on the endless African sky

It’s our first night at Sentrim Lodge, the impeccable tent camp we will call home for our week in Amboseli National Park, about five hours south of Nairobi. We’ve just finished our first of many dinners consisting of kuku (chicken), rice, veggies, chapatti, and potatoes. A bonfire crackles and curves heavenward beneath the endless African sky about 40 yards from the outdoor dining hall. We step out from under the thatched dome roof to take our seats by the fire and look up. And it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in my life. The sky over the savannah suffers no light pollution. There are no street lights or skyscrapers competing for real estate. All I can see are stars. I’m looking up at a vast canopy of infinite twinkling, and even now the tears return as I think of how incomparably beautiful it is and how tiny I felt underneath it. I remember distinctly thinking, “Do not forget what this looks like. Do not forget this feeling. Whatever else you forget, do not forget this.” And for a moment, my legs stopped moving toward the fire because even they were overcome by the magic of that perfect sky.

And then I heard music. Motteti, the self professed, more than slightly inebriated “Guitar Man” at Sentrim, was playing for us by the fire, and the group was beginning to dance. We danced and sang and circled the bonfire, under the thicket of stars, to the tune of “In the Jungle” for nearly an hour. We laughed until our sides ached, and danced until our legs cramped, and sang until our voices grew raw- partially from the smoke, but mostly because we sang without regard to pitch, with total abandon. After an hour or so, we realized that “In the Jungle” was one of only three songs in Motteti’s repertoire, and we would burst into unstoppable fits of giggling every night that followed, when those chords rang out in the dining hut and Motteti began to sing.

I sat on the back porch of our tent that night, after the lights went out, and watched the stars take their turn dancing until the sound of approaching hyenas hurried me back inside. What struck me then, and has weaved through my every memory of those 19 days in Kenya, is how much beauty exists without my seeing it. Those stars are out every night, even in Nashville, I just can’t always see them. Over here, the light of the stars is edged out by the noisy and pushy radiant energy of urban life. We have high rise apartments, neighborhoods lined with street lights, neon signs, and every manner of artificial light, and the stars don’t put up a fight. They still shine, we’ve just filled the air with so much nonsense that we can’t see them. There is so much beauty right over our heads because, in spite of us, they don’t cease to shine. 

Every day in Kenya, I saw beauty that exists even when my life is so noisy and busy that I can’t see it. I found joy that has existed all along, I just hadn’t stopped checking my social media accounts for long enough to feel it in a while. I savored quiet that is possible anywhere, when I can sit still long enough to hear it. During my time in Kenya, we made space for the good things to become bigger than the bad things. Generosity, abundance, service, laughter, yoga, paint covered fingers, dust caked pants, nature, sky, community, equality, “You first”, “Thank you”, inside jokes, music, Swahili… we intentionally created space to say YES to these things. Saying YES to these naturally meant saying NO to fear, anxiety, stress, “Me first”, guilt, nerves, and all manner of things inauthentic or dishonest. The light that shines when a group of people commit to create that kind of life is possible anywhere, if we open our eyes and really look. It’s just like the stars, you see. The good is always there, shining all around us, if we get to a place where we can see it.

Today, I experience this beauty over coffee with a friend who has also felt the deep Kenya love, a woman I understand a little more after recalling stories from our shared journeys. I feel it in the tears that come, faster now, as I thank God for bringing Julie, Manny, Irene, Billy, Samson, Kenny, Sara, and Dennis into my life. I hear it in the lilting accent of a young Kenyan man in a video I’ve just seen online, that accent taking me back to hours of souls connecting over conversations with my new friends. I smell it in the one pair of shorts that I can’t bring myself to wash- shorts I wore in Kenya that still smell like fire, sky, and earth.

I may not be able to see the sky swimming with stars every night, but I’ll look for the beauty in each moment today, trusting that they’re still shining.

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