Asking ancient questions in Africa
For years before I actually traveled there, I dreamed of Africa. Elephants and gazelle and women with long necks infiltrated the landscape of my sleep. When I say that I dreamed of Africa, I mean that I actually did, but I also mean that I longed for it. So when I was accepted to a study abroad program in Kenya during my junior year in college, it seemed that the planets had finally aligned. I had the distinctive feeling that I was standing at a threshold.
But, when friends and acquaintances asked “Why Africa?” I had no good answer. All I knew was that this need to travel to this distant continent had bubbled up in me in a way that could no longer be contained. Maybe it was curiosity, maybe it was restlessness or the spirit of adventure, or maybe it was the desire to connect with some deep ancestral memory of our beginnings. All I know is that I was very much in need of its rareness, its wild foreignness, in the way that only the very young and idealistic are.
The experience of finding a place as magical as the landscape of my dreams was no surprise: I did. The surprise was in discovering that this self-proclaimed agnostic, a girl raised by a Jewish mother and a Unitarian (read atheist) father, would find something akin to God there.
Early on in the semester, I visited Olduvai Gorge. This was the cradle of humankind, a deep gouge in the earth, edged by piles of limestone sediment, the place where Louis Leakey, the famous archaeologist found Lucy, the oldest known skeleton. As I hovered over that hole in the ground, peering in at hand axes, those dull, egg shaped rocks carved by people who lived in this place a million years before, when this land was a lake basin and not yet a rift valley I knew that I was exactly where I needed to be, amid the detritus of an ancient people.
The last weeks of my semester in Kenya brought the final challenge: a two-week stay with the Samburu, a semi-nomadic pastoral tribe struggling to survive after one straight year without rain. The Samburu had been walking for months, I’d heard, in search of fertile land where they could set up and live, feed their animals and their children. Only recently, they had found a stretch of land near the Sudanese border, a place close enough to a mountain they deemed sacred, Nyiru, where water runoff from mountain streams could help to sustain their dwindling livestock population. I would be living with the second wife of a man named Lelongoyo in a dung hut where I’d share a bed with six children, a young goat, and a family of chickens.
During my second night with the Samburu, my home-stay mother and her friends, young women perhaps my own age, piled stiff beaded necklaces on my neck and a turquoise kikoi around my shoulders and tried to teach me to dance to courting songs. The women giggled at my clunky movements as they clicked their tongues on the roofs of their mouths, the sound of crickets or castanets. I jumped and jutted my chest out like a bird in flight, feet stomping the dry dirt, while plumes of dust blossomed beneath the giant kite of the Southern Cross.
Why Do We Need a Church?
But it was an elders’ council meeting under the canopy of a Baobab tree that still stays with me today. The chief sat before the crowd of elders and us, a group of fifteen American college students. He wore a Chicago Bulls hat, undoubtedly passed down from students from a previous semester, and his legs, dark and chapped, splayed out elegantly from beneath the red blanket that draped over his lean frame. He held a carved walking stick, and used it to make his point emphatically, swiftly swiping the air with its narrow tip.
“Perhaps you can tell me,” he said, directing his gaze at me and the other students, “why we need a church,” he said, pausing to gesture toward the partially constructed building in the distance, a project initiated by Christian missionaries from the United States, “when God is all around.”
Above us razor thin clouds moved across the sky, stretched and taut as animal skins. Rays of sun poked out from behind the clouds, and the chief nodded his head as if in acknowledgement of a presence larger than him, larger than all of us.
“See,” he said, pointing up at the rays of light spreading like palm fronds from behind the clouds, “God’s legs.”
The Samburu speak in tidal breaths, upheavals of high and low pitched murmurs. Words are recycled and through the repetition a drawing together, something efficient and lean. The same word for breast is used for milk, maziwa. The word for moon, mwezi also means month. And, Ngai, the most revered word in their language, the word for God, also means rain.
If I tell you that it rained on my last night with the Samburu, it would seem the stuff of happy endings, the stuff of dreams, and prayers, perhaps. It did rain, and the Samburu were grateful indeed, but also very afraid. What they hoped for, prayed for, needed, was also—they understood well—a force that could kill them. Because when the rain finally came, after all those months, it approached with the force of a monsoon, bringing disease, floods, washing away small acacia fences, huts, and whole villages.
Now, more than a decade has passed, and I am now a teacher, a mother, and a wife, but I still dream of Africa, of returning someday with my husband and my son, showing them the Africa that changed me, deepened me in ways I could not have anticipated. When my son is old enough to ask the big questions, about life and death and God, I know what I’ll say.
I’ll say, “look, see the sky, see the clouds? Look, there, God’s legs.”