On Feeling Like an “Outsider”

Recently we got a chance to visit with a fellow missionary family here in the Kitale area, which was a great blessing. During the course of our  conversation, I was asked if (now that we have been here in Kenya for almost two years), we feel like we have really “integrated” into the community here. My answer was mostly no, but I’ve been thinking about the subject off and on ever since.

In one sense, I think we have integrated as much as we possibly can. Local children no longer chase after us yelling, “Mzungu, Mzungu, how are you?” everywhere we go. Our children are no longer harassed by constant attention (stares, poking, prodding, and pushing) when they are out and about in the neighborhood. I am blessed to see our yard full of smiling and laughing brown faces in addition to the eight white faces of our children on most afternoons. Even better, I like to hear the back-and-forth conversation in Swahili as the children play. Even Enoch (age 2) has picked up an impressive little vocabulary. I laugh when he asks his friend Nila, “Taco nini?“. What he really means is, “Unataka nini?” or, “What do you want?” but of course he’s only two…and he doesn’t understand that everyone is giggling at him not just because he’s adorable, but because taco is a bit of a crude word in Swahili.

Crowds of kids no longer line up along our fence and stare for hours on end; it’s only during school vacations when children visit from farther-away places that we can’t name each and every one of our little guests.  And we no longer welcome a seemingly unending stream of adult visitors who are trying to figure us out. Most people know who we are and why we are here.

Hosting a home fellowship is a small part of our “mission” here, and it’s really just a means of showing people how it’s done so that more local home fellowships will be birthed; we have little interest in spear-heading a mzungu-centric “church.” Our first attempt at house-churching attracted way too much attention–too many people, all committed to other local churches and not coming out of much beyond curiosity–or a desire to garner the favor of the wazungu. But even that has changed; now the majority of folks come for the purposes of fellowship and discipleship and we rarely have visitors  who don’t sincerely want to know more about the Gospel of the Kingdom and what it means to live as a follower of Christ. So even in that regard, I feel a much greater sense of acceptance and effectiveness.

We have different ways of doing things, all oddities to our neighbors and the subject of much conversation at first: we don’t really like ugali; we homeschool; we don’t really believe (as most people here seem to) that it takes a village to raise a child and children should be seen and not heard; we are certainly more technologically advanced than most folks around here; and of course, we have a larger house and more possessions than almost everyone we know. All these differences have, for the most part, been slowly accepted as a part of who we are and, though we are obviously different, we’re no longer viewed as “outsiders,” as much as we were at first. We’ve been welcomed, accepted, and, as much as is possible, integrated into our community.

On the other hand, there are ways in which I don’t think we can ever really integrate. Learning Swahili has been a struggle and, though most of us can follow a simple conversation and make small talk, it will be a long time before we’re fluent enough to hold a meaningful conversation. This is particularly difficult when it comes to ministry and fellowship/discipleship. Relying on translation is a necessary discomfort for me; I know I am missing out on so much in the development of relationships and greatly wish that there was better integration in that regard. We would be much more effective for the Kingdom if circumstances were different but I trust that God can work through us even with our limitations.

As well, there is  much that we cannot culturally comprehend, as we have a very Western mind-set and and ingrained lifestyle that is very different from what is normal here. We’ve learned, and continue to learn, much about communication, realities of life here, and ways of doing things; but without first-hand experience we often find ourselves, by default, on the “outside.” I don’t know if we can ever really overcome these differences, any more than we will cease to be an oddity simply because of the whiteness of our skin.

But in spite of the awkwardness and the discomfort that are the inevitable outcome of so many meetings and conversations, I have hope. I know that God can use us in spite of our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9). I trust that it is His work that is being done and that there is much more being accomplished than what I can see with my own eyes. And I understand more and more what it means to be “in the world but not of the world” (for example, John 15:19).  Hebrews 11 speaks of those who walk in faith as people who confess to being “strangers and exiles on the earth,” and the Apostle Peter urges us to live as examples to those around us, because we are “aliens and strangers” here. Feeling, in some ways, not totally integrated into our community here, just reminds me of how God wants me to view my citizenship here on earth. In many ways, a certain level of discomfort is good. The seemingly unending self-assessment that we go through as a result of the many cultural differences is equally beneficial.

Truthfully, sometimes I feel like it would be easier to go back to America–where we fit in better, and where relationships would be more natural and more effective for discipleship. I don’t think we will ever totally “integrate” here, but maybe we aren’t meant to. We’re being stretched, we’re growing, and we will accomplish whatever is God’s will for us to accomplish while we are here.  As with everything, we trust that God is working all things for good and for His glory.

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