Here’s how it is in Africa, I think. At least if you’re a Westerner and you’ve never been. It begins with frustration, disappointment, disorientation and homesickness. Then you fight it, and you try to make it behave. And it smiles at you with perfect Kenyan teeth and shakes its head ‘no’ with love. Then you begin to break open and surrender. And in a newly vulnerable state Africa reveals itself to you: awesome, breathtaking, gorgeous, heartbreaking.
Case in point – our trip to Lake Nakuru National Park yesterday, one of several planned excursions we could choose from on Saturday. We were told to be ready to go to Lake Nakuru at 9 am. So the little circle in front the administration building was filled with Friends by 9:15. We all began asking each other, “Do you know what’s going on?”. One by one, the other excursions were loaded on to vans or buses and left, leaving about 130 of us milling around in the sunlight. It was 10 am. Some people gravitated to the shade. The word spread that the vans had to be gassed up and there were long lines at the gas station. “They will be here!” our Kenyan organizers said cheerfully. Arthur Larrabee shared some interesting observations he made from his two years spent in Africa as young adult. He said the African relationship to time is relaxed, and “noon” is anything from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., since the Swahili word for “noon” translates to “when the sun is high in the sky”. He also related that the Swahili word for “Sorry” means more, “I’m sorry you feel that way” as opposed to the more Western notion “I take responsibility for what has happened”.
Frustration gave way to submission, and a young Irish Friend said “Let’s play games!” So she taught us how to play Boingo-Boingo, a game involving trying to snatch an object before getting tagged. Then we played Ninja, a circular, single motion tagging game. I was in the midst of teaching “Ich, Ni, San” when a long caravan of vans began pulling onto campus.
By the time we were all loaded up (a chaos which reminded me of rush hour in Times Square) and on our way, it was 11 a.m. Or “noon” in Swahili. But, as opposed to how we might have been feeling about things in Philly, for example, in which a two hour delay is akin to the ruin of an entire day, our van was filled with a kind of silly cheerful gratitude. We were grateful that we were actually going to the national park together. The frustration and delay had created . . . gratitude.
My van had Rachel (North Carolina), Tom (New Zealand), Sam (Baltimore but sojourning in Saudi Arabia), Phil (Great Britain), Marvin (not sure), and Arthur, Nancy and Brenda (Philadelphia). Our driver was John, and was the typical Kenyan: outgoing and cheerful.
When we arrived at the park, we got off and had another of those dream-like African experiences, in which we all just milled around and no one knew what was going on. There was a gift shop (which I avoided) and a tribe of tree monkeys, who knew that the humans usually brought treats. The Kenyan drivers advised us not to ut our bags on the ground, and I watched one of the monkeys jump into an open van and begin rummaging through someone’s backpack. I decided to make friends and tossed a mother and her child the remains of my bruised banana, part of the bag lunch Kabarak had provided for each of us. My dear Kenyan Friend Kennedy Avomba was the main organizer of this trip, and I slowly deduced that he was working with the park staff on how to keep track of who had paid for entry and who had not. Remember, there were over a hundred of us. Then, we were loaded back into our vans and off we went into Lake Nakuru National Park.
Here’s where words fail. I encourage you to visit my Facebook album and let the pictures do the talking. But some brief reflections:
- I was unprepared for the astonishing variety and splendor of the birds.
- Zebras in the wild look like someone has painted them, so perfect are their stripes.
- I understand why so many Kenyans lie down on the ground. This land is begging to hold you, caress you, nourish you.
- Fertility is everywhere. If I cut off a finger and planted it in the ground here, I’m convinced a Finger Bush would grow.
- The Yellow Acacia tree might be my new favorite tree in the whole world.
Then there was the Baboon Episode. On an overlook over the lake called, fittingly, Baboon Lookout, I noticed the Kenyan drivers all closed up the vans as we wandered around taking in the magnificent view. Then one lone male baboon showed up on the outskirts, accompanied by squeals of delight from us suckers. Baboon took us in, then spotted a blue canvas shoulder bag on the ground, and in a flash, grabbed it and made off with it, leaping over the fence and down the cliff on the other side. Screams and outcry all around. Then, from below the cliff, bits of paper floated up in our view as Baboon was ransacking the bag below.
Calm returned and it was learned that, no, her passport was not in the bag, no lasting harm done. Then Baboon returned. We suckers were a little more careful this time and kept our distance. He took us in nonchalantly from the other side of the fence. My Friend Brenda watched, eating her lunch, and I took out may iPhone to take his picture. As I was focusing on him, Brenda turned to me. Baboon saw his opening, and he leaped on the fence, then to the ground, then on to Brenda’s back. That is not a typo. He leaped on to her back like he wanted a piggy back ride, and reached over her shoulder trying to get her lunch bag as she screamed. Chaos and screaming all around. Me frozen with iPhone in hand, mouth agape. Brenda throwing lunch. Baboon grabbing lunch and disappearing over the cliff, chased by Kenyans with clubs.
So here’s the other thing about Africa. It’s all spender and beauty until someone gets hungry. Then it’s blood and guts.
Brenda was shaken, but fine. We all gave her hugs, and were on our way. The last animal we saw, as if she had been placed there by some movie producer, was this lovely napping lioness in a yellow Acacia tree. This is my African image: unity of plant and animal, wholeness of creation, calm splendor and effortless beauty, until she gets hungry, when she will gladly kill you and eat you.
I spent about $200 at the park gift shop and I don’t mind one bit. Doing my part for the Kenyan economy, I say. And anyway, the carved ebony animals are exquisite.
Beyond the nature experiences, or perhaps informed by them, there is something immensely powerful happening to me individually at the conference, and to many of us collectively. The bonds and connections I am making with Friends from around the world are real, they are deep and they are emotional. Julia, from Sweden, who was in my Convergent Friends thread group, lent me the $80 I needed to go on the Lake Nakuru trip, after I discovered to my dismay the ATM on campus was broken. This morning I had breakfast with Emily (North Carolina), Hanne (Denmark) and Cathleen (Great Britain) and we each affirmed that Something Is Happening here which is transforming us. Hanne wept tears of joy. Emily shared her desire to get physical movement and dance into our worship experiences. Cathleen wondered about applying all she is learning here to her staid and reserved British Friends back home. She cracked us up by demonstrating the British handshake at close of worship, in which you simultaneously back away and grasp hands.
We are discovering how much we love each other.
There is a Young Adult presence here which is remarkable, and which affirms my belief that our future lies in the hands of Friends between 20 and 40 years old. The success of Yearly Meetings world-wide in witnessing to the Gospel and healing a broken world is in their ability to welcome and support these Young Adult Friends, no matter how unusual their leadings may seem at first. I shared this morning that my favorite Quaker concept is contenting revelation, which says what was true yesterday is not necessarily true today. No one rides the crest of this wave with more panache than Young Adult Friends, and we dismiss them at our peril. Remember: our ancestors were thrown in jail for breaking with convention, doing something very different, breaking with cultural and religious norms. Let it be so today as well. Except the jail part, unless it is required of us.