Richard started class one day by saying he was struggling with understanding the Kenyan sense of humor.
When my lively graduate History of Directing class was finishing, Gabriel—a student—said to me, “We were thinking today is the day we will take you to lunch.”
I said, “Yes.”
The six men in the class met me outside the theatre building. We got into two cars and drove off campus to have nyama choma na ugali—roast meat and, well, I can’t describe ugali.
We drove to a row of roadside restaurants, all the same, all in a row, roasting very fresh meat outside on charcoal. We were met in the muddy parking area by more workers than I had students, each trying to entice us to park before their grills. After exiting the cars, I followed the students as they sampled meat at different grills before choosing the one where we would eat.
I enjoyed watching the game I saw being played. These students, these young men, these leaders, are quiet and respectful in class. As pieces of goat were sliced from a huge leg and shared with us I saw something in them begin to reveal itself, as they played the “Where Will We Eat” decision game. I followed their lead from fire to fire, thinking, “All of this is good.”
A woman arrived with a pitcher of steaming water and a bowl and each of us was invited to wash and rinse our hands at the table as she poured.
We sat at a long table in a veranda by the parking lot, and large pieces of grilled meat began to arrive to be carved at the table. There were bowls of cooked greens; I think I ate kale for the first time. There was salad, which was tomatoes and onions with very fresh and strong tarragon. I ate ugali, a staple of the Kenyan diet, for the first time. Coarse sea salt in piles on the cutting board enhanced the meal. There were no plates, no utensils and you just reached and ate everything with your fingers. The goat was very good.
I was told that, in Kenya, I should eat as much as I could as fast as I could. “Don’t eat because you are hungry, eat because you can.” Stop talking, just eat.
Everything was fresh. In fact, unknown to me, a butchered goat was hanging from a hook in a window right behind me the whole meal.
During the meal, vendors visited us. I could have bought a nice tie, a jacket, auto supplies, a CD of music, children’s books, or movies.
These men are bright. They love conversation. They began to talk of politics, of corruption, of professors, of their country, of how I should be more like a Kenyan and where I should visit in Kenya and why, switching easily back and forth from English to Kiswahili. As a listener, I just enjoyed being with them, invited into the circle, welcomed as a guest.
We were again invited to wash our hands after the meal. The Good Father Charles (one of my students is a Catholic priest) enjoyed a glass of red wine. Two of us had a Tusker. I had mine cold—baridi—against local custom, where beer is served at room temperature.
As we left the parking lot and Charles pulled into the road, a truck driver coming toward us honked his horn, loudly. I was told the response to being honked at is “Why didn’t you leave yesterday?” There is no need to honk. Why be in a hurry? I laughed.
With these six men today I learned the best lessons about Kenyan humor, as they laughed and made me laugh easily. Our meal together was a huge gift, well beyond the nyama choma and ugali they insisted on buying for me.
As we arrived back at campus, I said to Gabriel that today was the perfect day for this unexpected class lunch. I am a planner, used to having a set schedule, and I was told “this way is best.” Just go. “Then we can’t argue about where to go, or whether or not this is the best week.”
This post was originally published on Richard’s blog, The Collapsable Space Between Us, on February 17, 2014, and is being reprinted with permission from the author.
Photo: Richard Hess/The Collapsable Space Between Us