A reminder from my namesake


Yesterday I received an email and attached photo from Little Dobrin. He is awaiting the results of the national exam that he took recently. If his grades are good enough, he will be eligible for secondary school. Little Dobrin attended Sema Academy and was one of the many students who have received scholarships from the Ethical Humanist Society to pay for their yearly tuition.

Here is what I wrote about him ten years ago:

I met Zachary Motari in 1965.  He was an assistant officer for community development. We returned to New York in 1967 and kept up a correspondence. In 1975, when we lived in Kenya again, I saw Zachary just once, as he had been posted to another part of the country.  Then we lost touch, and he slipped from my consciousness.  But for years, Zachary kept a photo of me in his house, and his daughter, Rose, chose to name her son after me, an mzungu she had never met.

I become upset as I think about Zachary’s four-year-old grandson, Arthur Dobrin, and estimate the differences in privilege between us, a gap so vast that I can describe our differences without end.

I had more than almost any African we knew. As little as this was by American standards, Lyn and I were wealthy beyond compare in Kisii.  We had a car in New Jersey (a gift from Lyn’s parents). We had honeymooned in Jamaica (money from wedding gifts) and had spent a few days in Bermuda before beginning Peace Corps training (savings from Lyn’s work as a substitute teacher). We slept on a mattress and ate meat every day.

In Kenya, we had a cook, a gardener, a house with windows, running water, money enough to take one vacation on the Indian Ocean and another in Uganda. We owned a radio and a tape recorder. We took anti-malarial medication while others fell ill because they couldn’t afford the prophylactic pills. We went to the dentist, sprayed for bedbugs, bought sausages, and owned a library of paperback books.

Ten years later, when we lived there again, I could spot my friend Joshua from a distance by the shine of his blue shirt, the one he wore all week. The wrappers and empty tins we threw into a pit beside our house were picked over and taken away by local children to be refashioned into wall decorations or lamps.  We had a tank beside the house to collect water.  Others walked to the river to get theirs.

To this day, many in Kisii fetch water in jugs and find their way at night by moonlight. They live in small houses, some still made out of mud and dung, homes with shutters but no glass or heat. No telephone, TV, VCR, or computer. They choose between educating  their children or  keeping healthy. I get rid of more clothes each year than they may own in a lifetime.

In August 2000, Lyn and I returned to Kenya. The Kisii highlands are as verdant as ever, the rains here not having ceased completely. There is maize in the fields, bananas in the shambas, tea on the hillsides. But now plots are no larger than the land upon which my suburban home  stands. Not an acre is untouched. Roadside villages that once were a few shops now are rattling towns bursting with stalls and streaming with people, people, people. There is a stream of cars, trucks, buses, vans, pick-ups slowed by speed bumps and police checks. There are people walking, holding baskets in their hands, balancing baskets on their heads, children in school uniforms, children pushing iron hoops, kicking rocks, laughing. There are merchants, buyers, lookers, talkers. There are stalls and shops and goods laid out on mats. Iron, wood, rope, rubber, tin. Used shoes, shirts. This is Kisii—more people per square kilometer than any other rural area in the world.

I meet Zachary on the second floor of the new post office building. People stand in queues, a new custom, better than the old days when everyone shoved and shouted to get the clerk’s attention.  Zachary wears a sparkling white sweater, gray trousers, and polished shoes. He wears eyeglasses.

“Dobrin,” he says, as he takes my hand, “after all these years.  Now we can smell each other again.”

I meet his daughter Rose for the first time. She is beautiful with a broad but shy smile. She is wearing an ankle-length, African-style dress, the yellow-and-white pattern radiant against her dark skin. She works in a shop embroidering but gets paid very little.  She would like to buy a machine of her own, about $250, the equivalent of Kenya’s average annual salary.  Rose doesn’t ask, but I know she wants me to give her the money.

Little Dobrin has been told that the man in the photograph, the one whose name he bears, is coming to visit. But he has never been this close to a white person before. Rose encourages him to shake hands with us, which he does with great reluctance, then runs back to his mother’s side. He stays close to her and says nothing.  Rose tells me that he often talks about me. She says that, when she threatens to punish him, he tells her that he is going to run away to America to be with me.

By the end of the evening, Little Dobrin is standing between my knees as I sit in the living room crowded with furniture brought in for “the historical visit,” as Zachary calls it. Little Dobrin is happy to have me hold him.

There are school fees to be paid for Little Dobrin, about $100 per year. I know why she has told me. Zachary’s brother-in-law is a teacher who will be forced into retirement next year when he reaches 50. He won’t receive his pension, the price exacted by the government for having gone on strike. He introduces us to his six daughters. They have all gone to school, but what jobs will they find when the unemployment rate is 50%, he asks?

The house is filled with many children of all ages. There must be twenty people here, and everyone wants something. One teenager admires Lyn’s camera and asks me to send him one when we return to America. Two or three of the young people here will die from AIDS in the next few years.

It’s dark, and, although the house is wired for electricity, there is none this night. Power is rationed. Maybe the lights will go on at 11. Then food arrives, a feast of millet, vegetables, chicken stew, soft drinks, and peanuts.

After dinner, there is a ceremony.

“Take this seriously,” Zachary says. “This is a great honor for us. We’ve never had guests from abroad in this house before. You are the first.  Believe me.  This is an important occasion.”

We are given a gourd, a clay pot painted pink and black, a wooden mixing spoon, a basket made of millet and hide, and a wooden stool, the traditional symbol of respect amongst the Kisii.

The next morning, Rose comes to say goodbye. I give her a check for $250, “for the machine,” I say. But the bank won’t cash my check for her. It needs to have all three of her names: Roselyn Mokeira Motari. So three days later, Rose takes the  overnight  bus  from Kisii to Nairobi and meets us at the Norfolk Hotel.  She freshens up in the marble bathroom, a room with two sinks, terry cloth robes, and a toilet with an expensive wooden seat. There is a shower stall and a bathtub. Even though there is a water and electricity shortage in the country, you would never know it here. The lights turn on without fail, the water runs from the faucet. The Norfolk trades on its colonial heritage, and the gardens and walls of this sprawling complex are filled with memorabilia from that era: paintings and photographs of hunters and settlers, a chosen life built upon stolen land and black Africans who, in the photographs, stand beside them, ready to serve.

As I am writing this, I am preparing for my class. I read in a book on applied ethics, ” . . . when a person is faced with a choice between spending ten dollars on a trip to the movies or contributing it to famine relief, he should ask himself which action would most effectively promote human welfare, with each person’s interests counted as equally important.”

I ask.

And I don’t know.

I don’t have answers anymore.

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One thought on “A reminder from my namesake

  1. Really appreciated this article, especially the part about not having answers to that question. Whenever I teach introductory ethics courses, I think the same thing.

    Recently, I was giving a teach-in at UC Davis (we had a strike and day of free education in the wake of the pepper-spraying incident). I talked about the correlates of happiness and how they relate to wealth and community. In the process of researching I came across figures about differences in energy consumption. The study reported that 50-70 GJ’s is sufficient to support a happy life (increases in happiness are minimal beyond this and beyond 110 GJ there are no further increases). Still most developed nations use over 300 GJ’s per capita, while less developed nations use as little as 30.

    Still, what is striking to consider while reading through the story is how rich these beautiful people are with community and ritual. Americans have so much in terms of material possessions but wealth does little to improve happiness, while community is one of the most reliable indicators. In the US isolation is an increasing problem.

    It just made me think. About what we value and how we evaluate an individuals well-being. Most would say we are far better off than your friends in Kenya. In some ways, we certainly are, but in many ways, we are the ones living in poverty.

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