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.