IT wasn't until early one morning when I was seated on a handmade stool trying to milk a cow that I finally discovered the source of the small early-morning sounds in the village. With sunrise still an hour away from the small Kenyan community near Lake Victoria, the mamas were busily preparing for the day, and the sounds, strangely reminiscent of ones known before, were simply rustlings of bowls and utensils.
In predawn darkness, I had heard my name sung out from beyond the door of our small, one-room building. The evening before, as we sat on the steps of the small school we were helping to construct, I had asked one of the mamas who was showing us how she repaired pots when it was that she milked the cow. So here she was, ready to show me. As the nine other volunteers lay still, I quickly dressed and slipped out, stepping over the man who slept across the doorway for, the villagers explained, protection against the unknown things of the night.
The mama, dressed as she was each day in her Western-style cotton dress with a traditional African cloth wrapped over and around, greeted me with a quick smile, then turned and walked off up the hill to her house. As the first wife of the second in command of this village, her home was larger than that of the other wife, although they sat side by side and the children moved freely between the two.
In the front of the house, tied to a lone tree, stood the thin, old family cow. Slapping the cow's hindquarters, the mama walked around her, adjusted the bucket of meal, and then stepped aside, motioning me to the stool.
A language barrier left our conversation a spontaneous sort of sign language, many ``Asante sanas'' (thank yous), and nods. Many of the children and several of the men were trilingual, speaking the tribal Luo, Swahili, and English (compliments of the British colonists). But the older women spoke only the tribal tongue. While our group of volunteers worked among the villagers, those who could would speak English so we might understand. Now, I listened to distinguish the words that passed between the moving forms, but the morning's quiet talk was Luo.
Sitting with my skirt tucked under my legs to keep it from under the cow's hooves, I awkwardly milked the gentle beast. Except when she would arbitrarily walk off, nearly tipping the bucket over, I was able to turn my attention to the activities around me. I watched several of the women as they swung large basins up to their heads and, gathering on the small dirt road, walked off toward the river to bathe and bring water for tea and dishwashing. Others, having made the trek even earlier, busily rewashed dishes for breakfast and filled their kettles to go on the fires tucked amid the huts.
As so often happens when in a strange circumstance, I found my thoughts bouncing between this scene and one more familiar. Here, in this land so unlike my own, which was complete with electric ranges and refrigerators, morning was coming in much the same way it always had. And like mothers all over the world who rise to work before both little ones and bigger ones demand attention, the village mamas were up long before light, arranging dishes, cooking eggs and toast - but over fires, not heated coils.
I used to wonder why my own mother, living in a large suburban Southern city with its modern conveniences, rose before the sun to prepare the day, in her own way, for our family. And although I never quite woke up in time to help, or even watch her, I could now watch from the stool - from this village so far away.
And as I looked down into the bucket, I knew that in a few hours those same sounds, only slightly different in pitch, would herald another day.