Thursday, April 14, 2011

Worth their salt

About two weeks ago I heard that a group of ladies were digging in a neighbor's garden. I walked down to visit them and see what was going on. I've mentioned before how important agriculture is to the Ik society. Everyone has a garden and everyone has to dig in it, plant in it, weed it & then harvest it throughout the year. The Iks' agricultural year opened at the end of January and people have started to dig in their gardens ever since, preparing for the rains when they can plant. During dry season, grasses and weeds sprout up. The ground is hard and not so much fun to dig in. But these ladies have the right idea. As long as they have to do the mundane task of digging in undesirable conditions, they might as well do it together. Instead of one person only digging in their garden every day, they form groups to dig in different people's gardens every day. This way, one can gossip with their friends while battling weeds and a painful lower back. In exchange for the work, the lady whose garden is being dug will prepare the local brew (a fermented maize drink) for everyone. A few ladies will start digging at 8am and others will join the group as they are able. They dig until midday when they stop and relax under a shade tree while partaking of mes (the drink mentioned above). By the afternoon it's too hot to dig and everyone goes home to do chores.

I was too late the day I went to group work with my hoe. Everyone was already sitting, drinking mes & chatting. But I threw the hoe a few strokes anyway and listened to them laugh at me. [Side note: it's indispensable to be able to laugh at yourself with others when living in another culture...inevitably....they will laugh at you.] A few of the group kindly got up and showed me the 'proper' way to hoe the ground. And each of them had a different 'proper' way to do it. Eventually the hoe was taken away from me and was in use by someone else. For some reason, they don't like to see me doing manual labor. They want me to sit in the shade and let others do the work. I appreciate that kindness, although it probably comes from their view of my weakness. I have it in my mind to prove them wrong on this point.

Anyway, I did sit and chat with them. They asked when I wanted them to come and dig in my garden. Now, the small kitchen garden in our compound doesn't need a group of 25 ladies working in it but a neighbor had just offered to let us use some of his land to plant a wider variety of grains & veg this year. Thinking of this, I agreed that they should come the following Friday. But I didn't know how to make mes and I wanted to pay them in a different way. They came up with the payment immediately, which told me that they had put some thought into this whole issue before I even showed up at the garden. The Ik aren't stupid....they know how to formulate plans. They wanted salt and lots of it. I agreed.

Friday arrived and I was ready at 8am but no one else was there. I was told that they were still preparing breakfast for the children and doing morning chores. By 9am, two women had showed up and we walked down to my 'rented' garden plot. I say 'rented' because the neighbor who owns the garden is going to get to split everything that grows there with us. The neighbor pointed out the plot to us and then left, but sent his wife to join our group. And we started digging. Every 15 minutes it seemed, a few more women would find their way to us. By 11am, we had 24 women digging side by side. Sleeping babies were laid in the dirt and covered with blankets while mothers dug near-by. When one awoke, she/he would get fed and strapped to the back. They begged me to sit in the shade and supervise but I was stubbornly trying to show them that I could dig for hours just like them. My back and arms complained to me for two days after that.We dug for four hours and then called it quits. And yes, we did take frequent breaks between the swing of hoes. I tiredly trudged up the hill to our house with two hoes on my shoulder and a backpack strapped on. The first order of business was a bath as I was covered in dirt & ash. They burn the grasses in their gardens before digging and the ash sticks to everything. While I headed to the privacy of our bathroom, the other ladies headed to the borehole (public well) to bathe. Then they followed me up to our compound, all requesting some pain medicine for their aching bodies. And as I passed them Ibuprofen and cups of water, I knew that every one of them was worth their salt.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Ecstasy of Curiosity

Zoos are cruel. Not only because they cage wild animals, but because those animals are subjected to intense scrutiny as they go about their mundane lives. It's not like you're going to see an exciting lion hunt in a zoo. No, most likely you'll be lucky to see the majestic beast yawn in sheer boredom. In the wild, such animals at least have the option of disappearing. But not in a cage.

We know a little of what it must be like to be one of the more intelligent animals in a zoo. On average, at least half of our day here in Timu is spent in a cage-like environment: our home compound. It's about 25 meters by 25 meters, with a chain-link fence and two gates.

A major pastime of the local children is coming to watch us through the fence. They swing by on the way to school for a quick morning look, like a visual bowl of cocoa puffs, hoping to catch a glimpse of us through an open window. After school, they come again for a longer, more satisfying gander, like an after-school high-protein snack. And like a lion in a zoo, we don't have to DO anything to be particularly interesting. Our mere existence is somehow inherently enthralling.

There is something almost obscene about having one's exit from one's house be an extremely noteworthy event. (Now I know why those snakes at the zoo never leave their little caves...) I build up my psychological courage and step outside the door to a chorus of whispered ntsuo 'a ke, ntsuo 'a ke! 'There he is, there he is!' I timidly shuffle to the shed or wherever it is I am going and return quickly to the house, like a spooked snow leopard, to a chorus of k'aa hok, k'aa hok! 'he's gone in the house, he's gone in the house!' Back to my cave I go.

I really can't blame the kids. Instead of mud houses, we have stone houses. Instead of a fence made of sticks and logs, ours is made of metal and wires. Instead of one's two feet or a cheap Chinese bicycle, we have a shiny (well, it used to be, before the graffiti...), fascinating automobile. Our skin and hair are different. We talk a funny language. We do weird things, like stay in the house during the day, fiddle with weird objects, and other inscrutable activities. We are interesting to see.

But, to be honest, it feels dehumanizing. To be the victim of 'an ecstasy of curiosity', as Burton puts it (British explorer of East Africa), is not pleasant, at least for my personality type. But even though it feels that way, it's really not. In our American culture, staring is quite rude, but we're told that in other societies, staring is a way of showing how much you care. Leaving aside the potentially exploitative nature of being 'cared for' in this way, the kids here really have the right perspective.

You see, all human beings might rightly be the objects of an ecstatic curiosity, not because we are strange and weird cross-culturally, but because we are the crown of creation. Every human being IS glorious for the simple reason of being made in God's image. If only we all, like these children, could maintain an attitude of marvel at our fellow human beings, then we would probably treat everyone with more love and respect. My challenge is to learn to see those children at the fence as inherently enthralling because God made each one of them to hold eternity in their minds and hearts, to embody the cosmos, to incarnate the Spirit of Christ once again in the world today. Then, when they come over for a good stare, I can say ntuo 'a ki, ntuo 'a ki! 'There they are, there they are!'

(Oh, and it always helps us to get OUT of the cage.)

Next time you go to the zoo, say 'hi' to the animal, nod your head respectfully, see as much as you can in a couple of seconds, then, please, move on to the next exhibit. Trust me, if they could, the animals would thank you for it.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A full quiver

Although I don't have children yet, I have enough little Ik playmates to keep me busy all day long. Sometimes I almost feel like a full-time mom. Before school started we'd have children at our compound from morning till evening. But with school in session, the children are kept busy until early afternoon when they slowly find their way to us. They usually just stand at the fence and monitor our actions like a hawk. Apparently, we're the best show in town. At times, we feel like caged monkeys in a zoo. It can be a bit unsettling. But for the most part, we love these kids and want to pour good things into their lives.
This is Kusam making a funny face for the camera. He was helped out by a friend.
Nakiru, Nancy, Kuku & baby Jacob are sitting on our driveway and making beaded jewelry.
We have this huge beautiful pink flower that spreads wide when it blossoms. They're usually promptly picked and used as hats. Lina & Namongo are modeling for me.
This boy was taking a break from his long hike between villages. He's carrying kernels of dried maize home but wanted to see what was going on in our compound.
Terrill was doing some yard clean-up last Friday afternoon. Since we already had a group of children watching, we put them to work. Terrill used a wheelbarrow to fill in an old latrine with dirt. The childrens' job was to stomp the dirt down once it was poured into the hole. At one point there were about ten kids in the hole, singing and dancing as they stomped. These kids usually have a song at the ready for when an occasion calls for it.
We had some extra loose dirt that the kids were digging in. Terrill showed them how to bury each other as if it were sand at a beach. Thomas was a good sport about being buried but we had to monitor the other children as they tried to put dirt in the ears and mouth of the poor volunteer as well.
Towards the end of the work day the children began to tire. After several hours of playing, trying to talk with them, hugging & holding their hands....I was glad to send them back to their parents.