When a Kenyan enters your home they remove their shoes.
When you take the time to ask someone to share their story you are showered with unexpected gifts and responsibilities. Each story is something very specific that you then own and can save, treasure, and carry with you, changing your DNA forever. Sometimes the stories are small fragile treasures, easily slipped into a back pocket, and others are enormous trunk-loads that must be lifted onto your shoulders, their weight changing your weight, changing your story. All stories are valuable.
I invited a dozen undergraduate students to my home on Malawi Close on Sunday to talk, to share stories, and to share a meal. I chose an even dozen from my class of 90 to casually interview for a future article about Kenyan students who chose to study theatre arts and film technology at Kenyatta University. I am privileged to be working at the only university in Kenya with such a degree program. I am always asked: “How are the students the same as American students? How are they different?” It was time to look deeper.
The image of a dam breaking and water flooding everywhere is not an inappropriate image to describe my afternoon. Remove one stone, create one opening, and a powerful flood may break down the once invincible barrier.
The stories flowed and the shared experiences were at once familiar and revelatory. They were completely the same as American students and they were completely different. I cannot yet share and process the details here, but the four hours we spent together, in my ranch home on a dead end street at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya surpassed my expectations.
A recurrent theme of unsupportive parents began to emerge, especially fathers, wary of supporting a choice of study in theatre and film. A fear of the future for children is universal, maybe more so in Kenya where this degree program is just six years old, the industry is in its infancy or still in the womb, and employment is far from assured. This should all sound familiar. If only all children would go to college to be lawyers and architects and doctors and engineers and procurement officials.
The main difference? The solutions to challenges were mind boggling, the tenacity heart wrenching, the passion and ingenuity limitless.
I believe in the futures of these students.
I enjoyed watching them eat my recipe-free creation, pleased that they scraped every bit from the huge pot of rice and chicken and corn and onions and green peppers and curry and cumin and fresh tomatoes that I served. They said it tasted American. I told them it had no name. Austine brought chapatti. I borrowed dishes and silverware from the conference center, as I only have three dishes at my house.It was a challenge to cook for twelve in my small kitchen with limited supplies. Eating together was not a challenge. The conversation as we ate and drank, after sharing stories, kept flowing wider and wider, deeper and deeper, releasing itself in unexpected ways for both the students and me.
I wish we could all slip into the shoes by the door for just one day. What would we learn if we could walk in these shoes?