August 28, 2017
by Judy Palpant
He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust... --Emily Dickinson
Early in his presidency, the infamous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was invited to England by Queen Elizabeth. After a state dinner at Buckingham Palace, he reportedly said, “Thank you, Mr. Queen. I have eaten and I'm fed up. If you come to Uganda, I will revenge.” Noting the small portion of meat on his plate, Amin went on to promise to feed the queen a whole cow on her next visit to his country.
We heard this joke often around dinner tables in East Africa. It was a favorite of our Ugandan refugee friends living in Kenya in the early 1980s.
Travel demands that we eat the food our hosts set before us.
In 1983, halfway through our five-month furlough and a road trip starting in New York with stops at churches and family reunions, we landed in a home provided for us in Pasadena close to "Dizzyland," as our daughter called it. For the first time, we had four walls to ourselves, besides those of the car. We could do our own cooking and thinking and even choose our own cereal. Accustomed to only two choices in Kenya--Wheatabix or Cornflakes--our kids, ages 8, 5 and 4, stared down the long aisle of American cereal choices. Which one? How about Wheaties, the classic Breakfast of Champions? No? Ah, the one with the funny rabbit and colored balls.
They had never heard the well-known ad: Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids, but they found the cereal box image enticing.
However, one spoonful and my children rejected it. They had no palate for fake fruit flavors dressed in bright colors. Ironically, the foreign country was turning out to be our own.
* * * * *
When we arrived in Kenya in 1980, Nathan, five months old, ate mashed arrowroot like a champ. And he used his five teeth to clean an ear of tough Kenyan corn. He drank sour milk without wincing. Sunday mornings he swallowed a teaspoon of bitter liquid medicine to keep malaria at bay.
After living in Kenya for a year, Andrea, aged three, chose thick corn meal mush called ugali and kidney beans for her birthday celebration meal. Simple. Local. I plunged three pink candles into the mountain of ugali piled on a plate. They glowed and melted as we sang "Happy Birthday."
Ben, our oldest at age five, watched the banana trees behind our house as a single blossom matured into a fountain of finger bananas. His dad ultimately cut the stalk and carried it to the kitchen to ripen. The green finger bananas turned yellow a few at a time--ready to be plucked, peeled and savored.
For sweets? Fresh pineapples and mangos--all that juice dripping down little chins. Another favorite--a stick of sugar cane. With the tough exterior cut away, they sucked the sweet juice and spit out the fiber.
* * * * *
So, on that wildly exciting morning back in the U.S. anticipating the first bite of Trix, their disappointed taste buds pined for the African flavors they'd grown accustomed to after almost four years in Kenya. Silly rabbit? Yes. Plus three disillusioned kids, enticed by flashy packaging to eat high sugar junk food.
To be sure, our children ate their share of burgers and fries on the road. At church potlucks, they consumed fried chicken and brownies. But America served up more than fat and sugar to my children. It exposed them to wonderful and terrible new things that set their mental and emotional teeth on edge.
Materialism. Movies. Marvelous toys. Distractions. We gradually felt fed up with the predictable discontentments brought our way by the daily fare of American cultural immersion. Distressed parents--we were caught with our kids between cultures, languages, foods and perspectives. We all needed manna to feed our hearts and minds.
In our wanderings, we found our daily portion though routines and words. We talked. We read. We sang. Stuffed in a borrowed old Plymouth station wagon, a real family on a real road trip, we sometimes squabbled or sulked. We laughed. Sam whistled. The day we hit St. Louis and crossed Mark Twain's Mississippi River, we read a psalm and wondered at the wide waters. The letters “M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I” rolled off our tongues while Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn danced in our heads. We sang a favorite hymn:
Like a river glorious, is God's perfect peace, Over all victorious, in its bright increase...
By afternoon, I-70 took us through Kansas cornfields. With our windows rolled down for air conditioning, and the promise of a motel with a pool, we kept going. By nightfall, cooled and comforted, we talked through the day, prayed together and sang them their lullabies.
Five months on furlough in a dizzying land--our own. But better than our kids' beloved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and more delectable than an American Jonagold apple, the rituals brought joy and peace to our souls.
We ate and drank the precious words,
and our spirits grew robust...
“When your words showed up, I ate them--swallowed them whole. What a feast!”
(Jeremiah 15:16a, MSG).