Wan wan durri durri… A long, long time ago…
I met Roy Shaffer exactly 40 years ago. I was a young graduate student just arrived in Kenya to begin a year of field research doing oral history among the Gabra camel-keeping nomads of the deserts of northern Kenya and the Ethiopian frontier. Although I grew up in the Belgian Congo and completed high school in Kenya, I knew little beyond a few books of those vast, little-understood and largely inaccessible dryland regions inhabited by legendary pastoralist peoples. Maasai. Samburu. Turkana. Rendille. Gabra. Borana. Somali. I was also married and with an infant daughter, and my family would accompany me. I was more than a little apprehensive.
A brother-in-law had married into a missionary clan, the Barnett / Shaffer families, and was visiting with Roy and Betty at their Swiss chalet home in Nairobi. We were invited over and warmly welcomed. It is said that the longest journey one can take is to cross the threshold into another’s home. Moreover in Africa, the fabric of society is woven around family, and it is often the case that once the threshold is crossed, their family will become our family. Instantly we became family. And have been ever since.
That first conversation was the beginning of subsequent long conversations that continue to today. By the evening’s end, Roy, who had been on multiple occasions to the region we were to live, had offered to accompany me on a week-long recce (survey) trip up through Samburu District to Lake Turkana (Kenya’s desert Jade Sea), across the Chalbi Desert to the small outpost of Kalacha (where we would base), to the Marsabit District capital of Marsabit with its fabled mist-forest crater lake, Lake Paradise.
Roy was as excited as I was about this trip, and his accompaniment put my mind at ease. We included in our company Clive, one of Roy’s med students. It would be a grand adventure in my just-purchased but not new by any means Land Rover. I had no idea what traveling in desert heat and dry conditions, through sandy, rocky rugged terrain on pretty much non-existent and non-marked tracks with no service stations for 200+ miles in any direction, would entail.
I could fill an entire chapter with all that happened on that safari, but this is a foreword.
Roy was knowledgable about pretty much everything — mechanics, pastoralists, community development, health matters. The Land Rover was never without good, stimulating, thoughtful conversation. And a lot of laughter. Whenever we stopped, Roy was immediately engaged in conversation with whomever we met — whether Samburu warriors, Catholic missionary priests, children playing in Lake Turkana’s waters, fishermen casting their nets for Nile Perch, policemen, or aged elders in small shops in the settlements and towns we passed through. It became clear that Roy’s knowledge and insights were based on years of active and attentive listening and learning from people he’d encountered. He was at ease and immersed in Africa. And Africa was equally at ease with Roy.
Of course we broke down — we lost a starter motor, the engine overheated, tires were punctured, the radiator sprung leaks. Roy was right there, not only with a lifetime of skill in diagnosis and repair, but with hands that enjoyed getting greasy, dirty, and even bruised. Have you ever fixed a radiator leak with corn meal?
I learned a number of life-long lessons from Roy on that trip. About a commitment to curiosity, wonder, and discovery. About life being lived to the fullest, and a passion for learning. About the richness of difference and diversity. About respect — for God, creation, others — which is not only the foundation of Maa—speaking cultures in which Roy spent so much time, but also of the cultures that shaped our Christian heritage.
But most important, Roy taught me about listening.
In Congo not long ago, I heard an African proverb new to me: “You can’t hear a mouse talk until you have heard him chew.”
Listening is the anchor of what another physician, Dr. Paul Farmer (who like Roy is committed to the best practice of community health), describes as accompaniment. And accompaniment has been the heart of Roy’s life.
Accompaniment is a model and praxis for life and engagement that can transform just about everything, fostering understanding, solidarity, mutuality. It is based on mutuality and listening to one another, and is probably the only path towards the flourishing of our planet.
Accompaniment is the practice of walking together with others, going places with them, sharing food (chewing, as in the African proverb) with them, being present with each other on a journey together. The one who is accompanying others essentially says: “I’ll go with you and support you on your journey wherever it leads. I’ll share your fate.” And then she or he sticks with that person until their journey is complete. Even if it lasts a lifetime.
Roy embodies the practice of accompaniment.
I suspect that this is because Roy long ago discerned, accompaniment IS the Gospel. It was God, Emmanuel, choosing to walk with us; the Word having become human and being among us; God in Jesus, having taken the form of a servant, humbling himself. All this to bring the Kingdom that Jesus announced as coming among us, closer to God’s vision and purpose of the reconciliation of all things. This is the path to which Jesus’ followers are called.
And this is Roy. This has been his life. This is his legacy. And this is what is deeply expressed in this wonderful collection of his memoirs.
Wan wan durri durri…From the Gabra language of the Kenya-Ethiopian frontier.
Paul Robinson– Serving and acompanying a group of phenomenal Congolese men and women as Co-Founder of Congo Initiative. Past- Wheaton College, Professor & Director, Human Needs & Global Resources. St. Lawrence University, Director (and Professor), Kenya Semester Program.
More photos by Paul from Northern Kenya (click on photos to enlarge):