Kenya: Seeing Past Cultural Differences

Originally posted: June 16, 2011

Steve Charles –  One element unique to this trip is the presence of our hosts — the Capuchin Franciscan friars and students from nearby Catholic University and other friends — at most of our daily activities and meals. Walk into the dining room and you’ll see students deep in conversation with one of these men or women. Step onto our bus and you’ll see the conversation continuing.

Father Godfrey Odunga (our host) enters the room and shakes hands with everyone. Brother Matthew teases the guys one minute, hugs them the next, gets medicine for one the next, plays soccer with them the next, and is always there to listen. Brother Stephen’s words have already inspired one of our students, and today he helped them bargain at the market (In fact, I just walked by him and Jose Herrera ’12 relaxing on the porch enjoying the beautiful weather and conversation before our next activity.)

We are immersed in a different culture and we are meeting it through budding friendships and honest and deep conversation. Every bus ride to a village school or Nairobi National Park or school to place soccer with the kids is a road trip with fine companions. You can hardly hear for all the chatter, laughter, and, last night at least, singing in this bus! (You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a bus full of Wabash men singing a newly learned African song, then following up with performances of half the songbook from The Lion King!)

The conversations range from politics to religion (interesting that we often start with the two taboos normally avoided on first meetings) to economics to music to one’s life story, but they’re always personal.

We are meeting this culture alongside new friends whose worldview says “the key to success in life is humility,” but who are generous enough to allow us to meet their culture on our own terms. Literally — they’re doing so in English, which is for most their second or third language.

Denis Maina, another one of our companions whose life has unexpected parallels with my own and who ministers to the needs of kids in public schools here, puts it another way: “I’ve grew up living ‘the good life,’ and I’ve chosen the real life over the ‘good life.’” He adds with typical honesty and humor—”Of course, if the real life and the good life ever converge, then ‘Hallelujah.’”

So while seeing wild animals in Nairobi National Park is great, and seeing the African way of celebrating mass was stirring, these one-on-one conversations may very well turn out to be the strongest catalyst for learning, understanding, and exploration on this trip.

DeVan Taylor’s experience is but one example:

DeVan Taylor ’13 — I wish I could convey everything that I’m feeling and thinking now that we’ve finished our third day in Kenya. I’m home and have experienced nothing but family, love, and generosity. I’ve fallen in love with the natural essence of the country and equally with the animals.

What makes this trip most special for me is that, being African-American — and not being the biggest fan of that term — I have come to appreciate the “African” much more, and have negated and embraced my initial expectations for this trip at the same time.

Devon with that giraffe!

 

I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what I expected coming to Africa, although the term “Motherland” and home constantly came to mind. Also: identity, finding myself, or even more accurately said, finding a part of me that I don’t know; abandoning the distinction between an “us” — being the black community in America — and “them”  — those native to the continent.

Since we’ve arrived here I’ve met people who have taken a genuine interest in me, my life, and my ideas. Beyond that, I have had creatures great and small take an interest in me, from a giraffe to the insects who have feasted on me as of late.

Father Odunga, Brother Matthew, and Brother Stephen have all had their respective impacts on me and my experience so far. Father Odunga and Brother Stephen assumed I’d go into the priesthood because I was educated by Jesuits at Brebeuf [High School in Indianapolis), so we’ve talked abou that. And Brother Matthew has  been talking with me about many things that have opened my eyes to the country of Kenya, its people, or myself.

I’ve appreciated the little things even more: waking up in the morning, the rain, and the affection of animals. I can’t not think about a giraffe resting his head on my shoulder and licking me and not smile or the fact that I was comfortable kissing him as well.

I can’t not think about how heartwarming it was to have a three-week old puppy — who I rightly named Francis — run up to me, nuzzle me, and be completely comfortable with me, not wanting to leave me and be filled with true happiness.

I can’t ignore the pain that comes to my heart when I look into the eyes of the children here who are students, or a toddler full of energy in my arms, with so many hopes and dreams, with aspirations the size of mountains looking to me and others as an example and model to aspire to as well. I think of how many of those won’t be attained and will continue to live in what we perceive as poverty and destitution for the rest of their lives; however I’m comforted. I’m comforted by their strength and faith of heart.

When we ride in our bus and the children smile from ear to ear and wave, running after our bus; or, when we have the opportunity to just have a simple conversation. Their sincerity, their hospitality, and their ability to remain optimistic and hopeful in slums that we may see as full of hopelessness encourages me.

The most profound statement I’ve heard on the trip so far is this, “Africa is sick. Africa is poor. Africa is at war. Africa is broken.” Yet through all of the hardship, the spirit of Africa, specifically where we are here in Kenya, and the people remain strong. It moves and drives people. We see that when you have nothing, all you have is faith and family; that is the stability and what is important.

“The Motherland” is no longer clever allegory, but real for me. This is home because a home has been made here for me. The fullness I feel can’t be explained; and the journey is not over. There is still more to do here and there will be more to be done once we leave. We have more to grow, more to learn, more to feel, experience, and discover from a people and place, nearly forgotten.

Peace from the Motherland.

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