The last time we lived and worked in Kenya, we weren’t living on the school compound as we had at other times. That meant a daily half hour or so commute from our home to the school. It also meant that instead of going home to work between classes, I ended up working in the school staff room with all the other faculty. It also meant that my wife and I were included in the tea and lunch that were part of the faculty employment package. Since I enjoy Kenyan food (except for the tea) and they wanted me to take part, I joined in, although I did bring my thermos of decaf coffee so I wouldn’t have to drink the tea.
The first official day we were there, our lunch was served in what would be called the executive dining room with the deans of the schools and several other important school officials. The rest of the faculty ate in the staff room as always. The next day, a similar process. The next day, I was summoned to the executive dining room (really, it was an empty office that like most things Kenyan, did double duty.) and told that the dean of the school would be along later. He never showed up and after eating my lunch alone, I wandered back to the staff room to work before going to class.
After this happened a couple more times, I scheduled an appointment with the dean–which meant I managed to hear him in his office and asked if I could see him. I was tired of being treated as a special visitor and ending up eating by myself while the rest of the faculty ate in the staff room. Since the executive dining room shared a very thin wall with the staff room, I could head them talking and laughing and having a good time while I or Elizabeth and I ate by ourselves. I asked the dean if I could stop being a guest and become a regular faculty member, able have my lunch with the rest of the faculty.
He was actually quite happy with that–I think the extra effort to put on lunch on the executive dining room for one or two people was an annoyance for him and the kitchen as well. So, why do it in the first place? Well, Elizabeth and I were Wazungu–and based on past experience, the dean and others were sure that we needed special treatment. We were just too important to eat with the rest of the faculty. My request to eat in the staff room challenged their preconceptions of my minority group and made life easier for the dean and kitchen staff.
It also changed the nature of my relationship with the rest of the faculty. I went from being a curious but somewhat unapproachable Mzungu to being a regular faculty member, standing in line for my food, taking part in the multi-lingual the joking, answering questions about Canada, seeking advice on school issues and generally being part of the staff. I became aware of a major change the day we had a new staff member, who was amazed that a Mzungu would be able to eat the day’s lunch of corn and beans. His surprise was matched by the assurances from the rest of the faculty that I wasn’t really a Mzungu–I was one of them and had no problem with the food or anything else.
So, we are now back in Canada, part of another visible minority, relating to people who don’t really understand me or my minority. One temptation my minority in Canada faces is to find the equivalent of the executive dining room and spend all our time there, except for those times when we must interact with the majority, like funerals and weddings. We worship together but we also coffee together, vacation together and meet together.
But we need to get out of the executive dining room. We need to eat the food that everyone else eats where they eat it and when they eat it. We are a visible minority–but when we emphasise our minority status, we create distance between us and the very people we are called to serve. We are called to be salt and light in the world, not a visible minority eating in the executive dining room.
May the peace of God be with you.