She stops in the doorway of the kitchen and breathes in the familiar odor of cut carrots and friendly things. She sits down to her work with a smile supporting her sun-darkened cheeks, the pressure of her eagerness bursting within her pockets of happiness that gush over her parched spirit. Her callous hand, greasy with cooking oil, reaches straight into the frying pan to flip the sizzling meat, which has by now succeeded in smiting every nose and stomach in the house. Although cooking utensils litter the counter behind her she deems them unnecessary. I suppose that long ago she forsook the spatula as an artist forsakes his brush when he finds that he’s become the tool of his trade and to be more intimate with his passion he uses his own skin as the instrument for portraying his will. Fresh ingredients her palette, the stove her medium, and our increasing appetites her vision, Saumu is extraordinarily passionate with her art form. Mom always said that she stuck her ear in it when she made a delicious meal.
Saumu stuck her soul in it.
From the moment I met Saumu, I knew that she was everything good about the universe. My heart, raw from being detached so abruptly from my own mother, immediately latched to this angel, and she more than adequately filled the vacancy with maternal sincerity. Saumu is the cook and housekeeper of the volunteer house where I lived in Tanzania, and I’m wounded by the realization that I have to live with the thought that most people will never be introduced to her, and therefore never know how beautiful the world can be. It’s not my inability to mold the language to explain her to you, it’s the lack of raw material required to accomplish it. I can’t believe my luck in chancing across the two greatest mothers in the world, and rightfully being able to call them so.
As dinnertime nears, all the occupants of the volunteer house look at the door of the kitchen with as much longing as when Romeo looked toward yonder window. Although I’m sure Saumu was great at breaking hearts with her looks in her younger days, it seems that now she prefers to break stomachs with her aromas. I’m convinced that she receives commission from the Stomachbreak Hotel, where lost souls go to weep over the intoxicating odors with the likes of Smellvis.
Saumu has unintentionally dug a hole deep into my heart and properly excavated a couple of items that were formerly unknown to me. Though I know I face inevitable defeat, here I will attempt to provide you with the experience of Saumu’s charm through a story.
One late Tuesday morning, not long after my arrival in Tanzania, I found myself dangling on the increasingly slack cable of hunger and sorrow between the light poles of a meager breakfast and a thin lunch.
I resolved to beat the insensitive complaints of my very privileged tummy by going for a walk.
I stepped out of my room into a gray, windy morning, the steely ceiling of clouds above me reflecting my every emotion, like a great pensive mirror. I was hungry, homesick, and still trying to find the way to fulfill my role at the school.
I trudged onto the dirt road from the orphanage looking for a snack and a purpose. Past the puddles of dusty water reflecting the white sky and lone street dogs searching for shelter from the biting wind, I walked.
Nearing the end of the street where I knew I could find a pub, I began to think that things were beginning to improve for me, until the extreme of my abnormally large clown foot found a rock, then in slow motion I comically tripped and fell into a pile of trash in the roadside ditch.
As I lay dying in a heap of dirty plastic bottles and road sludge I became lucidly aware of Charlie Brown’s place at the base of my branch on my family tree, and decided that today was not an event that wanted my participation any longer, so I called off the search for food and began to retract beck into the shell of my room.
The way back found my head hung low and my heart trembling with grief. The abyss of sadness loomed near, and though I am now an adult and the time is long past that I could admit it with grace, I really wanted my mommy.
If I ever need a mother’s side it was then, so the moment was stapled glorious when I got exactly that. From the depths of this emotional concave I was found by the intent of redemption of Saumu, who stepped out of an alleyway like walking allegory for everything joyous and dove down to pluck me from the great divide.
When she called out for me the clouds parted, when she put her arm over my shoulders my eyes lifted, when she walked me over to her humble home and insisted I stay for lunch I felt my spirit break and weep like Alexander when there were no more worlds, and when she consoled my woes my rigid heart split and divided for her to cleanly sever and mend. Imagine a near 200 pound and 6’2’’ long pink baby being cradled and supported by a small African lady, and you have a pretty accurate depiction of what was occurring.
I didn’t question the coincidence, I held it as one holds something fragile and precious, without looking too hard at it for fear that it would dissipate under the weight of my glance. All that I was aware of in this moment was a dull feeling of wonder trickling down my back. This was the moment that I truly fell in love with Saumu.
Her home, where she lived with her two kids, was a concrete box 12’ by 12’ by 8’ complete with a couch, a table, a bed, and a cabinet. The moment I drew back the lace curtain hung over the doorframe to enter I was seized at the heart by the thick layer of love rolling off of every single item in the tiny abode. The items surrounded and welcomed me like old friends waiting for me to return from some long journey.
I greeted them as so with the hello of a single footstep from the doorframe to the couch and, at the request of Saumu, sunk into the simmering layer of love-ooze of the small, hard sofa. Another step and a shuffle around the coffee table and I would have been laying in her bed.
Saumu chose the step-shuffle route to sit across from me on the bed and she began to cut the meat, and I to clean the rice. The currents of our conversation swelled and diminished, and swept from the small coast of ‘How are you?’s to the mighty shore of family history and life lessons.
I asked about her children, because her son Bacari, my star pupil, held the soft part of me tight within his gentle, small clutches. I found out that he had a little sister, equally capable of cardiac robbery.
The subject relayed to siblings and she began speaking passionately about her 3 brothers: the Swahili movie star, the hotel chef, and the secondary school teacher, and as she spoke, her joy became my joy. After 3 movie trailers from her phone, a few secret formulas revealed, and a discussion comparing high school experiences between my own country and hers, I felt like her brothers were my own. Then she started about her parents from the village, who worked their youth away to put their 4 children through to the other side with an education and who loved their grandchildren with the value of every breath breathed by humanity.
I anticipated that the assembly of the person that she is would be under great circumstances and among great people, but as she wove the great curtain that framed the stage of her life in front of me, I began to understand that my initial engagement of thought, that she was everything good about the universe, was far more true than I could ever hope to see.
Behind every human façade is a swirling ocean of inconsistent storms and changing tides, and as I realize this I will give up hope of ever completely knowing one, even my own self, or of justly judging my brothers and sisters. That does not mean, however, that I will not hoist my sail, grit my teeth, pay heed to my father, and scour the seas as the passion of my uncompromising life.
As much as I’d love to see the Atlantic, the Saumu Ocean holds my greatest voyage, for then Saumu dropped something on me that I’ll never be capable of removing from myself for as long as I last.
“Quince… Home is… Home is something we create for ourselves. My children are my home, my soul reaching out into the world, just as my thoughts, feelings, and speech to you are. Love and home are twins, so wherever love can be mustered and cultivated, even in the darkest corners, a home can bloom and flourish. Know it like you know that the sun will rise again that you have a home here.”
By this time I was bound and hanged by a noose of heartstrings and no tool that I had, not ignorance nor could refusal loosen these bonds or sever these chords.
These words reached out from Saumu and into me, grabbing something of me that I had long forgotten about. She was meddling with a part of me that I had not the courage to disturb. I would look in, receive a healthy shock of vertigo, and back away, but Saumu leapt first, and gave me the courage to follow. The formerly raging ocean of my soul was as glass in this moment. Unable to let her see what was inevitably surfacing to my expression I embraced her with all the strength in my bones and thanked her for lunch before I departed…
I left Saumu’s house that day without her ever knowing how much it meant to me. A single conversation, a few words of kindness swept, mopped and waxed the linoleum lining the inside of my body and mind. She cleaned out all the grime and muck that was burdening me and I left like a great new man with a great new chest, a great new brain, and great new feelings and thoughts to fill them, respectively.
And delicious food to fill my great new stomach.
Saumu is a person that has caused me to reexamine humanity on a level of sustenance. What sustains a human? Particularly yours truly, this human putting spirit to bone to flesh to pen to paper, trying his best to explain the way he feels? Does it take just food, water, and shelter? Are we animals? No. It takes more, because we are more. We are intelligent creatures with a huge flaw in our autonomy: we need sustenance beyond the physical realm. But this flaw is a Goldilocks ecosystem, from which springs all the joy we as people have ever known. We are beautiful, like gods, and according to Elbert Hubbard we are gods– in the chrysalis. Love is our ambrosia, conversations our manna, let us grow strong and let us feed the multitudes by being kind, by opening our hearts and doors to those without their bearings. A drop in the ocean creates ripples that turn to waves, just so your acts reach distant shores that you’ll never know of. Saumu did well in the way she passed and she mended a wound far beyond my own capabilities to plaster, so my lesson is to follow her example and bring a little light to a world growing dim.
I was so sure that I didn’t need anybody, before my soul was broken down and crying out, “anybody?” Saumu is a great teacher on the curriculum of life, and although I’ve brushed upon this subject with brevity in former grades this time I learned it well.
I thought you all needed a course refresher as well, so here it is: Be kind. Be great.