Category Archives: Kenya

Cultural Conundrums

How do you do it? I mean really? How do you live the day to day in a culture different from your own without losing your sense of self? I can eat ugali with my hands, brush my teeth outside, wash my laundry in a bucket, but those are methods of daily survival. How do you move past mere survival to actual relationships? How do you develop friendships when culturally people are open with their lives, but can be very private with their thoughts and feelings?

“Just tell me what you’re thinking,” I want to mentally cry. “Does 2pm actually mean be there by 2 or does it mean I’ll be sitting by myself for half an hour before anyone else ambles in? Can I ask questions about your life or is that seen as intrusive?” I’m not trying to be intrusive. I just want to know who you are? I want to be your friend past surface conversations about food and weather.

Then I realize that’s not how it works. You don’t ask questions without first building trust. Information can be seen as a form of power. What you know about someone has the potential to be used as a tool to hurt or shame them. So the focus is not as much about how individuals feel or think, as it is about how a group functions and how it works within the fabric of tradition. The reputation of the group as a whole is what is important. Individual lives fall within that carefully built structure.

The last several months of coming back to live in Kenya have reminded me just how much culture affects relationships. Living within a mix of cultures can teach so much, but those lessons can be painful at times as cultural misunderstandings leave one or both people with hurt feelings or a sense of frustration.

I’m from a “cold” culture as defined in the book “From Foreign to Familiar” by Sarah Lanier. Cold cultures (so named because they are usually found in cold regions like Canada, the northern states of the US, the UK and many European countries) value individualism, punctuality, and personal expression. I’ve also spent a lot of time in “hot” culture countries spending formative childhood years in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now living parts of the last year and a half in Kenya.

People from hot culture countries tend to focus on the group over the individual, are more event focused then time focused, and place a high value on community. Life often has more of a laid back feel and communication is frequently done indirectly so as to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or causing embarrassment. In hot climates there is much more of a communal sense of belongings so what you have is usually shared with the group.

From a theoretical perspective I love and appreciate both hot and cold cultures. But on a more practical level, it can be difficult living within a mix of the two. I want to share my belongings with the group but get frustrated when a DVD comes back scratched. I want to live a more laid back lifestyle but also find myself feeling anxious when not much was accomplished during the course of the day. Finding that elusive middle ground is a constant challenge.

I’ve been learning lately that it takes time—time to build trust, time to establish a reputation, time to understand yourself and why you think the way you do so that you can understand someone from another culture better. But, the breakthroughs do happen. Often when you least expect. As a westerner, I’m learning that I sometimes need to throw out my schedule so that when those times do come, when that trust has finally been built, I can cultivate the moment instead of rushing off and missing it completely. Like last week when my roommate asked me about my family for the first time. The week before she had briefly told me about hers opening the door for future conversations. Now a second opportunity surfaced.

I was able to linger in the moment while we chatted. She was sewing a skirt so I sat down on the floor and painted my nails in order to continue the conversation without standing there awkwardly. As we talked one of our neighbors walked in, and I ended up painting her nails as well. While the nail polish dried we watched a movie. Unplanned, unscheduled but slowly friendships were forming.

I’ve found that it may take weeks even months sometimes but relationships do happen if you stay flexible and are willing to adjust your own ways of thinking. People are more important then DVDs. I’ve had to learned in this communal context that building relationships often involves some scratches. I’m learning to be ok with that. I’m learning to wait and to enjoy the differences. I’m learning that my way of approaching life isn’t always right. I’m constantly learning to be flexible, but the payoff is beautiful as slowly genuine friendships start to form.

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Take This Cup

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It’s been three weeks of teaching. Something I both love and hate. I love the chance to talk to a group of kids, telling them that they matter and that God loves them. He cares for all of their worries and sees all of their struggles.

But, I dread it. Every week I dread it so much that I can’t think about it for too long before I go or my nerves take over. I hate standing in front of a group and speaking. I feel vulnerable, small, and shaky. I’m not a natural speaker. I’m not a gifted presenter. My comfort zone is pen and paper. There my soul feels free and alive. In front of a crowd my tongue feels tied and mentally I count the minutes until I can sit down again and breath.

To get me through my natural feelings of inadequacy, it has taken a lot of prayer and an intense focus on the Bible story I’m sharing. Each story so far has included a child in some way. I want to show the class of 4th to 8th graders that I have been given the privilege to speak to that they are never too young, to small, or to weak to be used by God.

Last week focused on the widow and her two sons whose story is found in 2 Kings chapter 4.They were desperate with more debt then they could pay. They cried out to God for a solution. I told the row of intent faces sitting in front of me that the story illustrated that no situation is too difficult for God. Following the prophet Elisha’s direction, the widow and her two sons went from house to house collecting jars. Then, as they poured their small cup of oil into the jars that they had collected, God multiplied that cup of oil which they then sold to pay their debts. I told the kids that often God asks us to put feet to our prayers. The money they needed didn’t just fall from the sky, but God provided an opportunity for them and when they followed in faith and obedience their need was met. “God used the little that the widow had,” I told the kids. “It was just a small amount of oil, but from that He multiplied and multiplied. We should expect big things from God,” I concluded. “He can take our little bit, our small lives, our cup of oil and do great things.”

Thankful that the lesson had filled my allotted time I sat down and took a deep breath. God had gotten me through another week. But, God wasn’t done. He took the little that I had and multiplied it. My co-teacher jumped in. He saw the theme that no one is too young or too small to make a difference and ran with it giving a passionate speech about how God wanted to work in each of their lives. By the end of the class time (which had now run overtime) the majority of the class had gathered up front expressing a desire to have a personal relationship with Christ.

God was moving, and to be honest, I was stunned to be apart of it. So we prayed together and then my co-teacher invited those who had prayed to come back later in the day for more a more in-depth talk. I walked away from that classroom amazed, and yet I really shouldn’t have been. God had taken the little cup of oil that I had to offer and multiplied it. Why was I so surprised? Just as I told the class, we should expect big things from God. He moves in His timing and His ways, but He moves. He takes that small bit that we have to offer and when we walk in obedience, and He multiplies it. To God be the glory.

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The Difference

It’s amazing the difference, the cool of the evening contrasted with the heat of mid-day. The tension of not knowing, of not always fitting in, to finally settling and seeing that yes—even during this short two and a half months God has a purpose. A purpose often different from my own, but one that grows me even in areas where I didn’t realize I needed growth.

It’s been two weeks now of living on Kenya’s colorful coast, living in a community of 10 to 25 people depending on the day. Life is simple—bucket showers, a basic diet, a loose often open schedule for the week which for someone who is used to being busy can be hard. Once again I’ve found myself waiting. Why God? Why here? Why this town? Why at this time? His leading to come was so clear, but sometimes the day to day can be less clear. But we’re here. I’m here, and I find that God seems to have the most to teach in the midst of the stillness, and it’s not until I’ve learned those lessons that He allows me to move to the next thing.

I want to accomplish something. He wants me to abide. I want the days to be full, to tick them off the calendar because if I’m honest with myself my eye is already on the next phase. He wants me to be still, to enjoy this moment, to seek His face.

Again, my careful plans change; but as I loosen my fingers and allow Him to write my story beautiful things happen—an opportunity to teach, the chance to invest in a young girl, time for needed spiritual development, conversations that change me, opportunities to encourage, the chance to learn from those who have been there before. Everyday a new opportunity to see what God has for this day. Once again, I’m humbled and thankful to be on this journey, in this place of contrasts, serving a God who knows the futures and delights in the growth of His children.

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Stillness of the Soul

Two three day weekends (thanks to a UK holiday followed by a US holiday) and a delay in the lovely process of bureaucracy has resulted in me landing in Kenya three days ago while my fiancé waits in London for his passport to be returned. The good news is that the visa was approved, but the visa process and waiting for the passport to be available for collection has been a bit of a patience game.

So, plans to jump right into ministry have been delayed; and instead I’m enjoying the hospitality of friends who run a children’s home near Nairobi while I wait. I must admit that the American side of me finds having no schedule, no job, and no responsibilities a bit disconcerting. I’m in limbo, unable to plan, unable to fill my day with things that keep me from having to stop and honesty look at my life.

Sometimes the stillness scares me.

It’s ok for a day or two. I’ve repacked my luggage twice, spent time playing with some of the kids, and have even been able to get some wedding planning done. But, as everyone else has schedules and responsibilities; I currently have none so I spend the majority of my day alone.

Today I read Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart. Eighty-four pages of pure wisdom. I felt convicted, encouraged, challenged, and feed all at the same time. This slim book somehow manages to unwrap the purpose of solitude in such a simple, beautiful way that it’s hard as a reader not to be changed by its profound counter-cultural message. Stop and be still.

But we’re afraid of the stillness.

It’s easy to see busyness as a good thing, but Nouwen shows that a certain amount of silence is essential to one’s spiritual life. Yes, we may fear the silence; but we need it in order to truly understand God. “We move through life in such a distracted way,” Nouwen writes, “that we do not even take the time and rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say, or do are worth thinking, saying, or doing.”

“Solitude is the furnace of transformation,” Nouwen argues. “Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusion of the false self… In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me—naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken,—nothing. It is this nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something.”

When it’s all stripped away—when it’s just you and God—it’s easy to see how small you are, how sinful, how, broken. But, as unpleasant as it is to be stripped of the props that we cling to in order to provide routine in our lives; it’s mind-blowing to experience that—while God is a God of order—He is not a God of routine. He has more in store then just the comfortable. He’s not interested in our busyness. He is interested in our soul, in a relationship, in more then what tradition and culture have to offer.

So I’m taking some time to stop—to ignore the nagging feeling that I must go out and do something. Time to stop and evaluate myself, my heart, my motives. It is scary because I don’t always like what I find when in the stillness I stare into the brokenness of my soul, but as Nouwen so insightfully points out solitude is the furnace of transformation. The silence allows God to shape the soul into what He wants it to be. A painful process, but one that produces eternal result. A process that transforms one from doing for the sake of doing to—being, existing, feeling life, and finding true purpose.

Be still my soul

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Just a Page

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I was still a bit jet lagged, sitting at my sister’s bridal shower party focused on rediscovering the sensation of flavorful food, when a friend of mine turned to me and said, “so what did you bring back from Kenya?”

“Ringworm,” my jet lagged brain replied. We both laughed and then went on to talk about her daughter’s current trip to Honduras and the joys and pains of living outside your home country. What did I bring back from Kenya?—memories of emotional highs and lows, stories that probably wouldn’t make much sense to someone who wasn’t there at the time. I brought back the burden of the hurt that I saw but couldn’t fix. But, I also brought back feelings of unexplainable joy from being a part of a community that loved God and sought Him constantly.

I think the question is more how have I changed as opposed to what did I bring back. Because I have changed—so much sometimes that I don’t know how to explain it. Travel does that to you mostly because of the incredible people that you meet along the way. There is some sort of desperate connection that can take place where two people who have never met suddenly find themselves thrown into circumstances so overwhelming and unfamiliar that fast, almost unexplainable friendships happen.

Maybe it’s the type of people that travel attracts, but I think it has more to do with the layers that are torn off when you leave everything that’s comfortable and enter somewhere where you can barely communicate, break cultural norms on a daily bases, and become completely dependant on people who yesterday were total strangers. It’s completely petrifying at times, and once you live through it you leave changed.

I think that’s why travel is so addicting. Once you find that yes you can survive outside the “safe” the “comfortable” of what you know, so many incredible doors are open to you, so many adventures, so many amazing new people that you never would have met if you’d stayed safely in your own home. Yes, sometimes you come back with ringworm, or other unwelcome side affects, but it’s worth it for the way that you are molded into someone new—someone who sees more then just the familiar.

I’m getting ready to get on a plane again. I’m trying not think too much as it’s a bit scary standing, once again, on the edge of the unknown. What’s it going to be like this time? Is it safe? Will I have enough resources to make it? What will the day to day look like? I have no idea. All I know is that this is where God wants me. He has given me that peace. He has given me this opportunity to travel, and it’s all in His capable hands. So here we go. One more page, one more chapter to a story that I never could have written for myself.

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Under Acacia Trees

Restless—it seems to be the only consistent thing. Exhaustion—attempting to go to bed early only to lie awake for hours staring at nothing, and thinking about everything. At first I was just numb, now I find myself almost frantic, desperate to process all of this but not sure how to begin. I’ve avoided writing, but I can’t any longer. I have to process. I have to “move on” but how?

Yesterday I plastered my wall with pictures—smiling faces, precious memories, moments that I will never ever forget. Nineteen children who touched my life. Nineteen children that I’m no longer able to kiss goodnight. Nineteen children who each stole a piece of my heart.

It was abrupt and painful having to say goodbye. For reasons I still don’t understand the woman who started the children’s home where I volunteered for the last year decided to take the project back, move into the children’s home, and run it without the help of the American team that had been working there. So we packed, said goodbye, and returned “home.”

Easter Sunday after leaving the home, I attended a church which chose to celebrate Easter with an outdoor service. As I sat surrounded by acacia trees, trying to feel (but not feel too much) life- giving words soaked into my soul. It was an informal service that day. Several members took turns sharing a scripture reading, poem, or word from their heart. One woman talked about the loss of a dream, something that she had recently experienced in her own life. “It’s like a broken branch,” she said. “You can take that branch and keep trying to put it back on the tree in order to revive the dream you held on to so dearly, or you can let it fall to the ground. As the branch lies on the ground, in time, it will decompose. In time, a new shoot will rise from the death of that dream. In time, a new tree will break from that decomposed branch. A new seed will fall. A new dream will take root but only if we stop digging it up and trying to resurrect something that is no longer meant to be.”

A new dream, direction, purpose. What once seemed so sure and beautiful is no longer there. What once looked so permanent is gone. What once fulfilled me has been taken away leaving me restless, but not empty. There is a purpose, and there are plans far bigger than the ones I plotted out for myself. I look to the Creator, my Healer, my Constant in a world full of change. Nothing surprises my God. No problem is more than He can handle. No person can take away my joy because my joy comes from serving my King wherever He takes me. He has already begun to open new doors, and lead me into a new beautiful chapter, and while I still feel restless at times, this hurt has already begun to heal. This pain is not to be wasted. God is growing me, stretching me, holding me as others disappoint. Leading me when plans fall apart and dreams are taken away. My restless soul finds peace in His sovereignty. My dreams are gifts from Him as He grows new purpose and life from this pain.

I'll always love these smiles. No one can take the memories away.

I’ll always love these smiles. No one can take the memories away.

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Stepping Back

 

Stepping back

It’s been a week and two days since I stepped back on American soil. Did you know that US customs is now almost completely automated? You stand in line until an empty machine opens up, then you scan your passport and answer a couple quick questions on the computer screen. The computer then takes your picture and prints out a receipt which you take to the only human being involved in the process. The man behind the desk scribbled on my receipt, and I was good to go.

So I’m back. It’s been fun running into friends at Walmart and getting to be with my family again. I’ve eaten more meat this last week then I think I ate all of last year put together. I’ve only opened the driver’s door instead of the passenger door once since coming back, and thankfully I’ve never had trouble remembering to drive on the right side of the road.

It’s crazy always having 3G internet, being able to take an actual hot shower whenever I want, and not having to wash laundry by hand. I haven’t had a lot of reverse culture shock experiences expect that I was shocked with how white the eggs and sugar are in America, and when I got on my first American Airlines plane I was reminded how fast many Americans talk. Its feels a little funny not to carry shillings in my wallet any more and not to hear multiple languages as I go throughout the day.

It’s interesting to me how normal and yet abnormal life is all at the same time. I waved to someone I didn’t know yesterday as I was driving down the road, and I couldn’t remember if that was culturally appropriate or not. I guess since I live in Southern Illinois it was OK, but I need to brake that habit before I go to visit my grandparents in Chicago next weekend.

While I was gone kids got taller (a couple are now taller then me), babies were born, people moved away, and my sister got engaged. It’s fun catching up with life again although this last year in Kenya has changed me, and I’m not always sure how to fit back into this life. For now I’m just going to savor these next two months in the US. It’s kind of refreshing being somewhere where life comes easy, and I don’t have to worry about converting money and communicating in a language that I can understand to some degree but can’t always communicate basic sentences in.

As much as I love America, I already miss Kenya. I desperately miss the kids I got to work with. I miss buying avocadoes for 12 cents. In a strange way I even miss wading through knee high water to get to the store when the rains came in and turned the road in front of our house into a lake. Life in Kenya is an adventure. It’s a life often stripped to the basics. When it’s time to cook dinner you go to the backyard pick cabbage, carrots, and potatoes and make a meal. I miss that. I even miss washing my clothes by hand sometimes even though it would take half the morning to get it done. I miss the stillness of the morning. Sitting on the couch after the kids left for school just reading my Bible and journaling. I felt so close to God in those moments, and it changed me. But, it’s good to be changed. It’s good not to get too comfortable. I think the best thing about traveling is getting a new perspective, being stretched (even though it’s painful) and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s nice to be home, but I’m thankful that I went. Not everyone understands that, but I’m happy to belong in more then one place. They have both shaped me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I miss this road even on the rainy days

I miss this road even on the rainy days

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