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And for once I was SuperMom

Friday, August 22, 2008

Donkey on a Leash

So we’ve been in Kenya almost a month, we’ve navigated renting an apartment, starting new jobs, riding matatus, and driving a stick shift on the other side of the road with the other hand. All basically successful, leaving no permanent damage to either of us or our marriage.
Our first ten days was spent staying with Marcy and Muhia, Scott’s colleague and his lovely wife, closer to the town center of Nairobi. They took us to church, answered our endless questions, put up with my taking Swahili notes at the dinner table, and clued us in to the politics of Kenya. Not to mention fun conversation and handing it to us in Scrabble. Marcy and Mo have lived in the US so they are used Americans and know where we are coming from; they have already helped us navigate Nairobi in a sensitive manner.
My prior experience in East Africa had been in the nation of Tanzania which is less developed than Kenya. (When people ask me if I’ve been to Kenya before I say, ‘no, but I’ve been to Tanzania.’ Which is a bit like saying you’ve not been to the U.S. but you’ve been to Canada. Close but not quite.) So I had met several people that were adults but could not read or write, seen mostly people in abject poverty, and had experienced a continental divide in cultural differences. While I was in Tanzania I had seen the beginnings of Westernization. I remember looking out the window of one of our vehicles at beautiful African child with short hair (as they wear it) and in a western-style dress and I remember thinking it’s like watching a square peg willingly shave off it’s corner’s to fit in a round hole. Here in Nairobi they have shaved off even more. The women are so stylishly dressed that I feel self-conscious walking on the streets. Their cell phones are amazing, large beautifully done billboards hover over the clogged streets, and sellers on the streets are not so desperate; several have let me walk away from a sale when they refused to come down to my price. Most of this is because Kenya is more affluent than Tanzania and has access to more investors and more international media. I have found that I have yet to fully sacrifice any modern convenience (although hot showers, electricity and internet services are often flighty). I can get an amazing latte in almost shopping center. The malls put American malls to shame, complete with koi ponds and fountains. We’ve already lots of fun conversations with quick, sharp and highly educated Kenyans who are thinking through the issues of their nation; churches that are on the front lines combating poverty and organizations that are bringing real deep sociological answers to the cuts in the fabric of this country. I have been filled with hope at seeing the development and the people that are rising up through the roots to grow a new Kenya. (All of this keeping in mind that ten percent of the population of Kenya holds the majority of the wealth.)
But things are still different than they are back home. I am definitely not in Kansas. I had asked many questions of Americans before I left home and had been able to talk to Muhia before we left American soil. One of my main concerns was whether or not I’d be able to run. The Americans that I had talked to told me that nobody does that and it’s not safe, if the smog didn’t kill me to start. Muhia said yes, bring your running shoes. So on the first day in the country Muhia, Muhia’s nephew, Scott, me, and Muhia’s dog all went on a run through the tilted and crazy streets of Nairobi. We cut quite the path through the people and cars, to be sure. I was all geared up to have people gawk and stare at us, but much to my entertainment it was not us that attracted the most attention from onlookers, it was the small Rottweiler that ran, happily and leashed, beside Muhia. Kenyans, for the most part, do not like dogs. Dogs are largely used for guarding houses and not as pets that we lavish attention on and form emotional bonds with as members of our family. Since then I have seen a few Kenyan men running, two Kenyan women (one in spandex), two white women, and several white men running. All in tennis shoes and varying forms of athletic gear and a few with mp3 players, leading me to conclude that, yes, people run in Kenya (keeping in mind that Kenyans are famous for running in the Olympics).
So today I suited up and went running all by myself, and I got stared at, a lot. The men said hello or just stared and the women looked at me like I had done and gone lost my mind (never you mind that there are several Kenyan women running in the Olympics at this very moment, in outfits that I would not be caught dead in, much less internationally photographed in). All these observations of running have led me to think through what it means to be culturally offensive. There is a difference between doing something that is culturally offensive and doing something that may just be construed as strange. I’ve seen this in my own context back home in Colorado. One day I was driving up the last paved road to our home in BV, and as I drove up I saw a man running up the road in slightly shorter than normal shorts and slightly longer than normal hair, but this was not the oddest thing about this man. He was running with a donkey, on a leash. Yes, he was jogging up a hill, with seemingly, his pet donkey. I waved to the man with the pet donkey, he waved back and I thought to myself, ‘you don’t see that everyday,’ downshifted and continued on my way home. This man with the donkey was not being offensive, his presence did not rankle me or disrupt my existence, it was just odd. Therefore there are going to be times when Scott and I do something that is just odd, that does not offend anyone just makes them turn their heads and wonder what that was about. I think that prior to this my experience with cross-cultural situations was that everything I do that is not Kenyan is going to be rude and offensive, so that I interacted with people fearing that I was always basically being offensive. It’s nice to know that’s not true and that sometimes my actions will just be, ‘a donkey on a leash.’

Mzungu riding matatus

Colors muted and blended together. Shapes softened, losing their distinct edges. As afternoon faded into evening low, grey clouds closed in. The black shapes of a host of birds traced lazy circles in the darkening sky. In other settings these events would have been little cause for alarm. However, for an mzungu waiting for a matatu at the Nairobi bus station they set quite an ominous mood.
Wazungu aren't generally known to make use of the cheap public transportation offered by matatus. This was my second week of riding the matatu to work and I had yet to have a single other white person in a van with me (aside from my wife). My use of matatus was based on two factors: I figured that what was good for a black Kenyan should be good enough for me and I really didn't have any other option for getting to the office of the ministry I work for. In doing this I brushed off the statements from many white people about how dangerous it can be to ride matatus. Even some of my black Kenyan friends had seemed a bit worried for me when I mentioned that my route to work would entail getting dropped off and picked up at the bus station. The way I figured, sure it might have some dangers, but my Kenyan friends do it. Plus, nothing is going to happen to me in the daylight.
Of course, now it was evening, rapidly progressing into night. This was a different story. On previous commutes I had little trouble. I took a bus from my office to the city center. From there I wound my way through the bustling, narrow streets to the bus station and got on the 100 or 120 matatu up Kiambu road. Except today when I had entered the dirty square that serves as bus station there were no matatus for my route there.
Now, Kenyan public transport doesn't work like it does in Western countries. There is no posted bus schedule or route numbers. Everyone in Nairobi just knows what number they need to take to get where they need to go. And the matatus don't even pretend to be in a certain place at a given time. There is no "I'm going to catch the 8:10 matatu into town." Matatus go when they have a paying passenger in every seat (as well as maybe a few more jammed in). Meeting your time schedule is not the matatu operators concern. Their concern is maximizing their profits.
When I arrived at the bus station there was a line of about 20 people waiting in the place where my route number picked people up. So I was fairly confident matatus would soon show up to pick up all those paying customers. After half an hour of waiting in the line I was beginning to wonder. The woman next to me explained in response to my queries that this type of wait was a bit unusual, but that it did happen from time to time. I thought I discerned from her half Swahili-half English explanation that the matatu drivers did sometimes decide not to bother coming all the way to the bus station. On these occasions you had to walk to wherever they were deciding to turn around. I thought about asking where this other pick-up point might be, but when I had asked Kenyans for directions on previous occasions they assumed I knew a lot more about the surroundings and context than I actually did resulting in directions of nebulous worth. Plus, the woman wasn't headed for wherever this other pick-up point was, so I opted to stay put and wait.
As my wait stretched from a half hour to an hour I was beginning to wonder. Several people in front of me in line had gotten fed up and wandered off. Maybe to the rumored other pick-up point. I again considered striking out in search of it. But then I thought, as soon as I step out of line a matatu will show up and I will have lost my place. Other Kenyans were waiting here, and plus, this was where they were supposed to come.
Twilight was deepening as my wait approached the hour and a half mark. The square which had been a bee hive of activity throughout my wait was slowly emptying. As I stood in the queue hundreds of people swirled around me and not one of them was white. I stood as the lone mzungu in the square. At this point I was seriously considering action plans should no matatu show up. I had already exchanged several text messages with Lara. She was waiting anxiously at home with dinner ready. I had felt pretty secure during the day time. But if you listened to a lot of white folks Nairobi is like some kind of horror movie where if you are out after dark the hordes of monsters will descend upon you. According to the testimony of even my most street-wise Kenyan friends this wasn't the best place to be at night regardless of the color of your skin. The fact that my skin is white would further distinguish me as a target. I only had a cheap mobile phone and about a thousand shillings (fifteen dollars) with me, but that wouldn't matter to would be muggers.
My plan was set. If a matatu didn't show up in the next five minutes I was going to call Lara and have her ask our neighbor Nate to come to pick me up. In the mean time I would hightail it north and west as quickly as I could walk. Just then a van lurched to a halt in front of me. I was trying to figure out if it was the right route when the line behind me started surging around me to the sliding door on the other side of the van. So much for the orderly queue. I realized that if I didn't move I would be left in the dark. Three passengers were trying to get off the matatu, but couldn't make their way through the surging crowd. Two women in business suits tried to get seats together but were thrust apart. I boxed out the throng behind me long enough to let the disembarking passengers squeeze out. My courtesy almost cost me my seat. I was just able to wriggle through and get one of the last seats. Those unable to get on muttered angrily under their breaths and returned to the queue.
It took well over an hour to drive the six or seven miles to the stop near our apartment. My commute which had begun around 4:30 ended after 8. My worried wife welcomed me home with a hug a little longer and tighter than usual and a hot meal. For a while during this epic commute I started feeling sorry for myself. However, then I started to think about the myriad of Kenyans who have that kind of day on a regular basis. There are thousands who are subjected to the clogged traffic, cramped quarters and logic defying patterns of the matatus every day. There are thousands who would glad deal with the quirks of matatus but who walk several hours to and from work because they can't afford the fifty shillings. My worries about danger had some merit. (The next day I saw a youth reach through the window of my matatu, snatch a man's bag off his lap and tear off with it through the maze of idling vehicles.) And yet there are countless people who have no choice but to live in those areas and face those dangers daily. When I worry about the possibility of muggings in Nairobi I have to remind myself that the U.S. has a much higher ratio of violent crime than Kenya does. Above all I have to trust that God is in control of my life. My worrying is not going to change anything. I have to trust that He has put me where I am for a purpose and that He will watch over me to insure that I am able to carry out that purpose. If God cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, won't he also take care of me?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Deciding where to live=deciding how to minister

As Lara and I have started to settle in to life in Nairobi we have faced the difficult question of where to live. When we have been in the U.S. our decision about where to live has been dictated by principles like cost, nearness to work, nearness to church, living close to family and friends, and attractiveness of the area. Our choices of where to live in Nairobi include all of the same factors with several more added. Where we live here has a profound impact on the people that we interact with and therefore the ministry that we engage in.

To understand this dilemma you must realize that like most developing countries Kenya has a vast chasm separating the rich and the poor without much of a middle class. The rich neighborhoods tend to be gated. The houses have huge fences around them which keep them from street viewing let alone access. The poor areas cram everyone together so tight that they might as well be sharing rooms, in fact, they often are. The rich usually drive into their neighborhoods, pass through their gates and hardly interact with those around them. When you think about it, they are much like the rest of the Western world that they often emulate. The poor, on the other hand, are forced to interact with each other as they share matatus (15 passenger vans which make up the bulk of public transportation), live practically on top of each other and haggle with each other as they buy and sell their basic commodities.

Lara's employer, Rosslyn Academy, happens to be located in one of the wealthier areas of Nairobi. It is right near the U.S. embassy and the United Nations center. People around that area tend to interact with the lower class Kenyans only when absolutely necessary. They buy everything they need at the Western style mall. They go to fancy, Western restaurants. On the other hand, Tanari, where I work, has its office close to the city center. It is right in the midst of the bustling metropolis. There are some wazungu (white folks) around, but life in this area necessitates interacting with the common Kenyan.

So, how have we decided to resolve this dilemma? We feel called to be a bridge between the two worlds. We have just signed a lease on an apartment in Runda, a neighborhood near Rosslyn. Runda is definitely an upscale neighborhood. The apartment that we are renting is both nicer and less expensive than those we had in the U.S. We were able to negotiate a much lower price than the landlady was asking to keep it in our budget. We are living on a much lower level than most of our neighbors. Instead of driving a Mercedes or Land Rover, I will be taking a matatu to work. Lara will either be walking or hitching a ride with another Rosslyn couple that lives next door. If we do get a car someday, it will not be "conspicuous consumption" as our Kenyan friends call a flashy display of wealth. It will be something simply to get us from one place to another and to bless our Kenyan friends. One of our primary reasons for living in this community is so that Lara will not be overly stressed in her first year of teaching. She needs to be able to get to and from school easily and be able to focus on learning how to be a classroom teacher. Living near the Rosslyn community will help to ease our transition into the Kenyan culture. Also, living there we hope to be able to encourage other Rosslyn staff members to join us in venturing out into Kenyan society. Many of them want to do so, but it is much more likely to happen if they have others venturing out with them. We have covenanted with a few other couples to make sure that we are all stepping out of the Western bubble. We have joined Karura Community Church which has several small groups that meet in the Runda area. We feel that living close to the church is an important step to being involved not only in small groups, but also in the ministry of the church. The church actively seeks to integrate different economic classes. We feel that we can join in this work. My co-workers at Tanari are all Kenyan so my work will provide an easy bridge out of the Western bubble. We hope the friendships formed there will draw both Lara and me further into interaction with all aspects of Kenyan society.

When it comes down to it, I realize that the decision about where to live in Nairobi is not that much different from the decision in the U.S. Usually we just make the decision based on what makes us the most comfortable. For some of us that means picking the perfect house no matter where it is located. For some it means being in a safe, quiet neighborhood. Our choice of where we live reflects what we value. If we value impressing those around us we will go into massive debt to get the nicest house we can get into. If we value our family, we want to live close to them. If we value our church and being involved, it makes sense to find a home close to the church and other church members. Our prayer is that wherever our home is, it can be a catalyst for community, a place that is hospitable to all, and a place from which we constantly seek to venture out to meet the needs of our neighbors.