Wednesday, January 5, 2022
The Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
My Neighbor’s Prayer: The Vocabulary of Blessing as Common Bond
Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan started in 1987. As the brand expanded, it took its shoes and its catchphrase around the globe to emphasize its worldwide reach. In 1989, they featured the Samburu tribe of Kenya. A man with a pair of Nike shoes says “just do it.” Or so the subtitles suggested. Not long after it aired, an American anthropologist reported to the New York Times that the man did not in fact say “just do it,” but actually said, “I don’t want these. Give me big shoes.” When Nike was approached with this transcription faux pas, they admitted to their mistranslation of his words saying that “we thought nobody in America would know what he said.” Such is the misrepresentation of African culture, language, and religion in American public life.
The Samburu people live a life well removed from our own. They are nomadic herders who spend much of their time in search of green pastures and water for their cattle and other livestock. Milk is an important part of their diet, and they have had intermittent success with agriculture in the past decades. Their culture is organized around a series of ceremonies marking rites of passage. Men move from being junior warriors to senior warriors, then junior elders and finally senior elders. They speak the Maa language, same as the more well known Maasai people of Kenya. If you have been to Kenya on safari you may have gotten to know either of these tribes.
The Samburu likely migrated from what is now Sudan centuries ago but may have come from farther east up the Horn of Africa. Their origin stories seem to suggest that they climbed down, and being unable to ascend again back to where they came, they stayed in the arid lands of what is today northern Kenya. Sociologists and ethnographers propose that maybe they came down a high mountain pass and were unable to bring their livestock up and through again, but the “climbing down” part of their origin story reaches through the generations and has led to a theology that roots their origin in a more celestial place, as if they climbed down from the stars. The stars are central to their theology, and their God is called Nkai (a feminine noun).
I was drawn to the prayer below because of the mixed metaphor in the third sentence. “My God, grant me to smell the fragrance of your life that shines forever.” If we are to experience the divine with our senses, the Samburu prayer suggests, it is a scent that accentuates the starlit twinkle of God. Our vision of God intermingled with breath.
My Neighbor’s Prayer
My God, last forever.
My God, grant me a girdle,
multicolored, of sons and daughters.
My God, grant me to smell the fragrance
of your life that shines forever.
My God, we are never full of your life.
My God, answer to what I told you.
And God said: “Alright.”
Samburu people of Kenya
From The Gift of Prayer: A Treasury of Personal Prayer from the World’s Spiritual Traditions