Of all the things I’ve tried to send via the postal service, American beer has proven to be the most difficult. It’s more than likely that I’m going to renege on the promise I made to Akini, who’s never had American beer. But he does love beer, particularly Tusker, a brew made in his native Kenya.
Akini is the fifth of 12 brothers and sisters that grew up in a rural village in the Kenyan countryside. He was the only one to go to school. He moved to Nairobi where he got married and had two daughters. He received a loan through Equity Bank (an important micro-finance institution in East Africa) to buy a small fishing boat. He grew his business and he now employs 5 people. For supplementary income, Akini engages in a variety of odd jobs: He’s a supplier of antiretroviral medication to the largest HIV/AIDS clinic in East Africa; he manages an education fund that provides support for promising students; he takes rich white people on informal tours of Nairobi. Every bit of income he earns, he uses to support his family in the city and back in the village.
I knew Akini on paper before I met him. Academia sings the praises of microfinance and small-medium enterprises (SMEs), often propping up Akini’s story as the shining beacon of hope in a bright African future. But there are many things that these papers can’t tell you.
Like the way he checks out/flirts with every woman that crosses his path, while preaching about the moral importance of monogamy. With one side of his mouth, he’ll wax poetic about his Christian faith, and with the other he’ll curse to hell the driver who just cut him off.
In other words, Akini is just a person, and I mean this in the most flattering of ways. He’s capable of extraordinary acts of generosity and subject to the same moral failings and temptations as the rest of us. But the West will cast him as the Mother Teresa of East Africa, a remarkable man who doesn’t know exactly how remarkable he is. And I am rich Westerner, one with compassion in his heart for the downtrodden, off to save the world one life at a time.
This is what societies do to people. They take the idiosyncrasies, the nuance and the brilliant complexities of individuals and cast them into a single, dull narrative. From a people to another people, we compartmentalize, judge, categorize, simplify, dismiss, and at times deify in the laziest of ways. From person to person, we understand that it takes more effort to understand what really makes us tick.
As I was breaking bread with Akini, talking about this and that, sharing a beer–him with his Tusker, me with my Bud Light–I was thinking how horrible we must look as a human society, always lowering our common denominator, and on the flip side, how redemptive it can be to meet each other face to face.
I’ve heard it said often that God meets us where we are, and that precise spot is where we are most vulnerable. I believe this to be true.
So Akini, cheers to you my friend, and here’s to hoping that God meets us as people rather than as nations.