Sunday, May 28, 2006

A Gift


Gifts and giving have been on my mind this week.

Nairobi, Kenya, in the mid-1980s. I was working in the press office at a week-long international conference, one of about a dozen colleagues from Europe and the US, and staying in an upmarket hotel on the edge of town. Each of us in our group was allocated a car and a driver by the conference’s local organisers.

My driver’s name was Paul. It was his job to collect me in the car each morning from the hotel, take me to the conference centre and anywhere else I needed to go, to return me to the hotel at the end of the afternoon, and to be on call during the evenings.

On the first day we started to talk. He came across as softly spoken and friendly. I said that I had never been to Kenya before, I was going to have very little time off and I really wanted to see a bit of Nairobi – therefore would he mind taking different routes back to the hotel so I could see something of the city, if only from the car? He seemed surprised but agreed to do so.

So for the rest of the week Paul went the long way round when we headed back to the hotel. He showed me the city and the immediate surrounding area, the university and the buildings dating from the time of British colonial rule, and gave me a glimpse too of the wealthy suburbs and of the desperately poor shanty towns. He was a good guide, and he also told me a little about his life and his family. He hoped to be a writer and he had written a play for a local school to perform – he was working as a driver to earn a living.

At the end of the last full day I went out of my way to thank him and, as was the custom, gave him an appropriate tip - which I had been told to put on my expenses. We said our farewells.

The following morning my colleagues and I were packing up files in the hotel room that had been used as an office. Suddenly I saw Paul standing at the open door, holding a large brown paper bag.

He had bought me a present. Inside the bag was a decorative plate with a lion and giraffe motif round the edges. He told me he had enjoyed being my driver and he wanted to give me something to remind me of my time in Kenya. He had therefore been shopping.

I was almost speechless and tried inadequately to express my thanks. After a few minutes he left.

I kept that plate for years on the wall in my kitchen, and then sadly one day I dropped it and it was smashed. But whenever Kenya is mentioned, on the news or elsewhere, Paul always comes to mind.

It can be a powerful thing, to give. And to receive. Why else would I be blogging about this twenty years later?


Blogger Jean said...

This made me think and feel so much. I've had similar relationships with people I worked with for a brief period on trips abroad - a strong sympathy and what felt like a real contact (no, didn't feel like, was), but always shadowed by the difference in circumstances with someone from a much poorer country. And gifts, too, that I treasure for the memories they hold. And, as it happens I also went to Nairobi in the mid-80s - my first journey to Africa! Thank you for writing this so gently and evocatively.

12:25 pm  
Blogger rdl said...

Mary, what a wonderful story, thanks for sharing.

2:30 pm  
Blogger zhoen said...

The gift is the focus, but the real gift was the sharing, the listening. We never know when we touch lives, and how often they touch back.

3:51 pm  
Blogger Brenda said...

What a beautiful story. Such simple ways of communicating and sharing and giving, yet how touching, how stunning, really. The memory made sharper and more poignant by the shattering of the plate, and now you're sharing the story here, touching us all.

So many messages interwoven here, too. About cultures, and giving and receiving gifts, about moments of contact that remain as bright moments through our whole lives.

5:16 pm  
Blogger LJ said...

Things like this are the treasures we keep. The plate may be gone, but you'll never forget the kindness.
"There are no pockets in a shroud. You take with you only what you have given away."
Thank you for the story.

10:56 am  
Blogger Jean said...

Après deux voyages au Viet Nam et en Thaïlande , nous sommes devenus , surtout mon épouse , des passionnés d'orchidées . Nous en avons 220 en appartement , certaines depuis 16 ans .
En jouant sur les variétés , en particulier sur les deux hémisphères , nous avons des fleurs toute l'année . En hiver , fleurissent celles de l'hémisphère sud .

5:12 pm  
Blogger Mary said...

Jean. I wonder if our paths ever did cross .... and yes, the shadowed relationships.

Rdl: Thank you.

Zhoen: I totally agree.

Brenda: Thank you. Your final para sums up what I wanted to say but couldn't put into words.

LJ: Just thank you.

Jean: Ah les orchidees. Et quelle bonheur elle doivent vous accorder chez vous. Merci beaucoup.

9:31 am  
Anonymous apples said...


.... stuffs shatters but memories lives on..

Thanks for sharing *hugs

2:01 pm  
Blogger Tamar said...

You've been on my mind even as I journeyed far away. We shared a birthday countries apart. Happy birthday belatedly, Mary. This is a superb post! A true guft!

10:30 pm  
Blogger Tamar said...

... er ... I mean ... "gift"!!

10:30 pm  
Blogger leslee said...

Wonderful memory. Thanks for sharing it. The first full day I was ever in Mexico, a bit anxious about being in this strange place and about my bad Spanish, my friend and I met and spent half a day with this nice Mexican couple, very friendly. They had a couple of souvenir mugs imprinted that we thought were for friends but that they gave to us, signed with their names. Small thing, but such a warm gesture. It sticks with you.

12:44 am  
Blogger MB said...

I love this story of connection.

2:02 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Apples: lovely to see you hear again. Memories do live on indeed. And thank you for the birthday wishes and your earlier comment ...

Tamar: Welcome back. And happy birthday to you (very belated)! I thought of you on the 24th. :-). And thank you for your comment.

Leslee; Yes, you know what I'm talking about here, I can tell ...

MB: Thank you, I'm glad the story had meaning for you.

7:13 pm  
Anonymous apples said...

Your welcome, Mary :) I've done the Alphabet Meme and check out your virtual cake ;)

2:27 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home