Twenty-two years ago, a much younger me was ushered into her new home, a cosy little house perched on a hill in South West Uganda. I had braved a solo 14-hour bus ride, through the night from Nairobi to Kampala. This was followed by another eight hours’ drive from Kampala, taking me up and round the endless hills of Kabale, bringing me to what would be my home for at least the next year.
Settling in went smoothly. The house was clean, well equipped and someone had stocked the pantry with some basic foodstuffs. I, however, realised that if I was going to brew myself a cup of chai I needed to buy a matchbox. I quickly decided to make a foray into the neighbourhood and find a kiosk from which I could buy a matchbox.
I located one, made my purchase and happily made my way downhill back to my little house. Then I met her. She stopped me and introduced herself as my next-door neighbour – Penelope. As we got acquainted, I must have let slip that I had been up and about in search of a matchbox. Never shall I forget the shock on her face. Why didn’t you pop into our house and ‘borrow’ one? She chastised me. Warming up, she gave me a refresher course on African hospitality. Are we Bazungu? She demanded, meaning, we are not Europeans, dispense with the formality. Feel free to come and go as you wish.
All I could manage was a prayer of thanksgiving to God that my own mother was not present to witness this. She would have been equally dismayed and insisted she taught me better. What’s a neighbour for if you cannot pop in for a pinch of salt or some fire in the moment of need?
Before I knew it, I was ushered into Penelope’s living room. A platter of steaming kaunga (Ugali for you Kenyans) was served, accompanied by some greens and a gravy of mushrooms in groundnut sauce. I knew this was not the time to disclose that my first and only other encounter with this sauce had not gone well or that where I came from mushrooms were weeds and not food. I shut my mouth … no … opened it and proceeded to spoon in a mouthful after another.
There are gifts that creep on you unexpectedly. As a child I was way too serious, even now I have to remember that I can relax without the foundations of the world tumbling down. I was good with my studies. I had the knack for words and numbers. I was responsible, I was not athletic, definitely not musical and certainly never the life of the party.
Enter living in a foreign country. No old school mates, church-mates or relatives to fall back on. Slowly you begin crawling out of your shell and opening your home. Enter a child who cannot enjoy a meal unless surrounded by people … and you invite more people. Move to a spacious house. The doors of hosting and hospitality swing wide open. Do you have a baby shower? We have space. A bridal shower? But of course. Bible study? Sure. Farewell? Don’t mention it.
That my friends is how I became Penelope. You don’t eat Ugali? I proceed to raise my eyebrow all the way into my hairline. You are in a hurry and can’t wait for the tea to boil? I roll my eyes, asking who does that, in a way that would do any teenager proud. Do you think your group is too large? I cluckle like a displeased hen and with a wave of my hand proceed to dismiss your excuse. There is not enough space around the dining table? The cups might not be enough? Do you think you might inconvenience me? It’s short notice? I give you a puzzled look as though you are speaking greek or mandarin.
Slowly the gift of the open table snuck in on me. A table loaded with food, an overflowing house and conversations flowing till late. That unexpected gift brought our family so much joy. Meeting new people and being included in wonderful communities. I started out as the anxious host, cooking way too early because once visitors come in I might get too frazzled and burn my main dish. I would be embarrassed by my mismatched furniture and dishes. Fearing those awkward moments when the chemistry does not quite spark.
Despite those misgivings, this gift has slowly but surely taken up room in my life. Cooking up a storm despite the annoyance it is to my kids because they know they will be warming up leftovers far into the next century. Brewing a flask full of tea, just the way we like it, dark, loaded with milk and ginger. Bringing out the card and board games … that let out all manner of silliness and laughter that radiates from the stomach all the way to the last toenail, building many happy memories.
I have lived long enough to wish for those elegant well laid out tables I see in movies but still be at home with my wannabe place settings and dishes. I now know that tasty food and the great conversation more than makes up for the chipped bowls and odd cups.
Just when I have well and truly become a woman that would do both Penelope and my mother proud – enter covid. How it has shrunk my life. Every weekend as I stir my kitchen magic, names pop to mind of different people I could invite to dinner. Some are new acquaintances trying to find their way around the maze that is Addis Ababa or old friends. The three place settings on our table beg for company. Should I, should I not? This gift of having company – should I fold and pack it as one does a raincoat at the end of the rainy season? When will the rainy season come back?
Sometimes I pull out that raincoat and we do the Covid rain dance. Friends arrive and we elbow bump each other in greeting. I direct them to the bathroom, to the abundance of soap and water. We proceed to make ourselves comfortable … sometimes masks securely in place … and as much distance as we can afford. Then out comes the flask of chai. Masks off. Food platters are laid out and warm conversation flows. And then all too soon, it’s time to part. This was so nice, we think. Out comes the goodbye hugs which make a joke of all our initial masking, distancing and elbow bumps.
Beyond the games, laughter and company, gathering around a table is a foreshadowing of the Kingdom of God. The bible is replete with metaphors that liken the Kingdom of God to a large feast with room for a great number of guests, breaking bread together, a wedding feast, a prepared a table. Indeed, the final consummation of the kingdom is called the wedding feast of the lamb.
How do we do social life now? What does living amidst a pandemic mean for hospitality, making new friends and shared meals around the table? Caution and commonsense war with fear, deep values and joys of community. A zoom coffee hangout is not quite the same.
We have hope that no matter how much our lives around the table have changed and shrunk we shall one day gather at a table for a homecoming feast of all feasts. Before then, how are you balancing faith and fear with regard to meeting with others these days? What balance have you found between community and caution?
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