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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Jua Kali

Saturday morning, 6:30, pulling out of the rough driveway to scour Nairobi for several items my Banquet (the non-dancing version of a prom here at RVA, more like dinner theatre with elaborate sets, better-than-usual food, dressed-up couples, and plenty of drama) committee still needs for decorating tables.  This has been a heavy burden weighting me down, because I never find time to shop in Nairobi, I'm not a good shopper, I'm not sure what is even possible to find, and the hopes and dreams of a bunch of kids shouldn't rest on my busy-ness and inexperience. We tried to save money by ordering a small item on line, which ended up originating in China, taking so long to get to California it missed connecting with Luke and Caleb at my in-laws, then being lost in the bowels of the Air Force post office for a month and a half, until yesterday . . . not a smooth plan.  Time to focus on local procurement.  So I invited my old Swahili teacher to come with me. He does a major family shopping trip to Nairobi every Saturday, to pick up the fruits he loves (buusukali, the little Ugandan bananas) or certain vegetables that he wants his kids to acclimate to from their western Kenyan roots (pumpkin leaves), to visit friends and get a haircut and exchange news and who knows what else.  So Scott had the brilliant idea of offering to drive him around to some of these excursions and transport his groceries, in exchange for advice and initiative in my own hunt.

We flew down the nearly empty Saturday morning roads just after daylight, chatting and plotting.  First stop, a little shack of a flower shop where E thought we might ply the owner for advice on where to find wreaths we could use for a flower decoration.  I had only found small bricks of flower-holding foam previously, nothing circular, or big enough to cut a circle from.  Our time was drawing near, and I didn't know where to look.  As we arrived the brilliance of Scott's plan became apparent.  Various security guards and casual laborers were lingering around the wooden stall behind a gas station, drinking porridge which an enterprising woman was selling to the pre-work early-morning crowd, pouring from her thermoses into a series of plastic cups.  As they sipped and waited, E struck up friendly conversations.  He politely enquired and prodded and came up with several good leads on other items we were searching for.  Eventually the stall's owner showed up.  Buy a wreath?  Why?  He showed us how he makes them.

Jua kali translates as "hot sun" in Swahili, but it's the term for innovation.  The people who work on the roadside.  Out of their house.  Behind buildings.  The people who cobble together this and that, who repair tires with plastic bags, who bend wire to keep an engine running.  Who can serve a meal from a pot balanced on rocks, who can sew a suit on a treadle machine.  These people don't have offices or titles, they live on a fragile margin.  But they can almost always solve a problem, and they are good-natured about the effort, willing to extend time and help to a stranger.  There is almost always an interested crowd since this happens outdoors, without the isolating barriers of walls and procedures.  There is abundant advice, and celebration of success.
Note the wheel barrow, matatu, and bus

Africa abounds in creative ingenuity.  The old adage "want is the mother of invention" could have been coined here.  If a more pampered person like me lacks the tool or the access to find what I imagine, then I'm stuck.  But in Africa one does not expect the exact item to be available, one simply makes do and improvises.  We found what we needed on Saturday, not by a google-search or an amazon-order.  We found it by hitting the streets, striking up conversations, asking for help, accepting compromise.  Those two aspects of jua kali intrigue me:  concocting solutions, and doing so communally.

So I'll end with a picture I snapped that morning while waiting for the flower-stall owner.  Two men jumped off a truck to load some massive sacks of carrots which had been dropped there earlier in the morning.  The 50-kg bags were extended in capacity (more jua kali) by a rope net, so I"m sure each weighed more than I do, at least 70kg?  I wondered how they could get hold of the bulky bundle, let alone lift it.

As I watched, one man gripped the other's arm tightly, then they tilted the sack of carrots back onto their human bridge, used their other hands to grab the bottom of the bag, and off they went to the truck.

Instead of struggling to hold the bag, they held onto each other.

The beauty of this hit me like 50 kilograms of carrots.  We try to solve our problems alone, or if we can draw in help, we both try to hoist the burden, grabbing and clutching unsuccessfully.  If we hold onto each other in community instead, the burden becomes lift-able.

African jua kali, wisdom of the streets, born in desperation but leading the way.


Phyllis Masso said...

Nice illustration. I like your phrase about hitting you like 70 Kg of carrots. Much better than a ton of bricks. You are a gifted writer and "liver" (one who lives, not the organ).

bill said...

That's a load of carrots from one who knows.

Kemmel and Lisa Dunham said...

We always enjoy your keen observations and descriptive telling!