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Ash Wednesday - An ‘African’ child's understanding

by Georgo Komo

In many modern societies ash has little or no value at all. It belongs in the dumpster with the other trash. That is not true in the mind of a young kid such as myself when I was growing up in rural Kenya. Once, the sage said, “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”

For Christians, Ash Wednesday starts an observance of forty solemn days in the religious calendar.  On this day, those who deeply observe the practice display a ‘smudge’ of ash in the form of a cross on their foreheads. The religious practice of Lent dates back over 1,000 years.

You might ask, “What’s the significance?

In Judaism - the bedrock of today’s Judeo-Christian traditions, ashes symbolized penitence, humility and repentance.


Growing up in a society where even the basic needs of life were scarce, no item was considered “worthless” until it was used, reused...and used then reused to the umpteenth time. This reminds me of my first rain boots I had patched, re-patched, patched and r-e-p-a-t-c-h-e-d so many times that they lost their original shape and color - yet I kept wearing them. Let’s call it austerity of the highest order (that’s a story for another day).

Back to the Ashes. my patient teacher, Grandma, taught me what I still hold to be my own personal discovery today. Something that I passionately thought put me on par with Archimedes, the ancient Greek scientist who discovered the formula of finding the density of a metal by simply immersing it in water.

One day in 4th grade I could not attend afternoon classes due to a strong heart burn that curtailed my bowels. My teacher sent me back home from school with instructions for my grandmother to buy me an antacid such as Tums. When I got home I “accidentally” found my grandmother relaxing after a hard day of work on the farm. Upon seeing me she looked disturbed and immediately became anxious about why I left school. She was a tough, but loving, lady who took the education of her grandkids with great expectation even though she had never received formal schooling herself. I explained to her what I was feeling and the instructions given by my teacher. I tried to display the figure of a small, sickly lad.

Grandma walked away from the house without uttering a word back to me. I thought to myself, “Is she not concerned or she is just feeling defeated about what to say?” My gut feeling warned me, “George you are in big trouble. Grandma cannot piece together your seemingly ‘fake story’. She may think you lied to the class teacher to get a free afternoon from class.” Like a housefly, I felt entangled in a spider’s web. But I was at the mercy of a mean looking Grandma. I was caught between a rock and a hard spot.  

She returned back quickly. My instincts motioned my legs to take flight from a no-nonsense figure walking in my direction. If I ran away from her, then I would have to find another place to spend the night. So, I decided that running away would only make a bad situation worse and I stood firmly planted on the ground with my legs shaking like a papyrus reed in a strong westerly wind! As she came closer, my eyes were fixed on her hands. I keenly watched a clenched fist on one hand and half-full glass of a clear liquid - which I later discovered was water. If she is handing me some few coins to the drug store for some tums as the class teacher suggested, then why is she bringing the glass with a liquid in it?” I smelled a rat. At least she was not carrying a stick...that is all that mattered to me at the moment. I silently let out a huge sigh of relief. To my amazement she was carrying some ash.

Yes...ash. “Here lick this ash 3 times”, she ordered with strong conviction on her face. I almost thought to ask her, “Grandma what are you smoking?” Out of respect, though, I opened my mouth, stuck out my tongue and licked the ‘tasteless’ ash 3 times just as ordered. I trusted my grandmother. She had never offered me anything that could harm her grandchild. She had been a loving grandma indeed. As I lifted my face to receive the glass of water, I feigned a smile across my face to relieve the tension. Immediately, I belched a bout of gas and, miraculously, I felt better. My bowels started moving again! Eureka! Eureka!

 “How are you feeling now?” she asked. “Grandma I feel much better”, I responded with a deep smile. The next sentence from her broke my spirit. “You can now run back to school.” Dear Lord! I thought I had won a free afternoon! Darn it!

Up to now I cannot figure out why my grandma thought of giving me ash as a remedy to my heartburn. Who knows? She might have been doctor, just without formal education. Of course, I do not recommend licking ash as an alternative to Tums in case of heartburn.

As I conclude my “ash” reflection I invite you, dear reader, to take a minute or two and think of the loose change you will accumulate in the next 40 days. I am thinking of the small amount of pennies and dimes you receive as change after using a $5 note to buy yourself a cup of coffee, a burger, fries, or a can of soda. You might have concluded that those pennies and dimes can’t buy much of value in the US. What if by the end of the next 40 days, regardless whether those 40 days are in respect of a religious observance or not, you collected that “valueless” change and donated it to Family Hope Charity (FHC), a nonprofit organization founded by the late Tom O’Hern (RIP)? Family Hope Charity could turn that which has no value into something quite valuable. FHC partners with local Community Based Organizations in Kenya, India and Uganda to provide simple items like Tums, pens and pencils, school fees etc. to poor children. Your little coins and our little contributions can go a long way. As the proverb goes, “Little by little fills a jar”.

Blessings to y’all.


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