M’zungu Bring the Money, The Wise Words of My Dad, and the Day Michael Jackson Died

With the web site down, I haven’t been keeping the closest tabs on what I’ve been up to since arriving. I’ve jotted a few notes in a paper diary and may go back to reference some of the material but for now, I find myself with some time before dinner and have decided to do a bit of a data dump.

One of the similarities of my time working with the Passionsits of Kenya and the mission society with whom I worked in Jamaica is that they have staff: employed cooks, housekeepers, etc. As I type, someone is in the kitchen next door preparing dinner for about ten of us. It will likely either be chicken or some more of the cow that was slaughtered a few days ago. I watched the whole thing from start to finish. It was equal parts fascinating and disgusting. It was a group effort carried out by some of the seminarians and staff here. They conducted the process as if they were following a checklist. It was amazing. Do yourself a favor and actually watch something like this some time. It may not be enough to turn you vegetarian but will give you a greater understanding, appreciation for, and possibly a bit of pause, regarding knowing where your food comes from.

I’m currently in the town of Karungu, literally on the shores of Lake Victoria, or as it was known in its pre-colonial days, Lake Tanganyika. We left Nairobi a couple of weeks ago and made our way west with stops in Molo and Kisi. Like Karungu, the Passionists have community houses, parishes, or schools in these towns.

(Side note: the day we left Nairobi was the day Michael Jackson died. We were tuned in to a local radio station, but the DJ spoke in Kiswahili, leaving me in the dark as to what he was saying. But he kept playing MJ songs and saying his name. Instantly, I knew what had happened. Why else would they be so focused on Michael Jackson on a random day in June? Amazing – the King of Pop’s death was felt on the other side of the world. It was as much a testament to his unique talents and stardom as it was to the potential of American culture and soft power, potential we are great at squandering at almost every turn. Imagine how much more effective the U.S. would be if it worried about adequately funding its diplomatic corps as much as it does its military.)

The mountain town of Molo was incredibly interesting, not least because of the significant difference from Nairobi’s climate. We were there for only one night, largely to cut the trip in half and switch to a vehicle better equipped for the rougher terrain in the west. On our way up to Molo, we wound through tea country, alternating stripes of bushes and clear rows covering a mountainous terrain like some kind of symmetrical wallpaper. Molo was a bit more challenging due to its remoteness and lack of hot water. That luxury only comes in the afternoon once a wood-burning fireplace has had a chance to heat the stored water. I’m a morning shower kind of guy and begrudgingly adjusted.

Traffic jam on the way from Molo to Karungu, Kenya.
A traffic jam on our way out to the western edge of the country.

By contrast, Karungu is a warmer and more tropical environment. Shower water is piped in from Lake Victoria and while it’s warm, it’s also full of sediment. The shower stall is perpetually lined with silt. I’ve been advised the water from the lake will do a number on my insides and that I’d do well to shower with a mouthful of Scope as a precautionary measure.

Meals and showers aside, it was an exciting journey to get here. One minute we were cruising along a dusty plain with giraffes, zebras and gazelles peppering the landscape. And the suddenly we turned a corner, descended down a hill and straight into a washed out trench about half as deep as our Land Rover was tall. In the back of my mind I think I knew scenes and experiences like that existed. I just don’t think I was ever going to be one of those people to have them. We made it to Karungu late in the day and settled in to the seminary the Passionists lead here.

Since I have been here in Karungu – and it looks like we’ll be here for the next four weeks – I’ve played doctor to a host of outdated computers. I have also visited various pieces of the Passionists mission: parishes, orphanage, shelters, etc. Each stop compounds the complexity and gravity of their life of service. There are no easy answers to complex problems, scarce resources with which to solve them, and an undying optimism that in the end, they will. I doubt my efforts will prove to be anything really substantive, but we are to do what we can, where we can, for however long we can.

One of my more eye-opening moments came just the other day while Nicolas and I were heading to a neighboring parish to pick up some laptops in need of some serious repairs. Shortly after we started driving, Fr. Nicolas quietly said, “Uh oh.” He saw debris on the side of the dirt road that is not usually there. A few minutes later we came to a small corner of town with a bridge we needed to get across. Nicolas stopped the Land Rover and said, “They’re not letting people cross the bridge without paying money.” He then took our car of the beaten path and followed roads that were barely there. This being his hometown, I didn’t think too much of it.

We found ourselves back on the main road and every so often passed a burning tire or two. “This is bad,” is all Fr. Nicolas would say. We traveled a few miles further and were stopped by a group of kids who had blocked the road with a line of burning tires. Nicolas recognized them and asked what was going on. Apparently the government had promised the local citizens it would pay them to fill in and repair washouts and holes along the road. They did the work but the government never paid them, so they resorted to extorting drivers and passengers. Two of the locals were standing on my side of the truck, machetes in hand, saying, “M’zungu bring the money.” (M’zungu means “white man” in Kiswahili.)

All they wanted the equivalent of five dollars. Fr. Nicolas explained we were not going to pay them anything, and instructed me not to. The folks at my window grew impatient and began tapping the glass with the tip of the a blade. “M’zungu bring the money.” After some more back and forth, Nicolas decided to turn the truck around and just head home, but a few of the locals jumped in a nearby car and decided to chase us. Nicolas hit the gas, turned off the road, began literally cutting through front and back yards until we found ourselves free of our pursuers and following a dirt road through a small pass in mid-sized foothill of sorts. Once again we came across a fiery roadblock. This time, the local crew occupied perches above the road and armed themselves with large rocks to rain down on anyone who dared drive through – or over – the burning debris.

We had the clearance and Nicolas seriously considered driving through it. At one point he backed up and charged at the roadblock only to hit the brakes just short of it. He wanted to see what they’d do. They meant business. Everyone in the road scattered but those above cocked their arms, ready to unload a slew of watermelon-sized rocks at us. Everyone froze.

Ultimately Fr. Nicolas just backed up the truck and drove us back to the main road leading back to the seminary. We would not make it to Macalder that day. Better to head back and wait for local anger to die down.

Compared to incidents like the election violence of 2007 from which Kenya is still recovering, this was incredibly minor. And when viewed through the lens of those feeling slighted by their government, I can’t say that I would have done any different were I in their shoes, Nor do I think any easy solutions exist. I had some initial “What the hell?” knee-jerk reactions at the start of the ride home but very soon,, I flashed back to a moment in my childhood that I had not thought about in a long time.

When I was about my twelve years old, my dad had to run an errand and took me with him. I don’t remember what my dad and I were talking about as we drove on I-95 through New London and headed toward the Gold Star bridge (those of you back home will recognize the stretch I’m referencing), but I clearly remember him commenting, “You have no idea how lucky you are to have been born a white, middle-class male in the United States.”

He was right. I didn’t. And I wouldn’t, for a long time. Despite my time working with the Latino community of Chicago’s Northwest side, and despite living among the less-fortunate in Jamaica, the clarity of my father’s statement did not fully sink in until this incident. That memory has come back to me here and there over the years but its full weight escaped me until now. Somehow, among the nearly seven billion people on Earth, I got a winning lottery ticket. What do I do with it?

That question has stayed with me for days. I don’t have a complete answer and likely won’t for some time. It’s complex. For now I’m going to settle on it just being the next logical development in this seemingly long path I chose when I first started this whole experiment looking for a higher and better use of me. Knowing that incidents like the one that inspired my recent reflections are common in places where systems and institutions – and faith in them – is weak, perhaps that’s a place to start.

Regardless it demonstrates the importance of the work the global community does to engage countries with an eye toward strengthening systems and institutions. What I’ve learned from talking with those who do work in that field, for every step forward, there is a step backward like this one that takes years to recover from. But again, we do what we can, where we can, for as long as we can. Or for as long as it takes.