In the highlands of East Africa, where the equator and Mount Kenya embrace each other, I met an old man who taught me something about acceptance. He introduced himself as “Mzee”, which means old man in Swahili. When first we met, he was walking slowly down a slippery red clay road during the equatorial monsoon. His legs were bowed from years of traveling…down this and other unpaved trails. These led from cultivated potato, bean, and corn fields up, up to the mountain where cedar trees mixed with bamboo forests. Leopards and hyenas and smaller pods of elephants roamed around as they had done for centuries…for millennia.
Mzee’s bowed legs were borne upon leathery splayed feet only occasionally shod in sandals made of old truck tires. He walked because that is how he made his way around in the world, visiting friends and relatives, and daily encountering small school children who ran by him. He wore a heavy black musky woolen overcoat with large brass buttons. The coat draped down to his shins and kept him mostly warm and partially protected from the hot sun of this world at six thousand feet. He trod upon the slopes of the mountain that dominated the lives of the Kikuyu tribal people who lived perched on it’s flanks.
He smiled a frequent toothless grin and muttered reflections for anyone willing to listen. He wore atop his head that which made him similar to the mountain that rose up behind. It was a voluminous white fur hat, perched precariously. When he was framed by Mount Kenya, anyone who saw the shining white snow on the upper reaches could not help but think that he was, partially, born of this mountain.
He didn’t know how many children he had in this world or how many he had lost to the next. When questioned he would grin and laugh and shake his head in the way that old people do when they know something that is too ancient and complicated to convey to the rest of the world. When he was asked about the Mau Mau uprising, and what it was like in those days when the local Kikuyu people began to fight against colonial British control, for this too he would grin and shake his head.
He loved a good cup of strong sweet milky tea. He loved a bottle of acrid beer. He considered it his lucky day if he could have either. And, if he happened to eat something that particular day, he was grateful beyond words.
I became friends with this old man, who stood about 4’ 9” on a good day. I would sit with him and he would forgive me for my broken Swahili as we talked about children and wives, about stars and rain, about how old he was. Over the almost three years of knowing him, as we would sit and talk about life, small tears would occasionally form at the corners of his eyes. These salty tears, I always tried to understand, from whence they came. I began to know that he rarely talked about changing things or about how things should be different or how life is unjust. When these tears came into his eighty-something year old eyes and began to slowly drip down his leathery lined cheeks, he would inevitably mutter the same words. I did not know, at first, and for many weeks, what he was saying. And then, one day, I finally understood his words, “Mungo Iko.” “There is God.” Whenever he didn’t understand the frivolity of human interactions, the vagaries of drought cycles, or the unjust treatment of the Kenyans by the British, he would say these two words. “Mungo Iko.” When I would ask him about sons or daughters or grandchildren that he could not account for, He would look at me and say these two words.
That was many years ago. He has walked into the next world. The clay roads that knew his footsteps rise up and wind around the mountain that dominates the skyline of East Africa. He taught me that when life is too beautiful or too painful to completely wrap my head around, It is acceptance that simply and quietly is the essence of peace. “Mungo Iko.”