Sitting at the millstone table where Karen Blixen wrote Out of Africa, I looked out at the Ngong Hills she loved, hazy in the distance.
I saw the movie in 1985, before I read the book. Africa had always been an exotic National Geographic place, far removed from my experience growing up on the flat Manitoba prairie.
Yet her stories somehow struck a deep chord in me.
We say writing is a gift, as though it is a personality trait. The real gift lies in what is written, offered freely to an invisible audience scattered across time and space.
Unlike the probabilities that otherwise shape our lives, there is no calculation to a gift – how could there be? A true gift is unexpected, unpredicted, something that appears out of nowhere.
It may only be accepted – a dangerous thing to do, because accepting a gift creates a new relationship, bursting with unpredictable possibilities.
When it comes to writing, the ideas shared between author and reader for the first time are just as full of such possibilities.
Fast-forward several decades after reading Blixen’s book. Having taught students for years that individuals can change the world by their choices, I made one myself: I wrote my own book, on sustainability.
It should have been called Into Africa, because twelve months to the day after I got the publisher’s offer in 2012, I was in Nairobi having a private conversation with the President of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – from Sudan – to whom I had given a copy. We talked about UNEP’s role in caring for the planet on behalf of the United Nations, Muslim-Christian relations – and my book.
It deals with how a gift changes everything by the unexpected possibilities it creates. The book certainly did this for me, because its publication led to my election in Washington, DC, as a civil society representative to UNEP. Weeks later, I was on a plane to UNEP’s annual global meeting at its headquarters in Kenya.
It was a whirlwind time for me in Nairobi, working together with other civil society representatives to influence government delegates, from countries all around the world, to make better decisions about our environment.
I contributed through writing, helping various people to express their thoughts and feelings more effectively in English, the main UN language. Extraordinary possibilities for friendship and collaboration appeared with every gift of my words they accepted.
My family pushed me to get out of Nairobi afterward and see something else of Africa. With only 36 hours before my flight home, I reluctantly accepted their gift and left the city (and the Ngong Hills) far behind.
I flew over the Great Rift Valley (where we are told all human life began) and into the Maasai Mara. After one brief vehicle safari late afternoon, there was dinner and then the generator-driven lights were extinguished at sunset.
There was little sleep for me, though. The resort was next to the Mara River, right where a pod of some 70 hippos submerged during the day, coming out to graze by the cabins all through the night. The double-ended flatulence of so many hippos together was truly amazing – and deafening!
Bleary-eyed, I greeted the sunrise on safari, breathing crisp highland cold air that grew into driving heat by mid-day. The animals practically lined up for pictures and, after breakfast, I went on a walking safari across the savannah. Following a hippo track, my Maasai guards focused me on the small things along the path – a wild beehive, droppings from different animals (hyena droppings are white, by the way), plants used for medicines, and stories of drought among the Maasai and their cattle who lived up into the surrounding hills.
There was time for one last meal, at lunchtime, before packing my bags and taking a roundabout trip to the airstrip, where I would catch the light plane back to Wilson Airport in Nairobi and then make it (barely) to the international airport.
With no guests around, I was able to talk to the young Maasai man who was my waiter. His name was Joshua, and as the conversation grew, I learned a little about him and his community up in the Loita Hills. He asked me why I was in Kenya – few people paid the price for a trip to the Mara and spent only one night – so I told him about my book and what it meant.
I was astonished and humbled by how quickly he grasped the idea of the Gift and the possibilities it meant for relationships, so I gave him my last (battered) copy.
He told me then about his dream, how he wanted to bring the gift of water to his community. The women had to walk kilometres each day to bring back dirty water from holes in the ground – water shared with livestock and wild animal – and in a drought this made life precarious.
In the developing world, everything revolves around water. Without a clean and local source, there is never enough that is safe to drink. The women spend their days carrying water instead of going to school, tending gardens, or contributing to the family income.
He dreamed of what a well and clean water would mean – and when I found out what it would cost, I made a promise I did not know how to keep. Somehow, I said, we will find a way.
Looking out over the Maasai Mara earlier that morning, as the sun rose in the sky to light my way home to Manitoba, I had said under my breath: “I will be back – I don’t know how, or when, but I will be back.”
There have been five trips since – and two more books.
At home in Winnipeg, I kept in touch with Joshua by Facebook, though he had to climb a hill in Kisokon to get cell reception. I told anyone who would listen the story of Joshua’s Well – of his dream, of the importance of the Gift and the possibilities it releases, creating a pathway to a sustainable future for us all.
Within a few months, I had raised enough money. The next spring, I travelled into the Kenyan hills I have come to love, the Loita Hills, to meet Joshua’s people and sign an agreement between the communities involved.
The day the papers were signed – by younger women, too, who pushed their way to the table to sign with the older male elders – I was given a shirt, red for Maasai and green for the environment, hand-sewn by Joshua’s wife, Patricia. On the back was embroidered the title of my book.
It was a precious gift (though it made me look like a pudgy Christmas elf!). The shirt was accompanied by a Maasai name, offered spontaneously by people in the crowd: Olomunyak, which caused some consternation and much laughter. Someone politely translated it as “blessed one,” but I guessed its true meaning among the Maasai, who have a wicked sense of humour: Clearly not a normal person, I had somehow been “touched by the gods” – and had the shirt to prove it.
Today, however, three villages close to Joshua’s now share a hand-dug well, the first successful development project in that remote area, with biosand filters installed in as many huts as we could afford. Throughout a bad drought this year, about 450 women a day have been pumping clean water for their families.
His village is next, with hopes for a borehole well in a school compound, where children can also learn how to grow the foods they need to supplement a traditional Maasai diet based on the herd animals that suffer most from the drought. We are enabling small-scale community development, across all the barriers thrown up by language, culture, religion, politics, history and distance – and I have held my godson as a reminder of why that needs to continue.
I was honoured in two communities as an elder among the Maasai, learned that choosing a roadside “toilet tree” could be a lethal decision in black mamba territory, opened my tent flap to see Mount Kilimanjaro rise in front of me in the morning sun, and walked parts of the Loita Hills that tourists simply don’t visit.
I have looked into the eyes of wild animals and seen what our generation will cost the Earth, if we do not live differently and those animals disappear. I have sat with children whose parents make unthinkable sacrifices for their education in a place where schools are named “Osiligi,” which means “hope,” and wished I could do more. I have held the dry red earth and talked about what to do when the rains come, to protect against the drought that frequently seems to follow these days.
Throughout, I have experienced the generosity of friendship, of acceptance, not as a bringer of gifts, but as a strange cousin – Olomunyak – from elsewhere.
Scuffing the dirt with my boots in the middle of the Great Rift Valley on my last trip, it felt, finally, that I had come home.
This time, I could make no silent promise to return. While I don’t know what other doors might yet be opened, age and circumstance limit the gifts any of us have the opportunity to give.
But the farewells I received – from the Loita Hills to Nairobi – were the kind one offers to family who simply expect to see you again, out of affection for who you are, not for what you carry.
In a world where relationships of all kinds are threatened by fear, by difference and suffering, we are one in heart together, separated only by the mereness of space.
Four years ago on the UN campus in Nairobi, two friends forced a bracelet over my hand and onto my wrist. Intricately beaded, it was a birthday gift from Lucy, an indigenous Kenyan colleague, who remarked as they struggled, “I got mine three years ago and it hasn’t been off since.”
Apart from two stints in hospital, neither has mine. It marked the beginning of a relationship with the Africa that caught my imagination and overwhelmed my heart, just as Karen Blixen wrote how it happened to her 80 years ago.
That bracelet still looks out of place on my wrist as I teach my classes. Another one, from the women at the Murja well, joined it this past June.
They are physical reminders to me of the new, unexpected relationships that may be created simply by choosing to give or to accept a gift.
I have learned we should never underestimate the power of our words or how far they might travel. When two people are joined by the gift of the words they share, time and space disappear.
In a universe of relations, woven together by gifts, anything then becomes possible.
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(submitted to the 2017 CBC non-fiction competition…finally got me writing again, even if it did not make the long list!)