My second trip to Europe falls quite neatly within that genre of 'whirlwind.' Arriving in Nice, my French class made its way through the Loire Valley on through to and departing from Paris in little over a week. Every other day we were on the bus, moving between cities. Our stops ranged from the commercial (a perfume factory, a mall) to the classic (the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, a ride on the Seine) and nowhere in between.
More than anything, that trip cemented in me ideas of what a tour should not be. It should not be spent in transit. It should not end before jetlag is overcome. It should not be a desperate search for some souvenir that contains the essence of the visited in neglect of the present. And it most certainly should not be a checklist of the greatest hits. Not that there is anything wrong with the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame per se. They are impressive. It's very understandable why the city and nation would take them as their dominant image. The problem is that they are so present in the global culture. They are such loaded symbols with their freqent appearances in the great romances and legends, not to mention history, that the actual things cannot bear the strain. The grandiose expectations of the visitors break against the mundanity of reality. Especially when the actual things are surrounded by beggars politely asking if you speak English, immigrants hawking kitsch at an impressive mark-up and hours of lines of bored tourists.
And still I ended up visiting the Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza and the the Citadel of Salah al-Din in my final days in Cairo.
I admit. The Pyramids are, for lack of a more appropriate word, wondrous. Every five minutes someone may pass and offer their services as a government-licensed guide or to rent a horse or camel, but that does not detract from the Pyramids' majesty. They are enormous, and they are ancient. Flipping through a guide just outside the entrance, I learned that the tallest presently stands at 136 meters, diminished about ten meters since its original construction. You still don't even begin to gain a sense of just how large that is until you are there and see the stones at the foundation, each of them already at least twice your size, and you lose count of just how many rows there are until the pinnacle.
And then you look closer.
And then you see the neat rows of contemporary brick revealed by patches of missing plaster. The flaws of the Sphinx are even more egregious. The neat rows of brick line the outside of the paws and the metal scaffolding around the rump is still standing.
I can understand why the Ministry of Antiquities does this. Even more than Sugarloaf Mountain for Brazil or Willie the Walleye for Baudette, the Pyramids are the symbol of Egypt. They may have withstood the elements for millennia, but they are not eternal. The hordes of tourists clambering upon the lowest levels only hasten the day that they all come down. The hordes must be drawn in and appeased. The last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World must be preserved, by plaster and brick if necessary.
Not surprisingly, it still bothers me. It's as if rangers began importing ice to Glacier National Park, by sheer force of resources and will slowing the glacier's retreat. What then are we coming for if only to see something that has been maintained through sloppy government intervention? It's not history anymore that we have come for. It's a reminder, a reasonable facsimile, of what once was history. At some point, the Pyramids of Giza are going to be as real as the souvenirs that fit in the palm of your hand.
I know restoration happens all the time. Renaissance paintings have touch ups. The mansions of Browne's Addition's one-time railroad and lumber barons are returned to their former glory with some upgrades to the wiring and air conditioning systems. Things are always changing, being improved, being restored. Why should it matter whether it happens to the Pyramids, too? I guess it doesn't, really, but it strikes me as a ridiculous gesture. While civilizations and languages and cultures have risen up from and returned to the dust around the Pyramids, they have endured, and the Egyptians are not going to let that streak end. It's a strike against entropy and death, preserving the Pyramids for another millennium, proof that some aspect of humanity will continue on even if we do not. Kind of ironic seeing as how they're monuments to death.
The Citadel was similarly fascinating. While museums dedicated to the Egyptian army and police force are also with the complex, the Mohammed Ali Mosque is the undeniable centerpiece. The entire thing is hollow. There are no columns or floors. Just a direct line from you to the utmost ceiling, a sense of the infinitesimal, and every surface is lavished with designs. Bloody amazing.
Coming out, I heard a call to prayer. Just past the kiosk with all its postcards and handbags a man knelt upon a sheet of cardboard. Maybe he worked at the Citadel and was inure to the wonders of the mosque. Maybe he preferred the sun on his face to the electric lights inside. Maybe he was lazy. I don't know why, but he preferred to practice his faith outside rather than walk the twenty paces to pray inside one of the most famous mosques in the world.
Not quite sure what to make of that. I could say it was an act of modesty to avoid the tourists passing through the mosque, but he wasn't exactly discreet. Every group leaving the mosque could see him. I don't know, and I don't know either what it means when such a work of art inspires a greater sense of reverence in the visitor than the one for whom it was designed.
I get the feeling that after six months of regular ugali, uji, githeri and rice and beans, the culinary culture of most any nation that had discovered foods not centered around limited variations on corn would have been more than acceptable to my mistreated palate. Still, I think I could have done a far sight worse than Cairo.
I have no idea what I ate. Another problem with the whole Arabic alphabet thing. Might make finding the recipes a bit difficult. I could describe the dishes, but you don't say "I enjoyed tomato, eggplant, zucchini, garlic and onion at Perkins last night." No, you say "That was a particularly tasty ratatouille." You don't say, "Pass the baked flour, salt, yeast and water mixture." You say, "That is some fine bread. Damn fine."A list of ingredients don't a dish make. I'll do the best I can, but imagination in reading this post is called for. Kind of really makes me really regret not taking any pictures at the cafés. That would at least be something for you all.
While I may very well have been ripped off by my taxi from the airport and at my first hostel, I consider my financial success on the culinary front worthy in Cairo. My first night, wandering merely in search of a place that was open downtown, I ended up in side alley, and some men with tea and shisha called me into their café. That's all they served, so I didn't exactly eat well there, but I was around long enough to look a little farther up the alley to find the stalls that did serve food. I came back to that alley every night thereafter. If you paid more than 10 Egyptian pounds, about 2 American dollars, for a whole meal, either you were really hungry or really ripped off.
Seating anywhere in particular was limited, and most eventually migrated to rows of common plastic chairs facing a TV that sometimes played Bollywood, sometimes Egyptian series and mostly the English Premier League. Sit down for more than a minute in any of those chairs, and they would bring a short glass of water. Catch them before they left, and you could ask for Pepsi or tea, if you were the mood for something ridiculously sweet where sugar particles still existed in boiling water. They bloody love the stuff. Dump a few spoons full of crushed black loose leaf and sugar into a glass about four times the size of a shot, and they were good. Morning, noon and night there were kids balancing silver trays with upwards of four full glasses threading their ways through the crowds on the streets to make deliveries.
I had pizza the first night, at least that's what they called. It was built on a pastry, rather than bread, dough, in the first place. I don't think there was any tomato sauce either, am still not sure if that was cheese, and found plenty of olives and peppers on it. But it was great, if for nothing else than having a flavor not built around salt or the harshness of kale.
I discovered macaroni the next day. Kind of lame to name the entire dish after just one of the ingredients when they mix it with generous portions of lentils and fried onions and top it with chickpeas and lemon juice. Discovered then that Egyptians are some of those that like it hot. A spicy tomato sauce is served separate to allow seasoning appropriate to the diner. Even though the mix may have only been one part to fifteen, I could never stand to mix in the whole thing. But it burned so good. Pasta was such a staple of mine in the States that being denied it since July, not counting that macaroni and cheese made with shells and tossed with pre-shredded cheddar, made it all the better. I had the macaroni at least every other day.
It took me almost five days to discover what the giant wooden boxes full of bread and carried on the heads of boys on bicycles were being used for. Kind of a disappointment. It was pita bread. The flavor wasn't a disappointment, though. The Egyptians stuffed those with everything. The first one I had was filled with potato chips. Then there were more traditional ones with hummus and falafel and baba ghanoush. Then there was the one filled with french fries. Favorite though was the one I found in Islamic Cairo on the way back from the Citadel and also the only one I ever learned the name of. I only learned that because when I asked if he had falafel, the guy kept yelling "ful" at me. Tasted kind of like a cross between refried beans and hummus. Tasted kind of good. Not like the side they kept pushing at me. Pickled carrots, pickled potatoes and pickled peppers. It was a little much on the salt.
The very last dish I discovered was at breakfast. Ordinarily I just took the tea, rolls and hard-boiled egg offered by my hostels, but holidays or some such delayed the baker my second-to-last morning in Cairo, and I was forced into the street for my breakfast. There I discovered something to push any lingering thoughts of mandazi far from my mind. Using the same base as the pizza I enjoyed on my first night, bringing the culinary adventures full circle really, the man tossed it on a wide, greased pan for a brief warming before rolling it around a generous topping of honey and confectioner's sugar. That was something special on Cairo's cool January mornings. I shall call it "Fried honey bread."
Time to add Egypt after Indonesia to the list of nations whose cuisines I had no idea about before arrival and cannot have enough of now.
There are two official programs we practice while in Pokot, Survival and Famine Feed. In brief, they are, respectively, purchasing livestock for the poorest of the tribe and distributing maize flour and cabbage to combat malnutrition. Should such things appeal to you and you are not totally tapped out since giving to rescue Haiti, you can donate through the links.
Then there are the unofficial programs. We have, on occasion, brought along our staff nurse and medicine to perform basic treatment at each station, especially during the recent cholera outbreak. One particularly generous sponsor has funded the construction of a water pump and installation of solar panels to power it. We are also an informal taxi service. If someone is looking to make the trip between Chesirimion and Riongo last minutes rather than all day on foot, they just hop into the back of our truck. Except when we're picking up forty-odd kids from their holiday in Pokot, there's always room. We can fit twenty easily and, if we're willing to be a bit uncomfortable, up to thirty. We can always fit more on top.
It's this last service that ground on me this past trip.
“Come on,” I wanted to say to them. “You're the Pokot. You're proud walkers. It's what you do. One of your chiefs once bragged to me that he had walked twenty miles already by the early afternoon.”
When we told one of our Pokot boys that we were going to walk from our hotel in Chemolingot to Ngingyang for the Monday market, he said “We can't do that.” Then he paused to consider and amended himself. “Well, you can't. We can.” We did it in about an hour and a half in the dark. Little snot.
Rationally, I know we have plenty of room. So long as there is enough for all of those who need to go back to Nakuru, there should be no problem. They don't make a mess and aren't troublesome at all. It's not like the other options are all that attractive, either. Walking can take hours, and if they are fortunate enough to find a passing pick-up, they can't afford the ride. If they are still more fortunate and have the shillings, the drivers pack them tight. I know. I rode some thirty miles in the bed of a standard pick-up with some thirty of my closest friends. It still bothers me.
I think it's the attitude about it that gets me the worst. Leaving the market around noon on Monday, people had begun queuing for a ride almost before we even began giving out goats and camels and cows through Survival. No one asked. They just assumed we would be available. When I had to start kicking men off to assure there was room enough for all for the boys and me, they would refuse until I literally pointed and stared at each of them individually. Not even then for some. They tried begging. I think we eventually found room for them all, but if it wasn't annoying.
We bought you goats and gave you cabbage, what else do you want? That was the kind of thought to hold my attention then. They were uncharitable and not all that sensical, but they were there.
Maybe, too, it's the contrast between what I expect to do and what I don't expect. I expect to be fighting over the price of a chicken and how many were actually were bought. I know giving out maize flour will inevitably collapse into a scrum by the bottom of the second sack when it becomes clear some will be leaving with nothing. Having never promised to take anyone anywhere, I don't so much expect to be a chauffeur, though I should after five trips out.
I think it's the sense of “When have I done enough for you?” that is the greatest source of irritation here. I want to feel like I've done something good and decent. When you keep asking for more from me, it kind of depletes that feeling. Depletes it like something that causes something to deplete rapidly. Like a cup of Nakuru tap water depletes the contents of my stomach out the wrong end.
A little over six months in Nakuru now. It's special. Why? Because I'm halfway through. More lies behind than lies ahead.
A bloody lot has changed in that time. Seven children advanced from pre-school to primary, and another five from primary to secondary. Of the fifteen-odd staff on when we arrived, maybe four are left. I don't teach classes anymore. We have teachers on staff to do that. Pokot, with all of its hunger, poverty, aridity and everything, has become routine. Nairobi doesn't scare me. The matatu drivers know without asking where to let me off. The weekly menu has been tweaked. I had my hair cut. I've lost two notches on my belt. The Harambee Stars blew chances at the World Cup, Cup of Nations and CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup.
I've hardly noticed. Sure, if you ask about them, I'll remember them, no problem. The thing is, they're more distant. They wouldn't be the first thing to come to mind were you to ask what has changed the most. The answer? The most trite possible. The kids have grown. Not the older ones so much, but those in pre-school certainly. They're lankier. They're taller. Their heads are more in proportion to their bodies. How banal. It's the cliché response expected from every aunt and uncle who has not seen their youngest relations in years. Yet it's true.
I know this series is named "A Year (or Two) in Kenya," but it is looking near definite that it is going to be the former of those two options. However, I will only change the title accordingly when I have the tickets in hand. Until then, enjoy the ambiguity and potential for another eighteen months worth of utterly fascinating insight and thought.
A professor once told my class that the West is continually re-discovering East. I would modify that a little bit. It's always discovering bits and pieces, mostly having to do with the accessories; becoming heavily enamored; and fitting them to its own concerns. Tibetan prayer flags, anime, and so on and so forth. Shishaand keffiyehs are of particular interest within the college crowd of which I was so recently a member, and this past week I have had the opportunity to observe them in their native habitat, more or less. Shisha originated in India some five hundred years ago and keffiyeh are more of a Palestinian thing, but the point stands that Egyptians were doing them well before American kids ever thought to.
Shisha is ridiculously popular here, as is smoking in general. Walk a block downtown, and you'll pass three combination tea/coffee/shisha cafés, not counting the four that you couldn't see in the alleys. Guaranteed, no matter when you pass, there will be at least four pipes out. Morning, afternoon, evening, night. I don't know if they're so into flavors over here as in the States as I've avoided indulging, but they are definitely not into passing the pipe here. Strictly one person for each shisha. Tend more toward the older set here, too, though not exclusively, mostly because students don't spend as much time at the cafés. If they are around, though, they've probably pulled one down one of their own from the line-up on the back wall and are watching the city pass by between puffs.
But only with men. I don't think I've seen a single woman stomping out a fag end, and I only saw my first sit down at one of the cafés today but that was just to talk to a friend. She didn't smoke or drink tea or coffee or anything.
They wear keffiyehs here, too. You can buy them on the street and everything. In all truth, I can only remember meeting one person who ever wore a keffiyeh, and I never would have known about its associations with Palestine were it not for a particular guest comic in a particular web comic. I'm not going to link to it. If you've read it, you know why.
Not much to say except that it's one thing when some Western hipster claims it's a political statement. It's another thing entirely to wear a Palestinian symbol when your nation has gone to war with Israel in your parents' lifetimes.
Speaking of which, a few days ago, a woman asked me to sign a petition demanding that the world's largest prison (Palestine) be made free and healthcare, higher education, rainbows, fine dark chocolates and baby rabbits be made available to all its former inmates. I didn't sign and neither did the hostel's owner. He told me after she left that he didn't see the point. He didn't think the Palestinians really wanted freedom. Egypt had tried to help before, and they hadn't taken advantage of it then. Fun fact, Egypt prefers to call them the War of 1967 and October War.
Call it a concentrated effort to escape the provincial life, but there is more than a whiff of pretension about me with regard to the classic high arts. I may slum it by buying only rush tickets and wearing jeans with a collared shirt, but I still attend the opera. I pay attention when a ballet is advertised. When I hear about upcoming orchestral performances I check to see if I can make it. And then if I can afford it.
These inclinations could potentially have made the past six months in Nakuru quite painful for me. As much as I dump on Baudette, it at least has a movie theater that shows movies a week or two after their release. The theaters in Nairobi, the closest, are fortunate to get any blockbuster a week or two before it's official DVD release. I may as well pick up the bootlegs on the streets by then. But I made it to the Cairo Opera yesterday. Watched the Antonio Gades Company's productions of Blood Wedding and Suite Flamenca. Think that'll hold me over for the next few months.
Somehow, Blood Wedding was the less interesting. That surprises me. It's called freaking Blood Wedding. Violence and love are explicitly promised in the very title. There should have been bodies a-flying and passion arousing, knives a-swinging and close embraces. Instead, it was a remarkably restrained vignette. Forbidden love is captured in a measured, precise paso doble that crosses the stage but once. The final fight between the new husband and the bride's true love takes place in slow motion. Honestly, more time was spent holding poses of indifference and suffering than in actual dancing. Which is what I was there for. It was advertised as a ballet, after all. I can respect the male leads for their physicality and control in maintaining their fight of four strikes over five minutes, but it was not what I was expecting.
The fundamental problem, I think, was that dance was simply the wrong medium for this. In preparing this post, I read that Blood Wedding began as a poem. A literary origin makes sense. Blood Wedding needs strong characters, there need to be reasons for the woman to marry the one and still love the other. There needs to be motivation for the men's confrontation to turn violent. In a dance, though, where members of the audience may very well be sitting over twenty meters from the action, all of this is necessarily reduced to and portrayed by a few sweeping gestures and poses. They are less characters and more types or caricatures. Blood Wedding needs subtlety. That is not dance's strong suit.
Fortunately, frantic rhythms, wild steps and just a general sense of overwhelming vitality are, and that is what followed in abundance after the intermission with Suite Flamenca. Flamenco lacks the delicacy and grace of ballet but the energy is something else entirely. The singers' warbling cries, the building strumming on the guitars, the slow steps of the dancers explode without notice into a frenzy but are brought to heel in an instant. Wow. Now I want to go to Spain.
If you are interested in reading a fairly complete description of the performance, check this article in The Daily News Egypt. Or, if you prefer, you can just watch the theatrical versions here and here.
That title doesn't make much sense, does it? What does Cairo, a very Egyptian city, have to do with a year (or two) in Kenya? A terrible lot in my case. Kenya is very generous in its tourist visas. For just $25 you can stay in the country for six months and only need to check in with the immigration office once at the three-month mark. After that, though, it gets a little more difficult. Not only do you have to leave Kenya but all of East Africa for at least one night before buying a new visa. Kind of eliminated my original plan of quick bus ride across the Ugandan border.
Thus, Cairo. For a month or two it was struggling with Sharjah of the United Arab Emirates for the privilege of my visit. Flights to both were of roughly equal price, but EgyptAir won out for actually accepting my credit card. Kind of disappointing, actually. Cairo was my first choice because I had heard of it before, but after checking out Sharjah's Wikitravel entry, I got excited. Cultural capital of the Arab world? A museum with letters written by Muhammed? Yes, please, but some other year, I hope.
Anyway. First day in Cairo? Absolutely terrifying. I've been to enormous cities before. See London, Paris, Jakarta. I've been to cities with ridiculous traffic. See Istanbul, Jakarta. After six months in Nakuru, I've even grown used to not looking like everybody else. Those aren't so scary. Not being able to read anything is. Not that my Kiswahili is all that great, but at least it uses the same alphabet as English. If it comes down to it, I can give pronouncing "ndengu" the old college effort. At the very least, I'll recognize the word the next time I see the menu. Not happening here. They don't even use the same numbers. All I see are some backward 3's and dots. It's awfully disconcerting not knowing how much my lunch costs until I get my change back and praying the guy on the street isn't screwing me over. Doesn't help that spoken English isn't as common here as Kenya either.
It's gotten better since then. Kind of hard not to. Mostly I've just walked around, strolling along the Nile, crossing bridges, wandering the streets. You have no idea how wonderful that is until you've been denied it for six months. To walk without direction, just to move and enjoy the motion is something special that I may not have appreciated fully while still in Spokane and made regular trips down the Centennial Trail and across the falls. Nakuru is too small for good walking and way too many people yelling at me when I pass kind of kills the experience. It helps, too, that Khedive Ismail put some really effort into Midan Tahrir, the part of town my hostel is in, around the turn of the century and turned it into "Paris on the Nile." The buildings and their columns and all those other designs and elements make me wish I knew anything about architecture and could properly describe them. Wasn't really expecting the massive window displays of women's nightwear that probably isn't meant to stay on long. Bit of cognitive dissonance there when not infrequently passing women with the full headdress on.
In between seeing where this street would take me if followed long enough, I did manage to visit the Egyptian Museum yesterday. It's described as one of the largest collections of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the world. I'm not entirely sure that's a good thing. Despite having several millennia of history, the range of Egyptian art was rather limited. They did sarcophagi, sculpture and some jewelry. Then it all begins to look the same. Every coffin has the same face, and every statue is either sitting straight or standing straight with the left leg out. As impressive as the excessive bounty of Tutankhamun's tomb was, it was just more of the same, just bumped up a few hundred notches on the money scale. The Egyptian Museum definitely could have profited from a "less is more" approach. The ancients must have wasted all their imagination creating however many thousands of pictographs their hieroglyphics demanded. I did, however, very much enjoy learning about the various deities that weren't Horus and Anubis. Like the ones with cobra, rabbit and dog heads. The one with a hippopotamus head was for fertility. Seems just a mite insensitive.
Until I leave late next Tuesday, the plan is visits to the Citadel, the surrounding Al-Azhar Park, Blood Wedding and Carmen at the opera, and, of course, the Pyramids and Sphinx. Other ideas will be considered.
Kakwa can be an absolute moron and painfully difficult to make go to school, but it would be remiss of me to suggest that the boy does not take good pictures.
Perhaps one of your resolutions for this New Year was to do more good in the world? You can start with sponsoring one of our children. Also, my offer to send you a copy of one of my three stories for each sponsorship you pick up still stands so long as you let me know when you make one.
A friend and I disagree whether Holly Doering or Shanti Perez should have taken first in the Get Lit! 101-Word Fiction Showdown. He says it should have gone to Doering because, despite the lyricism in her descriptions of eggs, the final line of Perez’s “The Numbers Game” had nothing whatsoever to do with what came before it. My problem with Doering’s “Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth” was that it ended in death. Matricide, to be exact. Death is a big deal. It is one of life’s few inevitabilities, and we can hardly begin to understand what lies beyond it. Every time someone writes about it, it puts me on edge. My fear is that these writers use death as a shield. Unsure of their own abilities, they write about something meaningful, rather than trying to write something meaningful, hoping that is somehow brings some gravitas into their work. To even begin to approach it in fewer than one-hundred-and-one words was ridiculous. It just seemed like a cheap way to inject some drama into the story.
Flannery O’Connor writes about death a lot. Of the thirty-one stories in this collection, eleven end with at least one person dying, violently more often than not. But she is no amateur writer searching for some literary heft. She is a master. Though death is always present, always a threat, always a suffocating memory, her stories are not about it, really. They’re about faith.
It’s intimidating, to be honest. If O’Connor ever heard of “Kum Ba Yah,” she must have thought it was the punch line to a not particularly funny joke. Hers is not the gentle ecumenical faith of most American churches today. It’s not the sort of faith that admits the possibility all can or will be saved or that good works alone are enough for everlasting life. Belief in God and redemption are matters more important even than life and death. Far better for her characters to have that moment of recognition, of revelation, moments before a bullet enters their brain than a life lived without belief.
Miracles populate her stories, but these are the sort you wish pass from you. A trio of boys who burn an entire forest. An escaped prisoner who systematically murders every member of your family. A thief who specializes in body prosthetics. These are how the supernatural enter O’Connor’s characters’ lives, not a gentle voice on the radio or small coincidence. God does not merely move in mysterious but cruel and absurd ways.
It’s an intense experience. Mine is an ironic age. Our favorite comedians act purely on the level of irony. The entire hipster sub-culture is one defined by its participation in irony, from dress to drink. There is not a hint of the ironic in O’Connor, however. When she writes that the vandal with a club foot eats the pages from his stolen Bible and calls them “honey,” she is earnest. When the man who rushes to save a child from drowning in the river is described as “some ancient water monster,” she is serious that the boy may have found the better part.
O’Connor’s writings are not experiments or contemplations or riffs. They are statements of belief. She does not ask whether you agree with her. She knows through to the core of her being what she believes. She doesn’t need your approval. To be faced with such certain devotion to something of such importance is an uncomfortable thing. It throws back in our collective faces our lack of conviction in much of anything.
O’Connor does have her weaknesses. Her range, especially in terms of character, is limited. The independent, landed women differ only in name between “A Circle in the Fire,” “The Displaced Person,” “Greenleaf” and “Revelation.” Old men, so certain in their country towns but lost in the city, appear again and again in “The Geranium,” “The Artificial Nigger” and “Judgment Day.” The hateful, useless, college-educated youth is a particular favorite type of O’Connor. They appear in “Good Country People,” “The Enduring Chill” and “The Partridge Festival.”
When she moves outside these limited characters and their similar problems, I find her strongest work. The gentle humor of “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” which draws out to the furthest what it means to be a child of God; the boy who struggles to uphold his obligations in “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead;” and the exclamation of who one is in “Parker’s Back” are all favorites. I have a particular soft spot for “The Barber,” too, even if O’Connor apparently didn’t think too highly of it. It was only published without her permission after her death.
I only ever wrote that I was growing familiar with Pokot and its people. I never wrote that I understood. Because I don't. I know the names of the villages now and recognize people, but I understand nothing at all.
That crowd behind the boy with a quarter slice of a cabbage? All waiting their turn at a scoop of maize flour. Their options are few. East Pokot has no economy, few shops that sell foodstuffs and fewer jobs with which to pay for the foodstuffs. The people are all farmers and herders on land which supports little. So they wait in line for a free scoop or two of maize flour, often mixed with the desert's dust. Not that it matters so much. The water they'll cook it with is dirty too.
It starts well normally. There is a line. The oldest and weakest are pushed forward to take the first scoops. Others follow one by one. Those who came late push in near the front of the line. Not one but two, three plastic bags are shoved toward the server. Bodies press in. More torn sandwich bags and oil cans are shoved forward and follow the scoop into the bag and out. Over eight now, and they come so thick that once they have their scoop, they can't walk out.
There are tricks the server can try at this point. They can refuse to open the sack until some order returns. They can walk away and force those waiting to form some line. They don't work. The press returns.
I entered this scrum for the first time on my last trip into Pokot. Most of the time I stand at the fringes and take these pictures to send our sponsors. At Chesirimion, the first stop of four, though I watched as the server, back literally to a wall, gave up and walked away from the final third of the bag of maize flour. Five of the strongest took a grab at the top and pulled. It didn't tear and spread flour over the ground, though a lot spilled out as they strained against each other. The strongest just walked off with the lot of it.
I didn't want that to happen in Kadingding, the second station, and when I saw it heading that direction, I finally put away my camera and stepped in. It's different on the inside. I want to think what we're doing is good. The Pokot have no food. We bring them food. It's simple. It's good. On the inside of passing the flour out, though, it just looks like another opportunity for people to act like jerks to one another. The strong push to the front and stay there. Once you catch them pushing the same bag, already twice filled, into your face, they switch for an empty. You yell at them, and they move to your other side. The smallest kids can sneak in under legs and are more than jostled for their efforts.
We bring near a hundred kilos of maize flour to each station. There may not be plenty for all, but there is enough. If they come up one at a time, they will all have something. But they don't. A few end up with more, and more end up with less. It's hard to see what you do is good when the most triste, banal, asinine acts of evil of simply putting yourself before others is all you can see.
But everyone walks away in the end. I don't see knives pulled or people with full bags jumped from behind. Maybe that means it's alright. They're not so hungry that they're willing to fight for a meal or two. I have no doubts that the flour is shared. Invariably only women walk through the line while men sit to the side and watch. Their husbands and children and parents must eat something. The people look thin but not emaciated. And that's the point, I guess. that people eat and avoid starvation. The rest can come later.