By Amanda Miller
Sunlight streamed through the dusty glass slats of the two windows, illuminating the wrinkles of time in the wooden floor panels. Though stale air lingered in the four cement corners and in the folds of the tied-up curtains, fresh life breathed in the middle of the classroom. A few minutes ago, there was just a motley collection of iron-framed chairs around an embarrassed uneven table. But now I saw the chipped yellow paint on the chairs and the elbow-worn spaces on the table as proof of so much more.
As the students meandered in, they all argued about what time English class was actually supposed to start. Incidentally, everyone but the quietly amused American teacher thought they had arrived in plenty of time. We were encouraged multiple times to give the extra-tardy potentials “just two more minutes.”
As we killed time, the young-adult students explained why the previous week’s class didn’t happen; apparently last Tuesday was a major Muslim holiday. All Somalis here in Nairobi, Kenya, stayed home that day, whether because there was more chance of getting police attention and not having legitimate identification, or because their families were celebrating Eid, or because everyone else would be celebrating and there would be nothing to do anyway. Neither the men nor the women had any idea why they celebrated Eid, just that it was something they’d always done.
Eventually the grace period ended, and class began. The first step was to go around the table and introduce ourselves, from the girl whose eyes were all that escaped from the dark burka, to the young man with a swanky watch and button-down collared shirt, to me in my flip-flops and stifled enthusiasm for being back in a Somali environment. Two of the three women were reserved and hard to hear, while Eyes hid her face much more than her thoughts. The three men were all dressed more Western and confident in their English. The real excitement in this first section of the lesson was when they found out that I lived on a dairy farm; the previous semi-decorum of the classroom erupted in eager questions. How many cows did we have, did we milk them by hand, what did we do with all the milk? The guy who seemed the ringleader of the students was intently concerned that the milking machines might suck the life out of the cows, and wasn’t necessarily convinced by my asseverations of otherwise.
“I have just one question, even if it’s like a joke.” Eyes held out her hand and commanded attention. “If you take so much milk, why are you not fat?” I shrugged and acknowledged that she’s not the only one with that question.
Class progressed and we moved from general interaction to reading a story together around the table to discussing an American proverb. The story was a traditional Muslim folktale that all the students had heard before but never seen in writing. We took turns sounding out a sentence or two (or more, if they really got on a roll). The teacher would ask the most advanced students to provide a vocabulary word in Somali when the blank intonation betrayed the occasional lack of meaning behind a set of phonics. Often an erudite tone reigned in quickly proffered additional translations, but no one seemed to mind. The room took on an almost sacred aura as history and oral tradition revealed themselves both on the page to the Somalis and in understanding to the Americans.
There was no cultural divide, however, when we came to the proverb of the week. I had incorrectly anticipated some need for exegesis on “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Immediately voices around the lesson table piped up in easy explanation that it’s just like a Somali saying. “When you go where people don’t have eyes…” Naturally.
I have to admit that one of my favorite parts of class were probably the last couple segments. I mean, have you ever heard a motley chorus of burka-ed and accented East Africans jumping in enthusiastically along with a taped chorus of Country Roads? Once they sounded out the lyrics and heard the tune a few times, they sounded just as good as John Denver’s recording. Much more memorable, at any rate. I couldn’t help but wonder how much they longed for the same thing, what they used to call home. Most of the students had left Somalia for Kenya when they were just children, often fleeing for their lives or just looking for a place lacking guns instead of food. And they know they will probably never be able to go back to the place where they belong. It was a hauntingly poignant song, somehow laced with hope.
The dismissal prayer also filled the dusty room with a paradoxical beauty in sorrow. The teacher asked the male ringleader to pray for us, knowing that one of his life goals is to educate people about the Koran without forcing them to convert. He seemed appropriately unsure about praying to Allah in conjunction with the white people sitting beside him, but folded his hands and spoke anyway. Maybe I’m not supposed to be OK with it. Nevertheless, I found it to be a very meaningful and humbling connection. He didn’t pray for anything sacrilegious or destructive or evil. He prayed for needs and desires that are human. He blessed us, these female Western Christians. Socially, culturally, religiously, that is so not supposed to happen.
Class was over then. Throughout the hour, I soaked up the beauty of Somali faces, accents, and personalities as they whirled around me in a flurry of realtime. I feel like my heart had a silly grin the whole time; there is something deep within me that finds joy and life in an environment like this. Not only is there something restoratively right about active peace, but God is truly being glorified by these diametrically different cultures respectfully engaging each other. How can you not feel soul excitement?
I could sit here and type and type about this one ESL class period. I could describe in more detail the intricacies of the atmosphere and personalities, or I could analyze perspectives of different sociological theories and implications. I could get all emotive and express how this made me feel then and now, or I could lay out my confusion about what to actually do with this. I have so much to say — but I’m out of words. I just wanted to share, share who I am and who they are and who we are together, like we all did that day around the worn wooden table.
Amanda Miller lives with her husband in Kansas, and can’t wait for summer to arrive and remind her of Kenyan temperatures. She works at a local train-depot-turned-coffee-shop and is looking forward to gardening this summer.