empathy

Letter from Kenya (eight)

In the small mud-floored kitchen, around the kitchen fire bordered by 3 large stones (to put the pots on), the middle son is home with his 8 year-old for a visit. The three adults discuss life, the city, work – or lack-thereof. The 2 grandsons that live on the homestead are seated there as well, with their cousin, quietly listening to the adult conversation. One of the boys sings, but it is barely heard; the others dig their feet into the ground and fidget. But I can only imagine this based on the conversation in a language that I don’t understand that comes billowing out of the barely open door and the small square window. The conversation is accompanied by the suffocating smoke from the kitchen fire, fighting for a place to escape from the confines of the small space.

I steal understandings of bits of words and, of course, proper names like the capital city where the son now lives, with his wife and son in the second largest urban slum on the continent, barely making ends-meet. I stand just a few meters from the wood building, looking up through the rainclouds of the Long Rains season through the pitch-black to a few constellations, barely visible. I look back at the square-shaped room with an orange burning light shining through not only the cracked door and window, but also the open slats that let the rain in this morning while we watched the water heating for our baths.

The conversation is familiar, one that I have had with my own parents in their kitchen during one of my countless visits home. There is a relay back and forth of question-answer, then intermittently the son explains further or the mother continues on a monologue asking and comparing, hoping to glean a bit more about her son’s life that is not so unfamiliar to her, she is from a city near by, not the capital, but she is no stranger to the hustle and bustle, but perhaps she has forgotten all of that. Perhaps the forty-some years that she has spent in the high rolling hills tending to their farm and dairy cows, perhaps this less-busy life has allowed her to forget the hand-to-mouth that she, presumably, once lived.

The oldest of the grandsons pops out and I quickly change my gaze back to the sky again, attempting to make myself invisible. Though the night is so dark with no moonlight and no artificial light for miles, at least to the closest town, being invisible isn’t so difficult. Then I remember the conversation I had with the shopkeeper today when we made the hike to town for supplies that cannot be reaped from their land, power had been out in the town for the last 2 days – no mobile charging, no television, only the police station, with their noisy generator, could be seen with their lights on at night. The grandson dumps some water and with a clang grabs something from under the chicken coop and glides back into the warm kitchen shutting the door just a few centimeters more behind him.

Nicole Rademacher was in Kenya from February until May of 2012 doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

 

Letter from Kenya (seven)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘So he is your husband?’ I ask. She nods yes.

‘How many years have you been married?’ I carefully choose my words; her English is quite limited (please note that my Swahili still only consists of pleasantries and my Kikuyu only happens by accident), and if I have learned nothing else from teaching English and living abroad for so long, I have definitely learned how to grade my language and construct sentences so that communication happens and less ???s occur.

’10 years’, she responds.

*Anne is a slight woman, and, to be honest, when I met her the day prior I thought she was an older grandson in the family. I had failed to notice that she was wearing a long skirt below her billowing boy-sweater. Given the short hair, and the fact that in this small village at a very high altitude everyone wears winter caps, a skirt can often be the only way of telling the sex of children … and very slight women.

Ten years seemed like a lot to me. I’ve realized that Kenyans can be very deceiving with their age (I mentioned this in my first post from Kenya). She also told me that she is 28, her oldest of two children is 9, and that she is from a small town very far away so she never sees her family. Ten years still seems like a long time to me.

The milk is at a rolling boil, and she adds the tea and stirs.

‘Yes, 10 years,’ she repeats and laughs. She seems to be a generally happy person, and around me almost everything that I do or say deserves a laugh. Sometimes even her own response deserves a laugh.

She pulls the pot off the fire using only bits of cardboard as oven mitts to protect her not-so-delicate fingers. She sets the pot on the mud floor and places a new pot on the fire and fills it with fresh water that she had fetched from the well in the morning. The family is lucky to have the well on their homestead. I’ve seen many women and girls carrying large 10 gallon jugs (at least I think it is 10 gallons) of water using a strap that is placed around their forehead, thus carrying the jug on their backs. Despite what, in my Western eyes, may be considered poor conditions, the family seems to do quite well for themselves.

She grabs a teapot and strainer from the free-standing cupboard with mismatched doors and pours the chai, in a not-so-careful manner, from the pot through the strainer into the teapot. As she calls telling the others to come because the afternoon chai is ready, she tosses the dirty silverware and some small dishes from lunch into the soon-to-be dishwater warming on the fire.

*Name changed for privacy

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

Letter from Kenya (six)

It seems that every school child knows how to say “How are you?” It is a chant they do. A mzungu (white person, literally translated to “wanderer”) is on the street and all the school children immediately begin the chant “ouryou?” and repeat.

Yes, endearing at first, and perhaps I even responded, fine and you? when I first arrived. But now, I dismiss them, knowing that it is a rote response. But there are those children that actually engage – or attempt to – in conversation; the ones that smile coily, that are actually curious and looking for some type of interaction. I smile back at them, wave, sometimes shake their hands.

Often the school children follow you, especially in less populated areas. Are they protecting you? Probably just interested in the wanderers. Makes me wonder how I must appear to them. The westerner I am, “diversity” is something that I don’t really notice until it isn’t there. Furthermore, I was always taught “not to stare” or to ignore those that were significantly “different”. Here they stare, call out to you (yes, “OBAMA” has even been shouted to me, though I don’t think it was because they suspected that I was American).

The most charming account of this that I can share was on the bus. As I was sitting in the aisle near the middle of the bus, I made a point to check out all of my fellow passengers going by. Almost immediately after a mother with a baby wrapped in a kanga and another daughter by hand passed by, I felt a tug at the back of my head. I looked behind me, but all I saw were backs. The ride was uneventful, but at Kenyatta

Hospital (near the end of my trip and a very busy stop), I again watched the other passengers as they left. The mother passed by and at the same time I felt a tug. Promptly I turned to see the culprit: the oldest of the woman’s two daughters, no more than 7 or 8. I smiled at her. She bashfully looked away, and scrambled to catch up with her mother and younger sister.

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

The Empathic Civilisation

The video below is a superb and enlightening discussion around empathy.  We all understand that as Humans we have empathetic emotions we wince when we see someone fall over, we get upset when our friends cry.  What is now being discovered is that this empathy is actually wired into our brain, and like many aspects of our brain it can be nurtured into greater fulfillment, or it can be minimized.   Promisingly it suggests an entirely more optimistic version of the fundamentals of humanity than the cold rational selfish thinker that the enlightenment cast upon us.  As Freerange is concerned with how we are all going to live together in the cities of  the future, this new model of the human brain is exciting as it starts to explain why the otherwise stressful urbanity of cities is also so compelling.

Not to mention that this mode of communication is a superb.

Care of The Royal Society of Arts.

“Bestselling author, political adviser and social and ethical prophet Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of empathy and the profound ways that it has shaped our development and our society.”

disaster, disaster, disaster

This is a world of frequent tragic disasters. I’ve heard a few people lately comment about how they feel bad when they can’t connect emotionally to the enormity of some disasters, and wonder why some impact more than others.  I personally felt much more affected by the Victorian Bushfires and Samoan Tsunami than the current Haiti tragedy.  I think we shouldn’t worry about this.  We are social beings, and as such our emotional networks extend from family to friends to friends of friends.  Of course we can relate more to the suffering of those closest to us, and as much as we mentally and spiritually like the idea of universal concern,  its simply uneconomical to have a emotional empathy to six billion other humans.   To mark the almost anniversary of the apocalyptic sadness that engulfed parts of Victoria in Australia last year the guardian has written a stunning review of the events on that sad day.  Read it here.