something started happening a couple months ago in africa and it happened again yesterday. i walk into a situation and feel completely overcome. it’s a sensation that begins in my chest, right beneath my sternum, then spreads to my throat and before i know it, all i want to do is weep.

the first time was at the elephant orphanage in nairobi. yesterday was the most recent. we went to the general women’s union. it’s basically a governmental organization for women. from my understanding, any need that women have (i.e. filling out official paperwork, needing work,etc.) this is the place for them to go.

on the grounds they also have rooms for the women to make traditional handicrafts. the handicrafts range from weaving on old looms to braiding gold threads with other colors to make the heavy ribbons that raise the traditional dress from bright robes to ornate artwork to hand formed clay “dates” that are polished to a gem-like shine. the very first room we entered after leaving our shoes at the door was the ribbon makers. the method hasn’t changed in thousands of years.

all the women were seated on floor cushions in their abaya, faces exposed in differing degrees from slivers of forehead to whispers of form beneath fabric to full half-moon brilliance. in front of their feet on a little pedestal is an oblong cushion, a little larger than an american football. pinned to the cushion is the ribbon being made. the dangling from the partially made ribbon are the gold, silver and other colored threads on spools. (to be clear, the ribbons are not gold and silver colored, they are gold and silver.) with humming, chattering, or sedate silence the spools are slung from one side of the cushion to the other as the threads are knotted and braided into patterns. the ribbons ranged in width from 1/4 inch to five inches wide. when we reached almost the end of the line women, one of them looked up at us, looked at the camera around my neck and told me to take a picture, a picture of her working. she had to be in her seventies judging from the glimpse of her hennaed hand and the reedy timbre of her voice. i couldn’t believe it. i took a couple and felt a reverence overtake me.

in the next room were the basket weavers. the same method for thousands of years has been used in an unbroken chain of women. women sitting on cushions, drying palm fronds, keeping the scraps in little wooden boxes, braiding with flying fingers, hammering the braid flat into a coil with a well-chosen rock: this is how culture is made. i watched one woman in the corner. she kept the plate sized coil of bread anchored to her kneed with her opposite foot, hennaed in the traditional pattern, as she braided, hammered with a triangular black stone, and i felt weak in the knees. room after room, it went.

i’ve always considered myself a rather staunch feminist. but, here i was, face to face with “women’s work” and i felt humbled and a little envious to not have been a part of it. i don’t know how to braid a basket. i don’t know how to weave a camel blanket. i don’t know how to make a ribbon. i don’t have the serenity to sit all day and create something useful with my hands. i wanted to weep for the pettiness of the things i often chase. and, i was reminded of why i have always disliked things made by machines. i felt cradled in a peace that modern culture just can’t offer.

also on the grounds a large room with individual stalls squats. the stalls are run by women selling everything from the same crafts made a building over to spongebob squarepants stickers. we made our way quite directly to the “food lady”. a woman of about sixty has a table that was almost groaning under the weight of jars full of true delicacies. being polite and long suffering, i of course had to taste as many as possible. fig jam, currant jelly, cheeses, olives cured two different ways, spice mixes, picked vegetables, date and coconut covered almonds…..luckily, there was a woman who spoke english and could explain that i was allergic to the pita bread and wasn’t just a rude foreigner. this woman makes her own soap (bought it), her own incense blends (bought one), stuffs and pickles eggplants that she grows (bought some), and makes her OWN OLIVE OIL! (didn’t buy any…screw you FAA regulations!).

after that whet our appetites, we got a taxi/limo to the other side of town and went to an outdoor cafe. we didn’t sit there….we lounged. the sofas were long and the courtyard was populated with palms standing as protection from the rays of the sun. i put up the hood of my dress to cover my head and wrapped myself in my african kikoy. the next couch over found several sheiks cross-legged straight spined, relaxed into conversation. as we watched, another man came in and they stood to greet each other. they stood, shook hands and touched noses and i felt overcome again as i witnessed the casual intimacy. after a cup of murky cardamom-infused turkish coffee, we ordered a hookah. the hookah stood elegantly about three feet tall. the man with the metal bowl of coals prepared it for us. the sweet tobacco smoke enveloped us in smoothness. the mellow buzz took over and our conversation floated on the smoke, weaving in and out of logic. the sun began to set. the colors shifted softly. the perfection was simple and effortless. life is beautiful.

i am off to my next adventure right now. i’m actually feeling dirty looks from the rest of my party because we’re all rarin’ to go. i will write more later.

today, elevate an ordinary moment to something amazing.

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