Describing the Indescribable: A weekend in a sacred place—Makindu, Kenya

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. If you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with me at appetiteodysseys@gmail.com, and I’ll let you know how you can start participating! Click here for the fabulous blogs in the carnival writing on the same topic!

 

 

In all of my travels, there’s a lot I could share with you for this month’s Reach to Teach Blog Carnival, but one special experience trumps them all.

The topic is to share my most memorable travel experience. I can undoubtedly say that this moment came to me one special weekend when I stepped off of a joyfully crowded bus (that was emitting bongo flava music on loud speaker) and I pressed my feet to the rich, reddish-brown earth along the roadside of Makindu, Kenya. What makes this experience the most memorable is a feeling. It’s a feeling that words can only do minor justice to. What I’ve written are the words I’ve found in my attempt to share my experience with you.

I had been traveling for a couple of days, starting my journey in Tanzania. I lived in Tanzania for my field research, where I studied the relationships of food, religion, diaspora, and development surrounding the Sikh communal meal, langar. Almost any time I mentioned my topic of study there, I was told I should definitely see how langar is done in Makindu. “That is the real langar” they would say. It is considered an important site of pilgrimage for the East African Sikh community, and both Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike flock to the gurdwara (temple) gates daily.

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langar in Tanzania

Makindu is a little town nestled on the road between Nairobi and Mombassa. To get there from Tanzania, I had to change busses in Nairobi. I arrived at my stop hoping to go directly to Makindu the same day, but was advised to wait until morning. As a single, foreign female, it probably wasn’t the safest idea to be traveling the road at night.

Following an enjoyable evening in Nairobi, I woke early in the morning and hopped on a bus that was traveling to Mombassa. I could only hope that the driver understood that I needed to get off at Makindu. Time on an African bus is often evasive—hours are undeterminable as delays and unexpected stops, drop-offs, and pick-ups can give you only a very general idea of the length of your journey. So if it’s your first glance at the landscape, you are often left wondering where you are along the road in relation to your stop.

As my head was nodding along with the bumps in the road, we came to another stop. I felt an instinct spark just seconds before the driver started speaking quickly in Swahili, and soon everyone was staring at the mzungu (foreigner). “I must be here!” I thought. Sensing the road calling the wheels of the bus to start turning again, I leapt to action. I grabbed my bag and repeated “asante, asante sana,” with a smile that I hoped conveyed the mixture of things I was thinking as I maneuvered my way off of the bus and onto the roadside.

It was a dry, stifling hot day and the sun was up in its full, African splendour. I wiped the sweat from my brow, and stood for a few moments taking in my new location. I didn’t see a road sign, yet I felt like I was in the right place. The roadside had a little line of tables with vendors quietly displaying their fresh vegetables and goods for sale. I looked down the road I’d come from to Nairobi, and then toward the direction the bus had gone off in. I took a breath, and started walking the way the bus had taken. I was looking for the Nishan Sahib—the flag that proudly beckons your arrival at any Sikh gurdwara.

Before my journey, I could only picture Makindu as a place centered on the Sikh stories I had heard of the gurdwara there. The gurdwara is connected to the town from the tales of early Sikh railway workers. Upon completion of the railway in Makindu, the little gurdwara that had been erected at the time was left attended by a local Kenyan (non-Sikh). There are many versions of the story, but in a nutshell, it is told that the attendant saw a vision of Guru Gobind Singh who asked the man to take good care of the gurdwara. Since that time, a fusion of non-Sikh African and Sikh African and Indian employees and devotees have cared for the gurdwara with its very sacred connection to the tenth Sikh Guru.

The gurdwara has grown over time, and it has become a sacred site of pilgrimage that bonds a multi-ethnic community together through an enjoyment and celebration of spirituality and good food. Like any gurdwara, anyone, no matter what your religion or ethnicity, can enter. You can partake of the free food that is always available in the langar kitchen, and you can sleep overnight free of charge. You can also help out, participate, and donate as much as you are able or want, all in the spirit of seva (selfless service). I was informed this happens in Makindu on a scale and a level unseen in the rest of East Africa. As someone hoping to specialize in the study of langar, you can imagine my excited anticipation to find this special site.

But before I saw the flag, my eye caught a magnificent sight across the road from where I was walking. It was an elaborate and ornate mosque. It took me a moment to realize this was not the gurdwara I was seeking. I had gone there with the impression that the town was quite small, and only boasted the gurdwara. I hadn’t realized that it would coincide in the same town as one of the most beautiful mosques I’d ever seen.

Two men were seated at the gates of the mosque; I assumed they were security guards. I walked across the road and intended to ask them if I could take a picture of their breathtaking structure. My idea to only take a quick snap and be on my way was very mistaken.

One of the men rose and we exchanged greetings in Swahili. I gestured to my camera and asked if I could take a picture. Feeling at first nervous tension, I was immediately put to ease with a broad grin and a hammering of Swahili that welcomed me. I returned the grin, and asked him to speak slowly. He gestured for me to follow him toward the mosque, and in his broken English and my broken Swahili, we began a tour that felt like a dream. It still feels like it was a dream.

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He took me into the quiet mosque, I removed my shoes and raised my scarf above my hair (thank goodness I have a tendency to always wear a scarf when I travel—it’s good for so many reasons beyond providing a blanket or pillow on a long bus ride). The mosque compound had many different buildings and rooms, and he took me into almost all of them, where a scattering of what I assume were regular devotees went about their business of praying, working, and socializing. I kept questioning if it was okay for me to enter the different rooms—he even took me to an observation area where Muslim men were praying. He assured me it was okay for me to be there with him as my guide. The gender and religious neutrality in that moment was both surprising and inviting for me.  He led me up a winding staircase of a narrow tower that went to the rooftop of the mosque. From there, we overlooked the mosque grounds and spent a peaceful moment of stillness above the town.

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We headed back down, and he suggested taking me across the road to a different, traditional mosque. I knew I was on a mission to begin my ‘real’ research at the gurdwara, but I didn’t think a little time exploring the area beforehand would hurt. I think I even justified it as ‘providing context’. I agreed, and he took me along a winding pathway that led to a little one-room building. Again, I removed my shoes and covered my hair. We entered the little structure. It was dark inside, but cozy and intimate. Arabic prayers were written on documents beneath a cloth adorning a little separator in the middle of the room. A red rug covered the floor, which couldn’t have been more than four squared meters.

After pointing at the different readings and showing me around the little room, my guide sat cross-legged against a wall and gestured for me to sit across from him. I did. He produced a set of prayer beads and placed them in my hand. He held his own beads, and began reciting an Arabic prayer.

He indicated that I should join him in repeating the words as my fingers worked the beads.

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I have always been fascinated by religion, yet I do not consider myself to be at all religious. Spiritual? Sometimes. I once coined the idea of myself as a pluralist agnostic. I perhaps believe in… something… but I can never place a name or a practice to that something.  So I have spent my time learning about and appreciating the multiple ways other people have found to name and practice their beliefs.

As I started to say the Arabic words, they felt at first awkward and uncomfortable. But I persisted out of respect to my wonderful guide. Soon, I was overcome with emotion. I can hardly describe the feeling I had in that moment, but I can share that I had goosebumps all over, and warm tears began streaming silently down my cheeks. They weren’t tears of sadness, or even of happiness. They were just tears, and I was not sure why they were even there. A rush of thoughts, from earthly questions of place, family, and friendship mixed with transcendental questions of humanity, spirituality, and religion. And in all of it, I felt both peace and confusion. I became suddenly embarrassed. Why am I crying!?

My guide only smiled knowingly, and began speaking soothingly in his few English words and in Swahili. I can’t recall exactly what he said to ease my thoughts, but soon we were walking around the grounds of the traditional mosque where he showed me an even more traditional African mosque-structure of perfectly placed bricks aligned with spaces for the devotee’s prayers.

A haze had lifted, and it was time for me to move on to my ultimate destination. My guide gave me the prayer beads as a gift, and directed me toward the gurdwara.

I didn’t think my newfound spiritual self would experience anything greater than in that special moment in that special little mosque. But it turns out, it acted like a catalyst for the depth of sacred and profound peace I was then to encounter during my weekend at the gurdwara.

It was a quick visit, but in that weekend I was met with a completely awe inspiring experience. So much of what makes this whole experience worthy as my most memorable travel moment, is that (despite the length of this post), the most memorable part for me is what exists beyond any words that can be spoken or written. I’ll reiterate: it’s a feeling.

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The Nishan Sahib flag of the Makindu Gurdwara

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The immaculately kept grounds of the gurdwara are adorned with flowers, lush green grass, and fountains that serve as an inviting and peaceful setting with a hospital, offices, sleeping quarters for staff and guests, three major diwan (prayer) halls, a large kitchen, and a dining hall. In an open alcove men and women, elderly and young, Sikh and non-Sikh sit organizing, cleaning, cutting and piling vegetables. A few steps away inside the kitchen, mostly women form an assembly line of shaping, patting, rolling, frying, buttering and stacking roti. Massive pots simmer with smells of dhal, sabji, and chai, stirred occasionally by passionate devotees and gurdwara staff. Dishes clang together in a nearby sink as stacks of trays, cups, and spoons are efficiently cleaned.

This kitchen is indeed the measure of efficiency.

Row upon row of bags containing various flours, sugars, lentils, spices and tea decorate the pantry shelves, and a walk-in fridge is filled to the brim with onions, potatoes, carrots, turnips, coriander and other herbs and vegetables. All of these ingredients have been carefully sought out in the markets of Nairobi and along the road to Mombassa. A gentle breeze wafts through the doors of the kitchen, as nam simran (music chanting the name of god) repeats ‘waheguru’ over the speakers, the sound of the music penetrates the senses in sync with the breeze.

That music combined with the breeze infused the experience for me with the feeling that Makindu must be one of the most sacred places on the planet. (I was actually really lucky to find a very close version of the music on youtube, you can enjoy it here).

Tables in the dining hall are arranged in rows, and a variety of people enjoy food together. When I arrived, Kenyan nurses from the hospital were taking their lunch while chatting animatedly, and Muslim men from the mosque I had just visited made greetings. Weary travelers, happy holidayers, pilgrims, families, poor and rich, of all different races, backgrounds, castes, religions and nationalities are welcomed upon their entrance into the gurdwara to fill their stomachs.

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A lovely family was providing langar that weekend in thanks to god for the upcoming wedding of one of their daughters. This family immediately took me under their wing, and held my hand all weekend guiding me through the kitchens and the kirtan services (music prayer services), and answering my many questions providing insight I could never have imagined without their warmth and assistance.

On multiple occasions that weekend, I caught myself feeling filled to the brim with happiness and contentedness. I have visited many gurdwaras, and participated in many different activities within them, and I have always received warmth and welcome. But this was the first time I’d actually felt the simran wash over me during a prayer service. This time, I wasn’t just a ‘participant observer’. I actually felt something beyond my research and friendship interests. The tears that had streamed down my cheeks earlier found me again on a few occasions here, and I felt a profound sense that can only be encountered when you open your heart to such a sacred space.

“What sort of anthropologist does this?” I wondered. Theories in anthropology can leave an ethnographer befuddled with the amount of engagement or detachment one is supposed to have when in the field. I certainly wasn’t going to write my dissertation about the amount of crying I did (I’ll be honest, I cried over that dissertation for other reasons too). Yet above anything, that emotion I felt in Makindu was what drove the experience to another level for me. While I still live a life that can barely name an un-nameable, and I don’t practice what I still feel to be un-practice-able (for me); but I can share with you that in that special weekend in that special town of Makindu, I did encounter it. And I’ll never forget it.

I had to meet a friend of mine arriving on a plane into Nairobi early on Monday morning, so I left Makindu after just a short weekend. I didn’t want to go, but life has a way of moving on us, and I knew I had already gained so much in such a short time. Not only did I have more interviews and participant observation ‘gathered’ for my research than I’d ever imagined, but I knew I was a changed person. I had found a contentedness with myself, and a trust in myself and in my instincts that I hadn’t fully realized before. I hopped onto another crowded and bumpy bus back the way I had come. Yet the road and the journey seemed somewhat different this time.

I leave you with the concluding paragraph of my dissertation that I hope highlights how our memories are so connected to the senses that we experience along our journeys. These sensory experiences along with our memories are such an important part of how we develop our own identities, and how we become who we are. I have tended to dedicate my enjoyment of such connections to the relationships between the sense of taste and memory. But it can also be an interesting thought if we add in the element of a spiritual sensation as well.

In my last few hours at the Makindu gurdwara, I was asked if I would attend a lecture by the Giani ji. I explained that unfortunately, I had to be leaving soon, and that I had hoped to help a little while longer in the kitchen before going. The auntie who had posed the question nodded her head and smiled, “Yes, you must take the smells from the langar with you on your journey.” David Sutton explores the interconnected relationships between synesthetic [multi-sensory] experiences and memory, and the impacts such memories can have on one’s identity. Perhaps I can no longer physically smell the simmering dhal, nor taste the sweet khir and chai while chatting with a new friend. I can no longer feel the gentle breeze blowing my dupatta as I chop vegetables with a happy family, nor can I see the rows of tables lined with diverse Sikh and non-Sikh faces. But as I listen to a copy of the nam simran that played on repeat in the Guru’s kitchen that weekend, I know this auntie’s sentiment echoes that of Sutton’s. I have taken those smells with me, and so much more. I have gained a perspective of the potential that can come from reframing our constructed notions of religion, diaspora, and development, by considering food consumption habits as ‘spiritually powerful’—not simply to reduce such practices or beliefs to their function, but rather to celebrate the diversity and opportunity that can come from them.

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Anthropology, finding words, and my mystical writing elf: To simply begin writing is not so simple!

After publishing my ‘about’ post, I had a serious bout of anxiety. Why would I make these thoughts public? Am I serious in thinking I can continue writing thoughtful pieces that reflect the essence of not just what I experience, but of what I think that means for other people? What if no one wants to read what I have to say? Or worse, what if they don’t like what I have to say with valid points of obvious criticism?

At first I blamed my inner anthropologist. This is a field of study currently riddled with the post-post-modern complex of triple-guessing assumptions and reading/thinking against the grain. Always question the question. Period. Or should I say, question mark? Don’t get me wrong, I love anthropology. But it is a kind of toxic love. You know, like those relationships that go hand-in-hand with a chaotic inner turmoil? In one moment you think you’ve just caught a glimpse beyond the boundaries of physical existence into the highest spiritual reality. And in another moment you have the most profound sense of questioning and self-doubt you can’t possibly get out of bed. Ever again. In another moment you experience an extreme case of narcissism and over-exaggerated pride. And in yet another moment, you are so humbled by the beauty of the rest of the world and of humanity, you can’t think of any other way to spend your finite existence than to worship it.

When it comes to writing, the questioning and self-doubt tends to win. Until you’re met with a make-or-break deadline. Then you have to fight with it until you submit a final draft. And even then you still fight it. In academia, it turns out that this fight is actually quite a beautiful dance that exploits your inner turmoil and forces you to produce something never before considered, with the intention that it will benefit future academics. This is all done with the hope that it will contribute not only toward their own inner turmoil (yay), but also toward the betterment of humanity (double-yay). And so it goes on. No pressure at all. The beauty in this deranged process lays the heart of the matter: humans are complex, yo.

To do justice to an observation or an experience means to delve into the possibilities not yet explored. What of the perspectives not considered here? Just because one person says “This happens because of this,” doesn’t mean another person won’t say, “Actually, this happens because of that.” This not being that, in this case.

This is the crux of my problem in wanting to write anything down. Especially in a public forum such as a blog.

But it doesn’t stop there.

My mind often thinks in what I’ll call Writingese. Meaning, I’m regularly envisioning parts of stories to put to paper. In my mind, I assign details to a situation and rejoice in using my ability to think in a literary way with the intention that it would delight my family, friends, and an unknown ‘public’. And yet there is a lot of work that must go into writing a piece to be worthy of such delight. The most work comes from the fact that what I’m terming Writingese, is not actually writing – it’s still just thinking. There is a lot to be said for sitting down to the keyboard and putting your ideas into something cohesive with structure, grammar, selective word choice, and as it turns out, even just an overall point to what you want to say. Why bother writing anything if there is no point?

A new friend of mine just wrote a blog post that really resonated with my feelings on this matter. I could not agree more with Sam:

“I have always believed that if I have nothing to say, then I shouldn’t say anything. It is better to produce nothing than to produce bullshit writing (I mean, seriously, wouldn’t you rather clean up nothing than clean up shit?). So, that has been where I have been: running around Taipei with nothing really to say. And I’m not implying that my life is at a standstill or that I’ve had nothing to do–I have been everywhere and done everything (figuratively) in the last few months. And I’ve been super fucking stoked about it. I just haven’t been inspired to write about it. I know that I don’t really care to read anyone’s journal, nor do I care to keep one… ‘Blah, blah, blah today I went into downtown and saw an orange cat sitting on a car, and then I decided to have lunch…’ Fucking. No.”

As the point of Sam’s writing implores, how does one have a point in writing?

I recently watched a TED talk by the wonderful author, Elizabeth Gilbert. You will all know her from her infamous book: Eat, Pray, Love.

Here’s what she had to say about the difficult task of writing and being creative. 

She explains how the dynamic surrounding the expectations for (and the treatment of) artists has changed over time, thus changing the very nature of an artist’s relationship to their work (whether it’s written, painted, sculpted, etc). The Ancient Greeks and Romans attributed creativity not to human beings, but to something magical outside of the human. The Greeks called it a daemon, the Romans called it a genius. Not ‘genius’ as we interpret it today (meaning, clever), but as in magical. Gilbert gives the analogy of Dobby the House Elf, helping out behind the scenes. These geniuses shape the outcome of the work, creating a distance between the human artist and what they produce.

Gilbert describes how beneficial this thinking is for a creative person. It takes the pressure off. You can’t be overly puffed up with pride if you’re work is successful because you can’t take all the credit; and if your work fails, everybody knows it’s not totally your fault – “cause maybe your genius is lame.”

It wasn’t until the Renaissance put the individual at the center of the universe that the mystical creature was eliminated, and the genius became the person. Gilbert thinks this is a major error, putting too much responsibility on one fragile human psyche. Since this change of thinking, we’ve come to believe creativity to be inherently linked to suffering, and the “pressure has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.” Gilbert suggests we shift our thinking again, and encourage our great minds to live. Not only would this shift ease the pain a lot of artists tend to experience, but it would also just help with the overall process of producing works of art—whether deemed ‘good’ or not.

I loved the story of Ruth Stone, the American poet who would feel a poem rolling through the countryside toward her, and then with the words barreling through her she would reach out to grab them in order to write them down. While my experience of thinking in Writingese might relate on a minuscule scale to what Stone experienced, I admit to neglecting the far too frequent moments I should ‘run like hell’ to write down what thoughts barreled through me. In fact, I’d neglect them altogether telling myself I’d write it ‘later’. Later, becoming never. Some of these writing thoughts and ideas are still a shadow in my memory, but certainly lack the clarity that would come from writing things down soon after I experienced them. (By the way, this procrastination of writing as soon as possible is to commit a major anthropological fieldwork faux paux. Tisk tisk. Sigh…).

For any other writers who sometimes have an overall lack of motivation to do the work, or who suffer the sometimes-paralyzing condition of writers block, I think we should take Gilbert’s advice:

“Don’t be afraid, don’t be daunted. Just continue to show up…. If the divine cock-eyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then olé. And if not, do your dance anyhow, and olé to you nonetheless… just for having the shear human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

In order to continue this blog and to turn it into something I hope to be proud of, I’m going to try this out. I’ll just keep showing up to write and to contribute with the hope that my writing genius, my mystical writing elf, will help me out. If what you read is enjoyable, I’ll give my elf credit. And if you don’t like it, don’t blame me, maybe she was feeling off that day. Not entirely my fault.

Olé!