The first reading today from the Letter to the Hebrews carries an oft quoted verse: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” (Hebrews 13:2) All cultures have their own sense and operation of hospitality. I think most of us grew up is homes wherein hospitality was rarely taught but always on display. So, it is an interesting experience to live in a culture where the dynamics of hospitality are different. Such was my experience while living in Kenya.
One of my most memorable and early experiences was being invited to dine at the home of a poor family who lived a good walk outside the local village. At the appointed hour one of the children came to guide me through the countryside to the family’s modest home – part hut, part structure. The home had a small fence around the property to keep the chicken close to home – I did not see any companion chickens or other animals. I had assumed that, as at home, one arrives chats for a little and then dinner, already prepared is served. Here. the flow of the afternoon was visiting with the entire family and then the wife went in to start the meal. It did not take too long to realize this was going to be a while.
Maybe the easiest way to explain the views of time is carried in our expressions. If I were home in the USA, waiting around and someone asked my what I was doing, the expression, “Just killing time, reading this book” is well within the norm of discourse. I once literally translated that into Kiswahili and was rewarded with a gasp! “How horrible! You should never kill time, but you should always make time to be with family and friends.” And so, my new friends and I were going to “make time.”
It was the dry season and a particularly harsh one. It is during these times that cholera is widespread and so one needs to be careful when eating outside of one’s home. And then there was the problem of water, not only scarce during this time, but from questionable sources. The combination had all the potential for me to be a horrible guest in refusing to drink and eat what was provided. But part of hospitality is to recognize the needs of the guest.
The father said something in one of the children in Dholuo (language of the Luo tribe) who disappeared outside the home later to return with a bottled Coca-Cola – the national drink of all American, right? In my case, true. It was greatly appreciated. So, we chatted as I nursed the cola, chatting about this and that in a mixture of English and Kiswahili. Soon enough the dinner was served.
The cultural norm was that the guest, the father and the sons “of age” were seated around the meal. The women and the other children served but took their meal in the kitchen. The meal was the ever-present sukuma wiki and ugali (collard greens and corn posho cooked the consistency of stiff porridge.) Sukuma wiki literally translates as “to push the week.” It is the food stretcher of East Africa. The meal also included chicken – scrawny, but nonetheless delicious.
At the appropriate time one of the children escorted me back to my place. When I left, I noticed there was no chicken in the yard. They had served their guest their only animal. And trust me, there was not enough chicken to serve the family. I suspect their wallets were as thin as the chicken, yet, they provided me a coca-cola.
Perhaps an addendum to the Letter to the Hebrews might be: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained by angels.”
Fr George your story of Kenya hospitality and sacrifice brought back memories of sharing meals with my host family in Guatemala. It was a very humbling, yet enlightening experience. Thanks for sharing.