Tea with Alice

Alice, the woman who manages the Daraja shamba (garden), and I connected while I was plastering the shed, and she came alongside me and slapped on a few handfuls. I told her about natural building at home, and how I had been enlisted to take pictures of natural building worldwide. She invited me to her house in the Kikuyu (one of the Kenyan tribes) village close to Daraja. With a slice of delicious carrot cake in arm, I found my way to her house by asking for “Nyagodi” (her Kikuyu name) and following arm gestures and snippets of fast Swahili.

Alice invited me to come in and sit down, then offered me a cup of tea. I had seen the small mud-and-waddle huts everywhere I had walked or run, but had never been inside one. The main sitting room had two chairs, a cabinet, an area for cooking, and a curtained off area for a bedroom. The room was hardly bigger than my parents’ closet. A door led to the second and only other room, where a radio played dance music. We chatted about the different kinds of clay that she used to plaster. The inside had a ondulating white clay plaster, with festive “Merry Christmas” decorations all around. “Faith without action is death,” one wall said.

Outside, I asked if I could take a picture of her standing outside her house. Her head reached the level where the roof began. I showed her the picture on the tiny camera screen, and like most other Africans here, she asked for a print of it. It suddenly occurred to me that seeing pictures like this was so novel because Alice had probably seldom seen herself before. It’s not like she had a full length mirror hidden in that back room. Nor, most likely, do Kariuki or Nikolas, or the Daraja girls. I don’t think I saw a full length mirror the entire time I was in Africa.

She showed me around the other structures in her compound, and we discussed plasters and building materials as we walked. A big, round structure with a thatched roof, that had been standing since the seventies, served as her kitchen when she cooked with a wood-fueled fire. The mud had fallen off the sticks on the outside, leaving gaps in many places, but the inside was dark and cozy. The fire that boiled our tea water sent smoke wafting up into the wide cone of the roof and curling around the rounded walls.

One of her daughters lived in another mud-and-waddle house, this one not plastered on the outside, so I could clearly see the straight branches, vertical and horizontal, that held the mud to form the walls. This one, like Alice’s, had iron sheets for the roof. It had a stubby stool outside, where Alice’s daughter sat quietly, sorting rice and observing us through the open door to Alice’s house as we sat to talk and drink our tea.

Alice had lived in this Kikuyu village since she was small. At that time, the only school was in Jua Kali, which was an hour and a half – running – from home. The younger ones often wouldn’t go to school because they couldn’t run fast enough. Others didn’t have enough money, time, or food to support education for their kids. Now, Alice’s kids can go to school in Naibor or Ol Gigiri, 20 minutes walking at most. A lot has changed – and now primary schooling is such a mandatory part of the Kenyan lifestyle anywhere you go.

We talked about the role of women in a household, and how it has changed recently. As we sat in her humble house, her way of life became more real to me, as if I had been understanding the simple, tribal life through a fog before. It’s different to hear it from a friend, to sit in her house, to be invited into the life, than to read about it or only see pictures. I have gotten the privilege of being invited inside, even if only for a moment.

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