Kenyapost 8The following was written en route from Nairobi and London, 36,000 feet above the Sahara Desert, when I had some time on my hands. 15 hours later, as I moved through passport security at Newark Airport, the passport officer asked me what I was doing in Kenya. “Conference” I replied. “What I kind of conference?” he asked. “A Quaker conference,” I said. “Quakers?” he asked in a think New York City accent, “you mean like real Quakers? I didn’t know they still existed. Welcome home, buddy.” Indeed, friend.
On the day I arrived at Kabarak University, bleary, jet-lagged and pissed about my suitcase, I stood in a line at Bogoria Dormitory to get my room assignment. As the attendant handed me the key he also handed me a roll of toilet paper and a very small bar of soap wrapped in bright red wrapping. These are odd party favors, I thought. My friend Jada later told me she thought the soaps were chocolates and went back for seconds. Then I had my encounter with the squat-toilet and the cold water shower and I understood. There were two things I found indispensable as I roamed around Kabarak University: toilet paper and my Bible.
I bring this up because more the once it occurred to me at the conference that the two “flash points” for me and some other Friends there had to to do with the human body: the toilets and sexuality. These are the two most intimate and vulnerable aspects of ourselves, the most private. No wonder then, when one receives a shock in either territory, one reacts with alarm. As I slowly softened and submitted to being in Africa, I became aware of a curious duality around the human body there, and the way we and our hosts relate to it. The Kenyans, at least the Quaker Kenyans we were mingled with, dress up. The men who are over twenty-five or so wear suits (not jackets and ties, suits). It is a very western look. The women wear long dresses, some western, some Kenyan. But they are instantly physical in their affection (if it is same-gender affection, ironically), throwing their arms around you, holding your elbow as you walk, slapping you playfully on the back. Men frequently hold hands as they walk around campus in discussion. So the formality of the dress is in contrast to the informality of their friendship. The body is covered and there is a modesty about it in public. Yet there is no deodorant worn. I became more and more aware of my own aroma as the days passed without a change of clothes, as I became more aware of all the human aromas around me. What we in the west call “body odor” is simply part of the atmosphere in Kenya, and by the end of that first week, I would pass people on the stairs and be able to differentiate unique body smells. Let me stress that I did not find this an unpleasant experience, in fact I became curious about it.
The bathroom I have complained so much about smelled like a sewer – there’s no other way to describe it, and that was unpleasant. Sometimes the toilets wouldn’t flush, and the men peed into a trough at the far end of the washroom. This trough did not have a regular run of water through it. You get the idea. And here is where the duality lies. As modest in dress as the Kenyans are, they are frank about the body and its functions. Much to my surprise I discovered that my hallway was co-ed, and several times found myself with my back to the front door of that bathroom, relieving myself, as a bored looking Kenyan woman came in and went into one of the stalls.
This has led to a query which I have been rolling around with friends from the conference and in my own mind: what is “Kenyan”? I realized the longer I was in Kenya that there were layers of applied western behaviors adopted by the Kenyans, which perhaps obscured what was really “Kenyan” about them. Then there’s the basic truth that “Kenya” itself is a nearly random concept, as are most of the African nations, having little or nothing to do with the tribal boundaries that preceded the colonial occupations beginning in the 18th century. As I sat with my gay British friend on the last day, we reflected on the controversies at the conference and our shared drama of our home group. Being identified as gay can get you killed in Kenya, never mind thrown in jail. “It’s our own damn fault,” he said, “we came here two hundred years ago and told them all to put on some clothes and read the Bible as holy writ. Now here we come telling them gay sex is okay and the Bible is full of stories.” Without a doubt, we are sewing the seeds of our own colonial and missionary misadventures.
I believe that “Kenyan” lies neither in the adopted Biblical fundamentalism I witnessed, nor in the formal suits and dresses, nor, in fact, in the squat-toilets and body odor. It feels to me that “Kenyan” is revealed in Cornelius’ willingness bear with me as I freaked out about my bag, Kennedy’s wide smile, easy laugh and innate intelligence and ambition, and in the warm embraces I received from the female pastors in my home group. “Kenyan” feels to me to be most about that cheerful and outgoing quality I have described before, the quality which led John (an accomplished Kenyan academic who speaks five languages) to rehearse and then perform our adaptation of ”Who’s On First” with me with great aplomb.
But “Kenyan” is also revealed in a tribal gerontocracy, in which the oldest person in the room instantly has the most authority. This tribal gerontocracy is the actual source, I think, of the the issues around sexuality and other kinds of behavior. But sexuality is only one extreme manifestation of it. I learned that the Kenyans were as surprised by the deference we give to our young people as by anything else we westerners brought to the conference. It was widely noted that Noah Baker Merrill was young by Kenyan standards to be giving such a prominent speech. But many Kenyans I spoke to loved what he had to say. I heard several reports from other home groups about Kenyans being grateful for this display of youthful ministry.
Perhaps “Kenyan” is just another label, as misleading as all the rest. As I sat outside the auditorium on a gorgeous day towards the end of the conference, I found myself chatting with Noah and some other friends. I looked up at him mischievously. “Hey Noah,” I said quietly, “I think I may be a Conservative Friend, don’t tell anyone, okay?” He smiled and nodded. The truth is, I maintain my distaste for these disclaiming categories we put in front of the word Friend when describing ourselves: Liberal, Conservative, Programmed, Unprogrammed, Evangelical, Universalist, Christocentric, etc. I dislike them because they put our human differences before the holy unity which comforts and caresses us. It was that holy unity which was ultimately triumphant at this gathering, and not the differences. Our last two days together – as we mended our wounds and tended to each other’s distress – and our final celebration, are testimony to this truth.
Let us not ignore what matters to us as Friends in an attempt to get along better. Being a Friend has always meant walking gently into the difficult conversation when the rest of the world sticks its fingers in its ears and sings la-la-la. But let us remember that we are Friends first, not “liberals” or “conservatives” or “whatevers”. I admire a political movement in the U.S. called “No Labels”. I live for that movement to wash across Friends the world over.
As I packed on the final day, I found myself alone in the small room with my roommate, the Kenyan Pastor Henry. More than once, I had reflected upon the difference between our two desks which sat side by side. Mine accumulated mounds of clutter and stuff. His was spare and neat. This had something to say to me about being an American. We were packing at the same time, and of course he was finished when I was only halfway through. I felt a small shame as he stood quietly watching me jam all my stuff in to my suitcase. What’s he waiting for? I wondered. A couple of times I stood and paused, giving him an opening to extend a hand and say goodbye. I gave him one of my posters, inscribing it to him in loving terms, thinking maybe this was the moment he was waiting for – the gift exchange. But he just smiled back at me and said thank you, taking several other posters for his church. We exchanged pleasantries as I finished packing.
I stood up from my zipped-up suitcase, sweat beading up on my forehead and looked at him. “Benjamin,” he said, “can we pray together?” I moved in close to him, clasped my hands in front of me at my waist and bowed my head. “Dear Lord Jesus,” he began, “thank you for bringing my friend Benjamin and me together, and be with him Lord as he travels back to his home. Thank you Lord for all the blessings you have showered on us on this conference, and help us to to serve you oh Lord, as we go to our homes and communities. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”
How have I been transformed? Years ago, a moment like that would have been almost intolerably embarrassing. Today, I regard it as one of the most special moments of my time at Kabarak, and I cherish it and Henry in my heart. I hope I am never too “liberal” or “unprogrammed” to accept the kind of grace Henry offered me that day. I hope I have the faith to say to someone I love sometime, someone who I know can take it, someone at the precipice of a long journey or a big decision: can we pray together?
This is a true story: at Christmas this year, I was given a wonderful gift by my sister-in-law. It was a kit to participate in a genealogy project operated by the National Geographic Society. It contained a small scraper, some vials with a clear solution in them, and instructions on how to collect a DNA sample from the inside of your cheek, then send it off in a padded envelope to the lab for evaluation. I selected the box asking to learn about my paternal line, and the project promised to show, when I finally got the results, where the father of all my fathers came from.
A month ago, I got the results. Sixty thousand years ago, the father of all my fathers was born in the Rift Valley in what is now Kenya. My ancestors then headed north, then east across the Arabian peninsula. About 30,000 years ago they ran into the mountains of Pakistan and turned left. Then they spent a lot of time hunting game on the Russian steppe before turning left again and arriving, about 10,000 years ago in what is now Europe, wiping out the Neanderthals and becoming the genealogical base for 90% of all men of European descent currently living.
So I have had a kind of homecoming. And as Henry prayed for me, he might as well have been my Elder, in more ways than one, praying for his new friend and long-lost brother, praying for him and his kin to spread salt and light throughout the whole world.