Archive for Quaker Leanings (regarding Friends & friends of Friends)
For a piece on my Kenya trip last year that just appeared in Friends Journal, click HERE.
Here’s an article I wrote about my recent visit to Kenya and Friends Theological College for the summer 2012 issue of Quaker Life, the publication of Friends United Meeting. It’s a rough scan and a bit hard to read, but I don’t find an online link to the article, so I’m afraid this is the best I’ve got. (Click on the image to enlarge.)
Click below to see a short piece I wrote recently for Pendle Hill Quaker Center that describes my writing sojourns there. For writers in the Philadelphia area, I recommend that you check out Pendle Hill as a place for a personal writing retreat.
With the FTC Church Administration class
Tuesday, Dec. 13 – I drink a magic potion!
I missed morning chapel again, not able to get up and dressed in time. I did make it down, though, for my 8:30 interview with John, academic dean of Friends Theological College who also taught Christian Worship and Systematic Theology 1. My head still felt wrapped in a blanket of pain and exhaustion, and I had to concentrate on each step I took to keep from tripping or falling, but the interview went well and I hoped that its momentum would help carry me through the day.
From there I went straight to Hesbourne’s class on Church Administration, and ended up talking with his students for nearly three hours, with a break in the middle for tea. It’s hard to know how useful any of what I had to say might be, but they certainly were fascinated by a glimpse into western un-programmed Quaker practice, both the religious and business aspects.
The lack of a pastor in charge, the acceptance of ministry by anyone moved to speak, and the idea of decision-making by committee and consensus all appeared to be quite baffling. When I told them there was no collection plate passed during service, they laughed in disbelief. They were eager for ideas on how to raise support for their churches, but I ended up feeling that little of my U.S. experience in fundraising had much relevance in a setting where a generous donation might be a chicken. Still, the discussion was fun and spirited, the students were very sharp, and the time passed quickly. Then it was back to bed.
A little before 3:30 I got up and made my way up to the hill to the home of the principal to interview her. I was originally going to talk with her and the dean of students earlier in the day, but when I got to their offices all the power was out and no one was there, so I rescheduled. I was feeling even worse after my nap, but Ann served me some tea, which seemed to settle my stomach a little. We had quite a wide ranging and interesting conversation, touching on the history and challenges of the theological college, Kaimosi hospital, and other institutions at the mission.
I hadn’t been able yet to reschedule an interview with the dean of students, and he was leaving the next day for term break, but by the time I was wrapping up with the principal, I was so worn out that I just went back to my room and fell asleep again. At some point I heard knocking at the door. I knew it might be the dean, but I found I didn’t have the strength to rise or answer.
I had become quite concerned about my health, and was beginning to fear my stay in Kenya could end up in jeopardy if I didn’t start feeling better soon. When Ruth arrived at 6:00 to ask about dinner, I again told her I wasn’t hungry. She asked if I was drinking the juice she’d told me about.
I didn’t remember her telling me about any juice. She went into the kitchen area and pulled down from the top shelf a plastic bottle that held some liquid that was a violent, metallic orange.
“You must drink this! Put a little in a glass and add water.”
After she left I studied the bottle’s label. It hardly looked promising. The product was called “Excel Quencher Orange Flavoured Drink Dilute to Taste.” It looked precisely like radiator or wiper-blade fluid. At the bottom of the label read the words, “Manufactured by Excel Chemicals, Ltd.”
I diluted a bit and drank it down. It tasted just like the orange flavoured chemical concoction it was. I fixed and drank a second glass and went back to bed.
Except for the return of whatever animal continued to rummage through my bags in the night, I slept soundly and awoke in the morning feeling better than I had in days.
Next: an extraordinary surprise visit
I arrive in Kisumu
Is there anyone more appropriately named than Eden Grace? She has gracefully provided me with steady help and reassurance since long before I left for Kenya.
And on that bright, clear afternoon of Dec. 8, she was there, as promised, waiting to welcome me at the Kisumu airport.
On the drive to her home she said, “I’m going to apologize this one time, and then I’ll try to forget it. The house is a wreck.” It turned out that her family was in the final stages of a major and lengthy house renovation that her landlord had surprised them with. The construction and cabinetry was largely finished, what remained was a repainting of the interior and re-varnishing of the floors.
Her home is right near the old Sunset Hotel and swim club, which I think might be where my brothers, Rob and John, would go back in the sixties as a farewell outing before taking the train to Nairobi and the Rift Valley Academy (they’ll need to confirm or correct that). Eden’s house has a distant view of Lake Victoria, and it’s also very near the Braeburn Kisumu International School, where her two sons, Isaiah and Jesse, are students. I’d already been told that her sons’ school was holding its Christmas program that evening, and that not only were her sons performing (singing, rapping, and playing guitar), but her husband was accompanying them on the electric piano and Eden was singing with a community choir she’d helped to organize.
Preparations for Kaimosi begin
Eden still had work to do when I arrived, so after a light lunch she left me on my own for a bit to start a list of what I might need for my stay in Kaimosi. A cell phone was near the top of that list, as Eden informed me that there are no land lines at all out at Kaimosi. Fortunately she had a cell phone at her office to lend me; I would just need to buy some time for it. She also had a dongle I could borrow (a Safaricom flash drive with cellular access to dial-up Internet service), and I would need to buy some time for that as well. I also needed to purchase food and supplies to last me for three weeks at Kaimosi. I was told there was a roadside market in Cheptulu, a short ways from Kaimosi, that opens on Tuesdays and Fridays, but for the most part I would have to bring everything I’ll need for my stay.
So, I began to make plans for the next day: lots of shopping, a visit to Eden’s office to pick up equipment, a bit of sightseeing as we drive around Kisumu, plus a visit to the Braeburn School for the final school assembly of the term.
Before I could get very far in my planning, however, Eden’s sons arrived home from school. We chatted a bit, and then they left to play video games in the living room. When Eden’s husband, James, arrived home from work, the house kicked into gear, as everyone began packing up musical instruments and sound equipment for that evening’s show.
There was much about my environment at that moment that was feeling quite foreign. Outbursts of African voices and laughter erupted from beyond the home’s latched gate. An earthy array of unidentifiable scents surfed in through the open windows on the breeze coming off Lake Victoria. A housekeeper washed clothes out back. A guard slept in the garage. And then there was the rat….a large corpse that stretched out on the pavement just outside the front door and that no one had yet mentioned nor even seemed to notice.
But the family bustle of getting ready for a school Christmas performance had a comforting normality to it. I felt like part of any busy family with teenagers trying to pull it together to get somewhere on time.
Saint Nick visits Kisumu
The evening turned out to be a delight. It was obvious what a warm, diverse, and caring community of families is united by the Braeburn School. On stage, the youngest children sang Christmas songs and accompanied themselves with hand gestures (“Up on the rooftop reindeer pause, out jumps good old Santa Claus”), while their parents waved from the audience and took pictures. The daughter of what I was told was the only Jewish family in Kisumu sang a Chanukah song. And one very young, very cute little girl, Japanese I believe, constantly wandered down to the front of the stage to steal the show.
Eden’s sons performed a rock number with vocals and electric guitar, with their father on an electric piano that he managed to keep going even with technical difficulties. The younger brother, with short curly hair and a wide open face, powered through the vocals despite an only sporadically working microphone. And the older brother, with a thin face and intelligent, probing eyes, pulled off his bandana to reveal a haircut he otherwise keeps hidden out of respect for the school’s sensitivities: one side of his head was shaved and the other side sported shoulder-length hair dyed bright purple.
The social club that hosted the show also occasionally doubles as a restaurant, and this was one of those nights. We stayed for some excellent Indian food and ginger soda, while around us parents chatted with one another as their young children tugged at their arms, older kids ran around chasing each other in the night, and flashes kept going off in the darkness as more photos got taken.
It was a scene that could be taking place almost anywhere in the world. But a voice inside kept reminding me: This is not anywhere. This is Kenya.
Early the next morning the house painters, four or five of them, showed up to continue their work. To Eden’s surprise, they planned both to complete the walls and varnish the floors, which meant that EVERYTHING in nearly all of the first-floor rooms had to be moved out immediately. Somehow Eden, James, and I emptied the rooms within minutes, packing boxes and moving furniture onto the porch, into the hall, and mostly, it seemed, into my guest room, which soon became a jungle of boxes and furniture towers leaning precariously over my bed.
By the time we got the house emptied, it was time to leave for the Braeburn School end-of-term assembly, which featured slides of events from the year, each of which was greeted by hoots of recognition from the students packed into the science classroom. Afterward I was given a short tour of the small campus. It felt amazingly similar to Pacific Ackworth, the Quaker school my parents co-founded in Southern California long ago and on whose grounds my family grew up. I don’t, though, remember goats roaming the P.A. campus.
Rumors were flying of the pending arrival of a special visitor, and finally a truck pulled onto the school grounds and out stepped “Santa Claus,” a very skinny man – maybe African, maybe Indian, I couldn’t tell beneath his Santa costume – who had a very fake white beard and a very lumpy fake belly and was dressed all in red and carried a large bag of gifts for the students. Eden and I watched for a bit as the children excitedly gathered around to receive their presents, then we left to get on with our full schedule of errands and shopping.
Gathering equipment, food, and friends
Eden took me on a wandering route through Kisumu to see what I might remember, some of the buildings painted entirely bright pink or lime green, others still stately old stucco. Like a small-scale Nairobi, Kisumu has both office towers and open road-side markets, modern plazas and sprawling slums. Much of the city is new since I was last there, but in some of the older neighborhoods, particularly the Indian ones, I had a vague sensation of recognition as some particular building or street came into view.
Much of my time, though, was spent in Nakumatt, the local chain of shopping malls. There was a large, open hangar-like building with two floors (and a tiny display of books on a few shelves that I was told is one of the only Kenyan bookstores west of Nairobi). There was also a separate, dense warren of small shops tucked onto two levels. I bought food, water, and supplies at the first (plus took a look at fabrics; Eden is also a quilter); then I got phone and computer access at the second (a month of unlimited web access and a bunch of cellphone time).
I was pretty sure I had bought more than enough food and supplies to last me. But whenever I asked Eden whether I should get something else, she would say yes. After a while I began to suspect that she was also assisting me in putting some money into the local economy. I was happy to comply. It’s hard to know just what I’ll need, but I figured it would be a more serious error to bring too little than too much, and I’m sure I can give away whatever is left over.
So here’s a partial list of what I bought: powdered tomato soup, powdered chicken soup, a loaf of bread, a box of guava juice, a box of orange juice, a box of hibiscus juice, a box of “fruit” juice, honey, rice, crackers, fresh chicken pieces, muesli, granola, canned tuna, marmalade, powdered Indian spices, two kinds of pasta, three chocolate bars, dried pineapple, eggs, dish detergent, bleach (for sterilizing rinse water), mayonnaise, margarine, canned tomatoes, plum jam, peanut butter, ginger tea, instant coffee, chocolate powder, canned corn, canned chick peas, canned lentils, canned kidney beans, dates, dried salami, dried pork, frozen beef cubes, Cheddar cheese, Gouda cheese, digestive biscuits, crackers, cashews, macadamia nuts, ground nuts, a small bunch of small bananas, a large bunch of large carrots, onions, fresh tomatoes, fresh green beans, garlic, matches, candles, toothpaste, and two five-liter bottles of drinking water (one of which broke in the back of the truck).
Then it was off to Eden’s office at Friends United Meeting in Kisumu to pick up her cell phone and dongle for web access. On the way she’d gotten an overdue call from a young American woman she’d been waiting to hear from. Cassidy was to have arrived in Kisumu much earlier in the day by matatu, and Eden was concerned she hadn’t heard from her. But all was well, and we set off to go pick her up. Cassidy has been in Kenya doing a research project for the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington on how to support peaceful elections in Kenya next year. She became another stray guest at the Grace house, a situation, I have learned, that is much more the rule than the exception.
(In the “small world” category of global connections – which always seem particularly acute when traveling – Eden and James know Jonathan Vogel, a Friend and friend I grew up with in California. Jonathan’s father, Bob Vogel, was my father’s colleague for many years at the American Friends Service Committee in Pasadena. I knew John and his brother, Russell, throughout childhood, going to many Friends meetings and retreats together. In the 1980s, after my parents stepped down as Resident Friends of Cambridge Meeting, Jonathan became the new Resident Friend there. The Graces know him from their connections to New England, and were happy to carry my greetings to him when they see him next.)
The past is ever present
Eden, Cassidy, and I got back to the house to find that the floors were still sticky with varnish, so we ate leftover Indian food on the back patio. The rat was still stretched out by the front steps, but I learned that it was there as a gift from the Graces’ cat. Their cat is a very pretty black-and-white sweetheart that knows how to open my bedroom door and join me at night (the next morning I discovered that a trail of ants had also joined me, getting inside my new bags of food). Eden told me that they’d found their cat as a kitten, nearly dead from having all of its black hair shaved off and being thrown off a roof. Evidently black cats are considered by some here as demons, and even cats with just partial black hair are frequently killed.
After a quick dinner it was already past time to leave for an evangelic worship service that was scheduled for that evening. It was the last meeting of the year for a regular prayer service held in the home of a charismatic couple who were also Braeburn parents. The husband is pastor of Lakeside Calvary Chapel there in Kisumu, and the couple offer these private prayer meetings for missionaries who feel the need for ministry themselves.
I had earlier asked Eden what to expect, and she said, “You know, we haven’t really talked about your faith.” She knew that I was a life-long Quaker, but she told me un-programmed Friends worship in the U.S. is a very different animal from Quaker Christian faith in Kenya. I explained that, while I was a Christian, I considered Jesus a great teacher more than a personal savior. She said, “I recommend that you don’t have this conversation with anyone tonight.” I asked her if people would be upset. “No,” she said. “They’ll just want to save you.”
As it turned out, the evening proved to be a beautiful, welcoming, and powerful experience for me. Although it was quite foreign to my own spiritual practice, I was nonetheless very moved by the service. The music, the prayers, the sermon, the testimonials. At one point I was suddenly, and wholly unexpectedly, filled with thoughts and memories of my parents, Ed and Marian. I felt an extraordinarily deep connection to them, and at the same time, I was nearly overwhelmed by a sense of loss and grief.
It now seems strange that I hadn’t anticipated this. From the very start of my planning for this trip I have defined it as a literary adventure, an opportunity to return to Africa to complete my novel. Of course I’ve also considered it an important visit back to my childhood when I was just ten years old, a personal odyssey as well as a creative one. But somehow I didn’t make the clear link to a re-connection with my parents.
I was very fortunate to have had great friendships with both of my folks. They both passed years ago, yet their deaths still feel like recent events. I’m now older than my parents were when they packed four of their kids up and brought us to live in Kenya. That experience as a young boy truly redefined my life. It’s easy to forget, though, that the experience was life-changing for all of us, including my parents.
So there I was, sitting with the Graces and a handful of other families in a small chapel in a private home in Kisumu, Kenya, listening to the sermon and the prayers and the readings and the songs of praise and the carols of Christmas…and all I could think of was my parents and how immensely I missed them.
That’s when I found myself crying. Heavy tears of remembrance. Of appreciation. Of loss.
And I felt like a ten-year-old again.
Next: Onward to Kaimosi
My IndieGoGo campaign, “Busara Road: An African novel and Quaker homecoming,” has launched!
Click HERE to check it out.
I’m turning to IndieGoGo to help me get to Kenya in December for an international writing seminar and a return to the Quaker mission where I lived as a kid. On my IndieGoGo site you’ll find a video and lots of info about the project, and a bunch of perks you can get if you contribute! You can also leave me encouraging comments in the “Comments” section. Take a look, and let as many people know about it as you can.
Here’s the YouTube version of the video:
Well, here it is…my first blog post. Not a big event, I know (it’s the fallen tree in the woods that nobody hears), but significant in my own little world. I am a notably late adopter (still no flat-screen TV, no cell phone), and I am also an intensely private person (the whole social-media world is difficult for me), so it has taken me a long time to become a blogger. But — perhaps better late than never — here I am.
A friend of mine is a novelist who writes under the name of Sam Gridley (“under the name of” always makes me think of Winnie-the-Pooh, who lived in the forest under the name of “Sanders”). Mr. Gridley has an excellent blog called “The News from Gridleyville,” which you should check out here.
In his “About” section, Gridley recreates a very funny, very reluctant, conversation with his agent about blogging. The conversation ends with a suggestion for producing an online supplement of one-handed recipes so that novel readers can cook without putting their books down.
Gridley notes that the reason he created his blog was because his agent said to. I confess to a similar reason (sans agent) for starting this one. So many of my writing friends have told me that a blog is a necessity that I have finally bowed to the mother of invention and joined the blogosphere.
Gridley has yet to include a recipe in his blog, but I’m going to start right off with one.
This is a recipe for Groundnut Stew, a West African recipe that comes from the cookbook Ethnic Cuisine by Elizabeth Rozin. Liz is the late mother of Seth Rozin, the founder and director of InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia. Seth is not only a terrific director and playwright, he is also a gifted visual artist (one of his musician paintings is a treasured wedding present). Seth did the wonderful illustrations for his mother’s cookbook, and a few years back he also illustrated a story of mine that was in the Minnesota literary review, The Talking Stick.
That piece, “The Cook in the Kitchen, Cooking a Chicken” was an excerpt from an early draft of my novel-in-progress, Busara Road, which is about an American boy living at a Quaker mission in Kenya in the sixties, shortly after independence. The novel excerpt included a description of making the Kenyan dish kuku na mkate, or chicken stew with bread.
This recipe calls for beef, but I imagine it would work well with kuku too:
2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2-2½ pounds lean beef, cut in 1-inch cubes
4 red and/or green sweet peppers, chopped
4 cloves garlic, mashed
15-ounce can tomato sauce (2 cups)
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper (more or less to taste)
½ cup smooth peanut butter
- In heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat oil, add onions, and saute until onions are soft
- Add beef cubes and brown on all sides.
- Add all other ingredients except peanut better, mix well, and cook, covered, over low to moderate heat for about 2 hours or until beef is tender.
- Add peanut butter and stir to blend well. Continue to cook, uncovered, until sauce is reduced and thickened, about one hour. Serve stew with plain rice. Serves 4-6.