But with dignity and deep cross cultural reflection.
The envelopment of this life, here, seems to rise and fall in waves. Crests like today at the house opening of Reuben, the doctor who runs my clinic. A brief moment where I was actually sitting in the moment and realized that my level of alienation, my sense of being exterior to the intricacies and subtleties of life here is equal only to the wholistic and endless depth that must be present for those native to such a known place.
If I could pass as Kenyan, if I could walk down the street here and, prior even to speech, appear undistinguishable, there is still another layer to this place. In more difficult to pierce or even comprehend for someone accustomed to, wistful for, anonymity.
An endless line of extended (a qualifier necessary only in the West) family and childhood friends, church elders and school teachers, neighbors and coworkers - and each person overflowing from one category to the next - came today to help Reuben celebrate.
My presence always seems accompanied by an unnecessary aplomb, by an unctuous sort of acknowledgement. But considering the finely woven and densely layered blanket of relations that envelopes every person I have met here, my separateness, my lack of relation, seems as notable as it always appears to them.
And for a moment today I sat within that space. I saw the years that Reuben has started and stopped construction of this modest home. I saw the chain of friends and family who have watched it slowly rise, who have taken chai and talked about the siting, or windows, the painting, the bricks, the roof, the way life would be different when it was complete.
Watching his wife's eyes, her pursed lips as she shared this space for the first time with those who compose her life, I saw that the immense effort, ceremony, time into celebrating (what can only be a small step beyond the phase of construction the house was at three months ago) has everything to do with the depth of those relations and their roots in this place.
And returning home, to my government rented home, looking at my photos of family and friends, I disapear from Africa altogether. I'm on the El platform at Addison, I'm walking on Clark St. beach. Sitting on Foss hill, diving off the barge into Long Lake. I'm on the top floor of Olin, taking a nap on the floor.
I realize that, in the anonymous world I come from, the only space that connects all the pieces - the places and people and past and future - is me.
A new house for me wouldn't deserve the attention that Reuben's does, because my house is incapable of meaning what his does and will.
It is largely inconceivable that Reuben will sell this land in his lifetime. It's extremely unlikely that he will not live until his dying day in the structure he sits in tonight; his home for the first time.
More than that, it is not simply another, it is more and better. Stronger and warmer and more permanent. Safer and more comfortable. It is, in very real and visibly apparent ways, an improvement. An acknowledgement to him and his work. To his effort to make thing better for his children and wife. He didn't buy it on credit, he's not keeping up with the Jones', he isn't frustrated that its not bigger or more impressive.
The confusion of symbol and object that is the crux of American consumerism is absent here. The object and the symbol stand side by side, both equally relevant and equally important.