From a distance

“From a distance, the world looks blue and green and the snow-capped mountains white….
From a distance, you look like my friend, Even though we are at war…”

So the words of the (once) popular song go.

agriculture clouds countryside cropland
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I have mixed feelings about traveling by air, sometimes I wish that there are options for flying and not water. There is an assurance in feeling your feet are on the ground, not floating in air or water. Long road distances are not appealing either nobody has discovered the alternative yet. There is a kind of vulnerability and surrender that one is left with when flying. When the plane gains speed on the runway, my mind hums, “no turning back”. take off feel so final so you surrender and get swallowed into the skies, as you stare at what you are leaving. When on the ground, the skies are a welcoming, tranquility. The clouds are a maze of soft and warm cotton wool seamlessly gliding in a rhythmical dance. I enjoy gazing at the clouds. More correct, I used to enjoy. There never no longer time to gaze at the skies these days. Call it adulthood! There is much fun when you are pre-adult and with less care of the world.

As a child, I spent hours staring into the skies, sitting or lying on the ground, I watched the skies as clouds danced and slithered to meet each other. There were different images as my imaginative mind could create. When lying on the ground staring at the skies, the clouds look calm and peaceful. From a distance, there is perfect harmony.  That is until you are up in the skies and you appreciate the bumps that the clouds cause. When flying clouds are no longer gorgeous, no matter how alluring they look from the ground. Instead, they are menacing.

white concrete house near body of water under white and blue cloudy sky
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The most magical moments when flying is when you are almost landing, low enough to see the ground but high enough you enjoy the scenery. No matter which place you are landing in, if not a water mass looks beautiful. If during the night you, the bright glistening lights will greet you. The cities look very organized and peaceful. The green vegetation looks serene. Even refugee camps look organized and homely. From the skies, you do not see any unruffled feather, but when you land life changes!

The blaring horns, busy people running and moving in different directions, dry hungry land welcome you. There is organized chaos at best. The reality sinks in, that what looked perfect from a distance is not as perfect. On a recent trip, watching the enticing scenery  I realized, it is the same with life. From a distance, things look more put together and sometimes getting the ‘inside story’ serves as a reality-check moment.

This is not a pretense, but that not everyone will be privy to your inside reality while other times people prefer to keep up an appearance. In other cases, the short moments spent with people does not offer the chance to scratch beneath the surface. Children are a perfect example. When one says they slept like a child, many parents will roll eyes and wonder “which child?” Many children who seem very peaceful at one time but brats in another moment. Many children sleep very peacefully for few hours, and when they wake up, the whole household and in some cases neighborhood is treated to a screaming show.

As adults, we have learned more skills in hiding behind the curtains and letting the world see what we are happy to reveal. I enjoy listening to people’s stories, understanding the journeys they have undertaken in life. It is always revealing when I hear the behind-the-scenes stories. When looking in from outside, some individuals look quite settled and unruffled that it is easy to imagine that they have had everything handed in a silver platter. That is one of the reasons that I enjoy reading biographies, as this enables one to see the human part of a person. Some families, marriages, jobs look like the perfect fir yet when we hear the inside story, it is no longer bliss. It is like watching a finalized theatre play. The many hours put in place before the D-day are unknown to the audience, as actors effortlessly rehash their lines. The ‘shoes you walk in’ are unknown by many people who may think you are having it very easy. It is only when we peel the outer layer that bonds are formed and true friendships thrive. It is that moment that we appreciate that things are not always as they seem.

I still want to admire the scenes from a distance. I enjoy watching the sceneries and the beauty they represent from a distance. I want to receive the meal at the table in a nice restaurant without seeing the mess in the kitchen with sweaty cooks and oil spills. One sure way of losing one’s appetite is peeking into a restaurant kitchen! I give it to the restaurants with a semi-open kitchen. Last year while on a work trip I was in a guest house that left a lot to be desired. The place looks beautiful and well-kept from a distance and being a new facility where the paint has barely dried, it looked perfect. However, all was not well but what broke the camel’s back was entering the kitchen. Luckily we could move from the guest house to another facility. Some things are better left to be admired from a distance.

However, I want to be able to peel masks with those who are close to me. I want to know not just what makes one tick, but the tears behind the smile. It takes a lot of strength and trust to be vulnerable.  We are not perfect and feeling that undressing the masks will not be judged is life-giving. That is what makes life interesting!

Despite how things look from a distance, there is a story.

 

Village musings 2: Minding each other’s business

“A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.” ― Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

landscape clouds field summer
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A morning in the village is beautiful. The cockerel will crow. A dog barks. The cow makes its presence felt and the village slowly wakes up. Rarely noises of blasting car horns and noisy cars that seem to be determined to spell “pollution” in the urban areas. Of course if your home is near a main road, this is a different story. There is always a ‘prefect cockerel’ that starts the choir, and some lazy dog picks it up. If you are in my mother’s house, the loud noise of the radio will be part of the “wake up” nudges. Eventually people start getting about their business while greeting each other on the way, mostly with a handshake. It is considered bad manners to wave to people in the village. You shake hands and exchange niceties which usually go like “oh you are going to school.”

It is not a question but a ritual. You need to confirm what everyone is up to, so even if you are in uniform and school bag, and it is 6.30am you answer pleasantly “yes I am going to school.”

In the village, we minded each other’s business. A neighbor will call out when passing by. This is an important ritual because if this normalcy was broken, it may be a pointer that someone is not okay. My mother tells us of a time when she had injured her leg early in the morning. She could barely step out to take some water and bathe to go to hospital. When a neighbor called her in the usual morning greeting, she alerted this neighbor to her rescue. That was the life when growing up.

In the village everyone knew everyone within several kilometers radius. The neighbors are probably relatives or have known each other for many years. If you made a mistake on the way, some neighbor would easily punish you. That was usually with a pinch. She (mostly were women, as many men would work away from the house) would then go ahead and inform your mother and that meant a second punishment. The best case scenarios was when she punished you and she kept mum about it. You would not dare report that someone punished you, to avoid a follow up punishment. This was mostly (not always) done out good will not malice, but malice could not be overruled.

In the village you knew which kids to play with and where not to venture. It therefore made it easy to leave children at home without necessarily having an adult care taker for the day. If there was an emergency a neighbor would easily step in. Incidentally I don’t recall there being emergencies. May be when my younger sister fell into hot water and scalded her hands. My mom had gone to condole her neighbors, as the best man in my parents wedding had passed away. My mum went for the evening prayers and left us children at home with my elder sister in charge. We had cooked githeri and my older sister was at the age where she could be trusted with the responsibility removing the pot from the fire. Somehow githeri would be cooked for longer than necessary. There was a process where it would be left in the earthen pot to linger a while long after everyone had had their feel. The water (or is it soup) would be strained much later and reserved for the cow.

My little sister (now adult) liked hanging on the door playing. She did not grow up to be a bus conductor, but she practiced! As we told stories late into the night she slipped and her hand fell into the hot water. May be it was not an emergency as we kept it secret, soothed her to sleep till morning when she woke up and my mum was shocked to see the scalded hand. We were good at keeping secrets! You can imagine the shock my mother got when my sister woke up. My sister did not even wake crying at night! That is how ‘disciplined’ we were! That incidence reminds me how wonderful it is to be a child, none of us thought it was an emergency. She was eventually taken to hospital.

While getting into each other’s business can be overwhelming, it made the village life quite communal. One had people to depend on even when they were not relatives. People easily gathered for a meal or tea, without prior planning. It was easy to call up on relatives when one needed support or a favor, but to call up on persons you are not related to and know they will be there is a treasure. This is something one often misses when living in the urban. I barely know my neighbors, and for those I know it is not beyond the greetings (and WhatsApp’s). Even in the village, the real village life has been interrupted by technology. However, we crave that togetherness, and I find that among my circle of friends calling each other ‘my village’ when we mean “being there for each other.” I have therefore come to appreciate a lot this level of sisterhood in different phases in my life. No matter where I am, this sisterhood village has come to my rescue.

When I fell and fractured my leg in 2014, I was in Yei South Sudan away from my family and close networks. A friend I had known for some years who happened to also be working there at the time represented my village that time. She took care of me, I forgot I do not have my relatives with me. Some few weeks before she had fallen ill and I only found out in the evening when the house worker we shared informed me. I rushed to hospital and I remember asking her “why didn’t you call me, don’t you know I am your mother, sister here”. After that we shared contacts of our relatives. Little did I know, I was the one who would need a ‘mother’ few weeks later

My work requires travel, and there is peace in knowing that some friends or my sisters will pop in and check how my baby is doing. While I will keep in touch via phone with the nanny, getting an assurance from a friend has added strength. The first time I was to travel and leave the baby I was very anxious. When talking to my friend, she started asking me precise schedule to see how it worked with her schedule, I was not imagining that she was offering to come and stay in my house while I travelled. That was a gesture that I will never forget, it reminded me that I have more sisters than the ones I grew up with. Three of my close friends would often find themselves in the house at the same time, and that was very heartwarming and reassured me that despite being many miles away, all was well. It was like ‘tea parties’ were being held in my house in my absence, what else, could I ask for?

It is not easy to retain the village support that we grew up knowing. Life has changed in many ways, we have become more engaged in diverse lives and we may not see one another as often. The nature of work that was common in the village was around the homes, while now everyone is trying to beat the traffic morning and evening. But, we can call, have a lunch, tea, talk, laugh and make life more bearable. We get so busy that forwarding funny videos and images has become the way of life. Often times, we meet and we get shocked to realize we have not seen each other for years. With internet nusu ya kuonana we stalk each other’s pages on who got married, got a baby, travelled…we feel we know what is happening. That does not quite capture it. Sitting down over a cup of tea, and laughing is very different from ‘liking’ posts online. There is such power in shared laughter, shared meal, and shared time.

There is never enough time to do everything that we need to do. Chinua Achebe put it quite aptly “A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving …We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.” It is precious when people gather together, and may be the village wise men and women knew this more than we realize. The community cohesion and family ties were strengthened when people sat together. I used to watch my mother go for the merry-go-round group ‘tea meetings’ quite often. My late grandfather understood this concept only too well.

Many Sunday mornings, we woke up to find one of my cousins at the door. He would have two messages, one for my father “Grandpa has asked you to pass by, as there is a goat to be slaughtered after Church”.

He would then turn to us, the children “Grandpa has asked that you all come for goat eating in the afternoon”.

Let me introduce you to my late grandpa. He was the husband to five wives. Imagine that each wife had a child, like one too many. Now imagine those children had children, and that was the family that would gather for a goat. Sometimes it was actually just one goat! You got a little tiny piece of meat, but going there was not optional. We obediently went for goat eating every so often. We even started calling my grandfather’s place which we popular referred to as Gichagi (village) as Gichagi kia nyama (the village of meat). Village was a colonial concept of putting many households together before this became the name of “rural area”. No wonder we referred to my grandfather’s homestead as gichagi. It was where we gathered. Of course the term gichagi has not become known as shags, we almost think it is an English word

It is only in adulthood that we started thinking back and realizing that this was not about the meat, but about being together. My grandfather did what he needed to do in getting his large family cohesive. While logistics may make this so difficult in the modern world, I strongly believe there is a place for the sisterhood village. Every once in a while, we can afford to come together.  We can still mind each other’s business within certain boundaries.

I am the child of the universe, striving to leave foot prints, however faint they seem. A step at a time.
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Village life musings (Part 1) The Chickens!

Every so often, we want to go back to the village. We go to the village for holidays, weekends or Christmas breaks. There is something about village life that is appealing, serene and inviting, but only if you are not living in the village! I don’t think those who live in the village from January to December get the same feeling of awe. May be it is the difference between the often hassles of urban life that makes us miss the village. But somehow we want to be in the village for short periods of time, and those in the village want to escape the village life.

I have been thinking about the joy of being a ‘villager’. This implies, belonging to a group, having people around. It is no wonder that with some close friends we keep reminding each other about being “a village’ and getting to remind ourselves that we can building our small villages in Nairobi. It got me musing about village life, the good, beautiful, the bad and the ugly.

I grew up in the village and I loved the experience. That is lie, I did not love everything. In fact I hated most of what it meant to grow up in the village. It is only later in life that I got to appreciate joys of being brought up in the village. Growing up in the village meant household chores. The task of having to catch chicken to shift them in the morning and in the evening was particularly troubling for me. It must be the chore I hated most. Not exactly hate, more like fear. My mother would assign my siblings and I specific number of chickens each. There were different cages, where one cage allowed the chickens to get sun shine during the day while another one kept them safe during the night. I don’t remember catching any chicken. I don’t recall how, most likely my siblings have some story around how I escaped that. Most likely I swapped the chores with someone. Catching a chicken that is flapping its wing is something I don’t plan to do any time soon. It gives me a weird feeling. Like goosebumps…chicken-bumps? There must be a name of some phobia for flapping wings. It is even worse to hold a tiny chick. It is so delicate and soft. I like chicken when served as a meal. I will comfortably make a meal from a chicken as long as its wings are not flapping. Dead.

I recall after form four when I was taking care of my late sister’s kids. My late sister Jane passed on some weeks after my form four exams, leaving behind young kids. I took care of them during that pre- university period. Their dad shifted them from the rural home where they had only moved a year before back to Thika. One of the uncles was taking care of the rural home and as a reward he made sure to bring the farm products. One day he brought this large cockerel! Alive and kicking! He happily dropped the cockerel in the house and he was on his way.

I was meant to cook for my nephews, which was not a problem. But the cockerel was alive and kicking. Their dad (my brother in law) was away in a training so I was the young head of household that week. I felt very mature then, surprised to realize I was barely 19 years. The uncle thought he had done us a huge favor, not knowing the dilemma he had created. We kept the cockerel in the kitchen area, tied with a string. Chickens have a habit of being very silent if they choose to, you can forget them. Wait until they get scared and start flapping their wings and making noise. In Africa the cockerels are used to tell time as they crow at a specific hour. There is also a saying that kuku wa shamba hawiki mjini (the village chicken does not crow in town) so I don’t recall if this one obeyed that rule. I only recall wondering how to get rid of this cockerel soonest possible. I had two options. Wait for my brother in law to kill the chicken over the weekend or kill and cook the chicken. If I chose to wait that also meant the chicken would poop around the house, and who cleans? You guessed right. Me. Option two was to kill chicken. There is no way on earth I would kill a chicken.

I hatched a plan. My seven and eight year old nephews would do the work. This is not child labor, it is called socialization. They were very excited. See, it was not child labor! I knew the theories of rearing and attending to a chicken, we did that a lot in the village. I knew how to make the chicken into a delicious meal as long as it was not alive and kicking. My plan was therefore to have the two young boys hold the chicken as I tied the wings and legs very tightly. They then went outside the compound and cut the poor thing’s neck. I had instructed the boys to cut it very fast and completely separate the head and wait till it stopped flapping around. We were to do this in a humane way… or rather chicken-caring way. I could then take the process from there, and we had a wonderful meal. And some two boys were well socialized.

Years later I had a second attempt at a live chicken. I worked in Nakuru and we had gone to work in a neighboring district. Everyone was buying chickens so I was not left behind. I knew my younger sister was in the house so I assumed she would do the necessary. I was wrong, she had me as a role mode. I ended up taking the chicken to a friend’s house as a gift. The friend did not know this gift was by chance…but it does not matter, right?

agriculture animals avian beaks
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That was my last attempt with alive chicken. Luckily, many chicken sellers have figured out that customers prefer chicken just ready for cooking. I don’t think I missed much for not learning the particular skill in the village.

I am the child of the universe, striving to leave foot prints, however faint they seem. A step at a time.
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Sophie Ngugi

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.

Multiple roles, one soul

“Motherhood is the greatest thing and the hardest thing”. Ricki Lake

It was a beautiful Sunday morning. Sundays mornings are usually beautiful. Serene. It is like the weather knows it is a Sunday and even if it rains, the day has a sunny demeanor. May be because there is less traffic in Nairobi. Less pollution unless you neighbor some Church with blaring noise.  I have never understood why they do this. The megaphones outside the Church preaching to everyone who is not interested in the preaching. Anyway, as usual, I had plans to start the day with Sunday Mass, but his plans…well he had different plans. I ended up spending part of the Sunday Mass time outside the Church when my terrific two son decided there was more interesting stuff outside.  Despite the accommodating section for lactating mothers and young babies in the Church, he was uncooperative.

 

“Enough is enough.”  He said …through tantrums.

 

He wanted to play, not pray. Sometimes, most times, he is more cooperative. To be fair to him, after some rains that week, the grass was so green, alive and inviting, sort of calling to be enjoyed. It was truly a beautiful day to be outdoors, but the wrong timing. I resigned myself to the fate as he explored. That is where I met this lady, fellow mom in a similar situation. We got talking as her daughter and my son discovered the surroundings. The two children were about the same age. Well, may be the two young ones had planned it all along! Children really get adults talking.

 

Somehow the issue of travel came up. Her profession demands travel as part of the everyday roles. She mentioned the challenge of having to travel when her child was about seven months old, and so stopped breastfeeding. We ended up talking about the balancing act of being a mother and a professional when the children are too young to understand.  This is a shared concern for many women in particular. I started travelling when my son was 13 months old. I had planned for it, but that did not make it easier. Sometimes there is a sparkle in the drab.  This was an easy way for getting him off the boob. He had reduced breastfeeding and the travel sealed it. He stopped breastfeeding and he forgot about it. For some mothers, this is a struggle. If I was not travelling I had no idea how long he would have breastfed as that decision was off my hands. I think he had already had his fair share anyway.

 

As a parent, one often has to make tough decisions around the different roles that one plays. Travelling and leaving the family is not easy, yet this is often required of many parents, in employment or business.

 

“How do you manage?” I often get the question.

 

I do not have an answer. Just doing what I got to do and getting a lot of support in that. I grew up with an ever present mother who worked in the homestead. But, my dad worked and resided in Thika, coming home over the weekends. I doubt if anyone ever asked him how he managed being away from the family five (or sometimes six) out of the seven days in a week. That does not mean that the men do not necessarily find it difficult to leave the families, but the world has accepted men as the species that work away from the home. Not so for women.

 

Many professionals have had to make decisions around various issues related to work and their parenting role. Travelling away is a sometimes quite tough. The anxiety of leaving one’s family, more so when there is a young child, almost robs one the excitement of exploring a new place.  When the time difference is many hours apart, it becomes even trickier.   You want to hear the positive message when you call, “we are doing well.” That is a standard reassuring response. Sometimes I wonder if it is rehearsed and ask many questions to verify.

 

The first time, I travelled away from my home for work after my baby was born was difficult. I was away for two weeks and every day felt like torture. This was quite different before I became a parent. It was easier to stay away for longer. This was a different experience. Despite occupying myself with the tasks at hand, I practically counted days, every morning and every evening. I felt like my heart was being torn apart. I kept wondering what his little mind is telling him. Was he feeling abandoned? I ached to be back. When I arrive back home, he was confused. He looked at me and became so emotional, tears welled in both of our eyes.  May be he thought he was dreaming. As he gets older, his reactions are different. He will clap and run for a hug. That is easier to manage.

 

In some situations, the work environment does not support the roles of being a parent.  Some women especially face the challenge of biased employers or supervisors or colleagues. During our earlier working days immediately after Campus, my friend was working in a government office. In those days maternity leave was quite short. She was expected to be in the office from 8.00 am to 5.00PM. There was no allowance for the lactating mothers to have more flexibility back to work. Her supervisor could understand her need to go home earlier. In those days breast pumps were not quite known and acceptable in Kenya.  She had a rough time struggling with painful breasts every day and literally fasting to reduce her milk production. Ironically she had so much milk. At one time her supervisor told her to “find out how other women manage”.

While we have gained quite some steps in getting more women to the offices, getting the offices accommodative to women is still a struggle. Many offices are buildings without a soul. There are also beautiful stories of how many employers have made strides in making the working environment more humane. One should not have to choose and feel that the multiple roles are in conflict.