The Offering: Chokra Love
originally published in O, The Oprah Magazine, October 2008That hot Kenyan Saturday afternoon, I was thirsty and exhausted as I returned from my routine walk into the endless Kibera slums. Into the valleys and over the hills covered by shanties, I plodded through the maze of busy dirt roads. I was angry with myself for venturing too far and was running late for lunch at Hekima College, the Jesuit seminary where I was studying for the priesthood. My T-shirt was drenched in sweat, and my flip-flops were covered by brown dust. I usually dressed down to fit into the slum crowd. Also I seldom spoke to anybody, so my Nigerian accent wouldn't betray me. There were lots of artisans hammering away on scrap metals, and the roads were hemmed in by petty traders' mats, selling tomatoes and used clothes and sukuma-wiki. But my mind was on the lunch of Nile perch, rice, and ugali.
Suddenly someone was running behind me. I braced myself, instinctively sticking my hands into my pockets to guard my wallet. A boy ran past, stopped and turned to face me. He was a street kid, a chokora, about 7 years old and hungry-looking. He wore brown shorts and an oversize yellow shirt that had lost its buttons; when he ran the shirt spread out behind him like malformed wings. He had big eyes and his face was dusty as if he had been sand-bathing all day. He was holding something in a white dirty soggy paper cup. He held the cup high. Occasionally, he took a sip or pretended to take a sip, then wiped his mouth with a long tongue, which created a clean circle in his dusty face, a mustache of sorts.
"Sasa!" he greeted me, standing in my way.
"Yeah, sasa!" I responded with the little Kiswahili I knew and walked past him.
He caught up with me and felt my soaked shirt, sympathizing with my fatigue.
"Yogurt...yogurt!" he said, trying to offer me the paper cup.
"No...asante," I thanked him.
"No, I'm not thirsty," I lied and shrugged.
Looking intently at me, he said, "Me...me...broder, cheers!"
I remembered him and stopped. He was one of the two chokoras whom I had mistakenly invited into Our Lady of Guadalupe Church one rainy evening a few months back. I remembered how they, seeing the faithful receiving the Eucharist, had slipped into the Communion line, to take advantage of free wafers. I remembered the warm feeling I left Mass with because of the risk they'd taken to march in that line of "saints."
Now I reached forward for a handshake. He moved the cup gently to the left hand, offering his right. I grabbed it feebly because his fingers were wet from whatever was in the cup. He smiled, pleased that I'd recognized him, revealing dirty teeth. We chatted a bit, and I gave him 40 shillings.
"Asante sana...asante," he thanked me profusely.
"You're welcome. Well, see you around Adams Arcade. I need to hurry back to Hekima."
"Wait...yogurt, yogurt!" He pushed the cup against my fingers, his eyes begging.
"No," I said.
"No, bwaanaaaaaa...take! Smile, cheers, sasa, huh?"
"Not yogurt!" someone called, laughing a mischievous laugh. "Leave broder alone! He don't like chokora." When I looked up, it was a band of chokoras waiting anxiously under a guava tree. Also a few people on the road were watching us now; I felt my cover had been blown. He ignored his friends. They laughed at him. "Why didn't they mob me asking for a hundred things as usual?" I thought. "Why was he so insistent on giving, when chokoras were always interested in receiving? Was I about to be a victim of a prank? How many germs were in this cup?"
I gave him 20 more shillings and reminded him his friends were waiting for him. He thanked me but wouldn't go away. He was no longer sipping the yogurt. The chokoras followed us from a distance, roughhousing and loud like street dogs. Little gusts of wind swept the roads, bound into tiny whirlwinds of dust and trash and dead leaves, and blurred Kibera. I could hear buses groaning along the windy Kibera Drive. I tried to convince him that I wasn't thirsty or tired. I summoned all my strength to show this in my walk. I told him not to feel bad, that I would drink his yogurt another day. I laughed out loud to prove to him and the crowded road that I wasn't afraid of chokoras or of all the crazy things that could happen in Kibera. He hung his head and said nothing. Did he understand me? Didn't he understand me?
Finally, nearing home and not knowing how else to dismiss him, I stopped and took the cup from him. He gazed at me, his big eyes seeming to double in size, his mouth ajar, his hands at a ready as if I might change my mind and drop the cup. He glanced at his friends, who had stood frozen with surprise once I accepted the cup. I sipped his melted yogurt, returned the cup and thanked him. He received it back, his eyes teary and calm. He drank up the yogurt, tilting the cup till the last drops landed on his tongue. He turned away slowly from me and lifted the cup high like an Olympic torch, jumping and dancing and yodeling. Then he bolted toward his friends, bolted past them, his yellow wings spread in the joy of acceptance. His friends erupted after him in excitement.