Yesterday, I visited a sick friend at home and found myself in the midst of village life. This may seem an odd statement to you since we live here and must, therefore, often find ourselves in the midst of village life. Truth be told, you never know what you’re going to find when you set out to the villages. On many mornings, you will only find a gaggle of children and a few scattered lounging adults while everyone else is either in the fields, at school or just plain someplace else.
On this occasion, I stepped through the stick fence onto my friend’s compound already hearing the voices of many men gathered in their “living room” (a building separate from the house built specifically for the gathering of friends, often made more of thatch than mud like the homes). Slightly afraid that I had stumbled upon a drinking party, I hurried past to find my friend, Acia Rose, laying on her porch surrounded by three women and a handful of kids. A wheelbarrow filled with half-husked peanuts completed the gathering. I greeted the women and told them I was there to visit my sick friend. For a time I sat in the shade of the porch, merely observing. What I thought at first was mostly a social gathering transformed before my eyes into a group effort at production.
One of the older children sat picking the empty husks and bad nuts out of the wheelbarrow. The youngest woman sat cross-legged with a flat basket lined with hardened mud. Her basket as filled from the wheelbarrow periodically. She then proceeded to continue sifting through the pile she was given, methodically tossing the nuts lightly into the air to blow away the powdered refuse and remaining husks. Once satisfied she would empty her basket into a waiting World Food can (the local measurement for volume). An akimat (old woman), sat within reach of both the young woman and the wheel barrow, rotating between the two also picking out the blackened or crinkled nuts.
As my friend was still obviously sick and my Karimojong is still very much in process, I sought a way to interact without words. I began combing through the wheelbarrow alongside the girl. She showed me which nuts were bad, which to throw aside and which to put in a separate can for planting later. I soon rallied my courage and went around the circle asking the names of the ladies who’s faces I knew, but names escaped me (I may have asked even if I knew simply because I have that phrase down!). They gave me their Christian names: Martha, Mary and Martinika. They then settled back into chatting among friends, sheepishly glancing my way every now and then uncertain about what I could understand. The little I caught was not enough to form more than an idea of the conversations; one woman was coaxing hilarity out of one of the toddlers who I surmised later was her child; another was telling a story about her interactions with some other Mzungu, quoting each as she went. The akimat was fairly quiet, but she gave me a wide grin when sharing her name. A village elder from nearby, popped in to speak with my friend’s husband. He was directed to sit on a stool in the shade of the fence and brought tea as he leaned on his walking stick, draped in a blanket.
Sooner than I would have anticipated, we cleaned out the last of the wheelbarrow’s contents and the actors began to change. The young woman stood up, dusted off her skirt, dumped the empty husks that had buried her sandals and stretched out her cramped limbs. She soon ambled to the compound next door. The akimat followed suit. My friend and I were left with the children, who were also changing places with each other throughout the village, and the girl. Not long after our coworkers had left, Rose’s husband emerged from the living room bearing another load of nuts. What I had initially feared was a drinking party, was actually the men chatting as they cracked opened and removed the husks.
Before I had a chance to begin picking through the new pile, the girl skillfully ground the husks lightly beneath the base of her palms. To my amazement the nuts and husks seemed to be dividing themselves under her methodical touch. The husks rose to the surface while the nuts settled to the bottom of the wheelbarrow. She then gently dumped the husks onto the ground behind her, where the younger children began to comb through them for any nuts she might have missed. Once the top layer had been cleared, she signaled to me to begin again. As I dove back in, a different young woman stopped by to chat and joined in the work.
This is the ever-oscillating nature of village life. The Karimojong are very familiar with the concept of “dropping in”; it’s like breathing to them. They are scandalized by the fact that we don’t visit our sick friends, except to bring the occasional meal. I’m still grasping all of the ramifications of this version of community living, but my small foray into peanut processing reminded me of its many complex layers and solidified one simple lesson: visit your sick friends and you won’t be alone.