Everyone's life has its moments of spiritual awakening, moments that shape our stories and divide our lives into "before" and "after." One such moment of mine came in a modest house in Kenya, last November, halfway through a cup of tea.
The awakening did not come, surprisingly enough, halfway through the glass of Pinot Blanc in business class on my way across the Atlantic. Nor did it come when I inserted my debit card into ATMs on three continents on three successive days, rewarded each time with crisp bills of unfamiliar currency. It didn't even come in the markets of Nairobi, where one shopkeeper after another angled for my business with ever more fantastic promises of special discounts and lifelong friendship.
I was in Africa courtesy of frequent flier miles and the invitation of friends. We were subletting rooms in the home of an American university professor. Like most middle-class Kenyans, she employs domestic workers for security, cleaning, and childcare. Like most Kenyan domestic workers, they are university educated, but a corrupt government and moribund economy mean that honest white-collar jobs are scarce. Instead, they stand guard and wash dishes on behalf of the fortunate few-often expatriates-who can afford to employ them. With a gracious and just employer, such a job is something more than menial labor, something less than a fair reward for years of schooling and diligence.
Mary stood in the kitchen, humming softly as she cleaned up from the children's breakfast. I sat in the study, catching up on some long-postponed reading, sipping that cup of tea. The previous afternoon my friends and I had shared tea with Mary and another household employee. We had heard enough of their stories to know that they worked hard, ...1