A Death and a Prayer: Lord Big, Samson and A Pandemic Prayer Revisited

Kala Nami Kala Nami Urumwengu wa Shida, Jeso Kala Nami

The little flycatcher flew to the yard fence rail as I sat in my rocking chair on the front porch. He met his mate on the fence and they had a conversation about the nest above my head on the porch joist.  ‘What to do?’ He flew this way and that, anxiously.  

“I won’t hurt you my friend”, I reassured. “And Zulu is inside. He won’t hurt you either, he has a big bark, but he is gentle. And don’t you remember I chased the Black Snake away from the porch as she was climbing the post to steal you eggs?” Maybe convinced I was not the enemy, he settled in the nest, quiet now, warming the small eggs beneath him. 

Reflecting on the day of our self-quarantine during the pandemic, I thought of the crises of my lifetime–Vietnam, Civil Rights, Iraq, HIV-Aids, 9-11, Ebola.  I am blessed.  I know.  I have a place to hunker down with enough minimum income to weather another storm, in the last stage of life.  There are neighbor friends who check on us. Yet, I have known and now know many people–by name–who suffer daily with illness, unemployment, homelessness, and death.  The name of Samson comes to mind.  No, not the biblical Samon who defeated a giant Goliath.  A small sweet Samson who struggled with death.  But first the context.

In the early 1980’s we lived on the coast of Kenya.  It was, and is, a beautiful place full of white sandy beaches, palm trees, clear water, and ancient architecture from a diverse population. For centuries it has been a place of respite for tourists, both domestic and foreign, the East African slave trade, and a British colonial administration until independence in 1964.  Due to its location on the Indian Ocean it was visited by exploring Chinese, inhabited by Arabs, the Portuguese, then the British and East Indians, American imperialists, and again the Chinese.  The Port of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean has long been of value in trade and defense, most recently to the US Navy, which maintained a large defense naval base that serviced the Arab region of the world. 

There was a long history of a mixing of cultures with the Nine Tribes of Kenya (MijiKenda) who settled in the 17th century from southern Somalia and lived primarily in the cooler small hills covered in brush, palms, mango and cashew trees.   The area was often called Msituni [bush] in the trade language Kiswahili, which is a mixture of Arabic and African Bantu. In 1982, there remained a strong Mijikenda culture with adapted elements of both Arab and western cultures.  It was in this place that Samson came to the city seeking work and faced a major challenge in his young life.


Kala Nami–Be with me

It was 1985.  Mombasa, Kenya. 

Sweat broke through my safari suit forming large patches of moisture under my arms.  Wiping droplets of sweat from my forehead and eyes with the back of my hand, I shielded my eyes from the hot African sun moving in and out from the humid clouds that would soon bring a cooling afternoon shower.  Mourners and family members had early formed a line under an old mango tree, hoping for some comfort and sweating as I was, patiently waiting to bargain for a freshly constructed casket. I found myself at the side of Samson, our house worker.  He was at the local casket shop across the sandy road from the government hospital about to bargain with a carpenter for the price for a “just-in-time” baby casket.  

The bent and exhausted looking man (Mzee), with old knobby and calloused hands that demonstrated his experience, led us through an open room lit only by a single bulb and concrete louvered windows. Large tables displayed neatly organized corpses wrapped in burlap bags.  Adults in the front, children in the back. Three male faces hid themselves in shame and sadness as they lay on their stomachs.  I did not have to imagine how the bullet holes at the base of their skulls got there.  The execution-style wounds spoke for themselves. They were fresh. I didn’t ask as we made our way to a table of infants no more than 18 inches long, each.  Samson hung his head, his body stiffening as he approached.  There were no tears, only the silence of a young father who now had to sort through the faces for that of his own child. I stood beside Samson, to be with him. It had taken me two years to know my role.

Two years prior, a local pastor came by the house to recommend a local young man to help around the house.  “He is a good kijana (young person).” he said with confidence in Kiswahili.  “He has some schooling.”  Samson stood beside him in hopeful silence. He spoke no English and he could barely read or write.  His village was 45 minutes by bus where he lived with his young new wife in what I would later learn was a traditional village with grass-thatch roofs cooling the mud and stone buildings. The only real danger was the poisonous snakes that sometimes lived in the thatch, despite the yards being swept continuously.  On more than one occasion, just when one got settled in the squatter outhouse, a black mamba would drape himself across the entrance, as I can personally attest.  “Well that’s the end of that toilet.” Someone would jokingly quip.  The outhouse was soon abandoned for a new one.  

Considering Samson did not speak English, I hired him with the additional hope to practice my Swahili.  For three years, I rarely spoke English, and upcountry folk graciously complimented that I carried a coastal accent. True, or not, sadly it is a skill I have lost over the past 35 years. 

This was not my first experience hiring a “house worker.”  But almost.  Thrown into a post colonial culture, expatriates were expected to hire local workers and contribute to the local economy–at least that was the reasoning by my colleagues and neighbors.  And, you just needed the help.  Growing up in humble circumstances, and working respectively as a secretary and school teacher, neither Vickie nor myself had experience with employees. In a second culture it was always a guessing game.  

One local business man warned, “Hire a Muslim. You can’t trust Baptist workers.”  I learned early, and disappointedly, that men in poverty regardless of their religion, and who had (and have) heavy responsibilities to provide for extended families, did what they needed to survive.  That included “borrowing with the intent of paying back.”  I’ll save those stories for another post. Women, on the other hand, who were not the primary “breadwinners” seemed more trustworthy, in my experience.  That said, I soon learned that indeed I was wealthy by comparison and, most importantly, expected to be the Bwana Kubwa [big man, literally Lord Big] who had connections and resources.  It was true.  I haven’t forgotten that.  It is called social capital, today. Social capital are the connections we each have with family, professionals, co-workers, and employers who have resources–physical, emotional, and otherwise.  Studies actually show that the greater one’s social capital the more resilient and successful they potentially become.

As usual, Samson arrived at the gate of our small compound at 8am.  He was always “on time.”  His light 5’2” frame carried a humble and polite, often burdened, young man, who based on his own responsibility, ate very little in order to travel to his village on the weekend and support his extended family. During the week Samson stayed in one of the outlying urban room rentals with other city workers, taking a matatu (small bus) to our house. 

Urumwengu wa Shida (A world of Problems)

Samson: “Habari za Asubuhi, Bwana” [Good morning, Sir.] Samson was trying to smile. 

Me: “Habari za Asubuhi, Samson.”  [Good Morning Samson] I tried to be reassuring with a smile seeing he was troubled.  And then it came.  

Samson: “Nahitaji Msaidizi, Bwana” [I need your help. Sir].  

I listened to his story.  “Pole Sana, Bwana” (Sorry, Mister), I tried to console.  

Samson: “Urumwengu na Shida, Bwana.” The world has problems.  He replied, hanging his head.

I called a friend, a missionary nurse (mwuguzi), who happened to be vacationing in a nearby hotel.

“Would you mind helping me this morning? My house worker’s wife (mke) had a baby (mtoto) recently and the mtoto will not suckle the breast and he is starving.” 

“Sure” Mwuguzi (the nurse) replied, knowing full well that not much could be done with the “village mindset.” Within an hour we were headed to the msituni (bush) to find his 14-year-old Mke dressed only in a traditional Kanga (cloth wrapped around her waist) clinging to a child, with one breast the size of a large melon and the other flatter and knobbier then an Indian naan, the baby’s limbs dangling over her arms.  He was still alive, but barely. 

I wondered how Samson had come to this moment with his wife.  It was something I would ask my cultural consultant. “If you own the cow it doesn’t matter who the bull is.” He told me, sage like, when I later shared the story of Samson’s dilemma.  While Samson was working for me in the city, his young mke (wife) was attending Nyeri Za Mwezi in the village.  A traditional and annual remembrance of the dead elders, it was a village gathering. Palm wine flowed freely, traditional drumming and dancing was constant; and, well, people shared in the rites of life that lead to human conception, renewal.  Married or not. This did not matter to Samson, the good man that he was.  He was concerned for the life of his son–no matter who the father was, even if it was not him. I turned my attention back to the nurse.

Mwuguzi looked over Samson’s Mke barely four feet and five inches who was frozen at the sight of a white woman. Inspecting Mke’s breasts and holding the dangly limbed baby out from her. The child’s hair was already a listless red, a sign of malnutrition. Mwuguzi shook her head in hopelessness.  Samson explained that his Mke had been seeing a traditional doctor and pointed to the cross-like mark on his wife’s forehead.  It was human feces the traditional doctor said would heal the mother to give milk, along with a traditional blessing.  

“I’ve seen this many times.” Mwuguzi said as she shook her head. It is painful in one breast full of milk, so the mother just keeps giving the child the empty one.  The child starves.”

Speaking in Swahili, then translated into Kigiriama by Samson, who had worry flowing from his body. “Have the baby suckle from the full breast” She demonstrated with her hands.  The young wife and mother looked on in amazement at the wazungu (white folk) who had come to her village to give her advice about something she could not understand or believe.

In fairness to his wife, Mke was the product of a male-oriented traditional culture that lived as it had for centuries, on the edge of modernity without its benefits, except for the young men who could find work in the city and who were pollinators of western culture, like Samson. Girls rarely, and only until recently, attended school and would begin working the land as soon as they could carry a stick of wood, a small hoe, or a pail of water.  Like most women deep in the msituni, she only spoke her native language and had never travelled more than 20 miles beyond her homestead. It was a tough life.

We left. The baby is going to die I thought to myself, and as I suspected Samson and my friend thought as well, as we rode back in silence. 

Returning to the day at the morgue, it was two weeks later early on a Saturday morning, I had just packed our station wagon for a family vacation in Nairobi.  With Vickie and our three children loaded in the car, up walks Samson.

No greeting this time.

“Amekufa, Bwana”. He has died, sadness clearly in his voice.  “Nahitaji Msaidizi.” I need your help. 

We unloaded the station wagon and the family returned to the house.  We all knew this would take a while.  No one complained.  Just sad.  We had all grown accustomed to the daily interruptions of life and routine.

Before the days of cell phones, I returned to the house and called a local pastor friend, Wanje, who lived less than a mile from the government hospital.  A trusted man in the city, he was multilingual and had experience with government agencies, including hospitals.  It would be an hour before he would arrive. Samson and I left the house driving toward anxious stress.

At the morgue across the street from the hospital, still sweating, Samson and I stood in the back by the table filled with the small corpses.  One by one, the faces were uncovered until Samson could identify his son.  

“A thousand shillings.” The carpenter and casket maker confidently fired the first volley in a bargaining match.   I left the morgue to stand in the road under the mango tree waiting for Wanje.  Samson, who I knew could not pay for the casket, would run back and forth to the road where I was to ask my opinion.  He was too distraught to bargain, too much to ask of him, and the primary reason a small casket sometimes not more than two feet long by eight inches wide would cost more than a month’s salary. It would not take more than 30 minutes to build. Samson was too distraught to bargain and my presence–a “wealthy” white man–did not help his bargaining position,  Wanje soon arrived and began the bargaining in earnest.  In the end the casket was 200 Kenya shillings.  I paid.  Wanje said a prayer for Samson and left.  Samson and I loaded the small casket in the back of my station for the last journey of his son.

Turning off the asphalt road to Kilifi we drove through a mango-lined sandy road into the msituni. Ahead of us was a group of men awaiting our arrival.  They seemed anxious, but not for the body or Samson, though there was some compassion for him.  The traditional funeral ceremony could not begin without the body, and the palm wine was waiting along with the mourning musicians who would lead the dancing. Not much different than my own heritage of an Irish wake, I suppose.

Be With Me (you and them) in a World of Problems

Vickie and I sat on our back deck last night overlooking the S-shaped Wolf-Trail that climbs up the hill. We have self-quarantined (hunkered down) at the cabin for six weeks because of the Covid-19 pandemic, though, I think I would have been here regardless.  Sipping a glass of wine and enjoying a nice clear warm day in April, we rested from a day of landscaping and visiting our neighbor up on the hill towards Grassy Knob.  Privileged at 70, I know.  

As we watched the sun climb slowly down the trees in front of us, Vickie read aloud an article we received from a “niece” about her 35 year struggles with bi-polar disease.  We were close to tears and internally wept about the problems in our world that affect all of us, and how we feel powerless at times to see the changes we desire for those with problems.  

It was cooling quickly as the sun climbed down the treetops toward its rest for the night.  Vickie hates the coolness which she calls “cold” so I sat further into the evening in solitude and reflection. 

As I reflected on the world with problems, I thought of Samson.  I thought of my family’s issues, of the medical personnel risking their lives, of those who struggle with illness, joblessness, and a host of issues. 

For over a decade I researched the traditional songs of local African communities.  There is an old Giriama spiritual song, one that Samson would have known and sung, that repeats the phrase–kala nami or Be with me.  In a world of problems, Jesus.  Be with me.  

Yes, it is a prayer.  And with some linguistic and textual analysis one can find the meaning and relevance to this time—any time.  This song was generally sung as a benediction to all night prayer services held in remote local villages like Samson’s.  The verb Kala, means to be with, or to be present.  But how to be with is the important point.  In many parts of the world there are no doctors or hospitals.  When someone is ill, a family member or friend will “be with” the person, in their suffering and healing,  and help with their needs.  Often they will sit in silent prayer and observation for long hours during the healing, and sometimes dying process.  They would fix their food and wash their body, and even help them to the bathroom.  They are not paid, they do not do it for reward or recognition.  They simply share in the life of another human,  out of compassion and empathy, being present to help them along in a common journey.

I looked out on the peaceful and safe place where I now live.  Be with me.  Be with you, Be with them.  In a world of problems, Lord, Be with. 

I sang the song I learned 35 years ago, spontaneously in a 70 year old voice, a prayer, as I looked to the setting sun. Be with me, Be with you, Be with the other. Sometimes it is all we can do.