Week Five: Empathy
August 16, 2011 § Leave a comment
YOU! Yes YOU, reading this!
I am watching tears fall like an April windowpane from two eyes that could not be more deserving. This elation; this equity is in bloom because of YOU. Kadogo is sitting in a worn navy dress; her soft face is buried in her hands, and she is gasping for air, gazing in intervals toward the ceiling. Her life has been forever changed today, simply because a handful of people cared enough to sacrifice for the betterment of another. I am blessed to be the translator of this extraordinary, human togetherness.
She used the corner of a sweater sleeve to wipe her wet lips, saying “Do you know what you have done? My goal for almost all my life until now has just been to have a small farm, and a good house; something to share with my children. And now, for the first time, it’s like a light has been shined on this part of the path. It feels as though I have been pregnant for so long, and just now I gave birth. It’s very painful, childbirth, but when you have a baby, it’s like you are on another stage of Earth. Nothing else can say how I feel.”
“To you who did this, you will never be forgotten in my heart.”
We will continue following the lives we touch mighty lover. In five weeks, we’ve altered the course of ten lives, at least, all through mothers, all sustainably and lovingly; all through simple acts of compassion. Think about how simply we can change lives on the other side of the planet. In a matter of seconds, we can touch someone nine thousand miles away. I could dance for this, but you’ve heard plenty of my fireworks. Let’s just dig our hearts into the next.
The Art of Opening:
In Kiswahili, the word Susu (pronounced ‘Sho Sho’) means grandmother. This term is extended not just relatives by blood, but rather as an endearing name for women of elder wisdom and value. A clever young person can collect many of these guide-lights, but inevitably a few shine with particular resonance. The one sitting with me now is without question one of the most inspiring I know. So for today we will call her by this name, Susu.
When you touch Susu’s hand you can feel the whole Earth; soil, rain, splinters, thorns and new growth. They are as worn and cracked as an elephant hide; strong as an axe handle. And with everything she says, they are her paintbrush.
Today, she is wrapped in dirty neons, pink and green; all flowers. Her eyes explode at the corners like sunrays; her beautiful wrinkles pinch closely together like hands in prayer. She is showing me her knees, how they are swollen from carrying firewood; then she asked me for water to sweep down her pain medication. I don’t know if I have ever met someone who alone could aptly compose a coffee table book. Her memory is incredibly articulate and her sense of humor is wry. But most of all, she is a mountain of sacrifice and compassion.
This is why.
Susu saved a life. And in doing so, she saved her own. This is what I’ve learned true love to be, when you don’t know who saved who.
Let’s start at the beginning; Christmas morning, 1943. This is the day Susu was born in the Rift Valley. To make a long story short, she was ‘relocated’ to the Central Province (where we are now) during the Colonial Era, went to a Catholic school, and eventually became a teacher. Then one day, she was ‘chosen.’
In her tribe, in most tribes actually, this is how it worked. A man spotted an attractive woman, elders were sent to arrange the marriage, and life suddenly wasn’t yours for the planning. “Next thing I knew,” she explains with a smile, “I lived in this grass thatched house with a man I had never spoken a word with. Not one word.”
“It was traumatizing,” she said.
Now, I have to mention something about Susu. She is wildly hilarious, and a salty bird at that. So when you show clear empathy or a certain depth of vulnerable emotion, she takes you down with laughter.
She said, “When you’re young you think you know what being married is like. And during the day, I did know what being married looked like. I’d seen that before.” A smile is breaking across her face. “But then night came. And I was like, ‘what is this thing?!”
Susu spoke endearingly of her husband’s qualities, his kindness and understanding, but she likewise admitted that she never did love him the way she knows love can be between two people. He was an orphan and a cattle herder; gone almost every day. Beyond this, he was nearly as quiet as their relationship prior to marriage; spend most of his life in his head. She took care of him as a wife here is expected to, and she found great meaning in this act.
But then came the 17th of November, a long time later; the day everything changed.
“I kept having the same dream, for almost three weeks. It was so real I would wake up and touch my stomach to see. I was pregnant in my dream. And somehow I knew it was a baby girl. I could feel her. I told my friends, and at my age they would laugh at me, so hard.”
This particular November 17th was a Sunday, a sunny one. Susu woke up early to pull vegetables from the garden before church.
“I remember it so clearly. I pulled carrots and filled my basket, changed into my Sunday clothes and left. I went to church and left early to sell my produce in the market. When I got their, I saw one of my friends stacking her potatoes. We started talking and she told me that she heard people talking about a baby girl found by the river; that the baby had been abandoned, no more than a half-day old, and she’d been taken to a clinic; no one was claiming her.”
“I wasn’t even thinking. It was like I could feel her. I just left my things and started walking.”
A police officer and a doctor stood above a small table, displaying the baby. She was naked, not yet cleaned from birth, crying and jolting. The police officer and doctor raised their heads in surprise as Susu walked straight up to the baby girl and picked her up.
“I saw her laying there naked and I went straight to her. The policeman said ‘what are you doing,’ and I said ‘she is mine.’ It was instinct. I still can’t believe I did it. I just tucked her beneath my sweater, and the policeman said I would need to come to the police station.”
The policeman knew this was not her child; everyone in the station knew this. But without her, what would come of this precious life? So they just followed procedure, as if she had collected a child that wandered off while she sold carrots to the brightly dressed dressed churchgoers. This is how Susu saved a life.
She’s smiling again, clearly building up again for something in the face of my defenseless awe. She said “Can you imagine what happened when I went home?!”
“My husband was sitting in a chair in the corner. He said ‘where did you get that?’ And I said, ‘I did not wish to disturb you, but I have been pregnant. And just now, I went to the clinic and had the baby. So, we have a baby girl now.”
“And, let me tell you something, he believed me.”
She is laughing so hard she is crying. It’s like she still can’t believe it worked. “He’d seen me bathe, and still he believed me!”
They agreed to name the baby after his mother, Njeri, meaning ‘ever happy.’
For Susu, Njeri became an anchor of meaningful sacrifice. She describes Njeri’s presence in her life beautifully in these few sentences.
“To me, Njeri is the embodiment of total peace; my utmost purpose of living. Caring for her feels better than caring for myself.”
“I’ve spent my life working hard for her to have a great life; to have her own bed and become whatever she wishes to become. I will die loving her. And I am thankful for this.”
Now imagine this is you. One day you are sitting in a grass thatched hut with a miracle baby from the river and a not-so-talkative man. Njeri is four months old and you are rocking her in a chair, trying to make conversation. And for some reason you uncage the truth.
I imagine the air was frozen in some way, handing like an icicle until it broke. He spoke; said “well, she’s ours now. Yours and mine.” And that was it.
Believe it or not reader, this brought them together. Susu and her husband shared purpose. But sadly, not for long. Susu’s husband, we’ll call him Guka, died.
Susu started to cry when she told me this; the kind of cry that catches you off balance. She describes:
“He walked to her bed and shook her hand and said ‘Njeri, you are my mother. And I am going now.’” Susu pauses to whisk tears from her eyelash. “and then he said ’You will be left to carry the peace.’ And that night he died. I haven’t said those words out loud in a long time.”
Suddenly Susu was the sole provider. Her income came from chopping logs, tying them to her head in unimaginable bundles, and hiking them a few miles to town; all for around forty cents per day.
But, because of Njeri and her instinct, she was not alone.
Njeri is now ten years old. She is a living miracle and beautiful in every way. I hope, in fact, she reads this someday. This is how Susu described Njeri and all she has become today.
“One day Njeri asked me if she could separate a small portion of the farm to work herself and sell the yield for her own income, so she can buy her own handkerchiefs and cookies. I decided to let her, and now when I go to the market with my many heavy bags of potatoes, she drags her own small sack behind. She sells them beside me at the market and shows me the money in her pocket. Whenever we do okay for the day, she tells me that when I get old, she’ll use her money to raise cows so that I can drink milk with every meal if I want.”
She is like Susu; hard working and selfless and adorable. But unlike Susu, she is of a new generation. She is encouraged to dream magnificent heights and has a huge support network in her pursuit of them. Njeri is a student at Flying Kites Leadership Academy, and in result Susu has asked us to make a promise; a promise to care for Njeri when Susu leaves this life.
Flying Kites has humbly made this promise.
Today, Susu still carries firewood every day, farming when she’s not chopping. This is why her knees are swollen and he hands are their own coarse geography.
They need a help reader. So this week, my goal is to encourage small sacrifice for their wellbeing. Susu insists that she would get Njeri to the potential of college, but after this, it will be beyond her. So she’s asked simply for help opening a college savings account for this miracle child. Susu has never had a bank account in her life.
It is my hope to surprise her, as we did Kadogo, by putting something in this account to support her inspiring sacrifice; something to signify that the future of both these beautiful people is of great value to us.
I propose a goal of $1000. If Njeri gets into the University of Nairobi someday, this will get her one semester.
Saving Njeri was not an act of compassion, reader; it was an extreme act of compassion. And while it is not likely you will find a naked baby lying on the path today, there is an immense opportunity born from this.
How often do we grow annoyed by someone’s bad mood, instead of actively work to listen and repair? How often to we avoid the grief of others – the coworker, the frustrating friend, or the homeless man outside the grocery store – opposed to actively alleviate suffering?
For those engaged in our quest for self-improvement, this week is solely dedicated to opening more wholly to the cries and callings all around us; to understanding people’s unhappiness and creatively formulating one small act to relieve it. That’s it.
Welcome Flying Kites ‘Blue Gum House;’ a gift from my Susu and Guka, Barry and Carole. Watching them first climb the stairs and poke their heads into this magical little world will forever shine in my frame of mind. Thank you Grandma and Grandpa. I love you.