A Granny For The Global Village

Reflections on the blessing and peace making traditions
in the African village

One of the articles in Being Global Neighbors (IC#17)
Originally published in Summer 1987 on page 36
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute


Dan Schellenberg was raised among the Wakamba in Kenya, the son of a Baptist missionary. He met his wife, Cathy, in seminary school. Cathy’s parents had been missionaries in Uganda, and Dan and Cathy decided to return to East Africa to raise a family.

Dan’s unorthodox mission was to bring information on technologies that would make semi-arid homesteads not only self-reliant, but produce excess. This might reverse the trend that has the men headed away from the homestead to the city. Lured by the false hope of jobs, in truth they find unemployment lines. Their leaving splits the family, leaves an unhealthy burden of work on the women, and strips the men of respect and productive roles as either husband or father. Water tanks, windmill pumps, irrigated vegetable gardens, fruit trees, grain storages, biogas lights, and fuel-efficient cookstoves make a mighty pretty oasis in the dry lands northeast of Nairobi.

I’ll paraphrase a story Dan told me in 1983 in Kenya: "I try to get people to make investments which are productive rather than status symbols. But sometimes a parish will pour their savings into a stone church. I tell them not to come crying to me, hungry, in the dry season when they can’t buy food. When they do, I tell them, ‘Go eat your church.’ …I believe that being close to the land is being close to God, so that gets me in trouble with church officials who believe I should be out here just trying to convert people to the Baptist Church."

After 7 years, the Schellenbergs left Kenya for America to give the work a chance to continue without Dan’s input. The Baptist Church finally decided that Dan’s ministry was too unorthodox for them, but the people he touched in Kenya love him as a brother. In fact, he is a member of the Wakamba tribe – they know him as Kilonzo. Dan has written a book about his work, awaiting publication. He is now works at SIFAT (Southern Institute for Appropriate Technology) in Alabama, training volunteers in cross cultural sensitivity and technology designed to meet basic human needs. He would welcome contact with IN CONTEXT readers: Rt. 1, Box D14, Lineville, Alabama 36266; 205/396-2017

– Laurie Childers

FEW OF US in the Northern hemisphere expect Africa to provide us with any significant insight into improved human relationships let alone models for world peace. Our media informs us that the future of the whole continent appears clouded with political chaos, poverty, and environmental bankruptcy. Africa has become the orphan child of the global village – to be pitied, not respected as a peer. We in the North with our "progress" and social Darwinism will bring peace and prosperity to Africa, not the other way around.

That sort of thinking, however, does not match my own thirty years of participant observation in the villages of Kenya. Africa, even if it’s culture and natural resources are fading, would be better cast in the role of a much needed grandmother to the global village. To appreciate that image, it helps to understand the profound source of blessing, love, and peace most grannies are to African village people.

I recall clearly the first time I discovered an old matriarch left to die outside her village compound. She did not want the many children she cared for to see her die. There are, at first glance, many similarities between the very old and the very young. She was a mere skeleton, dirty, and malnourished. She lay in her own filth, unable to feed or clean herself. But there the similarities ended.

She greeted us weakly, "Are you well?"

"Yes," I replied politely in her own tongue. "And what is your news?"

"It is good," she said, lifting her head to catch my eye. "Although you have found me in this embarrassing condition, I am not yet ready to die. They shouldn’t waste any tea on me these days, but stay and listen for awhile for I am only sad that those I leave behind are empty of the ways of blessing. They do not touch the children to bless them anymore. And I am only a child in their eyes, even if it was my milk that gave them life."

Suddenly, tea was brought for me and a friend who busied herself with cleaning the old lady. My friend spooned some sweet tea between the old lady’s eager lips, and we listened carefully. Her long memory was not merely nostalgia but a record of the way she had come to live so fully with so little.

She insisted on touching us finally, and we parted after her last indelible line. "Draw near me here, for I would spit my customary last blessing on you if you are not afraid." But she was too weak to rise. "Look, she coughed, "I have no spit left to share now, but go in peace nonetheless." That night she died, but she was not absolutely alone.

I have shared the story in some detail because it strikes me as a metaphor for our perceptions and relationships to the stricken "dark continent". Africa is pariah, set outside the camp, as it were, mistaken for childish when in fact she is an ancient mother despoiled.

Grandmother Africa has indeed given vast amounts of its natural resources, its milk, to provide not only mere life but luxury to its Northern children. Africa in many ways has been like a grandmother, preparing the food, happy to share until it is all gone, and remain satisfied to eat last or nothing.

The shocking facts on the export of food and animal products from the Horn of Africa illustrates the continental "grandmotherliness" of Africa. In my area, in Eastern Kenya, more than double the value of the food aid the people received was exported in fancy "export crops" to Europe. During the worst African famine in modern times in 1984, the World Bank records that in the international exchange of food the net contribution of the six worst hit countries equalled a net surplus of one billion dollars in that year alone! " Such a net export of food, in the face of famine and chronic shortages, raises the question: why does this occur?"[1] The answer is simple. African villagers are not in a position to stop it. There is no tea, no reversal, for those in extremis!

Typically, although the villagers were aware of this "injustice", they suffered without bitterness. To stop giving is to stop blessing, and it is better to die than curse, the elders will tell you.

As a missionary determined to bring some "relief" and perhaps a little "development" to the people I was born amongst, I discovered that it was the village granny who really knew the way. She it was who saw clearly the real meaning of things. In many ways she held the village together quietly and without credit. Rather than effect their "salvation" in the missionary sense, they gave me mine instead.

I came to know myself in a new way. "Being carriers of modern consciousness, we in the North are good at speaking in terms of highly abstract models and formalistic categories…to emphasize calculable effects…at the same time there are many aspects of living we are unable to experience…we have lost the sense of the ultimate meaning of life. We have ceased to appreciate a life in which we are able to participate as total individuals in face to face relationships. In the eyes of premodern societies we are socially handicapped. We are not sensitive and responsive to the same full range of human values as they are."[2]

What seems to have occurred then for those of us who have gotten within spitting range is that we have discovered a new spring of refreshing values. We have seen in ourselves the desperate uncertainty of our own selfworth and our ability to cope within our own society. And so it can be said of both missionary and colonial invader (the villagers do not distinguish between the two) that "we have been forced to seek some kind of mastery in a place where all the cards are stacked in our favor and where we could live in a selfgenerated glory by transferring all evils, all weakness, onto another people."[3]

One would expect violence in return for this mastery. Instead I found understanding and an appeal for peace. However badly it misbehaves, a grandmother almost never beats a child in her care.

The most moving illustration of this spring of peace-making in my experience came while watching American pilots train Kenyans to fly helicopter gunships across the river from my settlement scheme. The villagers always crept across to the Army "play" ground to plant extra crops because the land there was fertile. And every year, conveniently at harvest time, war "games" began and soldiers on exercise destroyed their crops and raped any unsuspecting women.

I once saw a helicopter land near a village and could not fathom how the villagers found the grace to spread food before those who had destroyed their harvest. Not only did the villagers have less food, but they would also have to pay for the helicopter and its pilot’s lessons! It is extremely important to learn from a people who bless those who curse them and make peace with those who do them violence. I pressed the question to the elders when the soldiers had left. How could they do it? Was this a cynical bribe for peace, a twisted way to heap coals on their tormentors heads?

The reply I received was that under the "thome" (literally, "to rest" ) tree, all who sit down are sitting in the place of peace. No violence can come to those who share food and fellowship under the "thome" tree. In other times, all villages had such a tree just outside the main hut. This shade tree was once the tree of life that bore the fruit of peace. All who come seeking this fruit must signify their peaceful intentions by sitting down. One cannot fight while sitting down, so all must be at rest to talk when talking of anything important. Even the Creator, Ngai, sits down, being pleased with His creation! In the villages no one stands to greet a guest for that would indicate something was amiss. The words that are spoken and agreed upon in peace and fellowship under the tree of life will become incarnate. A community can "make" peace then, but only in dialogue.

I have come to see that the root of much Northern violence, a failure to find peace, lies in its mistaken priority of seeking truth before peace. Truth is infinite, so it is beyond finite man to discover it absolutely. What happens to those who pursue it alone is that there ensues a struggle to impose their limited view of truth. Power then becomes the means of deciding what is true. In other words, violence is put to the defense of its antithesis and might becomes right.

To avoid the ethos of violence, the elders do not ask, first of all, if any statement or position made public in the shade tree parliament is true. They first ask if it is complete, or whole. This then requires everyone to participate in making a certain view complete in a climate of peace. Peace is wholeness in most primitive cultures, and that is certainly still true in the remote African village.

Ironically, one of the most often heard criticisms of African traditional life by Northerners is that they see lazy African men sitting around in the shade talking when they should be working. Sadly, they did not get close enough to know the truth. Today the alchemy of peace-making that was "worked" by the elders under the tree is all but lost.

You must now go far from the soiled skirts of imposed civilization in Kenya to see how blessing and peace keeping is done. Only amongst the remote, and so called primitive, Samburu or Masai can you still see the children approach an elder, bow their heads and receive a touch of blessing and a prayer. They enter the elder’s space and find peace conveyed in the ritual touch and prayer. And when there is trouble in the village the elders gather under the tree and, if it is the Masai, the senior elder reaches out and plucks a tuft of grass. This they pass around for all to hold as a sacred sign that no violence can be done to those who share this resource – fodder for their cattle and thus blood and milk to sustain their way of life. "Grass was not just a sign of life and blessing for the Masai… the grass was life, the thing itself. Just as spittle is forgiveness for the Masai, so grass is peace. Such is their sacramental system."[4]

We in the North are increasingly impoverished for eroding the meaning of things. For us a cup of tea is but a cup of tea, not a sacrament. This loss of meaning has been subtle and seemingly irreversible. "At the outset…the universe appears packed with will, intelligence, life, and positive qualities; every tree is a nymph and every planet a god. Man himself is akin to the gods. The advance of knowledge gradually empties this rich and genial universe, first of its gods, then its colors, smells, sounds and tastes… But the matter does not end there. The same method which has emptied the world now proceeds to empty ourselves. The masters of the method soon announce that we have been mistaken when we attributed souls or selves or minds to human organisms. We who have personified all other things, turn out to be ourselves mere personifications…"[6]

Fortunately, in the face of the immanent loss of a large hunk of our global humanness, we do find that the process is not irreversible for us and for the world. We can be "saved", find peace, or wholeness. We can successfully resist the violence and alienation of modernization. East Africa offers us some hope that this resistance can be both non-violent and regenerative. Our global grandmother, who has held so much wisdom so long and silently, can still speak a blessing – even if she cannot spit. The news is good, and she is not ready to join the living dead just yet.

African resistance to the North takes many forms. But its constant purpose is surely to reject the alien uniformity which the North strives to impose on the unnerving variety of African life. The North finds this variety unnerving because it challenges the necessity for the progress, control, authority, and research with which we order our lives. We fear Africa because when we leave it alone it works.[6] How much longer it will work, remains the big question. Certainly Africa’s capacity to go on blessing the superpowers as they carve up the continent will be sorely tested very soon.

In the face of increasing Northern violence towards Africa in the current repartitioning, I hesitate to cast Africa as a grandmother. Only emaciated, pathetic, children seem to get adopted. The grannies are too often overlooked. I am not suggesting we patronize Africans, or even regard them as noble savages, but simply take all of them as seriously as we do our own selves.

It is time then, to move within spitting distance of Africa’s villagers. We must sit quietly and listen in the place of peace under the tree of life before the "old woman" takes leave and her marvelous quality of life is lost to mankind. For in that instance, I shall derive small comfort in celebrating that brief moment once in my life when I was close enough to take tea and be touched by that "bedraggled queen we have unthroned, which some love for her still raging magnificence, her old wisdom."[7]


REFERENCES:

1. Rempel, Henry, "The Food Situation in the Horn of Africa," (IDS, Nairobi, Kenya) January 1985.

2. Hyden, Goran, Beyond Ujamaa in Tanzania (Heineman, 1980).

3. Lawrence, Margaret, The Prophet’s Camel Bell (McClelland and Stewart, 1967).

4. Donovan, Michael J,. Christianity Rediscovered (Orbis, 1983).

5. Kilby, Clyde S., The Christian World of C.S. Lewis ( Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. 1964).

6. Marnham, Patrick, Fantastic Invasion (Jonathan Cape, 1979).

7. Mugo, Micere, Visions of Africa (Kenya Literature Bureau, 1978).

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