual, like myself, who has a passion for, and receives methodology training in facilitating community dialogue. The objective, as I understand it, is the transformation of communities polarized by race, culture, politics, economics, education and social inequities, into communities of trust, which, then, of course, it is hoped will become more effective in addressing and acting upon symptom and systemic inequities and injustices.

Week Two is entitled “Healing History,” where we’ll take a walk around Richmond. We will retrace the many “slave steps,” in an effort to better understand and develop a sensitive understanding of what life was like for so many enslaved people. But–in the spirit of understanding opposing positions, and facilitating dialogue between polarized communities, we’ll also gain a more appreciative understanding of the “white experience,” often synonymous with “white privilege.”

US Panel 3 HIC (KEG)_0

My doctoral method of study and training in history of religions is phenomenology. Basically, it’s a method of learning that prioritizes awareness, understanding and knowledge acquisition from the underside of history, the ordinary, or “common” person’s perspective versus history’s “victors’ perspective,” which is the narrative of most history textbooks.

In other words, phenomenology requires experiential, personal engagement with the object of one’s study (people of different culture, socioeconomic, political or religious faith) versus mere textbook knowledge, or that acquired from media sources or so-called “experts.”

It’s a transformative method of learning or unlearning, depending upon one’s perspective, because the resulting “relationships of trust” you experience with “different others” not only are informative in terms of knowledge, but also destructive of pre-existing stereotypes, plus, they are self- and other-transformative, in that your/their own life will likely be positively changed simply by experiencing and participating in the life of “the different other.”

SO . . . whatever your profession or life situation, do yourself a favor and become more frequent and intentional in taking walks. Start small. Walk the block. But while you’re walking keep your eyes, ears, mind and heart open. Who knows what or who you might unexpectedly encounter, which might not only change your own life, but contribute collectively to the transformation of your community, and ultimately, one person by one person, the entire world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation – Part 1

People used to smoke (a lot) . . .

I grew up and traveled when international airlines had “Smoking” and “Non-Smoking” sections. At least once, my assigned seat was the row before the smoking section began. If you’re too young to remember that period, imagine how your eyes and nostrils might burn after a trans-Atlantic flight.

I used to smoke . . .

Cigarettes during my 5th grade year (okay, the occasional cigar as an adult, too, particularly on mens’ only, multi-day hikes, where we envisaged ourselves as wannabe-as-tough Bear Gryllses).

My first puffs occurred in the dense and protective cover of Limuru and Tigoni (Kenya) hedges and maize fields. My smoking accomplices (may they never be found out!) and I preferred local Sportsman cigarettes, because they inspired our budding masculinity, their slogan was catchy and cool – “Ni Sawa Hasa!,” and, not least in importance, they were about the cheapest on the market.

sportsman2

I got caught smoking!

One day several Luo friends, my little brother of 3 or 4, and myself were hiding in a large and wild Lantana like bush (the exact name eludes me) situated in an undeveloped expansive area between our house and Lake Victoria. We liked the Lantana like bushes because not only were they secretive and fort-like, similar to corn fields, but you could chew on its minty leaves after smoking, effectively masking our smoking misdeeds.

Foolishly my friends and I decided to light up a single Sportsman. We were sharing it between us when my brother said he wanted to try it. Obviously I said, “no,” to which he smartly (he’s a lawyer now) blackmailed me with, “If you don’t let me I’ll tell dad and mom!”

I suddenly had a brilliant idea. Instead of letting him pull on our cigarette, I lit a match and quickly put it in his mouth. Unfortunately, instead of completely encasing the lit match with his mouth as he should have, effectively snuffing the flame out, and giving him smoke to coolly blow out his mouth and nose like we 5th grade sportsmen were doing, he left his mouth wide open, burning his lip.

He immediately bolted screaming from the bush in the direction of home, and upon arrival did . . . well, you know what! When I arrived home it wasn’t long before my mom informed me that my dad wanted to see me. He was in his wood shop with his protective eye glasses sitting atop his head, and a craftsman pencil wedged between his ear and side of head.

Surprise of surprises! Contrary to my fearful expectations, my dad didn’t verbally or physically launch or lurch at me. Instead he began personally confessing to his own prior smoking habits, and sweetened it by sharing that one or more of my siblings had similarly experimented with smoking. Instead of punishing me, he simply told me that he would not tolerate any more of my hiding and conniving. If I was intent on smoking, so be it, but he insisted I start smoking in public and among friends and family.

Well, wouldn’t you know it! He cured my 5th grade smoking habit! By de-criminalizing my activity, he de-incentivized me from wanting to smoke further.

Years later, and five children of my own, I’m grateful for this early (and wise) parenting lesson. It’s all too tempting as a parent, when your own life stress is near bowing you in half, and your child’s sudden discovered misdeed(s) adds extra strain to life and living, to reactively lash out punitively.

Sometimes that might be necessary and appropriate (the punitive part; not the lashing out). Many more times, however, it seems more productive to take a moment and share your own personal struggles and mistakes, thereby decriminalizing and de-stigmatizing your child’s mistakes.

As with my own smoking experiment, a calm and measured response just might provide your child with a new felt sense of self-worth and a nurturing seedbed for re-engaging life and its challenges, rather than a big, fat branded “L” on the forehead.

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My (white) Response to Trayvon & Family’s Experienced Indignities | An Appeal for Primal Empathy

Conflict resolution specialist, Donna Hicks, argues in Dignity: It’s Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, that it’s easier to name experiences and feelings of dignity and indignity, than it is to define the word itself. This, in part, because we are “feeling beings,” who live and experience life through our five senses.

Assuming she’s right . . . What about you?

Can you remember occasions when you felt your dignity was violated?

Can you recall occasions when you violated someone else’s dignity?

In response to the Trayvon Martin jury verdict and the nationwide emotional outcries it has and continues to provoke, President Obama shared two personal examples of his own dignity being violated. He recounted being followed on suspicion of theft (or anticipated theft) while shopping, and hearing car doors being locked in fear as he simply crossed the street in the direction of parked motorists.

If we define dignity, as Hicks does, as a birthright, accompanied by feelings of inherent value and worth. And, if we define indignity as feelings of insignificance and worthlessness, then we might agree that shaming is one of the most common, unthoughtful, and insensitive acts against our fellow humanity, and the taking of an innocent life as the most abhorrent, tragic and emotionally wrenching.

A personal experience of indignity . . .

When I was in the 4th grade I attended a government school in Kisumu, Kenya. I was one of only two white expat kids, in an otherwise all black and brown (Asian Indian) school. Of the two whites, I was the outgoing, athletic type, and my counterpart might today be pegged as a member of the Geek Squad, yet who has the last laugh because he owns a Fortune 5000 company.

Despite my father obtaining a Master’s in math, little of his genes or self-confidence in math were passed down to me. Math has always been associated with shame inducing memories, only one of which I share.

A shame-inducing experience that resulted in me leaving the Kisumu school came about because I was cheating. I don’t remember who I cheated from, but I do recall trading many dime-a-dozen, Paper Mate medium tip blue ballpoint disposable pens for homework help. One day my Kenya teacher found me out, not for cheating, but simply for having no competency in following his instructions for an in-class assignment.

Whether he was exercising his then sanctioned authority as teacher to administer corporal punishment, or more likely in my opinion, using this opportune moment to “get back at” a perceived white colonizer’s son (Kenya obtained its independence only 7 years prior), I’ll never know.

I only remember that he grabbed my left ear, violently wrenching/twisting and lifting me out of my seat by it, then slapped my face with his large, open-palm, turning my cheek a bright ruddy complexion, and then roughly escorted me – dragged is more like it – down to the front of the class, where he scolded me before my classmates, then leaned me over his desk and gave my young white derriere a number of heavy whacks with a ready-at-hand and seasoned non-willow-like stick.

Years later . . .

My freshman year at Baylor University, I participated in violating someone’s dignity simply because I didn’t have the courage to act on what I knew was the right and decent thing to do.

Although all on-campus cafeterias are co-ed, I usually ate at Penland Hall’s cafeteria, a guy’s dorm. Several of the cafeteria staff were mentally challenged, and on this particular occasion a young white woman was pushing a cart loaded down with dirty dishes. Suddenly, there was a deafening din of falling and breaking dishes just 10 feet from where I sat. My head shot up. Actually all heads shot up.

The prior loudness of student voices and laughter contrasted with the punctuated stillness of stares in the direction of this young and challenged woman, who immediately turned beet red and dropped to her knees in an attempt to gather up and salvage the many broken and scattered dishes and food remnants.  The silence lasted only for a moment before students began to snicker and laugh and whisper unkind and insensitive remarks.

I remember feeling emotionally torn. I didn’t have the self-worth and confidence to identify myself with the mess or the mentally challenged girl’s predicament, nor did I disparage her by unkind words or laughter either.

I simply disregarded her humanity through my inaction, saying and doing nothing. I sat there and watched as one Baylor student got down on his hands and knees beside this embarrassed and shamed young woman, and helped her clean the mess up, impervious to what anyone might think or say of his actions.

You see, my evolutionary and innate self-protective instincts were in full operation that noon meal. Fearing ridicule by association I fought the impulse to demonstrate kindness, and instead chose to isolate myself versus connect with this young woman.

Hicks observes that “We might have entered the world with strong self-protective instincts, but we did not enter the world with an awareness of how much we hurt one another in the course of our own defense. Awareness requires self-understanding and acceptance. It requires work. . . .

Holding up the mirror and taking an honest look at what we have done requires more than instincts. We have to tap into the part of us that has the capacity to self-reflect. We already have inherent dignity. We just need to learn how to act like it.”

Desmond Tutu wrote something to the effect that “Only when we begin to care about each other’s dead and dying will we begin to act like and experience being a (global) family.”

Hicks similarly observes . . .

If we are to achieve greater worldwide peace and become in some shape or form a conciliatory community, nation, even global family, then it will require a “developmental shift in understanding”; from an egocentric to ‘other’ point of view; from a mere cognitive understanding to a “primal empathy” (aka, emotional identification), “a feeling of what happens to them.”

Charles M. Blow, in Barack and Trayvon, states, “Only when the burden of bias is shared —  only when we can empathize with the feelings of “the other” — can we move beyond injury to healing.”

In Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Emerson and Smith observe that –

“The social categories we develop are more than convenient groupings of individuals that simplify the actual diversities among the people we observe and encounter.  They are also categories that can bias the way we process information, organize and store it in memory, and make judgments about members of those social categories. . . . The manner of, the language used, and the persistency of our customary portrayal of people results in a corresponding thought, speech and action toward the ‘Different Other.’

As a WASPM (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, male), I do not write to disparage my/our own sense of “white identity,” yet appeal to millions of us – women, included – to risk a momentary vulnerability and feeling of self-loss, in order to connect emotionally with the millions, whose life histories and stories were by no choice or fault of their own unprivileged to be on history’s victor side of socio-economic and political power.

Resist allowing your innate reaction to perceived social threat to be a self-protective one of “fight,” “flee,” or isolate and alienate yourself from the kaleidoscope of racial, economic, religious and linguistic diversity in our country.

Rather, risk a moment to listen to and hear the other’s life stories. Story – such as one person’s introduction to her own story below – has the transformative capacity to disarm anger and resentment, and to engender empathy, understanding, and ultimately resolution of conflicts.

I want to tell you about me in a way that you can hear, so my story will pique your curiosity, if not your compassion, about me and what my life is like. I want you to see me as a human being with the same dignity that’s in you.

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The Devolution of Children’s Development | A Call for (healthy) Boredom

Women’s rights have rightfully progressed since the days and era when even cigarette brands, like Virginia Slims, based their marketing on a then male-dominant social context; popularizing the slogan, “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby.”

VASlims

Regrettably, I don’t think we can unequivocally say the same about children’s developmental progress, particularly in terms of play and interpersonal.

Listen, I’m not suggesting kids are less intelligent today than previous periods. And, certainly, when looking back on history to periods in which “children were to be seen but not heard from,” they, like women, have attained many long-overdue rights and protections.

Rather, what I’m suggesting is this:

Today’s children (North American, at least) seldom experience what I call “healthy boredom”; a type and degree of inactivity that encourages and facilitates creative and imaginative play; voracious reading; friendships with heretofore unknown neighbors, and down time with siblings and parents that often evolves into reminiscing and unrestrained laughter.

Look, this isn’t a researched critique of 21st century life, such as, “technology’s effect on children” (although merely google that and you’ll find 1 million-plus links to expert perspectives on the subject, including “Antisocial Networking?,” “Wired Kids, Negligent Parents?,” or How Technology is Affecting the Way Children Think and Focus.“), but rather, a personal perspective based on a recent cursory trip down memory lane, and a “trip” through my iPhoto folder.

If you’ve read my “About” you know that I grew up in East Africa. That, plus my 40-ish age translates to a childhood void for the most part of typically American childhood experiences such as TV, Six Flags Over Texas and Wet-N-Wild type amusement parks, non-stop sporting events, plus, in the so-called Bible Belt, weekends and summers filled with church and mission activities/trips.

Most of my childhood consisted of post-colonial Kenya experiences. This included the typically European and tourist varieties, such as tented safari, but gratefully, a predominance of local activities with indigenous friends as well.

So, for instance, my recollections of childhood include:

*In Nyeri (near Mount Kenya), herding small herds (5 to 25 animals) of foraging cows, goats and sheep alongside Kikuyu boys. I remember being near-obsessed with the long sticks the herd boys used, and hoarding a stash of herding sticks. For this blog’s relevance: It was boredom that drove me out of my house and to our 1-acre property boundary, where I initiated contact and friendship with passerby herd boys.

*My four years in Kisumu, a town bordering Lake Victoria, were the most formative ones for me; especially in terms of how fun-filled a “boring” life could be.

I slingshotted and fished with nets for Tilapia alongside my Luo friends (see Fly Fishing for Sheep and Slingshotting for ‘Ndeges’). We frequently played “Cops and Robbers” with my assortment of toy cap guns. One group would hide and the other would count to 100. The “counters” then shouted in Luo “wathe?” (ready?), to which frequently came the reply “podi” (not yet!).

A favorite game my Luo friends taught me I’ll call “bottle cap car racing.” It cost and utilized nothing more than discarded bottle caps from glass soda/beer bottles. We each found and jealously guarded (sometimes trading) our own collection of Fanta Orange, Coke, Sprite and even Tusker beer bottle caps. We made them “road and race worthy” by eliminating any unsightly dents or bulges by gentle hammering, and then rubbing them vigorously against a coarse, sandpaper-like surface. This made them smooth, slippery, and crazy fast.

We created “race tracks” of curves, banks and bumps in our gravel driveway by means of placing two hands together – much as you might to create a silhouette butterfly impression on a white wall – placing them palm down on the gravel, and with bulldozer maneuver pushing them along and through the gravel, thereby forming a 6 to 8-inch wide bottle cap race track. The caps “raced” by flick of the fingers propulsion (middle finger flicking out and away from the thumb). Like any game, you incurred penalty. For example, if your bottle cap flew outside the race track, or you hit another racer.

Other remembered (and memorable) collective activities motivated by periods of “boredom” from this period of life include making wire rally cars, replete with battery-powered headlamps (flashlight bulbs), gear shifts, and rubberized steering wheels.

A wire car similar to those my friends and I made.  Borrowed from arteilimitada2011.blogspot.com

A wire car similar to those my friends and I made. Borrowed from arteilimitada2011.blogspot.com

Also, making a two-room, A-frame structure of sticks in my family’s backyard. Finding large stacks of field grass (aka, grass thatch), securing them tightly to our stick structure to prevent rain seepage, and then overnighted with my Luo friends in “our house.”

*During high school we lived in Musoma, Tanzania for one year. I have to admit, finding meaning in boredom in a small, out-of-the-way lakeside town was a real challenge. Nevertheless, a fond memory from this brief and boring residence was sitting outside on a quilt with my parents and younger brother (and 2 dogs), and looking up at the near pitch-black, yet star-studded night sky and searching for the many crisscrossing satellites.

My walk down “boring” memory lane road spontaneously occurred this past week, when I came across select pictures of my own children, likewise exhibiting “boring” life moments. So “boring” that there’s seldom a week that passes, in which one or all three of my younger kids say something like, “I miss (South) Africa! I wish we still lived there.” See the following photographic evidence of the deprived long-term effects of no TV, no iPad, no Nintendo, no non-stop activities et cetera –

Foot race in a dry riverbed, alongside elephant dung!

Foot race in a dry riverbed, alongside elephant dung!

Free falling off a large riverbed rock.

Free falling off a large riverbed rock.

My youngest playing "office" on a broken iMac consigned to the garage.

Playing “office” on a broken iMac consigned to the garage.

Did you ever imagine an office chair with wheels could be so fun?

Did you ever imagine an office chair with wheels could be so fun?

Imaginative creation of a zoo in the "desert"

Imaginative creation of a zoo in the “desert”

I wish for you and yours the pleasures and longterm benefits of “boredom”!

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Till We (All) Have Faces

I wish it were possible to somehow insert an additional line into Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech –

“I have a dream that one day we will be a nation and communities of faces.”

A New York City speaker at a 2003 conference in Fort Worth, Texas, was asked if anything positive came from 9/11.  His response resonated with me.  He replied that if anything good came from 9/11, it was this:

For the first time ever, New York City’s 8 million residents became a “city with faces”—referencing the pictorial wall of remembrance, in which pictures of some of the 2,977 victims from more than 90 countries were posted by grieving friends and family members.

A collage of 9/11 victims' faces.

A collage of 9/11 victims’ faces.

I’ve thought a lot about faces and memories of faces since that evening.

As a child, church was seldom an option for me and my siblings. Living in Kenya this frequently meant we attended a remote, mud-bricked and mabati (tin) roofed church.

In early 70’s Kenya, particularly in rural areas, black-white encounters were still relatively uncommon.  As a young boy, who would rather be fishing or playing ball, it was bad enough I had to attend an hours’ long service.  Time was made worse by Kenyan children’s intense curiosity with my white person’s hair and skin.

Typically my parents would allow my siblings and me to leave mid-service and either play outside or sit in the car and read a book.  Sitting in the car was a reprieve from listening to long, Swahili-Luo translated sermons, but it came with a price – persistent children’s faces, often streaked with snot and pestering flies, pressed against the car’s window, and when left partially open for air, young black arms sneaking in for quick touches, squeezes, followed by giggles.

An Afghan child looking into a car

An Afghan child looking into a car

These many years later I sometimes wonder why that bothered me so?  After all, my best friends back home in the town of Kisumu were Oginga and Ogoro – Luo boys, themselves.

Were the frequently un-wiped noses and bloated malnourished stomachs simply too much of a discomfiture for an 10 or 11-year-old boy? Would my discomfort be mediated had I known their names and shared more in common with their lives? Would I have been as bothered if they were young white arms reaching in? Perhaps it was the proximity of these young faces.  They were within easy arm-reach, too close for comfort.  Too intimate.

I don’t know if it’s “natural” or not – it is disrespectful and shameful – but have you noticed how people of one race tend to view people of another race in a one-size, “all look-alike” category?  That is – among whites, anyway, it’s quite common to hear the following type comments about Asians, for instance: “I can’t easily tell them apart! They all look so alike.” or “I just call them by their ‘English names’ because their mother tongue names are too difficult to remember, let alone pronounce.”

During my post-graduate research I came across the story of a white Union army commander, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was assigned the task of leading an all-black regiment.  He confessed that initially he was unable to distinguish the soldiers from each other, yet “as one grows more acquainted with the men, their individualities emerge; and I find first their faces, then their characters, to be as distinct as those of whites.”

black soldiers

Similarly, an American missionary woman, Carrie L. Goodenough, stated of the Zulus in a letter of 1883 from Natal, South Africa, “At first I thought their faces all looked alike, but I see difference now, both in features and expression; and after one is accustomed to the Zulu type of features, many of the faces are really pleasing.”

Culture and media have combined to promote a sense that beauty is outward.

What about the many, however, who are born without a model or actor’s face, or even worse, perhaps, born with an attractive face and it’s then yanked away by an act of violence or disease?  Many U.S. soldiers have experienced acute facial disfigurement due to IEDs.

One publicized example of disfigurement is Charla Nash, a 56-year-old single mother, who, several years ago, went to help a friend contain a pet chimpanzee and ended up having her face and hands ripped off.  She later underwent a complete facial transplant.

ap_charla_nash_jp_120628_wblog

I just googled “the wonders of the face” and got nothing, zero.  Just a listing of links to various “wonders,” including the seven wonders of the world, the seven wonders of Egypt, wonders of Africa, et cetera.

Doesn’t anyone but me think the face should be classified as an eighth wonder of the world – even those disfigured?

I realize the face is quite daunting and intimidating if you prefer to live a life void of intimacy, which men, in particular, might opt for (but only as an act of bravado). Men such as Tommy Lee Jones’s character “Arnold” in the movie Hope Springs; the story of a 31-year marriage in an acute state of disrepair.

Arnold and Kay (Meryl Streep) sleep in separate bedrooms. They tell their last-ditch, marriage saving therapist, Steve Carell, that they last had sex five years back.  Carell assigns them homework, one of which being to have sex.

It’s painful to watch, but eventually lying on a rug beside a crackling fire they almost succeed in culminating a rekindled passion.  Unfortunately the moment and mood is spoilt by Arnold’s inability and unwillingness to look directly into his wife’s eyes and face while making love – apparently a long-held, intimacy avoiding trait, which is almost the undoing of their marriage.

I simply felt like drawing attention to “faces” today.  I don’t know what your particular “take away” will be from this blog, if anything, but I hope you risk looking more deeply and intimately at and into the faces of friends, family, and even day-to-day acquaintances, whether it’s the check-out person at your local grocer, your librarian, teacher, colleague, even that person who frustrates you to the 100th degree.

Perhaps like Arnold, if you persist in trying and looking into the faces of those within your concentric circles of relationships, you’ll experience a newfound, even heightened sense of respect and appreciation for the others in your life – maybe even call them by name.

 

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Breast-Feeding, Elephant Ears, and Basking Lizards | Meanderings of an American-African Mind

The mind is an amazing thing.

Do you know what I mean?

One minute you’re sitting alone or with others, thinking or discussing one thing or the other, and the next thing you know a random, sub-conscious word, thought or optical image diverts your thought processes to what appears on the surface to be an absurdly different topic altogether.

A case in point:

It’s a sunny yet relatively “cold” day today in Austin – high of 61F.  I’ve placed my seedling tray of tomato plants just behind our all-glass front door, so they will capture the light and warmth of the sun.  As I bent over to position them in full sunlight, I felt the morning sun’s warmth refracted through the door and on to my face, neck and arms.  The warmth and its soothing sensation, combined a moment later with the pleasured taste of a Starbuck’s Americano, drunk while sitting and looking out on an awakening neighborhood, somehow combined to trigger distant yet still close-at-hand memories.

I remember numerous happy childhood days at Kisumu’s Nyanza Club swimming pool, particularly, how good it felt (and feels) climbing out of cold water, then immediately lying face down on a sun-warmed border of the pool. 

From 3rd Wimpy Kid Movie

Diary of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

Do you have similar recollections? Can you feel even as you read these words the sun warming your cold body, head to toes?  

This remembrance somehow linked to and triggered in my mind an idiomatic Venda expression for “I need to go to the toilet,” of which, the relevance to water and sun will soon be evident.

One day I asked my Venda tutor, “How do I tell someone, ‘Please excuse me, I need to go to the toilet?'” He thought a minute then replied, “In formal Venda you simply say, ‘Ndi khou toda u di thusa,’ which simply translates ‘I need to help myself.'”  But, he said, “If you want to speak ‘deep Venda’ then you can say, ‘Ndi khou toda u kumbedza tswina,’ which roughly translates ‘I need to blind a lizard.'”

lizard

As you likely are doing now, I chuckled, yet think about its contextual accuracy.  Most Venda people still rely on foot power and foot paths.  Distances are quite far, and if you’ve traveled abroad, you know that relieving oneself outdoors seldom conveys any similar degree of uncouthness as it does in the United States. Given Venda’s proximity to the Tropic of Capricorn, imagine that it’s a 39-degree Celsius day. You’re walking along a foot path when morning tea catches up with you.  You stop to relieve yourself in the shelter of a rocky and sparsely vegetated hill, and lying just before you is a basking lizard!

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Regrettably, all language lessons were not that painless.

The most embarrassingly painful Venda language learning remembrance for my wife and me was over the simplest and most frequently used daily expression – “hello.”

Our mistake?  Young when we arrived in South Africa, we asked an older – you would think more informed – white colleague how to greet, instead of asking someone from Venda.  As our colleague drove us to Venda from Johannesburg, a then six-hour drive, he told us, “Oh, it’s easy.  If it’s a man you say ‘Ndaa’ (masculine tone). If it’s a woman you say, ‘Aaah’ (feminine tone).”  So for the first few weeks, if not months, every man and every woman we greeted with either an “Ndaa” or “Aaah.”  Regrettably, what our colleague neglected to tell us is that only men greet with “Ndaa” and only women greet with “Aaah.”

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

We each received many strange and smiled looks when we greeted people.

My most painful related remembrance is of a woman I gave a lift to.  As she entered my bakkie (equivalent to a pick-up truck), I articulated in my most feminine tone and pitch, “Aaa!”  She must have been desperate for a ride, because rather than leaping out the window, she chose to remain with this seemingly crazed white taxi driver.

My wife’s faux pas was more painful, perhaps.  Soon after our arrival in Venda there was a peaceful coup, and our immediate neighbor in Block G, Thohoyandou (=head of the elephant), a general in Venda’s “air force,” Gabriel Ramushwana became president.  Rather then relocate from Block G to the substantial presidential compound situated mid-point between Thohoyandou and the white suburb of Sibasa on the hill, he chose to live with and among his people (there’s a lesson in there for all current and want-to-be politicians).

It wasn’t long, then, before the president’s yard was fitted with razor wire and a 24-hour military presence, much to our young son’s pleasure.  As President Ramushwana was exiting his premises one morning, and my wife was simultaneously closing our gate, she greeted him properly through his open car window.  It caused him to stop and respond kindly, “I see you’ve learned to greet properly in Venda!”

SA's 9 provinces & a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

South Africa’s nine provinces and a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

An important thing you should know about many, if not most of South Africa’s eleven official languages. They are tonal. Practically, this means one word can have multiple meanings depending upon tone and inflection. An example in Venda: “thoho” can communicate either “head” or “monkey.”

Vervet monkey

Vervet monkey

A personal example of a language miscue related to tone and inflection: It was a hot summer day, and as I arrived at my meeting destination a group of Venda ladies were sitting under a large shade tree.  We exchanged greetings, after which one of the group said something incoherent to me.  I attempted to say, “I didn’t hear well or clearly.” They all immediately yet politely stifled laughter, which, of course, told me my language effort failed miserably.  One of the ladies rose to her feet, walked over to me, and politely told me, “You have just told us that you have big ears like an elephant!”

censoredbreastfeed

A more U.S./European view of breast-feeding – taboo

Speaking of women and language learning . . . my mind again, as if it operates independently from intentional thought, skipped to a different page of memories.  This time a page of memories related to two breast-feeding incidents. Breasts and breast-feeding are viewed in wholesome (pure) and healthy terms in Venda, as in most parts Africa.

African woman breast feeding

African woman breast-feeding

Our arrival in Block G, Thohoyandou, Venda in early November, 1989, caused quite a stir, I’m certain.  The reason being: South Africa, even its so-called “independent” black homelands, existed within a canopy of legislated segregation or apartheid. It was more scandalous than normal for races to mix.  Yet here we were a young, white couple setting up home in what was effectively a new “black housing development.”  Within days of arrival, welcoming guests arrived at our front gate, including two pastors of local churches and their wives – one of whom, had recently given birth.

My wife quickly learned the cultural role of providing “tea” and some form of “pudding” (sweet pastry).  Midway through their visit, the one pastor’s wife decided it was time to feed her newborn.  This was no big event, except for two complicating factors:  In likely her first-ever visit to a white person’s house she had worn her best dress, which was beautiful, yet impractical for nursing purposes, in that, the neck of the dress extended up near her clavicle, making “breast extraction” near impossible.  Secondly, she was a very buxom woman.  These factors did not deter her from trying, though – and repeatedly so!  Given that we all were sharing a small living room space, her efforts and failures became increasingly pronounced as time went on.  Much to all of our relief, I’m sure, the senior pastor finally voiced our discomfiture and what was evident to all of us – “Shame, she’s having trouble getting the pipe out.”

A final humorous story related to language and breast-feeding.  My wife grew up in the Dominican Republic, and is fluent in Spanish (and German).  Inspired by a college professor, she chose – actually, we chose – to raise all five of our children bilingual.  Upon arrival in Venda our eldest, a boy, was a year old.  After two years living in Venda and among the Venda people, he had learned a lot, but also “absorbed” a lot – specifically, the reality that many infants and small children received milk from their mothers’ breasts.

One evening we invited an elderly American couple over for dinner.  They were assisting in the management of a relief project at the time.  She, like the pastor’s wife, was quite a buxom woman, and sitting immediately to the right of my son at the dining table, he couldn’t help but notice.  Given the sights and cultural experiences he had absorbed to that point, he very innocently verbalized midway through dinner to my wife – fortunately in Spanish – “Does she have milk?”  It was obviously a moment of great discomfiture for my wife, but fortunately an anonymously embarrassing moment, which today we remember with great laughter.

Concluding thought: 

Meandering minds and their on-the-surface incoherent and dissonant linkages with past memories and associations frequently result in fond and kind remembrances of happier and simpler periods, events and relationships in life, which if we’ll allow them, just might warm up, encourage, what to that point in time or day we might tend to label as struggle, despondency, heartache or melancholy.

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