Teaching Man How To Catch Fish

June30

The bird population at the feeder has doubled in the last two weeks. The reason is because many of the birds are now coming with one or two young ones. The mommies and daddies spend the entire feeding session painstakingly breaking the larger chunks of food into tiny morsels that they then transfer into the open mouths of the waiting babies. It is especially gratifying to see that the one-legged bird has a baby of its own. As usual, this small bird is a flurry of continuously flapping wings in its single legged act of balance among the other birds. But the difference is that this time a brat waits impatiently with its mouth wide open; and the courageous bird performs just as exceptionally as any of the other parents. It is easy to identify the chicks since they have shaggy baby feathers that make them appear ill groomed and much bigger than their parents – almost unfair that they cannot put food into their own mouths considering that you cannot tell them from any of the adults as they fly expertly at the slightest sign of danger.

But then on further thought, it must appear just as ridiculous from a bird’s eye view when an exhausted mother comes from her 8 to 5 job with bags of grocery and immediately starts preparing pots of food for her two overgrown teenage sons that have been watching a football match the whole afternoon while dressed in sagging jeans, oversized t-shirts, and funny looking head gear.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend called Tom Kinyua a while ago. Tom is the kind of friend that you do not meet often, but the good thing is that his words keep you company between meetings since he always says something that you scratch your head over for a long time. As we talked, Tom wondered aloud about how different our lives would be today had our fathers invested in land in Nairobi’s city centre when they were younger. With the jobs that they had back then, they could have afforded to save individually or collectively and bought the land. I suppose Tom’s sentiment were a result of the fact that he pays an obscene amount of money as rent each month. He owns a successful Insurance brokerage business and operates from offices located in one of the tall buildings in the middle of the city.

After discussing for a while about the rising cost of space in the city among other issues, it was time to part and Tom said unexpectedly, “You know, 20 years from now our children are going to ask the same question about us?”

I suppose Tom was right considering that the universal law that requires parents to pass survival skills and life’s wisdom to their young ones applies not only to birds but to humans as well. I suppose that even by observing birds, it is obvious that putting food in the mouth of its chick is the least a bird can do to ensure that its young one is equipped to live successfully. As the saying goes, this is just as useful as giving man fish to eat while in essence it would be more useful to teach man how to catch fish on his own. Apart from lovingly putting food on the mouth of its babies I suppose the bird has to show the chick how to fly, where to look for the best kind of food – worms, grains, insects – and how to do it successfully without undue danger.

It is likely that some of the things that are going to be most valuable in twenty years time are almost being dished out freely today. With a little effort, anyone can have them: Using our senses today, and our imagination to see into the future, it is possible to identify at least one of those things. All that which remains is the will, courage and determination to act. And beware; twenty years is not so far from today considering that it was just 1986 twenty years ago. Also note that it is none of those things that we are expected to give – like food, shelter, education, or even money – these will just put the kid right in the middle of the pack like all the other kids; where he or she will be scrutinizing and pointing out all the opportunities missed when the parent was younger. Of course just like the kid, a parent too will have a right to complain – after years of toiling – about how ungrateful youngsters of twenty years from today will be.

Saving The Garage Wall

June28

Still in Lower Nairobi, there is this Indian garage owner who recently got fed up with fellows urinating on his wall. Passersby would take advantage of the privacy offered by a narrow isle between the Indian’s garage and the next building. The biggest problem was that his garage walls are made from iron sheets and the urine was slowly corroding them away. So, after his huge handwritten warning proved to be ineffective, he connected a live electricity wire to the iron sheets. Other than the first few men that walked out of the isle with echoes of their savage yells still reverberating in the air, unzipped trousers, dazed looks, and hair standing on ends, the Indian is confident that he has found the perfect solution to the urine menace that threatened to eat up his walls.

A Day In Lower Nairobi

June28

There is always some drama of some sort happening in Lower Nairobi. George Muchai, my man with a finger on the pulse of Lower Nairobi tells me about a crowd that gathered around a downtown brothel last week. There was a rumor that a fornicating couple had gotten stuck together in one of the upstairs rooms and naturally, the mob was curious to see the once in a lifetime spectacle.

Quickly, an enterprising duo set up a makeshift barrier at the door and demanded a fee of 20 shillings a head for admittance into the brothel. But after a while, some City Council constables arrived and started questioning the duo about the legality of their charges. As the crowd milled around in curiosity — with no one sure of what was going on any more — there was a deliberate stampede and the coins from the gate collection flew in all directions. With that, a wild scramble for money for the nimble and an unexpected harvest of wallets for pickpockets ensued.

In the meantime, business was extremely good in the brothel since apparently, the men who paid to enter discovered that it was all a hoax – there was no bizarre spectacle after all — and there was nothing else for them to do inside there.

Right Of Way

June28

Attending any of the many Kenyan driving schools will first expose you to the theory of driving before you are ready to take on the road with your instructor. In theory of driving, you learn how to maneuver toy cars on a wooden board with markings of various road configurations in the country – from single, to dual carriageways, to T-junctions and roundabouts. The theory lessons ensure that you know your rights on the road as a driver, as well as the rights of other road users.

But once you graduate and get your driving license, you realize that all those theories you learnt about your rights on the road as a driver are just that – theories. The real situation on the road is that drivers – especially matatu (public service vehicle) drivers – will clamor into any space available regardless of which lane the space is in. This often results in loud annoyed hoots when for example one driver is on a lane for turning left, but the car on their left makes a sharp right turn because the driver scrambled for a space in the wrong lane. That being the state of affairs, it is safest to throw the theories of your right of way as a driver out of the window and assume that you have no right of way.

Being a new driver, you might insist on forcing the other driver to acknowledge your right of way. It might work, but it will eventually result in an accident. When the traffic police come and confirm in writing that the other driver was in the wrong, one is usually left with two options: either ask the other driver to incur the cost of repairing your car, or let the insurance company take that responsibility. Most seasoned drivers take the first option. However, being a new driver, you might want to let the insurance company repair your car. After all, you paid a premium for just such eventualities. But before the insurance company can undertake any repairs on your car, you have to pay what they call “excess fee”. On top of that, you might be asked to pay a penalty for being involved in an accident as a “young and inexperienced” driver. Overall, you end up coughing around $300 to $500 to the insurance company for repairs that might have cost you less than $100. The insurance company representative usually assures you that they will refund the money once it has been recovered from the other driver’s insurance company. But I can assure you that it does not always go that way. I have a motor vehicle insurance claim dating back to the 90s, and I am still waiting.

So you see, it is safest to throw the theories of your right of way as a driver out of the window and assume that you have no right of way at all.

Kenyan drivers are not entirely to blame for all the chaos in the roads. Due to the recent astronomical increase in the number of vehicles in the roads, congestion has become a serious problem. So serious that most times, you are forced to make polite hand gestures to the driver next to you as a matter of courtesy in order that he or she may brake and allow you to change lanes. This is what we refer to as “asking for way”. However, most Kenyan men drivers complain that a woman driver will never “give you way.”

The other day, I found myself discussing with a friend about the reasons why the women drivers tend to be reluctant in giving way to male drivers. In Kenya, you need to have a reasonably well paying job, or a fairly successful business for you to afford to drive your own car. That being the case, and given the hurdles that women have to overcome to keep up with men in the offices or in business, you can appreciate how extremely ambitious a woman has to be in order to drive her own car in our roads. Just like in many other countries, Kenyan women have to fight ceaselessly in order to get the respect that comes naturally for their male colleagues at work. That means having to produce better output, and even work harder among other things. Perhaps the fact that the woman driver will not allow a man to get in front of her just like that, is a reflex action borne from the instinct to fight to maintain her position or move ahead in society.

Willing To Live

June27

Life Or Death

One thing that people are not sure they want to think is if they are better off dead than alive. Somehow, we always think that whenever we consider this question, we are at the end of our tether- we are desperate and have no use living any more. That we are hanging on by the whisker of a flea, and the evidence is right there for us to see: in the form of wondering if we are better off dead than alive. Perhaps the reason is because we only think about it when everything else has failed.

We are even more afraid to let others know that we wonder about this. What would they think? But the fact is that everybody wonders about this once in a while. But then, it is one of those things that we cringe from discussing, even with our closest friends. In fact, you or I might even have committed suicide were we braver and more committed at the time we really wanted to kill ourselves.

One question that always comes to mind is; what is wrong in wondering if life is worth living? Whether we like it or not, death is at the end of our lives on earth. Death is the night at the end of our day. The point of death is when one looks back at the life they have lived and says, “yes, I did good,” or God forbid, “damn! I wish I did better.” – like reflecting on the day’s activities before going into a deep sleep.

If we do not think about death, how can we understand the life that we live?

Our training in school, at home, at work, tells us that we should plan with the end in mind. That is why we burn the midnight oil with the thoughts of forthcoming exams. That is why we work so hard with the vision of the paycheck in our minds. That is why we climb higher with the peak of the mountain in our sight. And we go through pain with the unshakable faith that there is relief at the end of it all. Every journey has a start point, just as it has an end point. In our journey of life, why are we so afraid of considering the end point? If we do not visualize the point of our deaths, how can we get to understand what we need to get out of life? Or give to others before we leave?

But I suppose all this depends on what you consider to be at the point of your death. What will happen when you die?

At some point, I used to be worried about dying at home alone since people might not know that I died, and I might end up being discovered after many days, with maggots crawling all over my body. At times I wondered how bad it would look if I were to die without clothes on. Other times it made me sick to consider that I might die in a road accident and be taken to the government morgue where corpses are dumped on the floor unceremoniously. I would rather die quietly with my mouth and eyes closed, a peaceful look on my face, and my hands over my chest – like a saint. I would like my body to be taken to the prestigious funeral parlor where my body can be handled with dignity. I would love a sober funeral with instrumental music and subdued crying from all the people who love me.

But then, the fantasy becomes unpleasant when I realize that I would have to be buried in the ground – looking up to face each shovelful coming down on the casket with a muffled hollow sound of a heap of soil hitting a wooden box. Soon, the sound would be gone and it would just be soil being heaped upon soil. And then they would plant a cross with my name on it, place flowers on the fresh heap of earth and go home, leaving me alone in the night, in a grave, inside my dark, airless coffin. When one dies, the heart stops pumping and the stagnant body fluids leak through the ears, nose, and other body openings. In the end, that is what it comes down to.

One can never bear to think about these images for long without the knowledge that there is much more than this. In fact, these images keep many people from killing themselves. And so, they exist in the world doing everything they can to avoid risks that might end up killing them.

Is there much more than this?

Knowing that there is much more than this frees you from the fear of death. Then you are able to live to the full, and enjoy your life in the knowledge that soon you will be gone from this world to a better place.

You might ask, “I am not enjoying life and nothing seems to want to be what I would like it to be. What then is the point of being alive?”

HIS WILL

May I tell you a story? A while ago, I tried to discover God’s will in my life. I said to myself that surely, with all the gifts that I have, I could do something magnificent in this world. So, I prayed for God to show me the way in this matter. And I prayed and asked myself a question I ask once in a while: “How come I never get a job, an interview – even a regret letter whenever I apply? I know that I am qualified and that I am willing to work. Why? Why?”

Why should I struggle to make ends meet and yet I have searched diligently for God for such a long time? Why is my world confined to just me and the little things I do in my house? I have no wife, no children, few friends, and I do not even interact much with my family. Why should my world be so small?

But then, He came back to me and told me that there is nothing that is not His will in our lives. Everything that we do, every breath that we take, every word that we say, even every sin that we commit, is because of His will.

When it then became clear that I am what I am, where I am, doing what I do because of God’s will, I began looking at my life with its many possibilities. I began thanking Him for the things that He has done for me and the magnificent life that I live. The reason is because each moment, something wonderful, something bigger than I ever imagined is unfolding in my life – slowly but surely. And I know it and I can feel it. And it can only happen when I am in my current circumstances.

Would I be happier working for an NGO for dollars in another country than I usually am at home at my balcony writing without pay? Would I be happier when busy applying my skills and energies for the service of others while I forget my own self? Would I be happier with a house full of children’s voices than I am hearing the sound of the birds in the silence of the evening?

You see, he looks at everything that we think we need and everything that we think we want, and makes the highest choice based on what is best for us. He chooses what is best for us depending on what HE MADE US for in this life – or our purpose. Without taking time to know your purpose, a person lives an ambiguous life – unhappy, and dissatisfied, fretting all the time and asking why? why? why? The reason is because the person has no idea that God is working with and through him or her to accomplish a particular goal. As a result, each blessing is not appreciated and we become chronic whiners. And so we try something we think is “right” or “suitable” for us, and end up failing since we do it without God’s blessings.

Do you remember the story of Jonah who was sent to Nineveh to preach but decided not to go and headed elsewhere? While in a boat to another place in defiance, God caused a storm to occur that finally made Jonah to be thrown into the sea. A whale swallowed Jonah, only to vomit him at the shores of the town God had sent him.

There is also another story from the Bible of a man called Balam who insisted on going to a place that God did not want him to. Balam’s donkey refused to bulge and he beat it savagely with a stick, so much, that God enabled it to speak and ask him, “why are you beating me?” You see, the Angel of God was in the donkey’s path with a sword ready to slaughter Balam had he tried to move. His donkey saved him.

I do not know if that thing that keeps going wrong in your life is Balam’s donkey, or even the whale that swallowed Jonah. The relevance of sin and mistakes in this world is to correct us and to remind us that we have moved away from our appointed paths or the straight and narrow. It would not matter how mercilessly we flog ourselves – leave alone kill ourselves – if we did not right the wrongs that we did. It is as effective as rubbing out a wrong answer without writing down the correct one. Write down the correct answer.

As you strive to do the right thing remember that you are who you are, where you are, doing what you are doing right now because it is HIS WILL. It has always, always, always, been HIS WILL.

Always pray for understanding of purpose and be thankful for HIS WILL.

Different Strokes

June27

On many occasions when I have tended to get self-righteous and critical of others on spiritual issues, Yvette always reminds me that I am not the only one who is searching for God. And she is right because at some level, each one of us is looking for God in one way or another. Maybe you might know what I mean if you ever went looking for comfort in alcohol, or traded sex for companionship in a chain of loveless relationships, or done other such things that seem so harmless – even pleasant – at first yet have devastating effects once we become so dependent on them that we can’t quit at will. At such times, the will becomes a liability since the more you try, the harder it becomes on your conscience each time you fail. The hole in you becomes deeper and wider until you feel like a hollow shell that houses a shriveled bitter heart that knows no love.

It is at this time – when you feel like you are wallowing in the mud at the bottom of the well – feeling so sorry for yourself, cheap and even worthless, you end up crying for yourself, and end up crying out to God. As you grope in the dark, you instinctively know that He is the switch that will turn on the light in your dark, dank life.

But then you realize that it is not as easy as they say in church to just accept God into your life or get “saved”. At least not for you since for starters, there is not even a flutter in your chest, leave alone a blinding white light to lead you home. Secondly, you have never learnt to pray beyond the Lord’s Prayer, or the prayer that you learnt in school. At best, you start to pray and then you become stuck since in all honesty, you are trying to communicate with a stranger. You realize that you are shy and the effort to express yourself to the Unknown that is also invisible makes you feel sheepish. To make things worse, you have to convince yourself that He is keen to listen to your problems all the way from His judgment seat in heaven, as He turns the records with a dismal look of disapproval at your recent poor performance.

It is especially difficult when you are in a foreign country. You see, back home you can run to church on Sunday and count on the righteousness of fellow churchgoers to dilute your guilt – the first early morning service particularly has that effect. When in a foreign country, the concept of going to church feels as alien as everything else you encounter and so it is not unusual to spend months – even years – before gracing the house of God. So, when you decide to search for God, you realize that just like in most areas of your life, you are undeniably on your own.

And curiously, this is the time you do not want anyone to tell you about God – almost as annoying as someone asking you if you are OK, when you are seriously depressed. You are as unloving as you are unlovable. It is especially hard on a man since it is common knowledge to anyone who considers himself macho that all this heaven stuff is for girls and pansies.

I was in this hiatus when I found myself riding in a bus one day in Hargeisa, Somaliland. I felt irritated by the unbearable afternoon heat, the people around me speaking in a language I could not understand, a relationship that was going nowhere, the goats roaming freely on the side of the road – everything. Seated on the opposite side was a man with a half open mouth that made him look stupefied by a simple bus ride. He was almost in coma and the only thing that was moving in his body was his hands as he thumbed through his prayer beads. As I looked at him, I saw in his eyes something that I will never forget in my life. There was peace.

All through that day, I saw the image of the man with a hanging jaw, the prayer beads, and a look of peace in his eyes. And despite being in the most “successful” period in my life, I might as well have been alone in the middle of the forest; lost. I found myself envying this man who was obviously very poor yet seemed complete in a way I had no words to explain. His peace was so profound I could still feel it hours later – like the pleasant aftertaste of a favorite dessert in the mouth. And I desired this kind of peace like someone seeing another with a nice dress and saying, “I’ve got to have it!”

The following day, I went to the market next to the mosque and enquired about the significance of prayer beads. I was told that they are used to repeat a single prayer – or mantra if you like – over and over again. There are 99 beads in a single chain. One pass through the chain as you thumb each of the beads will ensure that you have said the same prayer 99 times. So, I bought one.

At first I was embarrassed about the beads and only used them in hiding. However, I realized that the simple – almost childish – act of saying the same prayer over and over did have some calming effects on the spirit. And surprisingly, I began learning how to talk to God beyond the prayer I learnt in Primary school.

I still use the Somali prayer beads regularly. You will agree with me that in this business of searching for God in the world of today, we need all the help we can get. If you ask for it, God’s help can come from the most unlikely of places. Help came through a chance encounter with the unknown Somali man in a bus. The beads work for me. They are especially useful when the busyness of life keeps one from finding time to be still and connect with self.

But as they say; different strokes for different folks. What works for you?

The Douglas Challenge

June26

Well, hearing from you makes up for the effort of writing. Thanks.

It is a pleasant surprise that you should be the first to comment about the Douglas story. I even wondered if you somehow knew that you are directly responsible for making me write it down. How?

Remember you recently asked me how I look for God in my life?

Being brought up in a Christian family, I used to believe everything I was told about God when I was a kid. But then when I grew up, I began having questions that I could not get answers to. Many of the things that I had been told so far were not making sense to me. And I think I stopped believing.

I stopped believing, even though I did not know it. Douglas is the person who woke me up to that fact. When I questioned him about what God he believed in, he threw the same question right back at me. I told Him that I am a Christian, I believe in almighty God, and said all those things that a good Christian should say. With that, he laughed and said that I did not believe in God, for I did not know the God I was talking about. It was in that laugh that I knew instantly that as far as God is concerned, Douglas believed in something. Did I?That haunted me for a very long time since even though I denied it in Douglas’s face, I could not deny the facts in my heart.

The fact was that I was looking for God. I desperately wanted to know who He was and wanted Him to be in my life. My trip to Zimbabwe came at a time when I was looking for answers to many questions. I had read fascinating accounts about Buddhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism and many other religions of the world – all of them acknowledging the presence of God. Each one of these religions knew their God passionately, could fight and even die for Him. So, who was my God? I had already read the Da Vinci Code and many other controversial books and pondered about all those questions that bother people about the Christian faith.

I had to hold myself accountable for not knowing the God that I claimed to know and even went to church to worship. Without knowing Him personally, I was talking about the God of someone else: the God of last Sunday’s preacher, the God of my parents, the God of my religion. But who was my God?

Zimbabwe made me think of the African God that we have read so much about, and yet cannot relate to since He stopped being fashionable. I got to be reminded that we had good and evil spirits even before Christianity introduced us to the Holy Spirit (good) and demons (bad). As Kikuyus, we have our bona fide Ngai – the God of Mount Kirinyaga – who is as powerful as Jehovah the God Moses encountered in the Mount Sinai. We have traditional doctors that we no longer trust because they wear a monkey skin constume instead of a white lab coat. We have prophets and seers that no longer matter, yet we crowd into healing and prophesy crusades to witness miracles.

And at the back of all this I ask myself; could it be that we are all worshiping the same God using different languages; calling Him by different names? Could it be that God sent different messengers to different people in the form of Mohammed, or Jesus, or Buddha, or even Mugo wa Kibiru? Would God be offended if you built a church with the shape of a mosque? Supposing I decide to dedicate a sacred bush, or the highest mountain, or the mysterious sun to the worship of God? What if you pray to God through a dead saint and I pray to Him through my dead ancestor? Supposing we all agree to let each worship his or her own God without antagonism or pressure? Supposing the one Supreme God that we believe in replaces all religions? Wouldn’t that be the highest level of Godliness – if we were to practice love, peace and tolerance towards our brothers and sisters?

So my friend, the answer is that I find God in my heart every day. I am sure it is the same God that is in your heart. It is the same God that you find each time you turn inwards and look.

Once again, I thank you.

A Close Encounter Of The Spirit Medium Type

June26

Meet Douglas

Douglas is one of the most interesting people that I came across when I visited Zimbabwe. The reason is because of his incredible connection with the world of the dead. If you meet him over some drinks like I did, you might easily dismiss his stories as morbid fantasies of a young man who is just out to spoil your night’s sleep by freaking you out with ghost stories.

I began taking him seriously when through different sources, I corroborated a story he told me about the origin of the scar that is visible just above one of his ears. The tiny scar divides his hair into two and appears like a mark left when a giant iron claw made a close pass over the side of his head. Douglas told me that a passing bullet from a gun made the mark when he was about 8 or 9 years old. At that age, he was living in the bush in the country of Mozambique with freedom fighters who were waging guerilla war in order to secure Zimbabwe’s independence. Of course you know that Zimbabwe got its independence from White minority rule in 1980?

Douglas had a special role to play in the guerilla group he was a member of: It was to direct the routes the men took as they waged their hide and seek warfare against the colonialist’s forces. How did Douglas manage to do that? He had a special gift of dreaming, and he would more or less have the safest route mysteriously drawn into his young mind on the night before any movements took place. Time and time again, his dreams saved his rag tag group from deadly encounters with, and imminent annihilation from the more superiorly armed government forces.

After Zimbabwe got its independence, Douglas went back home where he is now a teacher. However, he still features prominently in the occult as a spirit medium for his immediate and extended family. What does that mean? It means that the spirit of one of his dead ancestors occasionally possesses him — a great grandfather to be precise. He told me that it is very easy to induce the possessed state. One needs to just play a Zimbabwean traditional stringed instrument called mbira. You see, each time mbira is played Douglas cannot resist dancing. He loves the sound of mbira so much that he dances himself into a frenzy — and that is when he spirit of his dead ancestor takes over: He becomes wide eyed, his voice changes, and he totally loses his identity as a thirty something year old man, to became a grumpy geezer that his great grandfather used to be. While in that state, he is able to foretell a person’s future, give effective remedies to life problems, and hand out warnings of danger looming in the horizon. When he becomes himself once again, he usually has no recollection of what happened.

Douglas is also useful during traditional ceremonies. One of the most common one that he officiates happens on the first anniversary of a person’s death. At that time, a fete is held in order to call upon the spirit of the dead person from yonder, so that it can become a guardian to the living. How do you tell that the spirit has accepted that role? Usually a goat will be brought next to the grave and cold water poured on its back. The climax of the ceremony happens when the goat shakes off the water vigorously — the people break into jubilation with the addition of one more protector from the land of the dead.

His role as a spirit medium discourages the consumption of alcohol, the use of scented soap for washing, and fried food. But you might not be able pick out Douglas from a crowd as being different in any way.

From left: Douglas, me, Ronnie and Philip. As you can see, Douglas is not necessarily the freakiest looking dude, no?

On an ordinary day, he is just a primary school teacher who loves boggling others with unfathomable English vocabulary, and weird out of this world stories. He has a great sense of humor, loves a good time, and is quite delightful to hang out with.

Death In The Family

During my 3 week stay in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, my host Philip planned a road trip to the town on Masvingo so that we could visit Great Zimbabwe. Douglas really wanted to come with us, and being a working day, he managed to get two days off only after explaining to his Principle at school that he had to attend a relative’s funeral. And it was while we sat listening to the unexpected news that he would come with us on the trip, that his phone rang and he was informed that his cousin had died about a week earlier. The strange thing was that the cousin lived along the road that we would take on our way to Masvingo, and he was to be buried the following day. And that is how we ended up making a stop at the home of the deceased, and Douglas’s heretofore excuse to skip work became a reality. By now, I was beginning to feel uneasy about the way things were going.

I did not want to appear scared and even though I did not know what to expect, I did not ask what was going to happen. I pretended to be taking things at my stride. It did not help my nerves when upon arrival at the home of the deceased, all the women broke into loud wailing upon seeing us, and moved towards us in rag doll unison, expecting to be condoled in the local language. I did not know what to do! And Douglas seemed to be enjoying my discomfort at the unexpected mourning custom.

Anyway, that soon passed and I quickly asked what else to expect. And it was not very encouraging since apparently, the body would arrive from the mortuary in the evening and be laid in one of the houses in the homestead overnight before burial the following day. That was different from my custom that required the dead to be buried within 2 to 3 hours of leaving the mortuary. That meant we would have to spend the night with the mourning family, with the knowledge that a dead body was lying just a few meters from where we sat.

Douglas, with other men by the fire.

I sat by an open fire with the men who talked in low voices as they passed cigarette stubs around in an almost ritualistic circle of smoking. The women stayed indoors and sang Christian dirges. Each time a sizeable group of people came to join the grieving family, loud wailing would come from the room where the body was lying. That night passed very slowly.

Preparing the grave

At some point in the night, we went to sit next to the freshly dug grave. Stories were exchanged about grave thieves that not only steal coffins, and clothing, but also body parts for some voodoo rituals of one nature or another. As the men competed to tell the most chilling tale of grave theft, it became too cold and so we went back to the fire. However, a small group was left behind to guard the grave against any malicious person that might attempt to perform some juju before the burial. Being guests, we were offered a place to sleep and I managed to sleep some few winks. But still, that night passed very slowly.

Thankfully, we were off the following morning on the way to Masvingo and was glad to leave all that behind.

However, one thing that was quite apparent was that throughout that night, there was some simmering animosity. Douglas and most of the other young men were very disgruntled. The reason was because being a staunch Christian, his uncle- the father of the deceased — prevented them from carrying out a traditional send off to their fellow young man. That would have involved traditional dances accompanying mbira music. And that is how I missed a chance to see Douglas become possessed by the spirit of his great grandfather.

Trapped In Between

A few days later, we were invited to a send off party for one of Douglas’s cousins who was going back home to his adopted country in the UK. The guy had come for a visit that was not of an ordinary nature.

Apparently, while in London this young man had somehow suddenly discovered that he had the extra ordinary ability of becoming a spirit medium. The reason why he came back home was to consult with the elders so that he could decide on how to make his next move. When he arrived he had tried to verbally deny the power and those who had been there said they witnessed him being thrown physically across the room by some invisible force. From then onwards, he began taking the issue with much more seriousness.

I remember talking to him, and hearing about his dilemma. He is married to a Briton in the UK, with whom they have a child, has a job and has invested in real estate. It looked like his life was off to soaring heights until his African roots finally caught up with him. By the time he left Zimbabwe for the UK, the only thing he said is that he would be coming back home soon.

In the short time I was there, I discovered that the feeling of being trapped between the old African customs and the acquired Western ways was not just limited to Douglas’s cousin from the UK. There was plenty of evidence, of people being torn between their roots and the new world. If you travel around Harare especially on a Sunday, you will not fail to notice many small gatherings of people worshiping God by the many magnificent physical features that dot the landscape. Even though the members of these groupings carry crosses and wear white flowing robes, they feel obliged to worship by a humongous precariously balanced rock, or huge wizened tree, or sacred bush, as if they can’t quite give up the age old African way of worshiping by a shrine that takes the form of a mystical physical features.

Choosing

The difficult choices that the Zimbabweans have to making between the African and the Western became apparent to me when I was put on the spot. That was on the day that Douglas took me to see a diviner. A diviner is someone who claims to discover hidden knowledge with the aid of supernatural powers. Before we went to see the diviner, I just thought to myself “now that I am here, why not just see if my messy life can be untangled?” Whereas Douglas’s ‘powers’ only apply to his immediate and extended family, this diviner’s ‘powers’ extended farther and covered all Zimbabweans and South African. The diviner said that her ‘powers’ covered other foreigners as well when she discovered that I was not South African as originally thought.

The diviner was well known in the neighborhood and we were quickly pointed to her residence. And so we arrived to a nondescript house in one of what is referred to as ‘high density’ residential areas of Harare. She was a woman who is slightly older than my mother, and quickly got into business as soon as we exchanged a few niceties.

Her paraphernalia included a hat made from the skin of a wild animal, some cowrie shells, water container and flywhisk made from the tail of a cow. She had a young girl as her assistant. Strangely, she also had a rosary with a sizeable wooden cross at its end clutched in one hand.

When the divination began in earnest, the woman talked in an esoteric language, which was translated by her young assistant into Shona language so that Douglas could understand. Douglas then translated whatever was said into English for my benefit. However, one word that was understandable to me all the while was “Jesusâ€.

Was she effective? Well, she might as well have been reading a horoscope column from a magazine that talked about my character based upon my star; she was generally right in everything that she said. But then she asked me one question about my constant traveling; “what is it that you are looking for?” And through Douglas, I told her that I would be very happy of she were to tell me the answer to that question. So, she said that I have ‘the spirit of the mermaid’ that makes me feel the need to wander. She said that in one extreme, it is a very troublesome spirit and it might make it very difficult for me to settle down anywhere, and on the other extreme, it is extremely benevolent — even has healing powers.

And so the diviner told me that I had 2 options. Option number one, I could come with a white cockerel the following day and she could perform a traditional ceremony by the local lake at midnight in order to purge the troublesome spirit. The second option was that I could pray to God and He would lead me to what I was looking for. After careful consideration, I decided to take the second option.

The Roots

Douglas told me and showed me many incredible things. We visited Mbare market — a sort of a mall where herbalists and traditional healers display their wares. There are many traditional remedies for asthma, epilepsy, venereal diseases, arthritis, and a host of other diseases. There is also a whole section dedicated of traditional aphrodisiacs made from a plethora of plant and animal extracts.

On a visit to a herbalist cum traditional healer. He is the one on the extreme left.

One very interesting story that Douglas told me is about a particular tree that has cucumber like fruits. Apparently, it has the remedy for any man who feels that he has a small penis. With the help of a witch doctor, you cut off half the cucumber looking fruit and rub the sap mixed with some herbs on a cut on your skin. From then onwards, your penis will grow at the rate at which the fruit grows. Once you feel that you are satisfied with the size, you just need to go and cut off the rest of the fruit to prevent further growth. The only danger with this remedy is that people usually forget which tree their cucumber fruit grew in, and they end up with a penis that grows uncontrollably.

In Mbare, there is something for everyone. For the ladies, there is a powder that is touted to instantly restore virginity: Just one application and you are ready to experience your first night all over again! I was told that this one is popular with the girls who never want their men to look at any other woman twice.

While in Zimbabwe, I realized just how far I am from my roots as an African. The things that I saw in Zimbabwe are the things that I read about in books about how my community lived once upon a time. Of course we now label these things with words like ‘evil’ and ‘dark’ and ‘primitive’ and dismiss them with horror and disgust. We even cringe with indignation when someone tries to associate them with us and tightly embrace our acquired Western culture. But as they say, we need to know where we are coming from in order for us to know where we are going.

“Persons and societies do not submit passively to surroundings and events. They make choices as to the places where they live and the activities in which they engage – choices based on what they want to be, to do and to become. Furthermore, persons and societies often change their goals and ways; they can even retrace their steps and start in a new direction if they believe they are on a wrong course. Thus, whereas animal life is prisoner of biological evolution which is essentially irreversible, human life has the wonderful freedom of social evolution which is rapidly reversible and creative. Wherever human beings are concerned, trend is not destiny.”

- Rene Dubos

Too Small?

June24

“If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to
bed with a mosquito in the room.”

- Anita Roddick

One Man’s Worth Of Life

June18

One day, a man looked critically at the life that he lived.

Starting with work, he realized that despite a college education, a grave digger had a higher chance of happiness from his job than him. Getting out of bed on a working day required as much will as trying to silence a rumbling stomach in the library. The only award he would ever win in his career is that of being the boss’s favorite piñata in the office.

His family life was not rosy either. He had tried to convince his wife time and time again about the need to work some extra hours each day in order to make some headway in his career. But it was a lie since between the choice of coming home to a hostile wife and spending time in a dead beat job, he chose the latter; at least it paid. For him, happiness in marriage evaporated as rapidly as the spray from a flea’s sneeze in the Sahara desert a long time before.

Perhaps the biggest mess was in his personal life. He had watched his growth slow down, stagnate, and then start to reverse in a span of just a few years. Now he drank more than ever before, was grossly overweight, and his self esteem was so low, one could no longer distinguish it from his shadow on the floor.

That day, he decided to end it all by jumping to his death. And as he walked to the top of the highest building in town, he reflected on his bad luck in life; His family was never rich, and so he did not have any advantage. His father was not an educated man and so did not give him advice when he needed it. Everyone looked up to him and expected financial help all the time. Wasn’t it obvious how hard he was struggling? Didn’t they even have the decency to lay aside their annoying begging bowls for just once to ask him what was going on? No one cared!

Finally, he came to the top of the building. No one cared. He moved to the edge and looked down. He did not want to think about God at all. Where was He when life was getting so rotten? No one cared. With his eyes closed, he braced himself for the plunge. No one cared. But then, he decided to take one last look at the world that never worked for him. And so he opened his eyes.

And it was almost like with opening the eyes, he opened up all his other sense. The drone of idling engines rose from the traffic that was backed up at a red light below and reached his ears at his perch. The familiar stink of fuel fumes with a mingling of fried food was now very sharp in his nose. And he felt a gust of wind slam into him as it blew his tie into ripples of colored fabric in the air. He saw the busy street, alive with people moving up and down in opposite rows like marching ants.

And then he wondered, ‘All those people down there, what are they thinking? Where are they coming from, or going? How many of them have a job? How many have families?’ Without knowing why, the man moved to the opposite edge of the building and looked down. Again he saw the cars, buildings, and people. And again he wondered, ‘Is there one of those people who does not have a problem? What are their problems?’

With a new awareness, the man raised his eyes and looked straight ahead until he could see the edge of the city at a distance. And as his new awareness grew, he visualized the next town…then, a town in the next country…and then, a town in a country in the next continent…each with people moving up and down like marching ants. And finally he wondered, ‘Of all those people, with each having his or her problems, am I the one with the most problems?’

And as he stood at the top of the tall building, he began reasoning with himself. True, no one seemed to care much for him, but how could he expect anyone to care for him if he did not care for himself? Now, supposing he started taking care of himself? Then he would be able to acquire self respect and be able to redeem himself in his own eyes. Eventually, respect would come from his wife, kids, family, colleagues and boss. Wasn’t that worth living for? Armed with the new insight, he found himself climbing down the building in a rush to go and start taking control of his life.

And in another totally unrelated story, Project Manager Leaves Suicide PowerPoint Presentation..

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