Saturday, May 7, 2016

Cow Dedication

[This event took place four weeks ago, and I'm just now getting the chance to write about it.  Life has been busy.  There are many things I want to write about already, and I hope to write in a more timely manner in the future.  Thanks for your patience as we continue transitioning into life here in Kenya and seem a bit "off the grid."]

You would think the most memorable part of a cow dedication would be the cow dedication itself.  Perhaps that would have been true if I hadn't also experienced an onslaught of onlookers as I nursed my baby in the car.  If white skin attracts a lot of attention here (and it does), white baby skin draws even more.  That was apparent as soon as we drove up to the lovely church and exited the car.  Three white ladies plus a young white girl plus a white baby seemed to be the highlight of the year for many Kenyan parishioners, particularly the children.  And when one of those wazungu [white people] stood up in the middle of the service to carry her mzungu baby from the front row, down the aisle, and out the back door, many intrigued Kenyan children eagerly followed to see what was going on.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let me back up to why we were there.  A friend of mine (who's been serving at Tenwek Hospital since last fall) was invited to speak during the service and asked if I wanted to tag along, which was how I found myself at a cow dedication at a village church.  This friend of mine was asked to speak because she's involved with Tabitha Ministry, an outreach to Kenyan women who live in the surrounding area of Tenwek Hospital who are active in a Women's Bible Study.  The ministry gives women the opportunity to earn a Bible in their own language through memorizing Scripture.  It also helps women in need through a variety of ways, including giving cows to help with their income.  This particular Sunday service was a celebration of one such woman who had applied and been approved to receive a cow, and my friend was the guest speaker and the rest of us were honored guests simply because we were there.  It was a joyous occasion and I was delighted to experience it.

We were greeted by many people when we arrived, and we could hear singing inside.  The congregation was sparse at first, but soon enough every chair was taken and people were standing in the back and out the door.  It was a special Sunday for this village church, and it seemed everyone had come to witness the cow dedication, as well as the white people on display!

We had the privilege of sitting in the front row.  There was a lot of singing.  Most of the songs were sung in Kipsigis, the local language, and we followed along with the Kipsigis hymnal.  There was something powerful about singing in the company of fellow believers with words I didn't understand and yet knowing that those unfamiliar words were offering praise to God.

All the while we sang, the cow was directly outside, mooing along.  It must have sensed that something special was happening because that cow mooed a lot!

While the cow waited and mooed in the yard, the congregation kept singing.  Interspersed with the worship were many greetings.  Various leaders of the church offered greetings, all of the leaders of the women's Bible study offered greetings, as well as some others in between that I couldn't tell you who they were.  In this culture, it doesn't matter how long the service goes as long as everyone is given the proper chance to be welcomed and give greetings and offer public thanks to God.

During some of the greetings, Asa got passed around.  He was remarkably content being held by complete strangers who obviously adored him.  Many women wanted to hold him and many children couldn't help but stare at him in wonder.  He was the object of much affection and curiosity.

Eventually, the choir performed.  Their bright orange outfits were particularly appropriate on such a festive occasion.  I also appreciated that so many children and youth were part of the choir.  I wish more children in American churches would be given the chance to sing in front of the congregation like this!

The offering was taken while the choir sang.  A basket was passed around, as you might expect, but I also noticed people walking to the front with bags of items.  My friend explained that those who can't afford to put money into the offering will bring something from their farm/garden and offer it to the church.  The food is auctioned off to someone in the congregation right then and there, and the money is added to the offering.  Someone brought a bag of corn and a woman seated near us bought it.  Another person brought a large stalk of sugarcane, which was auctioned and then cut into pieces for the children to enjoy as a treat after the cow dedication.  It was such a beautiful image of the Body of Christ bringing whatever they have, and all they have, before the Lord.

There were more greetings after the choir sang, and someone spoke before the official sermon.  We had already been there a couple hours by that point, however, and Asa was getting both tired and hungry.  It was soon apparent that he needed to be nursed, so I grabbed the diaper bag and the car keys and I quietly stood up in the middle of someone's speech to walk as discreetly as a mzungu and her baby can down the aisle and out the back door of the church.

The fresh air was welcome and I greeted a few people as I walked across the lawn toward the car.  Before I got there, however, I was surrounded by children, laughing and jabbering in Kipsigis as they touched my hair and pointed at Asa.  We were clearly more entertaining than the church service at that point.  No doubt they were wondering why the white lady and white baby were leaving.  Even though nursing a baby is more than common here, and certainly common to do in plain sight, it probably didn't occur to them that the reason for my departure was to have some privacy as I nursed my baby.  Privacy isn't valued highly here, but I still needed it and the only place to acquire some was in the back seat of the hot car.  So I maneuvered my way into the car and closed the door on dozens of children as Asa started crying in earnest out of hunger and exhaustion.  It was hot in there, but I wouldn't have opened the windows even if I could have because those dozens of children were now pressing their faces against the glass to see what on earth that white lady was doing in there with the baby!  I did my best to cover up even though the blanket only made it hotter for Asa.  Soon, not only were children staring at me with faces pressed to windows on both sides of the car, but the car started rocking as some kids pulled others off in order to get their own chance to stare at whatever was going on inside.  They were standing on the running board of the car so they'd be high enough to look in, and kids on both sides were being pulled off and then replaced by eager kids jumping onto the running board again, thereby rocking the entire car back and forth while I attempted in vain to nurse Asa to sleep.  He cried and fussed but somehow drank enough milk to tide him over.  I eventually gave up and sat him up since he certainly wasn't falling asleep.  I pulled out my camera to take pictures of our onlookers, which temporarily scared them away.  Since it was obvious we wouldn't be left in peace, and since Asa wouldn't fall asleep in those conditions, I gave up completely and got out of the car.  Soon enough the children dispersed and I was left to walk and shush Asa around the yard.  He eventually fell asleep in the carrier, but by the time I got back into the church the sermon was over and it was time to move outside for the cow dedication!

Everyone massed around the cow in the yard, which seemed unaffected by the crowd.  The church leaders and Bible study leaders gathered in the front and someone started singing.  Some words were spoken and then more singing.  The woman who received the cow was invited to come forward and take a part of the rope as even more singing commenced.  Her joy and gratitude for this enormous gift were evident as she wiped away tears, which are rarely seen in this culture.  In addition to the cow itself, the animal was de-wormed on the spot and the woman was given an insecticide kit to spray the cow as needed.  This particular cow was still young - not yet old enough to bear a calf - but when it does have a calf, it will have milk also and be a vital resource for this woman and her family.

So we rejoiced with this woman and the entire church community that gathered around her to support and bless her with this gift!  Once the dedication was done, we wazungu gathered in a small building behind the church to await a delicious meal of beans and rice.  The Bible study leaders joined us and we feasted on this traditional meal to conclude the celebration.  Asa had woken up by then and was passed around again.  Many smiles and laughs were seen and heard as that precious boy was held by the women!

It was a memorable day.  There are so many images in my mind from that experience, but I must admit that what stands out the most was the time in the car with all the faces pressed against the glass staring in.  I've never felt more on display in my life!  It was the epitome of all the attention we've received here, and even someone like me (who typically doesn't mind attention) was completely self-aware.  Self-awareness is something we are being forced to reckon with because we are always being watched.  But here's the good thing: even as we're paying close attention to our outward actions that are being carefully observed by those around us, we are taking the time to monitor our inward thoughts and feelings as well.  And self-reflection is always a good thing.


I'll end this post with a few pictures of Kenyan children at the cow dedication.  They're such beautiful people and I'm eager to capture more of them on camera in the days ahead.

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