Friday, 28 November 2014

My first impression of America

With Bill Modica and Chebet at an inter-faith meeting in Roanoke, Verginia.

Chebet (right) with Prof. Patricia Kelly during our Thanks Giving meal.

Chebet with Bill Modica and Mwaka Namfukwe.

With my dance partner at the Floyd Country Store.

Jack Zimba spent a month in Virginia State, USA, on a Global Health Fellows programme. He now writes about his experiences.

More than the three-lane inter-state roads teeming with zooming traffic, more than the elegant buildings that adorn its landscape, more than the military prowess and media supremacy, America is about people.
And it is the people that I met during my month-long stay in the US that left a lasting impression on me about the world’s greatest nation.
And America is really a melting pot for different races, cultures and traditions and all this came to light during my stay.
Bill Modica
Part of my programme in the US was to experience the American culture while living with an American family for one week. That will be the hardest part, I thought. And when I learned that my home stay host lived all by himself in Salem, a small rural town near the city of Roanoke, I grew even more worried.
But Bill was a fun guy to be around and soon it didn’t matter to me that his stone house, draped in ivy, was in the woods and isolated from the rest of the houses.   
Bill loves to read and he has a deep understanding of history. We discussed many things from religion to 911 to plants.
A realtor and a self-made conservationist, Bill works very hard and he made me realize just how hard life in America can be if one does not work hard enough.
“America is a great country to live in, but only when you have money,” he told me.
Decades ago, Bill’s parents migrated to the US from Italy. Bill himself was born in New York.
He has a younger brother who has a penchant for guns and a diehard Republican.
Bill likes to think of himself as an Independent, though he does sound like a Democrat.
“Bill is a Democrat, he just doesn’t admit it,” one of his friends, a university professor, told me.  
Bill likes to collect antiques and his home looks like a small museum. There is a cheese shredder made by his grandfather in 1924 and handed down to him by his mother; there is a spinning wheel for making yarn and even an 1877 telephone which is by his kitchen door.
Whatever ‘Italianess’ he has lost – he still looks Italian, though - Bill retains the ability to cook good food and he does it as a hobby.
My last dinner with Bill was particularly special. He had decided to treat me and my colleague Mwaka Namfukwe from Muvi TV to the traditional Thanks Giving meal – roasted turkey, mashed potato and cranberry source. He also made sure we followed the tradition of Thanks Giving, including breaking the turkey’s breast bone and making a wish.
Chebet Dolly Kibogy
I met her at an inter-faith meeting at a Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia. The meeting was called to discuss how faith can impact the environment.
It is very hard to not notice Chebet in a crowd. She is as dark as a Masai’s child that she is – and possesses the elegance and beauty associated with the worrier tribe of Kenya. And almost always she wears a warm smile and has a girlish laughter.
Chebet epitomizes the American Dream in her own small way.
A little over 10 years ago, she came to the US as a student and later she got a job at a hotel. And it was there that she got introduced to the who’s who of American politics. In 2008, Chebet, by now an American citizen, joined the Obama campaign team as an events organiser.
“So how close do you ever get to the president?” I enquired, feeling very envious of her.
“Close enough to not be pushed by the Secret Service,” she told me. “But at least I’ve been in the same room with him.”
And she keeps a book of her photos with all the important people. The book also bears autographs of President Obama, Bill Clinton, George Bush and John McCain among others.
And she still holds on to the invitation card to President Obama’s inauguration four years ago. She is confident President Obama will retain the presidency, but worries about Romny’s money muscle.
But despite all that she has attained in America, Chebet still talks of going back to Kenya, but only on one condition. “If Raila Odinga became president I would go back and contribute to my country,” she said.
Joy Sylvester-Johnson
The first time I saw Mrs Sylvester-Johnson was in an old black-and-white photograph pasted on the wall at the Rescue Mission in Roanoke. She was a cute three-year-old back in 1948 when the mission was established by her father. She is now the CEO.
The mission was established as a center for the homeless, offering shelter, food and hope to hundreds of individuals as well as whole families. The men’s section has 150 beds and sometimes they have needed extra mattresses laid on the floor.
I had an opportunity to work as a volunteer for three days at the mission (one-third of mission’s workforce is volunteer). The first day was at the thrift shop, where the mission sells second-hand cloths and household goods to raise money for its operations. My job was to sort shoes, pairing them up and then binding them with rubber band. Most of the shoes were in very good condition, some even had price tags on them. All the items are donated by individuals and within a couple of hours I was at the loading bay, there were eight drop-ins.
“I have no need of these,” one very old lady in a gleaming Chevy told me as she handed me a bunch of cloths.
Interestingly, the thrift shop is also the genesis of our salaula. Whatever doesn’t get sold here is taken to the basement for baling and then, through other agencies, shipped to developing countries.
Later that day, I watched as men and women trudged to the Rescue Mission from all directions of the city.
The air in the TV room where I sat was soon a mixture of sweat, tobacco and alcohol as the guests – for that is what the mission staff call the homeless people – filled the room. The reasons for homelessness range from job losses, alcohol and drug abuse, while others are former jail birds unable to reestablish themselves in society.
The guests, who are only allowed into the mission centre between 16:30 hours and 08:30 hours, follow a strict routine – they eat, pray, bath and sleep.
On Tuesday night, I was sitting in the front row of the chapel as I joined the men for worship. Next to me sat a particularly pitiful soul. He wore dirty jeans and old cowboy boots and kept twitching his body, snorting and mumbling. He was probably on drugs or had just recently gotten off some hard stuff.
The mission accepts everyone and treats each of the individuals with respect.
“I believe everybody is broken,” says Mrs Sylvester-Johnson. “There’s no-one so far broken that they cannot be mended.”  Mrs Sylvester-Johnson has a kind face and an assuring yet authoritative voice. She is an ordained preacher herself.
Back in the chapel I was still waiting for the preacher to hit the high knot. One young man sitting behind me leaned forward and whispered, “The preacher today is boring. You should have seen yesterday, everyone was jumping and shouting in this room.”
When I scanned the room, half of the men were resting their heads on their chests. All they needed now was a bed.
“Would you like some vegetables, mom?” I said to a woman standing in front of me. It is a question I parroted over 100 times as the women and children walked by to collect their food.
It was Wednesday and my colleagues and I were serving the guests lunch.
By the time the last man passed his dinner plate in front of me, we had served over 350 meals.
“My mother would have died without a rescue mission,” Mrs Sylvester-Johnson told me.   
Arthur “Three” Brown
I do not know what the “Three” stood for, but the fact that he decided to add it on his business card means it has a significant meaning.
After driving around a few blocks looking for a barbershop that could handle my type of hair, we finally stumbled on one called First Impressions in a predominantly black community. And that is how I met Arthur “Three” Brown.
He spoke with an impossible drawl; I could hardly pick his words, except the man he pronounced at the end of each sentence. So I just sat my arse in his swivel chair and let him do his thin. You know w’am sayin?
A number of brothers in sagging buggy trousers from the ’hood dropped by just to say, “What’s up? How you doin, man?
“Cool, man,” responded Arthur.
For some reason, I started thinking about drive-by shootings and dope.
But then I realised just how the hip-hop culture and the media’s portrayal of black America had shaped my thinking. That, however, does not take away from the fact this neighbourhood has one of the highest crime levels in the city of Roanoke.
Driving back home, I was overwhelmed by a deep sense of sadness that I was unable to connect at all with people I believed shared my heritage, though now lost in time. Maybe I had the wrong-perception glasses on.
Super-size America
Sitting in a restaurant one Sunday afternoon, I was so conscious of a rotund, flabby woman and her obese son sitting two tables away that I kept lifting my eyes towards them. I wondered if they were as conscious about the state they were in as I was. I felt sorry for them, but then, they seemed happy.
Obesity has got to be America’s “next big thing”. The media is awash with stories about good lifestyles and healthy diets.
CNN repeatedly ran a report about a young woman who got into a feat of rage after an airline requested her to buy two seats for herself because one seat was not enough for her.
Then there was the woman in Los Angeles who collapsed while eating what the reporter called “an artery-clogging meal” and smoking at the same time.
Obesity has become an obsession in American society, and here is the reason why.
According to official statistics, 70 million Americans are obese, that is one-third of the population.
One hospital that offers free medical services to people who cannot afford medical insurance, lists the top conditions treated by the institution as depression, anxiety and obesity.
And despite the huge campaign to eat healthy, one medical expert expects the problem to grow even worse.
Another health expert, Laura Pole, noted, “Americans love to hear good news about their bad habits” to justify their lifestyles. For example that chocolate is good for your heart.
And Americans, it seems, love everything big, from the cars they drive to the food portions they eat. Sitting down to a meal in one restaurant, I counted 12 greasy chicken wings in my plate. “Dog pack, please!”
Happy people of Floyd County
The road to Floyd County from Blacksburg in Virginia is winding with gentle slopes that create picturesque scenes – more like a slide show as you drive by.
Floyd is a small town with only one set of traffic lights and streets lined with art shops, art studios and a Mexican restaurant at the corner.
But one store stands out of the rest and has become world famous – the Floyd Country Store.
Every Friday evening, residents of this old-fashioned town gather at the store to listen to old gospel music for an hour and then the traditional bluegrass music played by a live band using banjos, cellos and violin. The music draws clog dancers to the wooden platform. 
It was here that I met a blonde named Sally. She wore a red dress way above her knees with matching stilettos and black tights.
She walked towards me across the dance floor and, without a word, extended her hand towards me. I found her bidding irresistible, not just because I found her elaborate dress fascinating and broad smile inviting, but because Sally was in her late 60s, maybe even 70s; yet she seemed so full of life. Later, I discovered that the Old Diva – for that is what my colleagues and I called her – was a regular at the Friday night jamborees.
So together we did the clog dance, bouncing and clacking our heels on the wooden floor like little children. I must confess that I thought the dance looked rather silly at first. But when I got into the rhythm, it was lots of fun.
The clog dance has its origins in Wales and England and was introduced in the Appalachian region, which includes much of Virginia, in the 18th century.
I had many happy nights in America, but perhaps the dance night tops them all.

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