Wednesday, July 28, 2010

African Stations of the Cross

Stations One - Four

Kanisa la Yesu Kristu Mkombozi [Jesus Christ the Redeemer church], Magomeni neighborhood of Mtwara. -Earl

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Two Worlds, Revolving Independently

"... it was like living in one world while another co-existed, but the two scarcely ever meshed. Sometimes, when Tilly made a cake, she let me use the beater, which had a red handle that you turned. The two arms of the beater whirled round independently and never touched, so that perhaps one arm never knew the other was there; yet they were together, turned by the same handle, and the cake was mixed by both. I did not think of it at the time, but afterwards it struck me that this was rather how our two worlds revolved side by side." The Flame Trees of Thika, Elspeth Huxley

Elspeth Huxley grew up in the countryside of Kenya in the early twentieth century on a farm settled by her English parents. They employed Africans, went to a local chief to intervene in problems and disputes, and otherwise lived amongst the native peoples. I love the metaphor of two arms of a mixer that are closely intertwined yet not touching.

There is a little market area just down the road from our home. Along a row of simple wooden kiosks and tiny "shops" I am able to buy items such as eggs, rice, beans, sugar, salt, matches, cookies, and cellphone vouchers(!). Across the way in the open dirt women set up tables with fruit and fried fish. Some sit on the ground behind boxes displaying cassava french fries. They seem to be there all day. I make my rounds, picking up whatever is on the list this time. I speak enough Swahili to make purchases, but not enough to have a free-form conversation. I walk home, receiving, as usual, stares from some Tanzanians, for whom a non-black person is such a novelty.

Returning home I boot up our laptop computer and enter expenses into a spreadsheet. Since the computer is on, I connect to the Internet. An email from a relative in California informs me that the book I ordered on arrived and will be sent on to me. I read an article on the New York Times website about the psychological effects of long-term joblessness on many Americans. Dinner that evening consists of pasta salad with avocado and cucumber. The pasta was boiled in water purified by our Swiss-made water filter. We start a game of Scrabble, playing obscure unheard-of English words that are only found in the Scrabble dictionary.

Nearby, in another of the buildings on the grounds of the church where we live, the choir is practicing. We can hear very clearly their beautiful Swahili voices. Some of the songs are familiar from liturgies back home. Others sound distinctly African in rhythm and melody.

Do the arms of the mixer brush against each other from time to time? Is real contact possible?


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Pudding Spoons and Forks

"It was remarkable to think how different were Kikuyu lives from our own, and surprising that they found our ways wholly arbitrary, and forgot that salt, mustards, and pepper pots should all be grouped together in two clusters on the table, and that pudding spoons should point in one direction and forks in another. Europeans rarely questioned their own customs; what they did was right and civilized, what others did was savage and stupid. No doubt all people think like this about their own habits. The Kikuyu probably accounted for most of ours as a form of magic." From The Mottled Lizard, by Elspeth Huxley
One could apply Elspeth Huxley's observation to many facets of life but those do include table manners and eating customs.

Growing up in a Chinese immigrant family I was not exposed to a formal Western meal until I was a senior in high school attending a dinner for scholarship applicants at the upscale Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. I still recall vividly the confusion, awkwardness, and embarrassment I felt at facing an array of forks, knives, and spoons that I had no idea what to do with. On that occasion, from a certain perspective, I could have been regarded as rather uncivilized and stupid.

In Tanzania it's very common to eat with your hands, no cutlery required. That being the case, it's also expected to wash your hands before eating. In homes and in some restaurants someone will bring water, soap, and a washbasin to each guest, both before and after the meal. Then there is the custom of using your right hand only, avoiding the left hand as much as possible. This is due to the left hand being seen as unclean, which is very literally true if it is used for certain, ahem, bodily functions.

I don't really like to eat with my hands. Doing so is fine for some foods such as sandwiches, cookies, and many kinds of dim sum. But if the food is at all wet, gooey, or oily, I immediately feel like my hands are messy and dirty. Really, the only sensible way to eat is with chopsticks. However, they require a magical dexterity that people beyond the pale acquire with difficulty.

[The photo is of our colleague Geofrey having lunch in the teachers' room. He is eating beans, greens, and ugali, a doughy staple made from corn meal.]