By Susan Wambui
I am haunted by the very sad revealed story of our Kenyan brother Jack Akenga, who died in Kensington Maryland a few months back in solitude, and was hurriedly cremated. This ought not to happen to anyone. It is just so pitiful, for lack of better words.
When some things happen, we cannot help but ask ourselves what went wrong, what we are missing and if we are truly in touch with ourselves, our neighbors, or even with the world. Just a minute – do you even know your neighbor? Yes, that neighbor? Do you even say: “Hi”? I have by now learnt that anyone whom I come across was put in my path for a reason, and so I do take the trouble to be kind and respectful, as much as I can, but, that is me.
It is fair to say that “This is America”. A rather loaded statement, if you were to ask me. On the very many occasions I have heard the statement, I have construed this to mean: “This is America, leave me alone”; “This is America, the land of the free and uncaring”; “This is America, mind your own business” or as some people would put it, “Just get out of my Kool-Aid!” Indeed, we can quantify the statement any kind of way we wish, because, after all, we are free moral agents.
Oh, how I wish that this was how the world worked, but unfortunately, it doesn’t. Yes, we are free, born free, and are our own masters. But are we, really?
Sometimes, actually most of the time, I tend to have strange ways of looking at life, but don’t we all? I think we miss the point altogether when we compete, fight, pull and shove one another. I see it differently. We are created unique beings, each possessing unique gifts and talents. As I said to my friend the Reverend the other day, we ought to be like trees in a forest, which stand together and lean on one another for support, so that the wind or storms never overwhelm any of them. They sway, swing and whistle together in unison when the wind blows; they shield one another when there is a storm. When it gets dry, they stand in solidarity as if in defiance of the hot sun and cry out to the heavens for rain which not only benefits them, but all other creation.
They form a beautiful canopy beneath which grows protective layers of moss, creepers, shrubs and ferns, all these holding together the soil on which the trees depend for their underground roots. The swaying and swinging strengthens their roots as they search deeper within the ground for nourishment. The whistling must be a way to make themselves happy as they praise their creator. Amazingly, no tree dies of hunger because the others have finished nutrients for it. There is a harmonious, symbiotic relationship among all the species of plants in a forest and the soil on which they all depend for nourishment. And so, the forests grow dense, majestic, beautiful. They are a strong force whose simple appearance of dominance can be scary, especially to intruders, yet they form the core of life on earth. That is the strength of a forest. Conversely, if a tree were to stand alone, it would not withstand the winds or the storms, and with no shade to protect the creepers, shrubs and moss, the soil would soon be washed away, leaving it with no firm ground to root itself.
This tree/forest analogy is so much like our lives. We so much depend on one another. We like trees, were created to depend on one another. No one can stand alone and succeed in this life. We need one another. I sometimes wonder if we have not erred to a margin, adapting to this current life which we call ‘adapting’ or ‘fitting’ in. What would happen if we “fitted out”? Again, this is me, just thinking.
I will not go to Africa for this my next story, but I will go to Roseto, a town in Eastern Pennsylvania, back in 1962. It confounded researchers and scientists as to why the inhabitants of Roseto did not die of heart attacks as did the inhabitants of neighboring towns. The study was done over a period of ten years. Rosetans actually lived longer, happier lives even though they smoked their old-style Italian stogie cigars, fried their sausages and meatballs in lard; they loved salami and cheeses, all causes of cholesterol. They drank wine in preference of sodas or even milk. Rosetan men worked in the toxic slate quarries in dangerous conditions which could result in health hazards. There were no crime rates in Roseto, and very few cases of social assistance or emergency relief.
Rosetans lived family-centered lives, with case study houses having at least three families who greatly depended on one another and the greater community for assistance and help. Everyone in Roseto seemed happy. The elderly were neither institutionalized nor marginalized, but were “installed” as informal judges and arbitrators in everyday life and commerce.
As time went by and the Rosetans became more Americanized (meaning less close, less modest and less interdependent), they also became less healthy. The wearing off of the now famous “Roseto” effect would be apparent within a generation. And so the magic of Roseto remains now only in the “Roseto effect”, because they became Americanized!
I am a strong proponent of the Nyumba Kumi Initiative. We are free to decide to live like the trees, the Rosetans, or like Americans. It is our choice, this is America. As we give the $5, $10, $20 or whatever amount in support of those we have sadly lost because maybe they were lonely and felt they did not have the strength to reach out, may we bear in mind that perhaps just a phone call or just a text could have made a big difference. May it never happen again to any of us on our watch – that one of us is ashamed or afraid to reach out for help because we are all too entangled in our own lives to care for our community, or because we have become too judgmental of those who we think “do not fit in.” May we be the support that someone can lean on. May we never ever, read another report of a Kenyan having died in solitude. This is my very earnest and sincere prayer.
My challenge to all of us: Reach out and want to know that stranger in your WhatsApp group, or in your church, your work place. Check on them during the week. Let us stoke the fire of fellowship and brotherhood and keep the embers burning for when it gets cold, because sometimes it just freezes! We are already foreigners in a strange land. We need one another and together like the forest trees, we stand strong.
It is still a beautiful world, stive to be happy! Take care, stay safe, breathe some fresh air, sing, laugh and dance. Appreciate what you have when you have it for who knows what tomorrow holds?
Kenyan Parents In USA
Diaspora National Assembly- CS Ministry of Economic and Global Trade.
Susan is also an author and a nutritionist in Southern Georgia