by Robert E. Gribbin (Kenya 1968–70)
First published on the blog of PeaceCorpsWriters.org on February 13, 2007
I SEE IT NOW IN MY MIND’S EYE — from my house in Songhor — wind blown tufts of light green sugar cane surging like a great sea on Kenya’s Kanu Plains to wash gently against the thousand foot heights of the Nandi Escarpment. Some thirty miles distant, Lake Victoria Nyanza glimmered in the late afternoon sun. The image is clear, yet complicated by the rush of other images, faces, smells, sounds - by the sheer exuberance of memories that so indelibly marked this time in my life.
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central Nyanza charged with supervising the construction of a rural water system designed to pipe potable water to 1200 farms on three government sponsored Settlement Sugar Schemes. I worked most closely with a group of eight men whom I trained in the skilled work of the project. When resting we kibitzed and talked. They had many questions.
Maurice almost always began. With a twinkle in his eye, he probed for the amazing differences he reckoned inherent between whites and blacks. He questioned me incessantly about why I had come to
Kenya. I’m not sure he ever really understood my response. Maybe, presuming that I myself knew the answer, I couldn’t articulate it well. Altruism was beyond Maurice’s comprehension, but a thirst for adventure seemed to be a satisfactory motive. Another exchange went like this.
“Robert,” Maurice asked, “Is it true that Mzungus (Europeans) eat frogs?”
I pondered. “Yes,” I replied. “Some Mzungus eat frogs, but only the legs. When fried up they taste a bit like chicken.”
Maurice looked skeptical. “Really,” he frowned. “Frogs.” He concluded, “Mzungus are very weird.”
Inspired, I noted, “You know, Europeans think that eating termites is very strange.”
Maurice absorbed this information, then shot back with a surprised query. “Why?” he asked, “termites are good.”
A more telling exchange occurred in July 1969. Americans had just landed on the moon. The guys were very interested in this news - more intently than I would have expected.
“So Robert,” Maurice began, “Is it true that Americans have landed on the moon?”
“Yes,” I responded pointing to the wisp of a moon still visible in the morning sky. “They are up there now.”
This confirmation engendered discussion of rocket ships and airplanes, which demonstrated these poorly schooled rural men’s lack of appreciation for the science and the technological accomplishment of the moon trip. Francis who was more cynical than his colleagues observed, “If Americans can build airplanes then certainly they can build a rocket.” He was puzzled however, by the fact that it had taken so long to get to the moon. “After all,” he noted pointing again to the moon, “You can see it right there!” This again raised the question as to whether the landing had really happened.
Ligolo, older, taller and stronger with his front teeth knocked out in the traditional Luo style, and who rarely participated in these exchanges, cleared his throat. The men craned anxiously in his direction when he asked the crucial question. “So Robert,” he paused, “What color is God?”
I was stunned. I had no context for the question. Yet obviously it lay at the heart of their concern. James, the most worldly of the crew who sported sunglasses and who shed his family name Oyier in favor of Bondi in honor of agent 007, saw my consternation and came to my aid.
“Robert,” he said, “We Luo people believe that God takes several forms and that he lives, at times at least, on the moon. The issue goes to the nature of God. If God is good, he is black like Africans. However, if he is evil, he is red.” James continued, “Ligolo’s question is fair. If Americans have gone to the moon like you say, they must have seen God. So, what color is he?”
I admitted it was a good question, and with further discussion I learned more about Luo beliefs, but I had no answer. However, we agreed to look for the answer. I brought international editions of Time and Newsweek back from Kisumu the next week and we scrutinized the stories and pictures for evidence, but – of course – found none.
I realized afterwards that this was one of those quintessential moments when each of my friends took one more step into the modern world and away from tribal traditions. The trappings of old beliefs diminished against the onslaught of new reality.
Before too long the issue of God on the moon faded away. Soon Luo owned and operated sugar trucks and buses, perhaps subconsciously reflecting this religious heritage, soon started bearing names like “Moon Rocket” or “Apollo 12.”
In the years since, I have subsequently reflected with some sadness how man’s crowning technological achievement of the 20th Century unintentionally undermined beliefs that had sustained Luo people for generations.