Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Christmas With The Kenyans

“What would an African family especially appreciate?” I asked my friend Bryan. He smiled and led me through his liquor store to a bottle of Amarula, a chocolate-colored creamy liqueur he tells me is a bit like Bailey’s, made from the South African amarula fruit. There is the image of an elephant on the label and below that, a cluster of three amarulas. They look like lemons. 

Emily's house is in a modest subdivision just off State Road 37. It’s where she lives with her brother Allan. Once through the door I hand Emily the Amarula and am met by the smells of exotic foods and the sound of African pop music playing from a TV sound system. I knew there was a family gathering of sorts, but am astonished to realize I’ve been invited to her family’s Christmas gathering.

Emily grew up in Kenya, moved to Botswana when she was 14, lived in South Africa as well and immigrated to the U.S. when she was 16 after her parents won a Green Card Lottery. She’s an amazingly creative artist and small business owner. I met her at a monthly dinner circle in my neighborhood and she contributed a children’s story to a little literary journal I cofounded with a friend. She is slender and lovely, with high cheekbones, a broad, generous smile that laughs easily, signature gold and black eyeglasses and an ever-changing assortment of hairstyles. She’s the kind of friend so endearing that when she asks you to stop by and meet her family, you drop what you’re doing and go.

The kitchen is filled with activity and I’m introduced to Emily’s “mum,” Margaret. She’s grilling chapati flatbread in a skillet and extends her free, flour-covered hand to me. I meet to a broad assortment of Emily’s family, including her sister, Irene and brother, Allan.

There is stew in a crockpot, bowls of roasted meat, rice, and cooked cabbage on the kitchen island.

As I’m introduced to Emily’s father, George, he’s sitting on the couch syncing his iPhone and computer and ignoring a college football game projected from a large flat-panel TV. We hit it off right away. We talked about London in the 1980s, a decade when we both studied there, and about my work and his while we drink bottles of Rolling Rock.

George is an I.T. project manager for Wal-Mart in Bentonville Arkansas. He describes the details of right-on-time deliveries and the way his computer systems keep stores stocked but not overstocked.

I love conversations about philosophy, politics, and religion with people from backgrounds foreign to mine. We talk at length about the damage centuries of missionaries did to African culture. George explained how the transition worked in Kenya when blacks took over governing from the white minority. Before long we’re pleasantly debating the reconciliation process that succeeded in South Africa and failed tragically in Zimbabwe. I’m kind-of amazed at how much of that history I remember from my 3+ decades as a news junkie.

Family members continue to arrive and the house is filling with conversations, most in English but some melt from time to time into other languages I cannot place.

Emily, Irene, and their friend Mirri are gathered in the kitchen, laughing like schoolgirls, staring into an iPhone propped on the counter. I peer over their shoulders and am introduced to the African pop star, Meiway (prounced “may-way”). One of his music videos plays on the tiny screen. I ask them what he sings about and the girls burst into laughter. Irene says, “He sings about how he likes the shape of a woman,” and waves her hands in the air, drawing the outline of a cello.

(follow this link to listen to Meiway)   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGvImhqlg5A

Emily pours me a glass of Amarula. It does taste like Baileys, but with carmel overtones. She tells me, “One day when I was living in South Africa, the teacher came into class and announced something in Setswana. My classmates began singing happily and drumming their desks. That is not my language so I didn’t understand the announcement. A friend explained that the elephants in the forests nearby had been eating the overripe and fermenting amarula fruit and essentially, getting drunk. We were sent home for our protection. My friend said as we left, ‘Do you want to get stepped on by a drunk elephant?’”

“I got sent home for heavy snow,” I laugh, “you got sent home for drunken elephants.”

Small children – all boys, run through the rooms playing and yelling and being scolded by parents. I note with interest that any adult disciplines any child, no matter whose child it is. I mention this to a parent and she smiles and nods knowingly, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Irene shows me the clothing she has been making and selling in the shop she and Emily opened in downtown Noblesville, Love’s Hangover; skirt wraps in Indian-inspired fabrics and colorful t-shirt with impressionistic images of the African continent sewn on them. (photo at left: me & Emily)

The food is served and I get my first taste of goat, in the goat stew and in roasted goat. It’s marvelous. There is Pilau (rice), Kachumbari salad, roasted chicken, and the chapatis bread. During dinner George and I talk about his family. He is a pro-business, pro-education man and that inspiration shows on his children. His son, Emily’s brother Dennis is a former I.T. specialist. “I told my son,” George says, “being an I.T. worker is like being a bus driver. Someone tells you where to drive and you drive there. But wouldn’t you rather be the man who hires the bus driver, tells him where to go, how many busses to buy, secures the gasoline?”

Dennis is no longer an I.T. worker. He went back to school and got his masters. He’s a financial analyst now.

This African family does not generally give Christmas gifts, but with sympathy for a new generation being raised in America with American customs, they decided on a simple gift exchange. They plotted everyone’s birth date on a calendar and then each person gives a gift to the person with the next birth date.

I’m feeling like an interloper, so as they begin their exchange I back quietly into the kitchen and watch the gift giving from the stove, sipping my Amarula. But soon Emily’s soft-spoken, lanky brother Allan appears before me with a bundle wrapped in the multi-colored Sunday newspaper comics. “This is for you,” he says. “We wanted you to have something.” Surprised, I gratefully unwrap the paper to reveal two hand-carved faces of an African man and woman.

My eyes follow the faces of this beautiful, welcoming family I’ve met today and peacefully acknowledge that of some 20 people here, I’m the only white person, and of the 15 or so adults, I’m one of only two born in America. There has never been a time in my life in this country when I’ve been in such a drastic racial and national-origin minority. And I’m in a typical house in a typical subdivision in Noblesville.  

And I love that it feels completely normal and that I feel so welcome. 

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