I consider it an act of serendipity that I often find myself listening to NPR’s “The Story” on my way home from weeknight meetings. It’s all I can do not to post each of them, as they usually cause my heart to stir in some way. Last night the program profiled the story of Kimeli Naiyomah, a native Kenyan and member of the Masai tribe. (You can hear the entirety of the podcast here and you can find our more information on the book here.) Here’s the brief summary from their website:
“There is a new children’s book out on the bookshelves. It’s called 14 Cows for America and is based on the true story of Kimeli Naiyomah. Kimeli grew up in a small village in rural Kenya, a member of the Masai warrior tribe. He was homeless and his tribe did not value schooling, yet Kimeli managed to make his way to college in the United States. Kimeli happened to be in New York when 9/11 occurred. When he went home several months later, his tribe had not heard of the tragedy. So he told them. What happened next made national headlines – and changed everything for Kimeli.”
Kimeli says in the podcast that after September 11th he saw a mother scrambling to get near the designated wall to post a picture of her son who was missing, and for some reason, a policeman was pushing her back and would not let her forward. He saw in her eyes such agony, such grief, and he was moved to tears. When he returned to his village, he told the Elders of the Masai tribe what had happened in New York, and he asked them if they would allow him to send a cow to the United States as a gift. For the Masai, cows are sacred gifts, and they are not to be taken outside of the tribe. To his surprise, the Elders not only sanctioned him sending a calf, but offered up THIRTEEN MORE as a sign of their solidarity with those in grief in the U.S.
There is something so viscerally holy about gifts. Not required gift-giving or mindless gift-giving but gift-giving in its most beautiful sense, unexpected and overflowing…gifts that miraculously make love tangible and real…gifts that break down all the walls we have built and shine a bright and holy light on that which holds us all together. There is a holiness in a village of tribal Elders being so moved by the grief of people so very far away from them that they offer up a gift so extravagant both in worth and in symbolism. And, there is a holiness in our receiving it, because we have to acknowledge our need for comfort, our need for help, our need for them.
I also couldn’t help but think about how strange it would be for them to know that we tend to shove cows into tiny cramped stalls and force feed them genetically modified corn to fatten them up quickly enough to slaughter them in 120 days so we can eat a lot of fast food hamburgers. I wonder if they had any idea that offering us a gift of fourteen cows might, at least for a moment, cause us not only to remember our common humanity, but also to remember that all of creation is a gift worth appreciating (rather than industrializing). I doubt this ever crossed the minds of Kimeli or his Elders, but the gift itself- cows, which we breed and slaughter with such frivolity- had hidden inside multiple layers of opportunity to rediscover our humanity with fresh eyes. A gift indeed.