For my travel column this month, I’ll take you across a cultural divide.
Early one Sunday in 1976, I stood beside an African house on the very edge of the Great Rift Valley. An early-morning mist had filled that great gash in the earth’s surface with cottony whiteness, restricting my vision to about 100 metres. I should have experienced an awesome sense of stillness and solitude, but a radio in a neighbouring house blasted out the voice of an American evangelist. Someone changed the station to one carrying music. The evangelist obviously considered English a universal language and failed to communicate.
I had come to study communication among the Kikuyu people and had witnessed the real thing the day before when Reuban, my guide, and I visited a neighbour family for tea. The princess-like daughter of that home had invited us. She had returned for a visit after living for years in England, bringing with her the clothes and look of success and glamour.
We passed through a gateway in a palisade surrounding two tiny houses. A man and a woman, looking over a half door in one residence, directed us to the other. We walked carefully through the yard, sidestepped farm litter, and called out at the doorway of the second house.
On invitation, we entered, ducking low to avoid the smoke; Kikuyu houses have no chimney. I sat on a three-legged stool near the fire with Reuban beside me. Most of the others sat on the floor, chatting in the local dialect. The mother, opposite across the fire, rooted in the hot ashes with a stick, found a baked potato, and pushed it to me. A neighbour lady, arriving a few minutes later, sat beside the mother. Reuban interpreted just enough to keep me in total confusion.
However, the scene that really caught and held my attention, appeared just to my left. You guessed it, the “princess.” She wore a dress so fashionable it might appear in a European fashion show. However, like her young sister at her side, she had abandoned leather shoes for bare feet. The sister’s well-worn dress had the dust and dirt of the farmyard clinging to it in the fashion of any 10-year-old who enjoys the outdoors.
They both sat on a mat on the floor. Little sister cuddled against big sister as though she had found a long-lost treasure. Big sister wrapped one arm about little sister in a pose that said, “I love you; you belong to me.” Innocence and elegance held each other in an embrace that ignored the hard floor, the dust and dirt, the smoky room, and the presence of a stranger.
The man and woman from the first house entered and sat with the others. I wondered about relationships, but couldn’t figure it out; something about it clashed with my Canadian culture.
We drank tea, I finished my potato, and we took our leave. As we walked slowly back, Reuban asked, “Did you figure it out?”
“No,” I said. “Something seemed different, but I’m not sure what.”
He put the pieces together for me, explaining that the man had two wives and, therefore, two houses. The princess was the daughter of his first wife, and the little sister belonged to the second wife. The first wife occupied the house we visited.
Without the language, and without much understanding of the culture, a powerful message of love had reached out and touched me. It did so in circumstances in which my Canadian upbringing prepared me to expect only dissension and unhappiness.