Kenya: Who Am I?

In America black people constantly wrestle with racial identity. As a young black man I have to consciously resist the stereotypes of dominant society, as they attempt to define who I am. Likewise I have to resist dominant society’s portrayals of who they think I ought to be. While that is easily communicated on paper, actually walking the tight rope of identity is difficult. One of the most fundamental questions asked by all of humanity is “Who am I?”  As Christians we go a step further wanting to know who we are in Christ, and how do we reflect the unique aspect of the Imago Dei that has been imprinted upon us.

I do not want to sound cheesy, but being in Africa, spending time alongside my African brothers and sisters was a spiritual, psychological encounter that gave me an even deeper glimpse into myself. It wasn’t merely being in a context where blacks are the majority of the population, because I already have that in the neighborhood where I live (Philly). However, I think it was the knowledge of the fact that I didn’t have to worry about stereotypes or archetypes from white or black folk, but could comfortably be me without judgement. The racial climate doesn’t easily allow for  much of that in America. We must intentionally seek it out, even when it seems subversive to some who think we ought to all assimilate into one bland and uniformed cultural expression, disregarding the diversity created by God.  I believe that the better we truly know ourselves and who we are, the more capable we will be in ministering to others. Kenya was a timely gift.

Kenya: Four Kids and $25

One particular day while in Kenya, a few of us had the privilege of sneaking off the campus with Peter Odanga, the Word of Life Director, and driving up into the village in the hills. He would simply yell “candy” in Swahili as we passed by people’s huts and the kids would come running. We didn’t preach to them, all we did was give them candy, for which they were unbelievably grateful. From what I gathered, Peter does these runs about once a month, and I think it is his way of being a familiar face to those in that village.

We drove further along and then eventually parked, got out and begin walking through a field of high grass. On the other end of the field we came right into the middle of a families dwelling. Everyone was barefoot, a man was working hard on a piece of furniture I believe, and we were greeted very graciously by the women and children. They brought chairs out for us to sit down and by the time we were sitting the men had come over as well. Peter translated Swahili and English both ways as we spoke back and forth with this family.

During our discussion we eventually found out that four of the kids there were no longer able to attend school because they could not afford the school fees.  We asked how much it would cost to put them all back in school for the rest of the year. The answer was devastating. $25! The cost to put all four of them back in school again for the year was only $25. I don’t think my heart sank any lower my whole time there as it did at that point. We obviously offered to pay the fee and Peter said that it would be fine to do so. The family was so grateful, but I knew that we were only giving out of our excess, and we did not deserve the appreciation they gave. The head of the family actually climbed up a coconut tree and cut down several coconuts for us, chopped the tops off and served us. This was a humbling experience. It was one of those humbling and formational moments that a person can never forget.

Kenya: London Layover

Our trip to Kenya, must really start with our layover in London. We had a 13 hour layover, which gave us the opportunity to get out into the city and see the sights. It was my first and only time in Europe. I probably did not get to take it all in as much as I normally would have, since we were all dreadfully tired by the time we arrived in London, as it was time for bed in U.S. E.T., as we were getting our day started there.

We saw the sights…

We watched the changing of the guards.

If you look carefully, you will notice that the London bridge is not falling down (sorry, bad joke). Anyhow, we blended as much as a primarily black american group possibly can in London, which is not very well.

We eventually got back to the airport and onto the plane, heading for Kenya. Our final destination was the Mombasa Airport. I can still remember vividly as we drove off of the airport property, and immediately adjacent to the airport were shacks, and by shacks I mean people’s homes. During our hour long drive back to our campus, we saw neverending poverty. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen poverty like that before, but not that much. I can remember in Jamaica seeing the shack towns, but then you would also see some middle class areas as well. Here there seemed to be no middle class at all, and it wouldn’t be until more than half way through the week that we would see actual upper class neigbhorhoods.

As I stared out the window watching black people live in terrible conditions, my mind just kept taking me back to London, where we saw palaces, grandiose churches, and generational wealth. The reason my mind kept going there, is because as a psuedo historian, I know that Kenya was a colony of the British. I would be reminded by my friend John a Kenyan, that they were a British colony up into the 1960’s.  And so it became pretty evident that there was a direct line between the wealth enjoyed in London, and the poverty that was being endured by the Kenyan people.

Little did I know that our London layover would serve as a historical reminder for me, in an in your face way. This theme seemed to come back a few times as we experienced Kenya. We also got to be in Kenya during Madaraka Day, which is the celebration of Independence from the British. The imprints and residue of British colonization were permeated throughout Kenyan culture. While that was obvious for me to see, I am sure that forms of colonization are imprinted on my life as well, to which I am oblivious to. And yet Jesus promises an alternative to the imperial imprint that tries to determine our values and practices, and that is the Kingdom of God. And so all I can say is let us resist some more.

Kenya: My Cohort

I have been sitting on my Kenya experience for awhile, probably good to share it with you all. Here is my cohort from Biblical Seminary outside Tsavo National Park. I am right in the middle sporting the drifit baby blue shirt and shades.

I love these guys, and there would have been no better team to organize and go to Kenya with than them. Many of us really bonded over the trip, even more than we had previously over the past 3 and a half years.  Everywhere we went in Kenya we were greeted with “Welcome Home!”, which felt good.

Many of us expressed how welcomed we felt while there, in many ways we were more accepted and appreciated there than our home country.  The conflict of what it means to be African and American was something we rapped about after our return. That type of paradox is our history, our legacy. Our ancestors were unfree people in the land of the free. And then we come to Kenya, and felt so welcomed everywhere we went.

Race is something we never avoided talking about in our group, we didn’t always agree on the solution (or even sometimes the problem), but it was all apart of our daily existence and could not be thrown in the closet and ignored. Here in Kenya, race came up more, but even more so colonization. I will have to share more of that in a later post. Stay tuned as I share my experience in Kenya.