I can sum up my journey through the difficulties of inter-cultural relationships in Kenya in three words. Each word is accompanied by a specific set of actions and assumptions. And since I seem to have an urge to play with my Kiswahili, I will use words from that language.
When we first arrived in Kenya we were introduced to the church as “wageni”, a Kiswahili word that means visitor or guest, although it can sometimes be stretched to cover tourists. As wageni, we were given special treatment: guest food, a place to sit on a real chair in the shade, someone to make sure that we were shown to the right place and served our food. There was always someone close to translate, answer questions and make sure we weren’t ignored, embarrassed or made to feel uncomfortable. For me, this got old really fast–the food was good but I really didn’t care for much of the rest that went with being “mgeni” (singular of “wageni”.
I noticed that after a while, people began to use a different word when I was around. Since the change coincided with my increasing facility in Kiswahili, I knew what they were saying. I became a “rafiki”–not the shaman/advisor in Lion King but a friend. Being a “rafiki” meant that I didn’t get quite as much pampering. Mostly, we still had wageni food but I had to serve myself and got to sit where I wanted, within limits. I also got to talk with people more and didn’t have to answer as many questions about all things “wazungu”–I could talk intelligently about crops, politics and the potential for a good rainy season. Being a rafiki was much better than being a mgeni.
The more I hung around, the better my language got and the more I clued into the local culture and customs, the better rafiki I think I became. But one day, I began to notice a different word being used. Someone would refer to me as “ndugu”, which means brother. At first, I thought that this was simply the traditional Christian family of God stuff–and it was that at times.
But other times, the context convinced me that some people at least were using the word in another way. They were including me in their family. I belonged. I got normal food–because brothers don’t need the expensive mgeni food. I sat where I sat with my brothers and sisters. I didn’t need a baby sitter or translator–I was a brother and knew when people were teasing me and could tease them back. As a brother, I not only belonged but was expected to be a responsible brother–doing things like welcoming wageni and helping the family and being available for family emergencies or to share a cup of coffee and some good conversation. I liked being a brother a whole lot more than being a mgeni and even more than being a rafiki.
Now, the thing is I didn’t get to decide what people called me. I had no control over when the transitions came. Even if I didn’t like being a mgeni, I didn’t get to tell people I was a rafiki or ndugu. I could and did spend my time learning and appreciating and practising and understanding the culture. I could and did work hard to learn and use Kiswahili and a bit of Kikamba. I could and did work hard at loving people and showing it the best way possible.
For me, this journey through language and relationships serves as a parable for the church in North America. I think that the church here wants to be a mgeni in our culture–we want the special treatment and the best seats and the company food. But our culture really isn’t there–they don’t see a need for us as guests or visitors. Sometimes, we are appreciated as friends, as when we provide a service like grief support or emergency help of some kind.
But in the end, our culture needs the church and its members to be brothers and sisters. We need to be willing to understand and appreciate and be a part of the culture in a way that allows us to speak as family. We don’t need to give up our faith or compromise it–but we do need to love people so much that they call us family. Then, maybe, we can help them become part of our family, the family of God.
May the peace of God be with you.