I’ve recently returned from a life-changing journey in Kenya. This was the fourth time I’ve been, and each time the giving and receiving seems to go deeper. Yet, in the past, I’ve always felt it was just a visit. This time it was clear that my commitment to the people and communities I love there holds a central place in my heart and has become a lifelong path.
There are many reasons I return again and again to this world that teaches me so much: to visit Jecinta (the young woman who appears in the last chapter of Saved by a Poem, who I’ve been supporting with help from many of you as she completes her degree in Business School); to be with my friend Zam Obed and her family in Kibera, the slum outside of Nairobi; and to go to the VDay Safe House in the Great Rift Valley [link to blog], a home to 50 Maasai girls who have had to flee their families and tribes in order to escape Female Genital Mutilation and Early Childhood Marriage. I want to share stories and videos from each of these worlds in subsequent blogs. Here are some links to photos on Facebook: VDay Safe House & Zam and her Community,
There is another reason I spend all my frequent flyer miles to travel halfway around the planet, with suitcases full of used computers to give away (see “Computers for Kenya” in January 2014 newsletter) and gifts of clothing and jewelry for all I love, a much more personal one. I go because it is so utterly disorienting. Those of you who have taken workshops with me know that a large component of poetry’s medicine that I highlight is the power of a poem to disorient the mind from it’s habitual patterns, to unlatch the cage of our limited thoughts, and drop us into a vastness of insight and feeling that seems to come from beyond our voluntary, linear mind. Well, Kenya – and many other cultures that are so different from mine on the surface – wields a mega-medicine in this domain. Almost every single aspect of life is utterly different – electrical outlets, camel milk in the supermarket, toilet paper or not, traffic patterns, no street lights, touch, body language, talking or spending hours staring into space together not talking, playing games on your mobile phone while taking a friend out to tea, asking for help, or greeting a companion, or wearing a sleeveless dress – everything has different rules and messages. I cannot read people there. I cannot assume a facial expression there means what I think it means here. Or the movement of an arm, or a wink, or a sideways look. Some people don’t say goodbye at the end of a phone call and I don’t know they’ve hung up. And the waiting! Waiting is just part of relating, normal, no blame, no apology. Waiting everywhere. Waiting for a friend is part of friendship. Sometimes for hours. Not a bad thing, simply part of life. I waited two hours while a friend got her hair done. Watched the 8 beauticians in the tiny fourth floor salon braiding extensions into the hair of women and little girls. Periodically one would disappear and return with a tub of steaming water. Only then did I realize that there was no running water in the shop. Agnes waited for me at the cell phone store for at least 45 minutes. Agnes Pareyio, who is the visionary who started the Safe House. Agnes, who has been an elected official in Narok for 20 years. No problem.
I cannot read body language – or more accurately, I cannot trust my (constant) narrative of what this or that facial expression or shrug means. It makes me realize that perhaps I never can, even in a culture I think I share with the one laughing or shrugging or wincing. What would it be like to let myself not know?
There I know that I do not know. I cannot predict what someone is thinking or feeling or if they’re innocent, dangerous, honest or not. 99% of the time they are so far more honest and innocent than most of my experiences in the U.S., that I’m dumbfounded. This is the most extreme disarming: how innocent people are. That giggling between girls over in the corner is not teasing or deriding or colluding against someone, it’s just giggling – because the sun is warm, or their friend is near, or they have new hair extensions. The woman asking for money is simply asking for money, not trying to take advantage or trick me. The man shaking my hand in welcome who seems so open and happy to greet me even though we’ve never met is actually open and happy to greet me even though we’ve never met.
I’m undone by this innocence, directness, immediacy. I’m undone by the dissolution of the millions (literally) of stories that are constantly arising in interpretation of that eye movement or this smile. A girl wiggles her hips and winks at me as she tells me how happy she is to see me. This does not mean she’s coming on to me. A friend walks away without saying goodbye. This does not mean she’s angry at me. The tall man greeting Yusef in the crowded street lifts his arm in the air as if it weighed a hundred pounds, limp at the wrist, then lets his hand plummet into Yusef’s waiting palm, and this does not mean that he is lazy or tired or resentful or unwilling to give his full attention to the meeting. Playing with your cell phone in our first longed-for meeting after 2 and a half years does not mean you do not care about me. Spending our last afternoon together sitting on the floor of your apartment watching soap operas does not mean you are not sad to see me go.
I am left with what connects us beyond what we say, how our faces express, the proximity or distance or stance of our bodies. I am left with what these people are expert at: deep, patient, loyal connections of the heart that can enfold the hundred thousand disappointments, breakages, interruptions, mishaps, waitings, missed meetings, broken toilets and cell phones and computers and roofs and hearts that life brings.
We get what we give our lives to. We in the western world are expert at getting a lot done, excelling in capitalism and technology and efficincy and the linear climb to the top. They are expert at the heart.