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Paul Beverly Takes me on a Bicycle Ride
By Steve Van Nattan
On about my second vacation home from Rift Valley Academy in Kenya, I was looking bored I suppose, but brother Paul Beverly asked if I wanted to go visit one of the churches with him. He was going by bicycle, and he said he would haul me along. I thought that was a great idea. Imagine riding all the way to some far off church on the back of a bicycle!
The day came, and we climbed onto the bike. Now, African bicycles, indeed all Third World bicycles, are not like anything you ever saw. They are two wheeled trucks (UK- lorries) really. They have a very sturdy frame, and a heavy rack is mounted in the rear. Huge loads can be hauled on them, and a whole family can climb aboard and wobble down the road for miles. Bicycle fuundies (mechanics) can be found in every little village, and ingenious repairs are made using the strangest materials. So, this is by far the most reliable mode of transportation in the world I suppose... IF you have time.
I understand that China has millions of these bicycles also. They are sometimes more practical in heavy traffic than automobiles since a bicycle can slip here and there in traffic, even up on the sidewalk and through vacant lots, to beat the auto drivers home.
My passenger accommodations were the massive rack on the rear of the bike. This affair is made of very heavy metal and designed to hold around 300 pounds I gather by seeing the loads on some of those bikes. The problem is that these racks are not built for comfort. They catch you right in the middle of your thighs, and as you bounce along, your legs become deeply grooved by the metal, and your feet can even go to sleep. Brother Beverly added some padding for me, but by the time we got to our destination, I think Paul was more tired from my wiggling then from peddling the bike. But Paul never said a word. When you grow up and remember a guy like that, and after you have your own children, you come to appreciate such patient people much more, right?
On the peaceful and smooth roads of Ukerewe Paul Beverly made easy work of the ride. We did get off and walk up some hills, but that is standard procedure. I never caught a missionary out jogging for his health. Missionary work keeps you in shape by just getting on with daily life. Brother Beverly had been called by the elders and pastor of a local church. They had an emergency, and not the sort you would have in Omaha, Nebraska or Birmingham, England. The grass was being vandalized on the church roof, and this was not a case of persecution either. Baboons were running down the hill behind the church, taking a great leap in the air, and they would land on the church roof. At that point they would take hand and feet holds of roofing thatch, and they would slide backwards down the roof and onto the ground. What fun... IF you are a baboon.
The church leaders did not know what to do to stop this, and it was assumed that the the missionary would have some trick to discourage them. Of course, a gun would help, but brother Beverly did not bring a gun since he didn't have one to give them. I recall that there was a lot of discussion and deliberation. Brother Beverly was a master of the tribal custom of the Wakerewe. Hurry was NOT in the vocabulary. You Westerners cannot imagine this, but there are people in this world who still know how to work hard when they work, while on the other hand they can savor a discussion and drag it out to maximum benefit. You see, an African council meeting, or baraza, is a social event as well as a point of accomplishment. It is just not polite to solve a problem too quickly. Also, with much discussion no vote is needed since all present have time to come around to one mind. Weird, I know, to you democracy junkies, but it also happens to be the requirement of the Apostle Paul whom Paul Beverly was trying to emulate.
I got bored of course with the deliberation. Kids don't have a longing to hear endless options and variables discussed. I wandered around and found rocks to kick and plants I had not seen before. But, finally the shauri (affair) was exhausted, and a line of attack was arrived at regarding the baboons. I dare say no baboons were ever honored by a higher council of ministers deciding their fate. I don't recall what the conclusion was. You must forgive me, but I was a typical kid of eleven years, and I didn't care much about baboons, except maybe I wished I could have seen them do that run and jump trick. Wouldn't it be fun if I could..... Naughty! Don't even think of it Stevie. If brother Beverly reads this, maybe he could send a note and tell us what the solution was. I could add that later :-)
Well, one of the rewards of a long drawn out and pedantic council meeting, and especially for the Bwana (missionary man) who rode his bicycle all the way out to that local church was... a feast. Now, a noon day feast by Wakerewe standards was a major event. We were ushered to the village of one of the church elders. This was a very fine village. The boma (hedge) around the village was made of milk weed (manala) which formed a growing hedge. This was not American milk weed. It was a plant which had millions of green branches with no leaves. It could grow into a hedge easily twenty feet high, and it was unbelievably thick. No animal would try to go through it because the milk in the plant was quite caustic. Only goats would occasionally try to eat it. I think God's idea of the ultimate eating machine is the goat. They seem to survive amazing food items, and when you kill one for a feast they all taste the same-- fantastic.
This village inside the manala hedge was cleaner than some of our western homes. The floor of the village, though it was dirt, had been swept all the way across by the ladies so that it had an appealing pattern of wide sweeps like a plasterer makes on some walls. The guest house was ready and spotless. Many African cultures have such a guest house in every village to only entertain guests. It is really a medium sized dining room which stands alone. Brother Beverly and I were ceremoniously greeted, with the ladies standing nearby. This is very important. We were to take plenty of time and all were greeted. Watchamawe. Watchasugu. Woooongetta? Choooongette- woooongetta? Choooongetta. Everyone had to be greeted, and the gender had to be right or someone would be insulted.
The ladies went back to the kitchen which was also a separate small building, and the aroma coming from that direction was just scrumptious. We could tell the chicken was on the menu rather than goat. Chicken is the choice meat of Africa, and it is costly since it has to be raised by the village, and this in competition with mongooses and genet cats. So, when a chicken is killed for your visit, you know you are indeed loved.
We were seated in the guest dining house, and we were abandoned. I asked brother Beverly if someone would join us and eat with us. I knew that Africans didn't entertain with the ladies joining the meal, but the men were not with us either this time. Brother Beverly explained that we were getting the royal treatment, and that meant we would eat alone with only the ladies bringing the food from time to time. And what food! But first, there was the washing of the hands. A lady came with a basin, a jug of too hot water, and a towel on her arm. This custom is easily 5000 years old, and Abraham probably did the same for the two angels and Christ when they visited him and ate under his guest tree in Genesis.
As I said, the water was too hot, but it got the hands ready, for we would be eating with our hands. Now, to you western gringos that sounds primitive, right. Well, catch up please. Most of the people of this world do not use utensils to eat with, for you see, God gave us all two very useful utensils right there at the ends of our arms. After our hands were well scalded, and after the wife of our host had prayed for the meal, we were served. The very first item was an appetizer of boiled and roasted peanuts. Keep you Planter's Peanuts friend. These peanuts were dug fresh from the field, then boiled, and then roasted in a clay pot with water and salt. As the water evaporated, the peanuts would transform from boiled to roasted until they were brown and hot, then rushed to the table. One of the young daughters would usually roast the peanuts. After we got busy on the peanuts, the serious food came and came... it seemed forever.
There was first a mountain (kilima) of rice. In the kitchen the rice was put into a big bowl and pressed down tight, then the bowl was inverted on a highly decorated porcelain platter imported from India. This resulted in a mountain of rice which was just the right consistency to take in your hand and roll into a ball. Over the mountain of rice was draped a fancy white cloth with beaded embroidery. Elegant. The Queen of England could wish for such class.
Next came another mountain in regal state. This was the ugali. Ugali is corn meal ground just right and cooked until it is extremely thick and can also be taken in hand and rolled into balls. Next came mboga. This is spinach cooked and ground up with roasted peanuts and sometimes a little chili pepper and a tomato. Friend, there is no more elegant a dish in Paris. I have seen a number of spinach haters converted by this dish.
Last of all, there was a great fancy porcelain bowl of chicken which had been stewed for hours. This had a flavor which can only be duplicated by an African wife on a wood fire in a smoky room in her personal kitchen. The proper manner of eating is to take a handful of rice or corn meal ugali, roll it in the right hand (NEVER the left) until it is compact, tuck the thumb into the ball to make it into a small scoop, then dip the scoop into the gravy and capture a bit of chicken in the process. This is to be conveyed to the mouth without dripping. But it must be planted on the tongue so as to avoid touching the mouth with one's hand, since everyone is dipping into the same common dishes. It works great with the corn meal ugali, but try it with the rice. The Africans have a saying, "When the Mzungu (white man) comes to dinner, the chickens will eat well." This is because of all the rice which doesn't make it to the mouth and ends up on the floor. Africans clean the floor after a meal by letting the chickens inside for a couple of minutes.
Brother Beverly and I set to work on the food. There was way too much for us, and neither brother Beverly nor I were big eaters as a rule. Brother Beverly has been slim and trim all his life. Well, imagine my surprise when brother Beverly ate and ate and ate. He told me we would insult the folks if we just nibbled at the food. I have since learned the importance of this and applied it as a missionary in Ethiopia and Kenya. I have gone waddling away from many a feast in pain in order to properly honor the host and hostess. I think Arab feasts are the most painful due to all the variety which just MUST be tried and re-tried. Arab hosts eat nothing as you eat. They hover over you and force more and more food on you just for the joy of watching you enjoy yourself. And, who can turn away kifta and filafil and shawarma? When you are called to a feast anywhere from Capetown to Cairo to Fez, you better eat up, or you will offend your host.
We were stuffed my dear friend. We were miserable. Yet we were still looking at the choice dishes in front of us, for the food had been exceptional, and the chicken had not been the usual athletic type which is often the only choice. We had had the best. At that point I was startled out of my wits at brother Beverly, for he began to belch in the most horrid loud way. Over and over he performed this way. He saw my shock, and he realized that I had been raised like any American kid to avoid belching and making body noises at all costs in company. Well, Africa, and many other cultures, look on belching very differently than we do. Belching is a sign that the food was good and the guests are very content. With the guest dining house being some distance from the other houses, it was essential to give the belching routine all possible zeal so that one could be heard. I tried to join the thing and make a duet of it, but, being eleven years old, this new liberty was too much to handle right then.
The ladies came and removed the dishes, and then we were joined by the host, and tea was served. This tea is also a work of art. The water is first boiled hard. Then the Simba Chai tea leaves are added, and the mixture boiled again. Next a huge portion of sugar is added and it is boiled again. Finally, the milk is added and the brew is boiled again. By this point, the tea is VERY strong, and it is rich with sugar and milk. It can also have a touch of smoke from the cooking fire, and the result is more like a dessert than a beverage. Putting away two big cups of tea on top of that dinner was painful, but we did it.
After many proper and courteous farewells, and after being escorted partway down the road as a typical courtesy (kusindikiza), brother Beverly had to mount the bicycle and haul us both home. Friend, I love Paul Beverly for his zeal. Imagine trying to peddle us both down the road with both our bellies full and popping. It would have been far more in order to roll over under a tree and take a nap.
I dare say both of us passed up supper that night.