As I stepped out onto the open field at St. George Primary School, the mob of screaming, exuberant fans quickly enveloped me. Lost in the sea of children, I endured the hair pulling, hand shaking and general frenzy of my small greeters. Unable to gain control, I let myself be swept away by the endless questions and requests to sing and dance for them.
After eight weeks in Ruiru, Kenya this summer, I now know the craze that must follow teen super-stars like Justin Timberlake. Yet, it does not take vocal talent, sports skills or money to become an instant celebrity there. You only need white skin, a ready smile and a friendly wave to be seen as a stranger in their world.
Bracing for the attack
The greeting at St. George was my customary welcome at each of the eight schools I worked with this summer in Kenya, teaching Bible stories, songs and games. On this particular day, without the aid of bodyguards, 600 children rushed at my team and me. At that moment, I felt like a cross between a celebrity and an attack victim.
With excited chatter and outstretched hands, the students isolated each white person as they swarmed like bees to honey. I found myself surrounded in a concentric circle of children, with never an inch between my adorable “attackers” and me.
My red hair was a source of great entertainment, as small hands reached out hesitantly to touch it and to lay their dark arms up against mine.
By becoming a different face in a different world, I was tearing down barriers and making an impact on the lives of these precious children. Whether it was our simple paper airplanes they had never seen before or a digital camera that they later could be seen using rocks to imitate, they were fascinated with us.
No matter if we were walking or riding down the dirt-packed roads, we created a following of children. Shouting choruses of “Hi, Emily” (their translation of “Amy”), they pressed their faces to barbed-wire school fences and rushed out of their homes to be near us, waving excitedly and screaming excitedly “How are you?” (with emphasis on the word “yooo”). I often felt that I was on parade, waving like Miss America in my ankle-length skirts.
Bridging the cultural gap
Wearing skirts was a part of the missionary experience that I endured for the culture I was trying to reach. Yet, my explanation of fashion in America didn’t exactly make the right impression with my students.
“In America we do not wear skirts,” I found myself saying to a group of uniformed primary school children, “we only wear pants.” In response, the girls broke into hysterical laughter. Assuming that it was my Southern drawl English, which provided an endless source of entertainment for my Kenyan students. I repeated my America lesson, “In America, I usually wear only pants during the week, and skirts to church.”
Unsure why I had become such a comedian, I quickly changed the subject. Only later did I realize my cultural blunder. In Kenya, jeans or long pants are referred to as “trousers,” whereas the term “pants” means underwear. I had just informed 50 curious 10 to 12-year-olds that in America, I usually wear underwear only, no skirts. Try teaching a Bible story to those kids after that mistake.
That was my first of many cultural lessons in Kenya. Kenya is a country where football does not mean a pigskin, but a soccer ball, and they want to know what tribe you come from rather than your state. With these differences, conversations and daily life can range from the hilarious to the sobering.
I couldn’t look at life the same way after watching children with no shoes playing in a four-foot pile of garbage in the streets. Or after visiting the Langata slums of Nairobi, the second largest in Africa with over 600,000 residents. The people there have no running water, electricity or sewage system (unless you count the streets).
But perhaps the issue that affected me the greatest this summer is the one that no one in Kenya will admit to, or even discuss.
People are dying there by the thousands as they refuse to discuss the widespread sexual promiscuity and continue to deny their greatest problem – AIDS.
The reality of death hits hardest as you shake someone’s hand one week, and you’re discussing their burial service the next. My new friend Jane was in her late 20’s, a Christian primary school teacher living with an unfaithful, unchristian husband and raising three children, the oldest of which was six.
We had held hands and prayed about an elusive “illness” as I grasped for words and reminded her that “God is the great physician.” Days later, I felt like a fool, when the diagnosis for her lingering sickness was AIDS.
Two weeks later, Jane died.
The speed of her illness seemed impossible given the time between the diagnosis to her death. Yet, Jane had been sick for a very long time – and the obvious assumption had been AIDS. Early testing in Africa seems trivial when the drugs for prolonging your life are scarce and the money to afford them even scarcer.
Perhaps with Jane, just the truth of her condition may have led her to a loss of hope. Whatever the case, a strong Christian lady became the victim, along with her three small children – orphans in the truest sense of the word.
Returning as a familiar face, but a different woman
Needless to say, I am not the same person returning to the Hill this fall after the things I saw and the people I grew to love. By becoming “a different face in a different world” this summer, I had the opportunity to experience life beyond the comforts that my American life affords to show love to people so unlike my own.
What a humbling responsibility I have knowing that by becoming the minority, I had the ability to change lives by the stories I told, the songs that I sang, and the hands that I shook in that small Kenyan town. It has already changed my life to know that even with our physical and cultural differences, we could not stop the bond of friendship from forming, and the light of understanding for a people so unlike our own to break through the barriers.