How to Live in this World
By Maylan Dunn-Kenney
The sun bore down on us as we walked across dusty, barren fields. I’d never seen things so dry here. Joseph told us that some of the families we’d be visiting could be away from home. There wasn’t much farming to be done in this drought and people were taking their animals further away from home to find water. Just then he straightened up and signaled to a group of women about five hundred yards away. We hurried through the dust after him, forsaking the path to meet one of the women who was now heading toward us. As we approached, Joseph explained, “This is one of the parents we hoped to interview. We’ve just caught her on the way to visit a friend in the hospital. We can talk with her here.” Knowing she had a long journey ahead of her, several miles’ walk and a crowded matatu ride into Machakos, my colleague and I juggled our notes and tape recorders, produced an informed consent form, and did an abbreviated interview. It was our first interview of the day, and I was already feeling like an intruder. The families we would be interviewing today were families in crisis. This part of Kenya had not had significant rainfall for four years. Except for the jagged sisal plants, nothing was growing.
The previous evening we’d been sitting with our host family, enjoying each other’s company after a wholesome meal of ugali, stew, and greens. Our discussion turned to the drought. I learned that most of what we’d eaten for dinner came from the market, a most unusual meal by the norms of the community. “We’re eating out of our pockets!” our host exclaimed in dismay. In a community where currency is scarce, and people are resourceful, it is a sign of peril when food has to be purchased. Money just isn’t dependable.
After our hasty standing interview, we wound our way through hilly paths between rows of sisal, down dusty roads and cattle paths, meeting some parents at home, others moving their thin little goats and gaunt brown cattle to water, but finding other households deserted. Mud brick buildings that would usually be surrounded by shady arbors and well-kept shambas full of maize and peas and greens, stood starkly against the clear blue sky. My colleague and I felt silly offering the notebooks and pencils we’d brought for their children. A bag of meal would have been more warmly received.
At last we approached a small cement block kiosk at the side of the road. We were invited in for a cool drink, and the kiosk owner and her son stopped painting the shutters to join us inside. Others from the community appeared soon after and a lively discussion followed concerning some alarming events that had occurred two nights before in the sandy river bed nearby.
We had just come from the dry river bed. It had been hard walking through deep sand in the scorching sun, but the river bed was full of activity. A number of families were there with their animals. The sand was dotted with deep holes and many people were engaged in digging them deeper. These holes were temporary wells dug into the sand to expose residual water from the last rainy season. Wells had to be dug quite deep in the drought, but there was a huge sand reservoir to hold moisture. The wells were still producing small amounts of water, perhaps enough to keep the animals and people alive until it rained again. Wells belonged to those who dug them, and each was carefully covered. However, it was all one reservoir. The river was part of the commons and the survival of the whole community depended on it.
Sitting in the cool kiosk, we heard that some of the young men who frequented one part of the river bed had noticed some evidence that large quantities of sand were being removed. They suspected someone might be removing truckloads of sand to sell to construction companies in Nairobi. They agreed to stand guard together at night and sure enough, they caught a former government official from their own district backing a large empty dump truck up to the river bed in the middle of the night. They confronted the man and attempted to prevent him from taking any sand, but the man called the police and had them arrested. Two of the men who were arrested stood in the kiosk and gave an animated account of the events. They said they’d been released that morning and no charges had been filed, but they were concerned about how to protect the sand reservoir against profit-takers.
We continued on, visiting homes and doing interviews for another two hours or so. By the time we started up the road toward our hosts’ home, I knew that I was probably a sight to see: sweaty, covered in dust, alarmingly red-faced no doubt, and dragging. As we trudged up the road, we were stopped by an elderly woman who came into the road to invite us into her home. She eagerly led us up to a small, mud brick building and ushered us inside. As we stepped into the darkened entry, I sighed with relief. The thick walls and cement floor had kept the room quite cool. As our eyes adjusted from the bright sun, we each gladly settled into one of four straight-backed wooden chairs. Our elderly hostess introduced herself and said how happy she was to welcome us. We thanked her profusely for her hospitality and shared that we had been visiting parents, asking them about what their children did at home and what they learned from it. She was very interested in this idea and began to tell us about her childhood which she explained was “before education came” and “before salvation.”
At that time, she said, there were many people at home, and all were busy. People shared stories, work, singing, dancing, and food. Children learned all of it, mostly by watching and participating. But the dances were another thing. “Dances were our school,” she said. She went on to explain that each dance was important for a different reason… that the steps had to be learned but also the “attitude” or demeanor. She explained how she prepared special clothing for dancing so that she was beautiful and there was ringing of bells when she walked. Then there would be a night when all the elders assembled, and drums sounded all night, and food was shared. The men would be watching the young women dancing, and the women knew they would be deciding who to take for their wives. As our hostess talked, she laughed with enjoyment. “When we saw the elders enjoyed our dancing,” she said, “it was like it is today when children pass a test. We were so happy.”
She looked around her and out the doorway at the nearly deserted homestead, dusty and barren. “Now it’s quiet here,” she said, “but at Christmas when my grandchildren come from Nairobi, we sit together and I share stories. I tell them how to live in this world. It is dangerous. We are in the last days.”
Maylan Dunn-Kenney lives on the flat plains of DeKalb, Illinois with her husband. She teaches at Northern Illinois University, tends a vegetable garden, and is an active member of the local Unitarian Universalist fellowship.