Tag 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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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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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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You Wreck Me

Every time I think I have it figured out—

You wreck me.

God, every time I think this is it,

The wind whips in and flips the stableness into 62 different directions.

So I stand—teetering—balanced on my toes with my arms stretched out in the air

Groping for truth,

Groping for stability.

Teach me Father

For I try to do this on my own

And I feel myself falling.

Hold me God for you are the only stable thing in this life.

I slowly lower myself back on the ground.

The shaking starts to subside.

My pounding heart begins to quiet.

 

I’m here God

 

In spite of it all.

In spite of people and their opinions.

In spite of people’s expectations.

 

I’m here God

 

In spite of the crazy, chaotic, the unknown.

Hold me Father

In your steady, stable hands.

You’re all I need.

 

I wrote this a little over a month ago, but it’s been the theme of my life this month. So many changes that I’m not sure where to begin. So much that I’ve had to let go of and give to God. But, I’m here wrapped in God’s presence, thankful for this last year, and hopeful for God’s future plans

The children’s home where I have worked for the last 10 months is now being completely Kenyan run. I’ve said bye to the kids, and in ten days I’ll be back on US soil. I’ve had such an incredible year here in Kenya that I’m almost not sure how to return “home.” I’m excited to see family and friends but not sure how much reverse culture shock is going to happen when I step off the plane. Life here is so simple. I feel so close to God here. I’ve learned so much. I’ve changed. I’ve grown.

Of course I’m looking forward to hot showers, tacos, catching up on the last season of Psych, and turning on a light switch whenever I want to. But, I already miss the kids. I already miss the feeling of riding on the back of a motorbike with the wind whipping through my hair. I already miss the ladies who work at the supermarket. They would tease me about getting lost if I missed coming into town on a Tuesday and would make me order my food from the café in Kiswahili even though I sounded like a two year old. I haven’t even left the country, and I already miss it so much.

I do plan to return to Kenya in the fall although, I’m currently praying about different ministry opportunities. I know that God has a plan, so I’m trusting Him to show that to me in His perfect timing. In the meantime, I’m spending a couple days in Mombassa processing everything and enjoying some time on the beach. Then I’ll be packing and on a plane before I know what happened.

So many things have happened this year that it would be impossible to fit it all into one blog. I made a short video (which I will post below) of some of my favorite picture just to capture some of the memories from my time here at the children’s home. As this door closes I’m lingering a bit in the shadow almost ready to take the next step, but already missing what I’m leaving behind.

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Hard Wooden Benches

 

Wooden Benches

I purposely left the house at 2pm—the time that the meeting was supposed to start. Even though I got to the school half an hour late, I was still one of the first parents there. The teachers were crowded around the chalkboard carefully using a ruler and colored chalk to draw out a chart cluttered with numbers. I sat down on one of the wooden benches, lamented the fact that I had forgotten a pen, and tried several times to load facebook’s news feed. Yup, no signal. This was going to be a loooong meeting.

Forty-five minutes after the meeting was supposed to start, the teachers finally called the parents’ meeting to order. I’m sure parents’ meetings in the US aren’t fun, but ones in Kenya seem especially excruciating. All the parents of class seven kids were required to come due to the fact that the class had scored 18/19 in the district on the recent midterm exams. Hard to do worse then that. The teachers spent the majority of the meeting blaming the parents for not properly motivation and providing for their children. How many parents had bought some type of story books for our kids? In a classroom packed with parents only four of us raised our hands. Why weren’t the kids bringing lunches to school? Why weren’t all of the parents present? The kids whose parents hadn’t graced the school with their presence were pulled to one side of the room to serve as an example of what not to do.

Three hours into the meeting my head began to pound. Concentrating so hard on understanding Swahili, seeing kids marched in front of me while their midterm scores were read in front of everyone, heads down staring at their shoes (which were in various stages of disrepair) did a number to my head.

The class teacher with her multi-colored braids and black and white poka-dotted earrings kept saying, “these are good children,” but would then belittle the child for something he or she did in class or for the fact that their parents where absent. The audience chucked at the teacher’s stories of the kids antics, but I couldn’t. One little girl looked like she wished the floor would swallow her—tattered royal blue sweater and all.

Three out of my four kids were in the top 5 of their class with one of my girls scoring the highest score in her section. I was told to buy her a present, and they called her a Muzungu (an English speaking foreigner). My fourth child didn’t fair as well coming in number 14. I was told that he could do better. I nodded and watched him march in line with all the other students who hadn’t quite made the cut.

Each teacher took a turn defending his or her teaching methods. The clock kept ticking. The chief stood up and told a story about how he gives his son money when he scores well on his tests. Then it was the parents’ turn. They mostly blamed the teachers. The teachers turned it back on the parents saying there was only so much that they could do. I saw no end in sight so finally I apologized and ducked out of the dark class room between parental complaints.

The air felt light on my face and my headache slowly started to subside. It seems hopeless at times. Sure, I can do what I can to help the kids who live at the children’s home where I volunteer, but what kind of future do the rest of these kids have? I’ve offered to help out at the school once a week helping with English or composition. The headmaster appreciated my request but has never taken me up on the offer. I’m afraid that he thinks the English teacher would feel threatened by my presence. So I wait. I go to three hour parent meetings, try to show that I do care, and wonder what to do next. How do you help when help is needed but not wanted? How do you help when the teachers care more about defending themselves then they do about educating children?

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What do you do Anyway?

“So, what do you do?’ she asked as we sat sipping chai and killing time until lunch was ready.  It was the second or third time that week that I’d gotten this question from visitors stopping by the children’s home where I volunteer.

“What do I do?” I thought. Here I was talking to the nursing director of the entire Kijabe Hospital. To someone as busy as her, I’m sure my life looked fairly mundane. Well, today I was spending the morning entertaining guests that I had no idea were coming until I saw a car drive up the drive way. “Every day is different,” I answered. How do you explain being on call 24/7, starting your day at 5:30am but then having the kids gone for the majority of the day? Some days it does feel like I sit around all day, go for walks, and just exist until the kids get home. Other days I’m so busy that I barely have time to breathe and fall into bed at 8:30pm only to have my alarm jolt me awake telling me that it’s time to do it all over again.

As an “auntie” to 17 children, ranging from the ages of 6 to 17, I do everything from braid hair to clean up throw up. I cook a little, clean a little, help tutor the kids, try to teach them what it means to take care of their things (a never ending job). I pick puzzle pieces up off the floor and beat the living room rug after a weekend leaves it filled with enough dust and dirt to fill a sandbox.

What do I do? On Mondays usually do laundry which involves a couple of buckets, some Omo, and a whole lot of clothes pins. But, I don’t have to do the kid’s laundry. Mama Jane (my hero) does that. That woman is amazing. She can get the entire house mopped, the kids laundry (a literal mountain) washed, and cook a mean pot of rice (another mountain), all before lunch.

Tuesdays are town days. Catch up on emails and usually blog while we have fast Internet, stock up on fruit from the fruit market, and get some somosas (sometimes the only meat I get all week). Wednesdays are worship Wednesdays. We’ve been teaching the kids new songs, and I absolutely LOVE hearing them sing their hearts out when we worship. Thursdays are mandazi Thursdays. We head into our little town of Maraigushu to go to the local eating spot for some chai and mandazi (a doughnut type food just not as sugary). As we walk to town we inevitable end up walking with the local neighborhood kids on their way to nursery school. They like to grab our hands and by the time we reach the school we’ve usually collected a nice little string of kids. Friday is movie night. One of the kid’s favorite days of the week. We pop in a movie, sometimes Richelle makes popcorn, and we enjoy some family time.

The weekends are always a blur. Our cook doesn’t work on the weekends, so my Saturdays start at 6am. I get up, heat up water for the man who milks our cow, and then I typically start making pancakes. As the kids wake up, the little kids trickle in the kitchen to “help” me. I usually start burning the pancakes when I have 6 kids hanging on me, but most days the majority of pancakes turnout alright. The kids usually work in the shamba (garden) for awhile in the mornings. I typically braid one or more of the little girl’s hair (always a long project). Sundays involve church, sometimes walks, and whatever else happens to happen.

Then it’s Monday again- beautiful Monday. The kids head off to school. I typically clean up the kitchen and living room area, and it stays clean for the rest of the day! So that’s what I do. That and clean up bloody noses, put on a lot of band aids, give lots of hugs, and just live the day being flexible and taking care of whatever comes my way.

“It’s an emotional job,” Ruthann reflected the other day. “Not a job that can be easily measured.” Some days I do feel like I spend the majority of the day chilling, reading, doing whatever, but then the kids come home and I think, “What don’t I do!”

What do I do? Some days I’m still not sure, but I love it being here for the kids, watching them grow, and doing whatever needs to be done in a day.

Walking to town for mandazi Thursday picking up a string of kids as we go.

Walking to town for mandazi Thursday picking up a string of kids as we go.

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Feeding my Soul

IMG_2564Laying in the sun—palm trees, a pristine pool, tropical flowers. It feels like a different country, almost a different world. The sun feels so rejuvenating and the cold that has refused to go away for the last three weeks has finally started to break up. There’s nothing like a break in the sun after months of working non-stop. Not that I mind. I love my life, the kids at the children’s home, the daily routines. But, with such an emotional job it’s healthy sometimes to get away; and Mombasa is the perfect place to recharge. The food is amazing (yay a break from ugali and beans). The weather is deliciously warm.

For the last three days I haven’t had anyone really need anything thing from me which feels so good after spending the majority of the last nine months constantly on call caring for 17 of the most wonderful kids in the world. Even though I love the kids I work with to death, it’s a physically and emotionally exhausting job. It’s nice to get away from all the pressure, expectations, and endless needs. I’m already feeling so refreshed after just three days, so I know I’ll be able to do a better job when I return.

Travel, new places, cultural, all feed my soul. There is something so incredible about getting to discover or rediscover a new place. Tuesday we spend the day exploring Mombasa’s Old Town. We bartered a price with a great guide who took us all over the city. We saw the spice market, hundred year old buildings, and even ducked our heads into the fish market where we saw everything from dried shark meat to live lobster.

I ate Swahili prawns for lunch fresh shrimp cooked in coconut sauce. It was heavenly. I’m glad I live in such a diverse world. Full of such beauty and flavor. Last night we sat out in the gazebo chatting with our neighbor and new friend from Germany. We talked about life, God, and the challenges and joys of working in ministry. I love those moments. I feel so alive, at peace, full of purpose, and happy in the presence of my creator. He has made such a beautiful world, and I love being able to enjoy different pieces of His work.

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