The Good Life

What constitutes the good life was one of the central questions for my friends and I last time we met together as a whole group.  Now that we have graduated, the structures, habits, work, and relationships must be consciously put in place or embraced to pursue what we nebulously described as the “Good Life”.

This weekend, visiting a friend and coworker’s farm in his ancestral village two hours away, I saw one example of the Good Life.

My friend lives at Tenwek and travels to his farm each weekend (a common Kenyan practice which I generally can’t stand) located in his ancestral village.  Seven of us set out for the village in his pickup truck, though the two hour drive took four hours because of our stops.  Generally, these weren’t social stops, but instead they were stops to pick up materials for my friend’s store and to stop at his next project.  You see, my friend seems to be local development personified.

He was the first in his area to go to college, but instead of using his degree to work for a large institution in Nairobi, he is using his skills and abilities to work on all levels of Kenyan development.  He is a skilled worker in the established service institution of Tenwek.  He is an investor and designer of new store space.  He owns and employs at his new woodworking shop since power came to town.  And he owns—and his family runs—his ancestral and newly acquired farmland.

These initiatives are on top of his commitment to his church where he is a former volunteer pastor (my prep for preaching one weekend  is enough to give me pause to the massive commitment this is for a worker) and current elder.  In an effort which gave my hands a number of blisters, he organized the youth of the church to spend the Saturday working to clear the church’s land, on which a new building is beginning construction.

An impressive set of life activities so far, to be sure, but manic work even for good causes does not guarantee a good life.

Recently, my friend and I had a good conversation in which he expressed gladness that he chose to come to Tenwek, with its inferior pay, instead of the fast paced Nairobi life because he sees how his children have turned out and how those of his contemporaries are different.  His family is where the good life is proved out.

I spent the weekend more than anything else working with his firstborn 17 year old son.  He was a great help at the farm and a great leader.  The youth group activity on Saturday clearing the church was mostly led by him.  We plowed a field using a pair of oxen (which I just found out 15 months ago are castrated bulls), we milked the cows, we hacked and carried tall grasses for the cows with hoof and mouth disease who were unable to pull the grass from the ground, all the while a younger sibling or two would usually be following and helping or trying to help if their chores didn’t bring them away at the time.  The younger kids would always be trying to help and at the same time learning how to do the job as they got older and stronger.

After we finished the work of the farm the first day at dusk, all the kids and I played from then till dark a game where the youngest child would throw the popped 4” ball up in the air and the rest of us would try to keep it up.  The pattern of having all the kids play the same games, go on the same walks, and sing the same songs continued all weekend to my amazement.  As the mzungu (foreigner, white person) I of course had to introduce new culture, in this case, thumb wrestling and a game called ninja where one took turns trying to touch the other person’s hand in a single motion while not allowing their hand to be touched—grandma especially liked playing this one.  Other times in the evening, we read as a whole group, or someone would tell a story or we’d all sing some songs together.  The family had even broken the cultural tradition where after age 13, sons and mothers would not live in the same house.  Contrary to this, but great for his family, my friend and his mother lived in the same house as did his wife and older sons.  The togetherness even applied to the extended family who were often in and out of the house.  Further, we went on a walk together and visited multiple aunts and uncles and all the grandparents in just a few kilometers.  The only time the family didn’t spend time together were meals where the women ate in one room and the men in another.

Perhaps one of the most powerful forces creating the family this harmonized was the delegation of responsibility.  My friend worked very little on the farm, leaving the work to his children when they were home from school, or hired help when they were away.  The responsibility that the kids grew into by copying their older siblings or parents brought them maturity and ownership over problems, as well as what must have been something of a team spirit to explain the lack of bickering I saw.  Their work all helped each other as they literally eat the fruits of their labor.  This responsibility can also partly explain the impressive entrepreneurial spirit in Kenya.  With the startup costs so low, many people own businesses (or run their household farms as businesses) to take advantage of opportunities they see.

I look at this family, their cohesiveness, obvious love, and maturity and try to think about how I can learn from it.  The example of the parents provided an enormous influence, but many of the positive factors that made it a good life were structural.  The grandmother lived with the family and had a newer huge bed so that all the kids could sleep with her as she told stories.  Also, the structure of the farm which allows constructive copycat behavior by the kids builds them up to take the responsibilities themselves as they grow older.  The more specialized our modern work becomes, the abstraction requires structured teaching which yields fruit years down the road and does not fit well with the “pretend” method of learning.

At least the example can be extended to crafts which we do in the U.S. as well.  On completion of Boy Scouts, I regretted how few Eagle projects I contributed to.  These were chances to learn by seeing others work and copying as well as opportunities to take ownership in a part of a project.  I hope to use this, as well as more regular activities which are almost always more effective, to build skills, responsibilities, and an attitude of team service in my own kids.

In America we have the unspoken promise to give our children more than we have been given ourselves.  My parents found a drink of Coke an expensive luxury.  I have been given and invested in so enormously that through the “American Dream” of success there is no more to give.  Perhaps I can fulfill the promise and give my family the Good Life by adding benefits of disparate friends’ families to my own.

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One Response to “The Good Life”

  1. Jim & Alice Vanderhoof Says:

    Todd,

    Just read through your recent blogs. We appreciate the way you describe things that you are experiencing as well as your reflections on that. Thanks so much for being here this year. Hope we get a chance to talk more, especially your future plans. Your review of “The Essential Drucker” sounded very interesting, and we’d love to learn more.

    Jim and Alice

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