Eating Chocolate at the Equator

Cadbury Dairy Milk

I’m going to write about somewhere other than the U.S. again, because you know, when I write about other places I really am writing about my own country.  It just helps me understand it better.  This time, I want to tell you a story that takes place in Kenya, where I spent a semester when I was 21 and a senior in college.  That was in 1992 (shit!  a long time ago. . . ).  I know Kenya has changed, and God knows so have I, but that indelible experience really paved the way for much of my life afterwards.  And because it’s Christmas time, it’s also a story about giving and receiving.

I went to Kenya as part of an overseas study program at Earlham College, and there were about 17 or 18 students on the trip, plus two professors who traveled with us.  Nairobi was kind of a home base and where we had our first homestay with a Kenyan family, but we also spent a considerable amount of time at Hell’s Gate National Park, on the coast in Mombasa and Lamu, and in Western Province, in a small town called Kaimosi.  It was in Kaimosi where we had our second homestay, and because I had become very sick visiting the coast, I ended up in the comfortable home of Rose , her children Susan and Peter, Susan’s baby Mercy, and their servant girl, Fanice.   Rose and her family were relatively well-off, even though her husband had died several years before I arrived.  They lived in a concrete house, not a mud shack as many people at the time still did.  Rose was a school teacher, but she also had her own shamba, or small farm, where she grew maize and pineapple.  Susan, who was close to my age, stayed home to tend the house and take care of her baby, with the help of Fanice.  Peter was in high school at the time.cadbury chunks

Kaimosi was a dramatic change from the oppressively humid coast.  It seemed like Kaimosi was at a high elevation, but of that I’m not sure.  The air smelled like wood smoke and pine.  Yes, there were pine trees!  How fresh the air seemed to me. walking along the gently rolling hills of the area.  I was young and in good hands, so I recovered from an awful illness that had me vomiting in and out of every mode of transportation from Lamu to Western Province fairly quickly.  I started eating again – ugali (white corn meal boiled until it formed a thick mash and used for eating other foods by hand) and sukamaweeki (a mix of greens and onion and tomatoes sautéed in oil that in Swahili literally means “to get through the week”).  I loved this stuff and ate with gusto.  But tea time preceded the dinner by an hour or two, and was composed of thick slices of white store bought bread, slathered with yellow margarine from a tin can labeled “Blue Band”, freshly roasted peanuts, sometimes fruit, and copious amounts of milky, sugary tea.  We were required to drink so much tea that it kept me up at night and made me pee constantly, when I had to brave intruders and Rose’s guard dogs on my way to the outhouse.

I had brought gifts with me, of course.  Colorful bandanas (we were told they were popular), art supplies, Swiss army knives.  I think they liked my gifts, although I was informed sometime later that in Kenya (back then, anyway) it was an insult to give someone a useless gift.  Gee, I hope they didn’t think they were useless!  There were luxury items my family didn’t buy for me, like toilet paper, and luxury items they would buy because we paid them to house us, like meat, which I wasn’t eating at the time.  cadbury fruit and nut

And then there were other luxuries I bought, aside from toilet paper.  Like chocolate.  Kenya was once a British colony, so naturally it still had economic ties to the country.  And this meant that in Kenya you could buy Cadbury chocolate.  I still remember the square packaging, with a purplish-blue and white outside wrapping and gold foil inner wrapping.  A choice between Cadbury Dairy Milk and Cadbury Dairy Milk Fruit and Nut, I frequented the kiosks that sold them.  I swirled around each piece of milky chocolate in my mouth, sucking on it rather than biting it, just to get the most pleasure from it.  They were divine, and oddly comforting in such a foreign place.

One day I decided to buy enough chocolate bars for my host family.  I can’t remember exactly how much they cost, but they were rather dear.  In any case, I brought home enough for Rose, and Susan, Peter, and Fanice.  I thought little Mercy, at about 2 years old, was a little young for this treat.  I presented them after dinner, handing one to each member of the family.  They didn’t say anything, just took them in their hands, contemplating them for a minute.  They all slowly unwrapped the packaging, and took lingering bites of the chocolate.  What happened next was truly weird.  They laughed.  They giggled.  They moaned and said things I couldn’t understand.  Their eyes practically rolled back in their heads.  Fanice proclaimed she couldn’t finish hers, and handed it to Rose.  I sat watching them (I didn’t eat one myself.  I had just brushed my teeth.) kind of shocked.  It took them a very long time to finish that chocolate.  And then that was it.  They thanked me politely, and we all went to bed.

It occurred to me later, much later, that they had never had chocolate before.  I should have known this, but I didn’t.  It was a luxury, after all, and if they couldn’t afford to buy toilet paper or meat, they probably couldn’t afford to buy chocolate.  It was also probably my most useless gift to them.  They were gracious in their receiving of it.

I hope I gave to them as much as they gave to me.  I don’t mean in material things.  I mean I hope I gave them some good laughs, some good memories. I hope they could take away something interesting from me for the month I stayed with them.  I know they gave all that to me.

I suppose any giving and receiving is fraught with problems.  We don’t know what to get someone, we’re surprised by their reaction to it, or maybe it’s entirely inappropriate and we didn’t know it.  “Christmas,” a good friend once said to me, “was always a lesson in disappointment.”   It’s still worth it, though, to be able to give and to be able to receive.  I hope I am always as gracious as my Kenyan hosts were to me.

 

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“Freedom is an illusion.”

The writer and activist Nawar El Saadawi once said, “Freedom is an illusion.” Even in America, perhaps especially in America, that is true. If we are not bound by larger forces such as racism or classism, we have more personal lack of freedom – we’re stuck in unhappy marriages, we suffer from addiction or mental illness, we have issues with our children or parents or siblings. Life is hard.

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I, myself, went looking for freedom in 2005, when I moved to China. China might seem like a very strange place to look for freedom, but I think that’s what I was doing. I was hoping that there was somewhere else on earth that I didn’t feel judged and disapproved of. I was hoping that at age 34, I wouldn’t feel like I had failed – at a career, with men, with myself. So I stayed in China for three mostly happy years. Certainly I was judged there, and laughed at, but most of it seemed less personal than it does here in America. I was a foreigner after all. I was strange to the Chinese, I knew I was strange to them, and it was ok.

But then I moved to Saudi Arabia. To be sure, I wasn’t looking for freedom there. It was partly a desire for something new, partly a longing for adventure, and part ignorance. From the stress of the place, I also spun into my first manic episode. Saudi Arabia is a spectacularly rotten place to be manic. It could be argued that it is a spectacularly rotten place altogether. I was changed by the place – I woke up to the world, in a sense. I didn’t just know about evil in the world in an abstract way – I felt it personally. I saw it firsthand. And then I continued seeing it, perhaps unreasonably since I was manic, every place after that – back in China where I returned after Saudi, then to Japan the year after that. It wasn’t just evil – it was a desire for control that I experienced. It seemed as if every place I went was obsessed with controlling people, and I realized I didn’t feel this way in America.

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It is probably obvious how control functions in Saudi Arabia. Women must be covered in public or in front of men who are not from their family. Even I had to wear the abaya, the black covering that goes over women’s clothes there. I also usually covered my head as well, just to avoid trouble with the religious police that trolled the malls in Riyadh. Women in Saudi can’t mix with men who are not family members; they must be accompanied by a male family member when they are out in public. Although women are just now beginning to have jobs in the Kingdom (they still can’t drive a car), there are a million other restrictions on them. The place is not much easier for men, to tell the truth. There’s no dating, no movie theatres, not much to do and work is hard to find. And all of this (and more) is about controlling the populace. An obsession with control has seeped into the very fabric of the society there, so that I felt it keenly at the college I worked for. And because of all the control there, people did what they could to go around it – driving insanely on city streets, widespread abuse of domestic workers from third world countries, drinking and drugs (yes, they are problems there, too.). If you could get away with it, you could do it.

When I returned to China, I was angry at the world. China, too, didn’t seem the idyllic place it had been to me when I first moved there. Suddenly I was furious with all the little idiosyncrasies that are China – people driving their motorbikes and bicycles on crowded sidewalks, someone taking up three seats in a crowded train station, all the water and electric outages in the small town where I lived. And then there were the controlling things – like the strict lives my students suffered through in their school, locking the gates of apartment complexes at 10 o’clock at night, the pressure for women to be married by 25 or risk being “on the shelf” for the remainder of their lives. And so on. It dawned on me that the seemingly selfish actions of China’s citizenry were a reaction to all the control in their lives. The water shortages and power outages were examples of poor management, where it was about what you could get away with, not what you were responsible for.

balloon lady

So then I moved to Japan – supposedly a free society, a major world power, a wealthy, privileged nation. In Japan, I worked for a company that dictated where I would live (in a shoebox, basically), how long I would commute each day (nearly two hours each way), who could visit me (NO OVERNIGHT VISITORS), and how long I would work (8-6 each day, and we were not allowed to leave the campus). I was off my nut manic at the time, so of course everything little thing was magnified, but yet again it seemed that my company was indicative of the wider society – a society that killed itself working (literally), a society that probably drank too much, and a place with many restrictions on what you could do, who you could be.

Granted, this is merely a brief discussion of larger things (you can read more about it in my book, if it ever gets published). And because I was so sick, I don’t completely trust the feelings I remember. As Josh Billings once said, “There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.” Still, I don’t think I’m completely wrong about the obsession with control in the world.

statue of liberty

And so I come back to America. I returned from nearly seven years overseas two years ago. I’m not manic anymore, nor am I an angry person. Lots of things are different. It’s interesting, though, I have a number of friends from other countries, and almost universally among them, they say they feel “freer” in America. My friend Monica from Spain says she feels less judged here – fewer people telling her what to do, or how to be. She says the Spanish are very direct and outspoken in how they judge you, and that here in America people may judge you, but they keep it to themselves. I’m not sure I agree with that. I still feel pretty judged. Maybe it’s a function of my friends being away from their close relatives and the familiar. Maybe it’s how I felt when I first moved to China – free because I was in a new place, being a new me. Maybe it’s something in the ether.

I used to want to believe that there was someplace better than America. Then I wanted America to be that better place. Neither really applies. Even in America people have controls in their lives that impede them in some way. I don’t even know that I can say it doesn’t have larger forces at work controlling people. Unfortunately, I think there are plenty of those for less privileged people. Maybe in the end, this is merely an argument for traveling and coming to appreciate what you have just a little bit more.