What I learned in Rome

A year ago today, I returned to Nairobi on a one-way ticket after (too) many years spent in and around the Eternal City. The time I spent in Rome amounts to about 90% of my adult life so far, and it has shaped me in ways that I’ll probably still be unravelling years from now.

To be sure, I didn’t have to move to another continent to learn what I record below. What happened was that I was exposed to a mix of circumstances, people and situations that would have been nigh impossible to recreate here in Kenya. And because my life now is very different from back then, I have to make an effort not to forget these lessons (at least the more serious ones).

1. When walking, always keep your eyes to the ground

Or else you might plant your foot in a pile of dog poo. In Nairobi, this skill has served to spare the lives of not a few slugs and caterpillars, in addition to avoiding the comparatively rare dog poo.

2. Treat everyone with dignity

I had a number of friends who were domestic workers, and while some were treated as part of the family, others had a less pleasant time. Many were constantly shouted at and called names. One had to count and record the number of carrots, tomatoes, etc. every night to ensure that she hadn’t eaten any. Another had to pick up the soiled underwear her female employer left lying around the house.

I also had my share of of having my dignity trampled upon. There were all the professors who thought I had an inferior intellect (at least I had a semester to prove them wrong!). Once, a cashier at a supermarket practically tossed my purchases after scanning them. Then there was the other shop where the cashier pointedly look past me to the lady behind me before confidently announcing, ”Next!” There were the countless shops where I didn’t get service at all, or where the note I handed over was minutely scrutinised before being accepted. There were the men of all ages who at all times of day and night offered to take me for coffee (hint: they were more interested in what they thought they could get from me, an African woman). There was the young man who imperiled his driving by hanging out the window to shout obscenities as I walked along minding my own business.

Being on the wrong end of prejudice has made me not want to make others feel what I felt back then. As a Christian, I believe that all human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), that I should treat others as I would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12) and that the main reason I’m not, say, a domestic worker is the grace of God that had me born into the family I’m a part of (Psalm 139:16). All those are good reasons not to forget this lesson.

3. My way isn’t the only way

Growing up, I was taught the traditional method of boiling rice: first you put in oil, then the rice and finally the water. One day early in my Roman stay, a group of us from church had gone visiting and a Filipino lady was cooking rice. She first put in the water, then the oil and finally the rice. She was also old enough to be my mother, and so I held my tongue (I’m a stickler for rules). The rice turned out fine, and I chalked it up to a Filipino thing. Some years later, I was with a Kenyan friend in her kitchen in Rome and she used the same method. By then I’d eaten so much familiar food prepared in unfamiliar ways that it didn’t bother me. Sure, I have my preferred techniques but I’m flexible.

4. A lot about a few foods

Before landing in Italy, I’d eaten probably only two formats of pasta. I was soon to learn that there are dozens of formats, each with its own special rules about what sauce goes with it. (I usually just made my own sauce from fresh veggies and the cooking quartet of aglio, olio, sale e pepe—garlic, oil, salt and pepper.)

I also didn’t know much about cheese—not only did I get to try various Italian varieties, I also sunk my teeth into Swiss and French products.

In my first few months in Rome, I wondered what they had against milk chocolate. In my first few months back in Nairobi, I wondered what they have against dark chocolate. I’m still yet to find affordable dark chocolate in Nairobi, and I really could use some right now.

Speaking of chocolate, oh how I miss Nutella!

5. I am more than what I do

After I graduated, I spent a long time in search of a job. I was no longer a student, which had been my identity all my life.  I did a few jobs here and there, mostly unpaid. I had no answer to the question, “What do you do?” Nothing. I just sit around all day sending out job applications and pampering the cat. I felt useless. I wasn’t contributing to society in any way.

I had to re-evaluate my view of myself. I may not have been contributing to the GDP of any country, but I was still valued by my parents, brothers, friends, and especially by the cat! More than all that, I was valued as a child of the Almighty God, and that’s the identity that will outlast all the rest.

6. A new way of pronouncing my name

My first (English) name has an r nestled among some vowels. As a good African, I’d roll my r‘s, which caused people to hear that r in my name as a d. Makes for a funny-sounding name. I imagine people thought, “It must be a tribal name.” So I stopped rolling that r and introducing myself became less of a pain for all involved.

While on the topic of language, I also learned to speak of pitchers, trunks and cookies when all my life I’d talked of jugs, boots and biscuits. Little sacrifices I made for the sake of the weaker American brethren 🙂

As an aside, I once attended a meeting with some volunteers from church. Three of us—An American, a Filipino and myself—were suggesting the kind of paper we though would be most suitable for a certain craft. Seeing as we were getting nowhere, the Filipina went in search of a sample of what she was describing. When we saw it, we were all like, “That’s exactly what I was talking about!” We’d been describing the same thing using three different names! 😉

7. How it feels to lose a loved one

So the loved one in question was a cat, but I don’t think that diminishes my observations. You, reader, are entitled to your own opinion…

First, the grief was horrible. Second, the regrets were endless. On the day before Bolla was put down, I had a conversation with the vet during which so many things became clear. Unusual behaviour that we’d observed months, even years, before was an indication of something more serious. If only we had understood. If only we’d done this or that sooner. If only, if only… Third, which surprised me, was how much I wanted to talk about Bolla in those first weeks. I had always imagined that a bereaved person would not like to be reminded of the loss, but if you gave me the chance I would have recounted silly stories about that cat from sunup to sundown. (Everyone processes grief differently so this may not always be the case.)

8. How to love the 24-hour clock system

“Let’s meet at 8.“

“Morning or evening?”

The 24-hour clock system eliminates the need for such clarification. Sure, it involves arithmetic, but some mental calculations never hurt anyone!

While on the topic  of numbers, Italy changed the way I write some of them…

Writing numbers
Writing numbers

… and the way I count on my fingers. I used to start counting one with my forefinger, but now I start with my thumb.

9. Re-entry can be brutal

(OK, so I didn’t learn this in Rome but as a direct result of having been there.)

I thought that settling back would be easy-peasy: I knew the language and was familiar with the culture, that kind of thing. Wrong. I failed to take into account two things (maybe more):

One, how much my way of thinking had changed. I’ve had exposure that many of my fellow middles-class Kenyans haven’t (see no. 1 above). That changes you, subtly and less so. Now the challenge for me is not to consider my compatriots  to be benighted since they have not been enlightened as I have, and that’s something i have to work through each day.

Two, though I was right on the generalities, I overlooked the specificities. In every culture in every nation, there will always be people who need some extra effort in order to understand what makes them tick. Failure to recognise that makes all interested parties miserable, as I was.

10. The Lord’s preserving power

I accomplished what I went to Italy to do: get a university degree.

I didn’t fall into degrading sin. The opportunities were many, and I could have gone looking for more. But it just wasn’t attractive.

I didn’t fall away from the faith. There was a years-long period when I was just going through the motions, and constantly wondered when I would be unmasked as a fraud. But I couldn’t get myself to walk away completely.

And on this note I’ll end this long post: I can’t take the credit for any of what I’ve written here. Yahweh alone deserves the glory for that!

2 things I learned from my cat

Another cat post? Yes. Considering I saw Bolla almost every day for close to 8 years, two posthumous blog posts are a case of too little, too late.

Just to be clear, I didn’t learn only two things from my years with Bolla, but these are probably going to stick with me for longer than the rest.

1. The ugliness of disease and death

Bolla was a very lively cat when we first got her. I’d tie stuff to the end of a string and have her chase me around the apartment (a game neither of the other two cats took to). I’d get breathless long before she did. As age and disease set in, she ran around less, became less fastidious about cleaning herself, and so on. Her last 48 hours were the nadir of her existence. She lost all muscle control and suffered violent convulsions.

The Lord has spared me in that I haven’t walked this path with a human loved one. But the alternating and intermingled rage and despair I felt was no less real. Some passages in scripture are now less remote and more precious to me, like the raising of Lazarus, Paul’s triumphant cry in 1 Corinthians 15:54-57 and Isaiah 25:8 (quoted in Revelation 21:4).

2. The beauty of trust

I remember the first time we gave Bolla and her long, thick fur a bath. She sulked at us for hours, refusing any advances. Immediately after her last bath (exactly a week before she died) it was like nothing had happened. Why the change? I believe it was because she knew she could trust us. She had been a recipient of our love, care and concern for her over the years (sometimes in the form of a pill stuck down her throat!) and knew, in her own kitty way, that we were on her side. And you know what? Bolla’s confidence in me brought me great joy and satisfaction.

I’m envious. I’d love to be able to have the same faith in my God that Bolla had in me. I’ve received so much more from my heavenly Father than I could ever give a pet, and yet I’m still prone to not setting my hope fully on Him. I therefore cry out with the anguished father, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

I lost my fur coat

A week ago today the first feline love of my life, Bolla, was put to sleep.

Bolla the cat is pensive
Bolla the cat is pensive

I called her my fur coat because she had (a) an extraordinary ability to shed fur, and (b) a tendency to deposit herself on the laps of seated humans. I very much appreciated this last characteristic the time when the winter heating wasn’t working!

Bolla was abandoned by her previous owner(s) who at least had the decency to leave her at the door of a cat sanctuary here in Rome. The personnel named her Bolla (‘bubble’ in Italian) because she was as round as one. She was at the sanctuary for about a month before we came along to give her a new home.  She would stay with us for 7 years, 9 months and 3 weeks.

Bolla investigates the grass shortly after we moved house
Bolla investigates the grass shortly after we moved house

Bolla had expensive tastes—she turned up her nose at cheap cat food and cheap litter sand. She loved meat for humans, whether raw or cooked. She became our quality control expert: if she liked a particular cut of meat, then it was a good one. She was friendly and easy-going, though only with humans. Her interaction with other cats was mostly in the form of hostile hissing or ignoring.

Bolla and Tempesta
Bolla and Tempesta

Close to four years after acquiring Bolla, we were given a kitten whom we named Tempesta. Until that point, I’d never seen Bolla upset or angry. Poor Tempesta got paw swipes and was hissed at. About one and a half years after Tempesta disappeared, Wikileaks moved in with us. She too got more than her fair share of one-way aggression.

Bolla and Wikileaks
Bolla and Wikileaks

When we got her, Bolla was obese. We had no idea what that would mean for our future together. The first health scare was when she was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis. So that’s why she had a silent meow. The next scare was the diabetes. So that’s why she was peeing all over the place and drinking vast amounts of water. The last was the feline leukemia. In the end, it wasn’t any of those that led to the painful decision to put her to sleep, but neurological complications arising from the diabetes.

I’m sure there will be animals in the new heavens and the new earth. If both Bolla and I will be there, I look forward to some cuddling and tickles under the chin, just like in old times.

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:20-21)

He had to pass through Samaria

I rearranged the scarf around my head so that I could see only straight ahead of me: I couldn’t bear the disapproving looks of the townsfolk. There was nothing I could do about the verbal insults, however. I hurried along the path for the day (I used a different route each day) thinking about nothing in particular.

I came round the corner and looked down the slope towards the well and saw a man—a Jew[1]— sitting there. I wondered what the stranger was doing at the well at that time of day, but then again the same question could be asked of me. I self-consciously adjusted my head-scarf again before reaching to uncover the well.

“Give me a drink.”

I might have jumped back a little from the surprise, I don’t know. My response tumbled unbidden out of my mouth, “How is it that you, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?”

He let my question linger in the air for a moment or two. As I awaited his reply, I got a chance to look at his face. He had a kind look about him which lessened my apprehension. His lips curved in a gentle smile as he replied, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

Men had promised me numerous things before, but this was the first time I got an offer for a secret source of water. I pointed out the obvious. “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do you get that living water?” I just couldn’t resist the urge to show up this Jew so I added, “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are you, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?”

He let the comment on Jacob slide. “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of his words for he said them with such… authority. I was drawn to him. I wanted to hear more. “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw.”

“Go, call your husband and come here.” He might have as well struck me physically. I’d not expected the conversation would take such a turn. My mind tried to come up with something to say to cover up the truth, but I found I couldn’t lie to this man. He was having a most unusual effect on me.

“I have no husband,” I feebly replied, focusing my eyes on a patch of dirt at my feet.

“You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.”

Blood rushed to my face as my head shot up. How did he know that? Who told him? Certainly, my life was common knowledge around these parts, but surely no-one would have been sharing the town gossip with a Jew! In the turmoil of my thoughts, I failed to notice that the tone of voice he’d used contained neither contempt nor condemnation. All I knew at the time was that I had to change the subject.

I suppressed the emotion and said, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” The scripture lessons Mother had given me as a little girl had now come in handy.

As before, there was a pause before he gave his reply. “Woman, believe me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

His words burned inside me, even though I didn’t fully comprehend them. So I fell back on an answer Mother often gave when she couldn’t answer my questions. “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when that one comes, he will declare all things to us.”

“I who speak to you am He.”

I looked intently into his tired and kindly face. There was neither hubris nor guile in its expression. I knew that he meant exactly what he had just said, and that I’d not misunderstood him. While I was still contemplating the import of that brief and loaded sentence, a group of men emerged into the clearing where the well stood. Their chatter died down when they saw me. None of them made to move or to say anything.

My eyes were still fixed on the man before me. Could he be Messiah? Right here in Sychar? Talking to me? I couldn’t contain the bubbling within me any longer. Leaving my water jar I ran back to the city, crying as loud as I could, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did! Can this be the Christ?”

That man—Jesus of Nazareth—stayed in our town for two days and taught us from the Scriptures.  Many among us came to believe that he truly was the Saviour of the world. I came to believe that the Jewish rabbi at the well was my Saviour.


Notes

  • [1] It is likely she could identify Jesus’ ethnicity by His clothing, though I’m not sure.
  • Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB and ESV translations.
  • I’ve been contemplating a post like this for a while, and got the final push from this talk.
  • I also thought that this story wasn’t as perfect as could be. Hope you liked it anyway 🙂

I am a Ribbon Hero!

I’m sure I’m not the only one who laughed out loud upon hearing of Ribbon Hero, a game developed by the folks at Microsoft Office Labs with the aim of teaching people how to use the ribbon interface.

When I finally downloaded version 1 of the game a few weeks later, I was disappointed. I had actually believed the marketing hype. Playing RH1 felt more like completing a to-do list than having fun. The major spur towards my completing it was the release of version 2. Grudgingly, I became a Ribbon Hero in Word, Excel and PowerPoint, as attested by the screenshot below:

I successfully completed Ribbon Hero 1
I successfully completed Ribbon Hero 1

Ribbon Hero 2, Clippy’s Second Chance is an entirely different experience altogether! In RH2, players time-travel with the erstwhile office assistant as they complete challenges in Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, picking up random facts about the various eras visited. It feels more like a game, with levels being unlocked upon attaining a certain number of points. Another improvement was in the graphics: they are much nicer to look at in version 2. Overall, RH2 is a great improvement over version 1, not least in that the marketing hype of version 1 was actually fulfilled in version 2.

I successfully completed Ribbon Hero 2
I successfully completed Ribbon Hero 2

In the summary of my performance above, you can see that I used hints on one of the Ancient Greece challenges—an orange circle is missing.  I didn’t have to complete all the challenges (blank circles) because I already had the 50,000 points I needed to complete the game. I also racked up 392 bonus points. These are awarded for using functions such as text formatting (bold, italics, using the format painter, applying header styles, etc) in the course of normal use of an Office program. I clearly recall getting points for my 20th and 50th format style (it kept count across sessions), and for inserting a page break—the program would freeze for a second or two at those moments. The ways of gaining bonus points are hidden, so I’m sure many more can be found.

So, if you have Office 2007 or Office 2010, do try out Ribbon Hero. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some thieving pigs to deal with.

Another collared cat

Wikileaks the cat and her collar
Wikileaks the cat and her collar

My brother and I are repeat offenders when it comes to cat adoption (taken as either humans adopting cats or the other way round). Our latest is Wikileaks the white and honey-coloured kitten.

Said kitten first came to our notice in mid- to late November, when Cablegate was unfolding, hence the unfortunate appellation. I don’t know if she’d been meowing at every door in the neighbourhood, but at ours she found friends of her species. The occasional table scraps she received outside the house gradually became left-over cat food administered inside (ostensibly because a horrid kitten stole Wikileaks’ food more than once; the truth is our hearts were warming to this possibly abandoned/ neglected kitty).

Wikileaks the cat catching some sun in her pre-collar days
Wikileaks the cat catching some sun in her pre-collar days

I’d often let her sit in the warm house for an hour or two before putting her out into the cold. One evening in the week between Christmas and New Year’s day, I put her out just before going to bed at close to 11pm. She was still at the door when my brother returned some twenty minutes later. He let her in and she hasn’t left since.

This past Monday she was spayed, putting an end to the four-week long misery we (humans and felines alike) endured of having a cat in heat. Our previous kitten Tempesta was subdued by the operation. Wikileaks was the exact opposite, contumaciously clawing at her collar with all four paws (I didn’t know whether to laugh or feel sorry, so I did both alternately). She has since resigned herself to its pesky presence, and we can all now enjoy some peace and quiet.

“Every Christian should have a favourite Bible verse”

That’s what I heard a Christian leader say a while back, though not in so many words. (More on that in the ‘The Rest of The Story’ section below.) In order to write this post, I got thinking about my favourite biblical figure, book and verse.

My favourite biblical figure…

My favourite person in the Bible besides Jesus Christ is Daniel. He was a man who, in the words of Eugene Peterson, displayed “a long obedience in the same direction”. Daniel faithfully served Yahweh for decades, and what’s more, he did it while in a foreign land surrounded by pagans and simultaneously serving high political office. He found time to pray regularly and to read his Bible, and to act on what he’d read (Daniel 9:1-3). And he received a glorious promise from the God he served.

I can only hope that I, like Daniel, will not outlive my love for my God and Saviour. Continue reading