“Jambo, Kim!” It is my friend Zam, calling from Kenya. I can hear the sounds of Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa, behind her voice: children shouting as they play in the narrow passageways between mud and tin shacks, conversations in Swahili, a radio pumping Hip Hop in the distance.
“Guess what?” Zam’s voice is lush with excitement. “I am reading Saved by a Poem over the radio here every week! People are loving it! It’s not just a book about poetry, it’s about how to live. We are so grateful.”
I can hardly believe my ears. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I imagine my words would reach so far, into lives so seemingly different from mine.
“And I read the Rumi book you gave me on the radio too,” Zam continues. “First in English, then I translate into Swahili. The poems are helping everyone in the community. People stand outside the radio station waiting to borrow my books when I come out!”
Zam and I met in 2007, when I was invited to join a group she was leading into Kibera for a day. The ostensible purpose was to awaken us to the conditions of poverty, illness and danger rampant within the slum and engage whatever help we could offer. What I never imagined was that I would meet a soul-sister there. (Well, that is not completely true. As a little girl I always fantasized that I had a sister in Africa, but that’s a story for another time…) In the back seat of the taxi on the way back to our hostel in Nairobi, Zam and I talked and talked. I don’t remember why, but I found myself reciting “The Guest House” by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. As we bumped and bucked wildly through the chaotic streets, a sacred space was created by that poem. Some invisible bond was formed which has only strengthened with time (and more accessible internet in Kibera!).
Having grown up in the metrophobia (don’t know what it means? Check out my blog on Huffington Post: Metrophobia – Are We Afraid of Poetry?) of the U. S., I am stunned and moved again and again when I meet someone, especially under conditions where the most basic survival needs — food, water, safety — are barely met, who recognizes instantly that poetry is a life-giving essential. Zam and others, such as the girls at the V-Day Safe House (see Chapter Ten of Saved by a Poem), the Iraqi poets of the Freedom Space (see Where Words Melt Walls: The Peacemaking Power of Poetry), and the people who have written me from all over the world and joined me in workshops, are gradually turning my assumptions of metrophobia blessedly upside down.
“Within the potent space [of a poem spoken aloud], any and every boundary line we humans draw around ourselves instantly disappears. It is holy without being denominational, political without being sectarian, intimate without being bound by gender, age, or culture.” –from Saved by a Poem