A Cup of Tea
I split open the crotch of pair of slacks. There is a church member in Namalu who operates a small shop selling clothing and bicycle parts, and when I went there Thursday, I parked in front of his storefront because I wanted to ask him where I might find someone to mend them.
I knew that he would know, because several weeks ago, as I was chatting with him in front of his shop, he had an argument with a tailor. Lomilo had brought some skirts to this man to be adjusted (long skirts are not in vogue at the moment, so instead of selling of your stock at discount, just have the tailor remake them into a shorter length). As we were sitting there, the tailor brought them back and left, but Lomilo, unsatisfied, called him back.
I gave you these skirts to be cut.
So you cut them and brought them back to me.
So what have you forgotten?
After the work is done, there is supposed to be payment. You have forgotten to collect your payment.
But the man, apparently a friend of Lomilo, would not accept anything. After a bit of back and forth, Lomilo thanked him and he left. A tailor that doesn’t accept payment—this was the very man I needed to fix my trousers.
Lomilo, seeing a pair of pants in my hand as I greeted him, immediately understood my predicament and took me to his friend the pro bono seamster. He placed my work at the head of the line and we waited while he quickly mended the tear. Again, the man accepted no payment (what does this guy eat?) and we left. As we went back, Lomilo took my hand and apologized deeply to me. “I am very busy,” he said. He had left a meeting of his savings group when he saw my vehicle. He was unable to sit and talk with me because there was much to do that day.
This confession was made without irony. I tried as best I could to reassure him of the truth that I was also busy and trying to get my shopping done and go home. We parted well—he, relieved that he was causing no offense, and I pleased for once to be given an exit from our mutual social obligation, he the host, and I the guest. Lomilo’s fanatical hospitality has been a source of great personal enjoyment, but I live in constant fear of becoming that friend, at whose inconvenient arrival you bolt the door and lay on the floor, and call out “No on home!” Perhaps one story will clarify:
Months earlier, it was my turn on the mission rotation to collect the various members of our church that live far from Nakaale. Lomilo is the first stop on the route. On this particular day, I was running a bit earlier than normal, and he made me sit in front of his shop while he poured me a mug of tea and brought me a chapati. It is perhaps one of my many neuroses (or my proud flag-planting against contemporary cultural trends) that I am constantly watching the clock. As my friend poured water for tea, I was extrapolating backwards how long I could afford to sit here and still make it back to church on time. How many more stops would I end up making? How much cushion did I want to keep? How many minutes late was the service likely to start?
I don’t drink much tea at home, and when I do, it comes in a nice little satchel. Karimojong, when they drink tea, put the crushed leaves directly in the water to steep. Lomilo directed me to do so, and I froze. I have no idea how to measure such a thing. I don’t want my beverage to be flavorless, but neither do I want him thinking to himself what a tea-leaf-glutton I am. The same with the sugar. Here, on the spot, with what felt like every single African in Namalu looking at me, I had to make this portentous decision, and henceforth risk suffering the sniggering whispers of people as I go about my shopping “there goes the man that puts so much sugar in his tea.”
In the end, I asked Lomilo to prepare the tea according to his liking. As always, I try to be the model guest: why make all these difficult tea-making decisions when I can have my host do the work for me while I watch, indolent?
The ordeal of the tea preparation behind us, I took a first sip and scalded my tongue. Lomilo went off to buy me a chapati, which is, as I learned, a necessary accompaniment to tea. While I waited for the tea to cool, I munched happily on the chapati, and periodically snuck a look at the time. By the time the chapati was gone, my phone told me that we needed to leave in order to make all the stops and get to church on time. The tea had not cooled much, so while Lomilo went to get his coat and Bible, I tried to chug as much of the beverage as I could. At the first swallow, I suppressed a cry. At the second, my mind wondered what good things Chloe was making for lunch that I wouldn’t be able to taste. At the third, I started to question whether being a little late to church might not, in the end, be such a sin. In the end, I couldn’t quite get it all down and Lomilo threw the remainder onto the ground and put the mug away before locking up his store.
In the car, he asked, in genuine confusion and a hint of mock indignation, why I hadn’t used the chapati to cool the tea. Apparently protocol dictates that you take a bit of chapati in your mouth before sipping the tea. The chapati absorbs the heat, allowing both to be consumed concurrently. I briefly thought about playing it cool—I like burning my mouth and then throwing half of the tea you generously provided and prepared on the ground; that’s the way we do things in America. Instead, I professed my total ignorance and inability in the face of so simple a task as having a little breakfast.
And this week, I find Lomilo, the dependably gracious friend (or glutton for punishment) that he is, still feeling the need to apologize that he doesn’t have time to share a chapati and a hot cup of tea.