Sílé / The Debt

Part I:

Mama gathers up her handbag and says- We are going to jumuiya. So I hold onto her skirts and skip along. I am 5 all over again and graying on my head.

We arrive at a neighbor’s home, the one to whom we owe this visit. She has been unwell, and we are here to share breath with her.

About 16 of us sit around in her impeccably clean sitting room. The worn-out red polish on the cemented floor glows in smooth patches like an artist’s canvas soaked in blood oils. An altar. A burning bush that cools off our unshod feet.

We sing, we chant, we share stories of gratitude. Christians call them testimonies. The wise lady who gives the sermon reminds us that this habit of gathering is that “pure and undefiled religion / dini iliyo safi, isiyo na uchafu.”

She quotes someone chapter somewhere verse something.

To be honest, that’s just my people’s ways. They have lived with that habit of “sile” (see-leh / sílé ) for centuries. Sile is that Dawida people’s sacred principle of owing each other your presence.

Sacred because it is one of those nuggets of cultural dogma. Sile is never collected; it is given. Once you have given of your presence at someone’s point of need (sorrow, anxious times or celebration), the debt is removed from you. Sile is what we owe each other for being human.

Jumuiya, the local church’s practice of neighbors looking out for each other, has simply carried on what has always been there.

Part II:

Before we break bread, the lady who keeps the book and pen writes down who gets the next jumuiya visit.

After some discussion, a decision was made. I want to say this: Observing the power of women’s decision-making always fascinates me. There’s something unquestionably enabling about it. They don’t slip or slide or deal. They execute forward. I’ve sat around my mothers many times, and I’ve sat in spaces of power with men many times, and the texture of power is as different as day and night.

PS: There was one man in the gathering. This jumuiya is not a women-only thing. It’s just that the men have beer they need to go and drink.. sorry, I meant they have cows they need to bring home from pasture.

It was agreed that the woman who sat quietly near the door would receive the next visit, on account of her son. She let her tongue push out her story fearfully, then with grateful release.

“My son is a soldier. He was on mission in Lamu when he suffered an IED attack by Al Shabaab. His voice is now silenced, his mind sleeps, his legs are not there, but he is making progress. He is with us.”

“He is with us” – Everyone repeated in muttered chants, as if they had just witnessed their own child escape the jaws of a foreign terror that lurks about in unfamiliar darkness.

We collected sadaka. A bowl is covered in cloth and everyone clutches their offering in a fist and slips it under the cloth. No one sees what you gave, no expectations, no judgement. The offering is all given to the person who receives the visit. Our sile is removed.

We broke bread, sipped on soothing tea, and made easy laughter molded with the clay of that pure and undefiled religion.

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