Photo by matthew Feeney on Unsplash

What a small Kenyan soccer ball company taught me about resilience

Jo Ryan is an effervescent, funny, intense Irish woman whose accent has been partially washed away by fifteen years in Kenya. She is wearing a lively, colorful pair of Lycra workout pants, her dark hair pulled away from her face in order to not compete with the ever-present mask. We’d opened a window in the large office she shares with her two colleagues. When she took her mask off I could understand her better. She speaks with the speed of a bullet train, her lyrical, accented words tumbling out all over each other, insisting on being heard.

She’s delightful.

Jo and I are talking about Alive and Kicking, a not-for-profit but NOT NGO organization in the outskirts of the bustling Nairobi metroplex. Here, perfect, beautiful leather soccer balls (footy balls) of all sizes as well as volley balls and even American gridiron footballs are made from scratch and hand-stitched to perfection. Alive and Kicking’s story is another article. It’s what Jo was telling me about her local Kenyan workforce that I want to share, and what those comments told me about Americans and other Western nations, in large part.

Or, more tellingly, about what Americans don’t have and cannot seem to do with challenge, as has been so aptly demonstrated since Covid has ravaged so much of my country and the world at large.

Alive and Kicking is a company that was borne out of an idea belonging to James Atcheson Cogan, OBE, who envisioned the need for a good-quality soccer ball, made of excellent local materials, available to kids everywhere. The local children, passionate about footy as they are the world over, would fashion soccer balls out of plastic bags and twine. Cogan saw a better way.

Long story short, Alive and Kicking was born around 2004. The organization, whose story I will share in another article, has grown by leaps and bounds. The factory I visited yesterday was bustling and full of orange-clad sewers, each with a soccer ball at some point in the making. The activity is intense, focused against a backdrop of lively music. A&K has hired and trained workers including some who are disabled but still able to do the highly physical and demanding work of hand-stitching the balls.

Watching these Kenyans cut the hexagonal and pentagonal pieces of colored leather, screen logos and animals on the balls, the rhythmic movement of arms and hands as the pieces are stitched together is like watching a symphony.

A&K, in a normal year, can produce some forty thousand high-quality leather soccer balls. They sell to the larger WalMart-like retailers, some corporations, churches and others across Africa and abroad. What Jo told me about Covid, which sliced their production fully in half and affected the livelihood and well-being of a great many locals, is what I want to share.

Jo explained that in every way, Covid nearly did them in. Because most of the ball-makers share an open area, Covid restrictions largely shut down the operation. However, people instead took the work home. Still, demand for the soccer balls dropped precipitously. Events and charity games got cancelled, people could no longer play or attend sporting events, corporate donations and purchases dried up as profits got eviscerated.

A&K nearly had to close up shop forever, but they didn’t. They are still, as they love to joke with good cause, alive and kicking. Here’s why.

Jo told me that her workers, some fifty-one regular stitchers brought in from all over the surrounding communities, are very accustomed to unpredictability and life challenges. When an emergency hits, for them, who are so accustomed to privation, it’s not a big deal. They simply need to know which way the river is flowing.

For now.

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For they understand that the rains, which are unpredictable and becoming more so in Africa, will change without warning. It makes no sense and wastes precious time to fight about what happened in a fool’s need to be right. By that time you’re already slammed against a rock in the river because you’re not attending and preparing for what is happening right now. Instead of figuring out your way, you wreck yourself in the rapids while arguing strenuously, as Americans and Westerners are so very fond of doing, blaming and shaming people for not knowing, or being able to predict the future (AS IF) or making bad choices.

The way I see it, and it doesn’t make me right, the insufferable arrogance of those of us in the West who believe so strongly in manifest destiny, is what torpedoes us when we are reminded that we have dominance over nothing whatsoever other than our attitudes.

My conversation with Jo provided a sharp contrast in how Americans, and too many in the West, comfortable in their relatively predictable circumstances and irritated with the least inconvenience, have struggled mightily with Covid. And for that matter, climate change and many other inconveniences, which the average poor African (and anyone else subject to life’s vagaries) simply experiences as life.

Life about which you can do little, other than keep facing forward and concentrating on where the river has chosen to flow right now. There is no time for recriminations and anger about where it has been. That is already past. When you live very close to Nature, you understand Her terrible beauty and unpredictability. That teaches immense resilience. People who argue about the past, fail. Fast. People who adapt fast, live. Even thrive.

Alive and Kicking’s stitchers, both experienced and new, who no longer had jobs, used their considerable skills in the community to repair all manner of things from shoes to leather goods. They were able to continue to provide for themselves and their families. As demand for the balls has again begun to rise, some have returned to work, albeit not always full time and not always under contract. As Jo explained, there is considerable uncertainty because of the Delta variant. As countries like America suffer the effects of anti-vaxxers whose resistance to getting a jab in the arm acts as a jab in the arm to the virus itself, providing the perfect conditions to allow new, even more virulent strains which can and do spread all over the world, as we’ve seen with Delta.

It’s America, in this writer’s opinion, and her insistence that life be as we want it to be, relatively predictable, comfy and cozy, that makes for disaster. We seem incapable of handling the least inconveniences, and waste valuable time bitching and moaning and fighting over whose fault it is rather than learning to navigate a fast-moving river.

That behavior gives new meaning to the old joke about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We are doing just that in real time.

When you are in the habit of living with little, you expect little. As I have seen in countless tribal communities all over the world, what locals can do with a piece of twine, or wire, or parts cobbled together from castoffs takes the breath away. People are forced to be ingenious. The next big rain may wash their house or farm to sand, or animals may tear down or rip apart a carefully-built shed. You just never know.

But not knowing isn’t terrorizing. It’s just life.

We Americans can’t seem to handle “just life.” Just life is getting ill, getting injured, losing work, forests burning, and a great many other things like losing a child to a lion attack or malaria. Just life is learning a skill, being gainfully and happily employed, and having circumstances beyond your control rip that employment and income away like a monsoon. People who have little are accustomed to such things. Those who have much are often deeply affected, and find themselves struggling because of their attachments to and identification with a world of great comfort, convenience and perceived predictability.

I read an article about broken parents in The Atlantic on Medium today:

Parents Are Not Okay
We’re not even at a breaking point anymore. We’re broken.

From the article:

Parents aren’t even at a breaking point anymore. We’re broken. And yet we’ll go on because that’s what we do: We sweep up all our pieces and put them back together as best we can. We carry on chipped and leaking and broken because we have no other choice. And we pray that if we can just keep going, our kids will survive too. (author bolded)

The words chipped, and leaking and broken say it all. Instead of developing brand new skills, the extraordinary muscles of adaptability and willingness to bend with life, the writer is stating that life is breaking her and other parents down. It most certainly doesn’t always have to be that way.

I have felt broken at times, too. Everyone does, if we are to learn coping skills.

In light of what I’ve been seeing and hearing here, this article underscores for me how little you and I as Americans have in the resilience store. My bank is a bit richer, if for no other reason than a lifetime of rank unpredictability in income, employment, circumstances and the like has given me a lot of faith in my ability to stay above water when the river bends. It’s always bending, and I know how to paddle. That does not in any way mean I don’t get stressed, recent BP spikes to that truth. The point is learning to bob back up.

My fellow Americans, accustomed to stupendous wealth (by contrast, kindly) and the enviable but dysfunctional comforts of a typical American home, are drowning in stress.

I don’t doubt for one moment that people feel broken. But when we aren’t accustomed to having to bend, we are brittle, dry and susceptible to any kind of stress. That is what I perceive. That’s not a criticism. It’s what we’ve built, all the while bragging about how Great America Is, while comfort and ease leach the competence, creativity and ingenuity out of too many of us. To the point when Siri breaks down we have a hissy fit. Or when Alexa doesn’t turn on the lights we no longer have the leg strength to cross the room and do it ourselves.

Of course that’s an exaggeration. But not by much.

I’ve had my fair share of stress, too, but it has less to do with Covid than other challenges. When life jinks, I do, too, for the most part, but only if I can release my attachment to things or a way of being. The more I am attached, the more the attachment hurts me when it’s lost.

Adventure travel and a very unpredictable life shorn of marriage and family and steady income have forced me, like many of my African friends, to learn to adapt in midair. That’s not in any way a statement of superiority; it’s an observation of what I am seeing here as opposed to the plethora of complaining articles about ain’t it awful and who’s to blame in the US and elsewhere we are just too damned comfortable.

Geran de Klerk for Unsplash

My safari operator, Ben Jennings of eTrip Africa, said to me once that “we don’t understand wild.” He was referring to animals, but I think that piece of wisdom is far broader and deeper than that. In our terrible compulsion to try to dominate Nature and Life, neither of which is possible, we get so addicted to the notion of our superiority over our circumstances and our inevitability in the face of life that when life smacks us hard, we find ourselves woefully incompetent.

Last year, after a lot of trouble, I was at this time installing brand new wood floors in my house in Eugene. We were suffocating in the world’s worst air quality, driven by massive fires. Close to the door I had a camping go-bag. At any point I was ready for the Level Three command to GO NOW.

Leave everything to the fire.

While a part of me was sad for what could happen, another was bemused. I wondered if I was installing eight thousand dollars’ worth of kindling. It’s just stuff, I thought. All my junk is just stuff. And if it burns, so what? I’ve been through a bankruptcy. Had a car repossessed. Rebuilt. You learn that you can. And the more things fall way, break, fall apart and end up in ruin, the more you learn you can rebuild. That’s just life.

The river, swollen by rains or starved by drought, is forever changing. Sometimes it’s a Class V white water rapids. Sometimes you have to walk the dry river bed. It’s a perfect analogy for life.

As I studied the faces of the workers, watched their movements as the pieces of leather were coaxed into FIFA regulation balls with studied perfection, I marveled. A piece is faulty, you replace it. A bad stitch, do it over. A ball doesn’t meet specs, you repurpose it. It’s just life.

Covid? Go home. Use your skills elsewhere. If work comes back, so do you.

If not, you move on down the river.

Sometimes the river delivers, sometimes it takes away.

Especially from where I sit in a hotel in Nairobi, heading out again in a few hours for more exploring, America seems intent on drowning herself in recriminations, anger and frustration rather than simply learning to be in the river. Doing so requires being comfortable with discomfort. We’re not doing that very well.

In fact we are failing badly, publicly and embarrassingly in our demand that Mother Nature give us back our “normal,” as though such a thing even existed, and as if it were a sacred birthright by virtue of being American.

There is no such thing. Normal, in life, especially in places where the extreme is the daily, learning to love life is leaning into unpredictability. The more fat, comfy and cozy we are, dependent upon Siri to make coffee, clip our nostril rugs and wipe our butts for us, the less able we are to deal with life as it is.

That’s an observation, not a criticism. For my part, I’ll take the rapids. It’s a lot more exciting, the people who share your journey are dependable and creative. If nothing else, those folks have learned to look forward with anticipation, not dread, for they trust their ability to adapt.

I hope we learn the same lessons.

Photo by Enrique Ortega Miranda / Unsplash