Working for Pepo la Tumaini is as much about service as it is about self-reflection. The work gets to the core of you: who you are, what you’re made of and what needs improvement. It calls for self-sacrifice, for selflessness, for letting go of one’s ego, and this is not an easy process. Yet it begs the question: “How can we serve others if we cannot first forget ourselves?”
Our young British friend, Rupert, was with us for a couple of weeks. During that time he had a birthday and the Pepo community prepared a coming of age ceremony for him and all of us wuzungu. The event seemed to sum up what working with A Wind of Hope is all about.
We were led together in long robes, staffs in hand, brought through an extremely boisterous crowd of Turkana grandmothers singing and dancing with the orphans yelling and screaming and swinging their staffs and sticks in our direction, as if to scare us back to childhood. We were told to sit cross-legged on the gazebo floor as the young men charged us again and again, pretending to strike yet coming inches from our foreheads. Then, the young women served us tea and circled around us in a sort of playful flirtation, brushing their hands across our heads. We were not to make eye-contact with them.
Rupert was then placed at center stage. He was given two cakes and told to choose one. One represented his past, one his future. Rupert confidently snatched his past and tossed it aside. “Why did you throw away your past?” asked Khadija, as if she knew not only the answer to the question, but why that answer would be wrong. “I need to look forward,” said Rupert, a little unsure of himself. “Yes,” said Khadija. “We must look forward. But we can never forget our past. If we are running from battle and someone is left behind, will we forget that person?”
Rupert was then asked to cut the cake he had chosen. He diced it into small, bite-size pieces and was told he must serve it to the assemblage. He circled the inside of the gazebo, offering the platter to each and all. Some politely took a piece of cake. Others did not. “You must serve all of them,” said Khadija, calmly. Rupert returned to the ones who refused to eat. He tried again. One young boy shook his head. Rupert tried again. The boy shot his mouth up in disgust. He tried again. This time the boy got angry and made grunting noises. Rupert tried something new. This time, when he offered the platter, he did so on his knees. The boy took the piece of cake.
He then began to feed the Turkana elders, but Khadija scolded him: “You cannot offer the platter like that to them! You must show proper respect.” So he bent a little, and offered the platter with both hands, head peering downwards. This time they accepted.
Others he had to sit with; with some, he had to leave the piece of cake behind; still others required the utmost love and patience. The message was simple enough: Along the path of service there are many we will come across. Some will accept our work with gratitude, others will refuse, some must be paid a certain respect and others will need tact and patience. A simple lesson, yet infinitely profound. This is what coming of age is all about: in our childhood we only look inward (what do people do for us?). We are very selfish and dependent. Yet, when we reach adulthood we must begin to look outward. This is the true meaning of becoming an adult: turning from selfishness to selflessness, from dependence to servitude.
On my last day in Isiolo I received a final lesson from Khadija. A few days earlier we had spoken. I was feeling a lot of stress and pressure at the time, striving to fully train and prepare the two community banks before I returned home. Khadija told me not too worry so much, that I can easily “get caught up in the world.” I pondered this: “Get caught up in the world”… I wasn’t too sure what that meant. Then, on my last day in Isiolo, shortly after I woke up that morning, I was meditating on what she had said, reflecting on the past couple of weeks and how I had been so single-mindedly focused on my work. I realized that I was neglecting the more important duties: Saying my proper goodbyes, laughing and playing with the children, drumming with the men, sitting and chatting with the women. Basically, spending time with the people I was purporting to serve.
As soon as I discovered that insight, I said my goodbyes to Khadija. “Thank you for your service,” she said. “We appreciate all you have done and hope you will return someday.” “But,” she continued. “Don’t forget the small things, Jordan…. The people.” I was amazed. She had completely confirmed the realization I had just arrived at. Indeed, in order to serve—just like in the ceremony—we must be patient and loving, placing more emphasis on the relationships than on the actual work. How could Rupert have ever offered that cake without first establishing trust with the people he was serving?
I left Isiolo pensive yet satisfied, knowing that my service had been meager but that I had learned a great deal. God willing, next time I can put into practice some of what Khadija and the people of Isiolo taught me.