He makes me see the world differently, for every fiber of his being is engaged with living well, doing what is right, and engaging with others.
A walk across the Kenyatta University campus became an exercise in following; when you walk with him you walk in his wake. It is a comforting place to be. When I was walking down the main road toward the front gate I spotted him, a nucleus of energy even from a distance, even though I hadn’t seen him in almost three years, even though I had only spent time with him for five days in 2011. He was a magnet of energy, laughing with the guards, engaged with the guards, known by the guards as he waited for me at the front gate. I would have tried to be anonymous were I in his shoes; he cannot help but be known. As we crossed campus he stopped to talk to a group, secure in the knowledge of their identity, their homeland, their language, eager to share his connection to Kakuma, their homeland, from his past. He spotted a lecturer who he recognized from a class in Dadaab, and paused to say Hello. ‘I always remember a face, even if I only meet you once,’ he told me. He made the 25-minute walk across campus an adventure, not with effort, but with inevitable ease. This matches my memory of him from 2011, where he could speak with anyone, anywhere, instantly making the person who was the focus of his attention feel comfortable. I think he speaks at least five languages, and switches from Dinka to Kiswahili to English to Somali with barely a transition in his mind. He knows more. Language is a means to connection, not words to study. He shames me, and I stand back and witness his miracles.
He speaks in parables, naturally, using a story to illustrate a point, never trying to impress, always clarifying. His parables are biblical and they are tribal and they intertwine into a colorful braid. He spoke of fishing, and the value of teaching a man to fish for himself rather than being given fish, and he told me of rich and poor, those who don’t have struggling to find a way to give, like those who own a great deal need to learn how to receive. He spoke of a water buffalo needing horns in front for protection, and of temptation, and of being tested in the desert, of an elder sitting below a millet tree. He said to me more than once, ‘When in Rome be a Roman.’ A conversation with him requires a tight hold on the reins; hold tight, listen, and enjoy the wild ride from image to thought from past to present.
If he were a bird he would be a colorful parrot.
As we walked across campus he told of receiving monthly rations of millet, maize, and rice in the camp, and when we tried to call his wife, he realized she was probably getting water at that time. He has no running water, and his options are more narrow than mine, yet his world-view is more expansive. My whole paradigm shifted again. I was walking him to a palace, not a ranch home on a dead end street that sometimes inconvenienced me when I lost power or water, but a palace. I offered him a meal of carrots and potatoes and a chicken breast, hearing that ‘men in our culture never cook.’ He was amazed by the food I cooked. Chicken is an expensive anomaly, never within reach. When I removed my dish of butter from the refrigerator he said ‘What’s that?’ and I was ashamed.
What is it like to be with a person who has a soul that shines? It is blindingly powerful. It is humbling. It is a tonic.
He is called Chapter One and he is a member of the Dadaab Theatre Project, a cast member from The Collapsible Space Between Us in 2011, a Dinka refugee from South Sudan, an Anglican evangelist, a counselor in training, a loving husband and father to two boys, a committee member and camp leader, a volunteer, a student, a leader, an NGO worker, recently with Save the Children, a conversationalist and lightning rod, and my friend. This past weekend was the second time I had the chance to spend time with him in person in my life. With much effort he secured a movement pass and took a long bus ride from the Dadaab refugee camp where he has lived for the past four years to Nairobi.
He is wearing a shirt I gave him as a gift a few years ago. Don’t we look good in our plaid short-sleeve shirts together? No, he looks better.
Look in his eyes. The depth of his wisdom is palpable.