She attracts more drama in one quick trip to the supermarket than I attract in a year. While most of us make a beeline for what we want, travelling in straight lines with nary a detour if we can help it, not this one. She is always turning aside, because, what if she misses a burning bush? She has the ultimate spiritual gift of attracting more trouble than a couple of three-year-old boys left to their devices.
This last Thursday she made her way to the Carrefour super market in her neighborhood in good time for the black Friday offers. A bargain hunter per excellence, with at least six mouths to feed, and a somewhat inelastic income, she worked her way through the aisles. You would have spotted her easily. Brash and bold, she is not one to hide her shine under the bushel. She would have been clad in her trademark splashes of yellow, red and orange, with even more colourful contraptions jiggling from her ears. Not one to hurriedly drop items in her cart, she was carefully comparing the prices. Which one is the real deal? The three litre sunflower oil or the five litre corn oil, she would be trying to work out. Phone ever in hand she quickly works out the price per litre and the cheaper one goes into the cart.
Someone did notice her. Excuse me Ma’am, a male voice interrupts her careful comparison of the different offers. He quickly launches into a plea for her to pay for the items in his basket. As the gears in her mind shift, she notices the contents of his basket, a packet of diapers, detergent, milk and lentils. He had a rough look to him and was clearly in tears. He continued to pour out the kind of long-winded tale your mother cautioned you to flee from. My friend, never the best in colouring within the lines engages. The man had supposedly come in with a well-wisher who had promised to pay for his shopping. On the strength of that promise he had put the few basics in a basket. The well-wisher however seemed to have had a change of heart somewhere near the liquour corner and had gone back on his promise.
Well, my friend would never pass up a conversation to save her life. Buzzing at the back of her mind was the question, how many people has this guy approached before getting to me? Why on earth would he pick on me in this crowded shop? Whatever the case, she slipped into her element. Looked him straight in the eye and engaged her inbuilt streetwise sensors honed as a child growing up in Jericho estate in Nairobi’s (in)famous Eastlands. Tried to pick out the lies. Nothing. She couldn’t tell whether he was lying or telling the truth. She grilled him, turning his story every which way, attempting to poke holes in it, nothing gave. His method appealed to her sense of imagination. He could easily have stood outside the supermarket begging for money, but he stood with his necessities in the basket, hoping that someone would bite and pay for them. The diaper package tugged at her heart. If he was lying then he had stumbled upon a damn good idea. She decided to rise to the bait. She could spare a thousand Kenya shillings ($10).
Her bargain hunter instinct kicked in. With a critical look at his basket she demanded, why on earth would you be buying milk at 47 shillings when there is a brand on offer at 42 bob? Return it and replace with the cheaper brand. And the detergent too, you should pick the one on sale, she advised. My friend decided to drop in a few extras, and by the time they were checking out the value of this stranger’s shopping had quadrupled. This was certainly more than she had bargained for, she thought, as the cashier rang up the amount of three thousand eight hundred Kenya shillings. Ah well, the man has already been stood up once and we have come this far, she reasoned, and proceeded to fork out the amount.
That evening as she unpacked her groceries, she could not resist narrating the story to her mum. She however down-played it a tad knowing that her aged mum like most of us would not take kindly to such kind of throwing away good money and being such an easy mark in a city overgrown with conmen. She could not even bring herself to talk about the amount she spent and made it look like small change. It turns out the stranger had helped her load her purchases into her car and she had given him a ride halfway home. In that short trip she learnt he was a carpenter and had been out of work since Covid-19 struck. The story was soon packed and shelved, just one of those things.
The following day a relation rings up my friend and asks her to pass by their house as they had a package for her. My friend swings by, just in time to be a few minutes over curfew and is handed two heavy bags. On arriving home, she opens the bags and is floored by the contents. About 15 Kilograms of beef in a variety of choice cuts stare back at her. In that moment all she could remember was how in the supermarket the previous day, she had decided on a whim to buy one and a half kilograms of beef for the stranger. In the split second it had taken her to make that decision she had known that more lentils would have made more sense but had nevertheless decided to treat this family to a nice beef stew, and thrown in some tomatoes for good measure. She had given a kilo of meat and it had come back in good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over!
The lesson here is certainly NOT to give in anticipation of it being paid back. The lesson for me, is what Barbara Brown Taylor in the book Altar in the World calls reverence. She says reverence requires a willingness to take detours, even side trips, which are not part of the original plan. Take the example of Moses, tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the wilderness of Horeb. He sees a flash of red in the corner of his eye and says, how pretty, I’ll come by tomorrow and check it out. Actually, his response was different, he said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” He certainly did not know there was an angel in the bush. But had Moses not turned aside, he might never have discovered what else his life might have been about.
Reverence for people is not easy especially when those people’s lives encroach on our own. It’s easy to love people in general but not the human being in front of us. They intrude into our time, make us wrestle with whether or not they are telling the truth and draw is into the miry clay of figuring out how much help is reasonable. Taylor recommends we look for the human being instead of the obstacle. In doing so, we like Moses are invited to take off our shoes, stand on holy ground, disabusing us of the illusion that we are gods. It opens for us a different way of life full of treasure for those willing to pay attention.
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