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.
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.
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.