I live my life in small concentric circles. The most meaningful influence is made with those the closest. I do not live life large. I live life close. My influence is not dynamic, it is not far ranging, and it does not explode in all directions with force, influencing distant shores. I do best with a small circle of those who are close.
I often dream of being a more influential person than I am, of having a bigger personality, of being someone with far ranging influence. But my strength is in being small. In Kenya I dreamed of articles in the Daily Nation, of interviews on the radio, of a BIG IMPACT that all could see. I pictured symposiums where I would speak with large groups of students, constant master classes with great attendance, and collegial meetings with faculty where we discussed University life, the arts, best practices for educating students. The truth is so much smaller.
I struggled to get students to attend classes, my e-mails to radio stations went undelivered and unanswered, and I never wrote my intended article for the Daily Nation. I went unnoticed by my peers. I made no impact with my colleagues, not even a ripple.
But my life on campus is rich. My power was out again at my home again this morning. My computer holds a charge for about 45 minutes without power, and today was a writing day. I said good-bye to the frog who has recently made my security gate his home, and headed over to the Conference Center a few blocks away where they have a generator and I can borrow electricity.
As I walked with my head down lost in my thoughts I heard, ‘Habari yako Richard?’ and I was greeted by Nancy. Nancy is the daughter of Consolata, and she was on campus with Consolata’s grandson Emmanuel. We stopped to chat. Consolata and Nancy clean my home and change towels and sheets and do laundry for me every other week. Consolata works for Kenyatta University and it is her job to take care of 4 Malawi Close for me. I hire her daughter Nancy on the side to help. We have had a good time together these past 4 months.
Nancy was concerned that I had no power, and she knew that Consolata would know the story. We looked behind us to see Consolata briskly striding down the road toward us. Consolata does not speak English. I do not really speak Kiswahili. We need Nancy to be our interpreter when we are together. When we are alone she speaks to me in Kiswahili and I answer in English and we have no idea what we are saying. And we always laugh.
Consolata had a tooth-ache, and Nancy asked if I had medicine that would help. I said yes, and the four of us turned to walk back to Malawi Close together. When we entered my house I showed them my frog. I thought Emmanuel would like the frog. The ladies wanted to get rid of the frog, but I said he was good luck.
I gave Consolata two Advil and said she should keep the half-full bottle. I don’t plan on having any headaches in the next 11 days. I rarely take Advil. Consolata told me she hoped the pills would also help her asthma.
They ran out the door past the frog, and I ran to my cupboard where I grabbed my last tin of Altoids. I gave them to Emmanuel and told him to share them with his family. The curiously strong peppermints cannot be found in Kenya. Everyone loves the tin. I think they love the tin more than the mints. I too have always loved Altoids tins. I have a collection at home.
The generator was out of gas and there was no power at all once I arrived at the Conference Center. “Have a seat. The power will come back when the power comes back.” I sat for a while.
Then I walked to the building next door. “Habari za asubuhi Monica?” We shake hands. Monica works the front desk at the hotel portion of the Conference Center. Her generator was working. I am sitting in her lobby as I write this. She helps me regularly and we make each other laugh. “Can I have your pen? It is very nice.”
Millicent, the woman who does the accounts at the hotel, who teaches me useful Kiswahili phrases, randomly asks me if I have any Altoids. She wants the tin. I have never been asked for Altoids before, I have just given away my last tin, and she requests a tin. What a funny day.
“Habari yako Richard?” I am greeted by Bonface, my porter friend who works for the University by making deliveries on campus. His wife taught me to make chapati. He had just sent an e-mail to my brother Daniel, who he met while my brother visited Kenya. We chat about nothing in particular, about power outages, and laugh.
Consolata. Nancy. Emmanuel. Monica. Millicent. Bonface.
Advil. Altoids. Electricity.
I love my small life in Kenya.
Influence spreads because of meaningful exchanges with people I meet close to me. I do not look beyond; I look within. It is more than enough. These are the people I love and these are the people I will think of when I think of Kenya. These are the people and exchanges I value and I will miss.