Parundi stood next to his mother and behind his older brother, his skinny frame straining to see the “michezo,” loosely translated as “theater” from Swahili.  The sound of the drums to his right was invigorating and yet also somewhat unsettling to his 6 year old ears.

The whole scene was frightening and oddly displaced in today’s world, as this was the annual “Siku Spati,” or “Sports Day” for their village.  The men were dressed in traditional “Skatis,” a kind of stretchy kilt and jewelry made from bone passed down through family generations. The women were dressed traditionally as well replete with “Rangi” on their faces and torsos- a kind of orange pigmented paint.  To Parundi, it made his athletic mother look much more warrior-like than his father.  The image confused his young mind.  She pressed his head back against her stomach, and the Rangi-paint was pungent with the scent of the flowers from which it was made. This made more sense to him. He thought his beautiful mother was more an African Violet than an assassin. The rest of the village knew, however, that if anyone ever was- Ndala- Parundi’s mother- could certainly be described as a “delicate warrior.”

The reason the scene was unsettling to Parundi was that his village was quite modern.  Any other day of the year these people would be dressed in khaki shorts and t-shirts from “U.K. Laundry.” (The factory for these garments was the main employer here- “The Loom” is what they called it.) Much like the old Steel Mills in Western Pennsylvania or the Coal Mines of Appalachia, “The Loom” towered over the village like a giant vacuum, the whir of it’s motors shuffling cash into the pockets of young men and women while sucking away their dreams.  Parundi always thought “The Loom’s” name was appropriate-as it’s long shadow continuously fell upon one street and then another, casting darkness upon every home in its turn like a relentless and  “looming” sun dial of oppression.

Nearly all of the professionals here came from Egypt or South Africa.  Central Africa was cheap labor- extremely cheap labor with annual salaries ranging in at about 1/10 what their counterparts would make just a few hundred miles south in Johannesberg.  But considering that anyone in the immediate vacinity of their village hovered around 1/100th of such earnings, no one complained and, as far as Parundi could see, no one- ever-dreamed of anything different let alone great. Personal greatness was a fairytale told to other peoples’ children, and Parundi’s village had never heard the story.

Except for on the “Siku Spati” that is…all of the men and their sons alike got to dream of glory on the field. In fact, it was the income and sponsorship from “The Loom” that enabled this festival to return after a hiatus of several decades.  Ndala brought Parundi and his brother, Elijah (The first born of each family was always given a christian or hebrew name) to see their father, Nahum, compete every year of their lives.  Parundi loved Nahum.  Even before the loom and it’s blessing/ curse relationship with the town, life here could be dull when school was not in session- and that was often.  Teachers here did not last long.  Opportunity always came for the good ones and that opportunity was always north or south or across some ocean. Here, no teacher means no school.

But the duldrums of the day never mattered when Parundi’s dad would get home.  One of the most courageous talents Nahum possessed was the ability to shake off any of the burdens he carried from The Loom every day. From the moment he hit the door, he would start singing and dancing with his sons and wife. Ndala acted annoyed at his antics as she busily stirred pots on the stove and ritually scolded her husband to wash up before he touched her- but she smiled the whole time and screamed the same girlish squeal when he pulled her close and planted a messy “Hello” smooch on her brow.  He would howl like he was the last of the Atlas Bears and call for his brother “ndugu dobo” or “Little Bear” before he would call for Parundi “Ndugu cheka” or “laughing bear.”  Parundi would then call him “mfalme mcheshi” which means “clown king” because he made him laugh so much.  Nahum would pretend to be angry and offended by his youngest son’s proclamation, making his eyes and nostrils flare wide as he growled low and scooped Parundi up so his nap touched the ceiling as chills flew across his scalp and down his neck. But his favorite thing his dad would do is act like Parundi’s laughter was music he could dance to, and the more Parundi would laugh, the more his father would dart and hop and duck and skip and run around in circles in an exaggerated but extremely fast and athletic way. The more he danced and darted, the more Parundi would laugh and so on for as long as an hour until they all collapsed in an exhausted heap, prompting Ndala to threaten them to go wash up or she would eat all of their stew herself.

 

But the joyful scenes of their simple home down the street seemed a nation away to Parundi today.

 

There were many sporting events at the “Siku Spati.” However, the premiere was the “Mpira Dhalimu” an extremely challenging match between two players that looked like a cross between sumo wrestling and hockey.  Its name is loosely translated “Violent Ball,” and it lives up to its name in every way. Basically, the two men are trying to get the “Mpira” or “ball” into a very small goal about 20 inches high and 3 feet wide. The ball is advanced or blocked by wielding a “fimbo” or “cane,” which is a wide stick with a big, open ended loop at the bottom where the ball (or your opponents calf) is struck.  The “fimbo” is actually quite light, constructed from glazed bamboo- (in ancient games it was said to be made from a hollowed out elephant femur.) While not against the rules, (because there weren’t many rules) It actually does not most often behoove the player to strike their opponent during a game. The “violence” is caused by two things:  First, the “mpira” weighs over a pound, and the light but extremely strong fimbo often glances off of the ball and inadvertently lands squarely on flesh, causing lacerations, dislocated joints, and other injuries, but a square hit on the ball can send it hurtling like a shotput.  Second, the field itself is more like a small arena that is only about ten yards long and eight yards wide meaning there was little to no room to maneuver out of the path of either the projectile or the club..

Because the game is so violent and the potential for injury is so great, the game ends whenever someone reaches a score of only 2.  Often, the game can last a mere fifteen seconds of total playing time or less and when it did, this game almost looked like fencing.  All matches, other than the championship, time out at eight minutes with the victory being awarded by a panel of three judges. Usually, in such cases, the judges would merely examine the invariably bloody and deeply bruised bodies of the participants and whomever was least injured would be declared the winner.

 

This was the last day of the Siku Spati and Parundi’s father’s body was already black and blue with a large red, weeping gash above his right eye.  Nahum stood in the ring ready for his opponent to enter for this final match.  He had made it all the way to “Michuano Ya” or “the championship.”

Ndala, who was at almost every turn respectful and honoring in her language toward Nahum especially around her sons, saw her husband’s broken body and let “mjinga,” or “idiot” slip out.  She just could not understand this barbaric competition’s importance.  No money to be made. Just another trophy on their shelf stuffed among books and papers.

Sambala was Nahum’s competitor.  Sambala was a quiet, seething man.  He was strong and tough. His father had died years ago and he lived on the streets until the loom came. Never spent a day in school.  Didn’t know how to read.  Didn’t even know how old he was.  He was big and lumbering with a huge and crushing swing. Most years Nahum was able to best Sambala and  Sambala, most often, had accepted defeat around the other men.  But at other times, you could not help but see a good bit of resentment fall on him like a cloud, especially when he entered the loom each day. Due to his inability to communicate and general surlyness, he had been passed over for extra responsibilities (and pay) almost every year.  Nahum, in contrast, had never missed an advancement or raise.  Nahum would consistently go out of his way to encourage and show kindness to Sambala- as he recognized, as many did, that different circumstances would have produced a different man.  (Then again, such is life here.  If a man shed tears for all those like Sambala in this region of the world, his body would be drained dry in a day.)  But whatever kindness Nahum sowed only seemed to more deeply entrench Sambala’s resentment.

Perhaps this was why there was so much gossip about this year’s competition.  There’s always speculation, trash-talking, and betting in almost every conversation from at least five weeks out- but this year one unfortunate rumor seemed as though it could be true: Sambala had practiced. 

While not against any official “rule”- remember- there aren’t many to begin with- due to the violent nature of Mpira Dhalimu, it was considered somewhat inappropriate to practice technique.  It would be like rehearsing plans to “accidentally” injure someone.  But some had said they saw Sambala outside his home at night, swinging his fimbo and hitting an mpira against a wall like a slap shot.  As he stepped into the michezo, Sambala’s face was darker and more serious than normal- and eerily more confident than year’s past.  His body was nearly blemish free.  His matches over the last three days had all been won in less than a minute, most in less than 30 seconds-but three of his opponents were still at the clinic for medical attention, and one might be flown to Nairobi for surgery.  The doctor said he might die.  Causing death in mpira Dhalimu is not against any rule, stated or implied.

The crowd screamed with throaty, guttural, cathartic anticipation. The time had come.

The two players clacked their fimbo against one another and the umpire yelled and dropped the mpira.  Immediately, Sambala swung at it and hit it in the air before it hit the ground and it flew into Nahum’s kneecap causing him to crumple. Sambala’s elbow cracked across Nahum’s temple as he brought his arms back down and then deftly swung the ball out without obstruction and wacked it into the goal.  About four seconds of game time had passed.

Parundi gasped with the crowd.  No one had ever scored so quickly against Nahum. Ndala shook her head with worry.

Nahum got up slowly and quietly resumed his position in the center for the next drop.  As the umpire yelled, Sambala tried to execute the same technique but Nahum charged him and laid his shoulder into his sternum. Both men fell to the ground as in a football tackle.  Nahum, as the planner and not victim of this surprise attack got up more quickly and flung the Mpira over Sambalas upstretched fimbo.  It rolled slowly into his goal. The crowd roared and hushed in an impassioned but confused wave. Men and women seemed to quickly experiment with short cheers or moans to the people next to them to try to judge the sentiment of the crowd. But this crowd didn’t yet know how it felt.

 

1-1.  Next point wins.

 

An angry Sambala stormed up to the center of the ring, his heavy breathing almost like a panting growl. Nahum assumed his position and as the umpire yelled,  Sambala viciously swung his fimbo squarely on Nahum’s stomach and then arched his left foot around his ankle and reared back. Nahum yelled out as his body flailed backward and left the ground entirely, landing squarely on the back of his head and flatly on his spine. Sambala stood over him, still panting and seething.  He didn’t even go for the mpira.  This was an unfettered act to intentionally hurt his opponent and the violation of yet another unspoken rule.  The crowd was more resolute. They were low and quiet now, permeated by “tsk” sounds and silently shaking heads. The winning point would have been scored here if the ball had not harmlessly rolled out of bounds.

 

Nahum slowly clambered up to his knees and then awkwardly attempted to stand up, yelling and flinching as he went to stretch his ribs to be fully upright. The crowd gasped again at his resulting quick-jerk/ wince of hard pain and near collapse.

Ndala started to quietly cry as she covered Parundi’s face…

Parundi was confused. He thought his father must be pretending…

…Sambala smiled.

Nahum gingerly stepped back to the center, keeping his feet light like one walks across hot sands on a beach. He looked up at Sambala.  He looked worried.  He looked like he finally thought Ndala is right about him being an idiot. But- suddenly- he also felt like he is fighting for more now. Sambala had not been righteous.  And in front of his sons and his village…he was now more determined than ever-in any year and at any level- not to lose this match.

And- there was no way to expect what happened next.  It changed the way Mpira Dhalimu was played forever. And although it might have been Nahum and Sambala in the michezo- the legend of that day was all thanks to little Parundi.

***

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them.  And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matthew 18:1-5)

Have you ever wanted to do something great- and told anyone about it?  I don’t mean when you were young and your teacher or your mom asked you. I mean as an adult..and to other peers around you…like seriously.  As in, “I want to do __________ here at this company or organization or performance group or online or in business or in film or in athletics or whatever.”  And the people you’ve told- you’re pretty sure- would love to do the same things?  If you did, how did they react? If you haven’t (and I figure most of us have not), why didn’t you?

There are numerous possibilities as to why we feel so insecure about doing such things, but let me suggest the most compelling might be fear that it would be perceived as arrogant, and that this would lead to personal rejection by all those who were offended (who might very well be nearly everyone). I think this is derivative of one of the single most challenging ironies of our American culture. Let me explain.

Any marketing 101 class teaches that one of the first tasks of any person, organization, or brand that desires to be successful is to establish, firmly, their P.O.D. or “Point of Differentiation.”  They have to establish what makes them unique and why someone should spend their money on them rather than their competitors. This seems logical and fine.  Life, in many ways and at certain times, can be a competition. Business always is. The process of establishing one’s P.O.D. can take significant research, time, money, and stress. But the hardest part might be maintaining a P.O.D. as other people and organizations can mimic much faster than they can create. Again, all of this makes sense, and if the messages we are bombarded with from products, companies, and political candidates stopped there, then we would likely have healthier self images as choosing everything from our shampoo to who will be president would simply be a matter of rightly discerning the best option. Case closed.

But the marketing, unfortunately, doesn’t stop there. Once the P.O.D. is established, advertisers expertly begin to employ every tactic they can to convince us that we must absolutely have said product or there is something inherently inferior about ourselves or our lives. They can pull on every emotion- from jealousy to love of our children- to cause us to consider their “unique” product.

The resulting irony is that we are initially attracted to things and people that have invested heavily in convincing us of their ‘individual greatness’ only to be convinced immediately thereafter that if we do not purchase or support them, we will be left out. We are stridently warned that if we do not conform to what everyone else thinks or does about them, we will miss out on their greatness and, therefore, no longer be as great ourselves. The worst part might be that, in doing so, they may have succeeded in convincing us we were, in fact, never really great at all.

Even thinking of yourself as “great” causes some adults to wince. When they were children, they wanted to be the best and the greatest and now they are uncomfortable even considering what they may be merely great at doing or how they were foundationally made great by God in some way in their personhood.

Humility is a virtue rightly pursued but its modern definition has too much relationship with conformity. Humility is not saying “I am not great.” Humility is knowing ones greatness and working and loving out of one’s secure knowledge of this God-given greatness while not allowing it to stifle the dreams and greatness of those around you. In fact, those who are the most humble will use their greatness to passionately help others succeed and become all they desire- even if their perceived success eclipses your own.

But you can’t even start down the road to this if you don’t take the time to ask God what He believes is great about you! If you don’t know the individual strengths and calling He has purposed in you, you won’t know how to achieve true humility.

In the cited passage above, notice these things:

  • Jesus never chastises the disciples for desiring to be “great.” In fact, He instructs them on exactly what they need to do in order to be so and ‘win’ this little competition they created.
  • Jesus explains that the heart of a child- the implied faith, wonder, and belief that captures our hearts is the very key to this greatness.

In the correlating passage in Mark, it is said that Jesus took a child in His arms as He explained these things. In that case, the disciples were so hooked up in their discussion it says they were even “arguing” about who was the greatest… Still didn’t bother Jesus.

He embraced a child and said, “See- this the way to be the greatest.”

Picture that- the King of the universe revealing the success to greatness by hugging a kid.

Maybe he tickled them in the moment. Maybe they laughed….

 

Isn’t that great?

 

***

 

 

The mpezi dropped and the two men slammed into each other, one of their shoulders banging into the umpires jaw/ cutting him off mid shout.  Sambala seemed determined to hurt Nahum, Nahum seemed wild eyed and frightened, but resolving that bodily contact is better than contact with a flailing fimbo. Both men ignored the ball.

The crowd now reacted with gasps and shouts as if at a wrestling match.  At one point, Sambala disengaged from Nahum and managed to swing his cane upward and across Nahum’s mouth- sending blood and a tooth flying. Nahum collapsed into Sambala and then tightened his grip, looking around for the ball- maybe if he could locate it and just kick it across the goal- he could end this thing before he was even more seriously hurt. But Sambala tightened his grip as well and the men were locked in a sweaty, bloody, treacherous embrace that wavered and swung but did not disengage.

The umpire broke through the tense low rumble of shouts with a piercing call- a tragic and horrible truth that seemed to shake the earth and made every hair on the back of Ndala’s neck stand up.  He reminded the participants (and the crowd) that there is no timing out in the championship.  In order for this to end-   someone must score.

At the same instant, Sambala and Nahum thrust away from one another.  Nahum again began to look for the ball, but Sambala seemed content to move on with his previous tactic of harming Nahum before scoring and swung with both hands wrapped tightly across his fimbo.

And then it happened…it was a simple act really…Nahum ducked and spun and hopped forward, evading the swing easily.

But the more remarkable thing- the thing that changed everything- happened next-

 

Parundi- ‘Ndugu Cheka’- laughed.   loudly.

 

His father’s movement just reminded him too much of the jigs he danced at night when he came home from the factory.  Nahum heard… Everyone heard him.  And everything got silent and still.  Sambala had heard him, too, and combined with the whiffed strike he had just executed he yelled and swung at Nahum again- still not caring about the ball.

Nahum easily evaded again by ducking and spinning and hopping in his exaggerated way- chicken dancing his way around his adversary. This prompted Parundi to yell out “Mfalme Mchechi” and his father nodded in acknowledgement. Again Sambala swung and again Nahum dodged the attack, somersaulting between Sambala’s legs and wacking Sambala’s posterior with his fimbo as he spun. As Sambala reached for his backside with a startled jerk upward, everyone began to laugh- even Nahum. The more Sambala lunged and attacked, the more Parundi’s dad jumped, spun, and dodged all the while wearing a wry smile.

After many minutes, the muscle bound, heavy physique of Sambala began to slow down as exhaustion set in…after several trips and angry stumbles, a clumsy moment finally came where Sambala resolved he could never catch his adversary and he collapsed to his knees in the middle of the michezo like a samurai awaiting his enemy’s mercy thrust. Nahum- still smiling- walked calmly around the panting man and graciously plopped the mpira into his goal to end the match.  The crowd erupted with cheers. Parundi ran fastest of all to his father, who lifted him into his arms, laughing and hugging him saying, “Ndugu cheka mon!,” “Ndugu cheka mon!” “Ndugu cheka mon!” “My laughing bear” over and over again.  The crowd joined in, and the phrase “My laughing bear” rose to heaven like praise.

 

On that day, the sun shone bright with no looming shadows, joy and celebration seemed unstoppable, and the world seemed a little smaller to the people of the village. That day, they learned that even the smallest among them mattered..

 

Today- ‘Mpira Dhalimu’ is almost a misnomer, as it is rarely violent any longer.  Many rules have been established to determine and maintain fairness, and it is won by athletic quickness more than strikes or blows. A child’s joyous outburst in the face of angry and bitter adversity had saved his father from injury or maybe even death.  But it actually did even more than that.

 

The single laugh of this great child changed the world.

 

 

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