Missiologist in the Making

It’s been two weeks since my last post. I’ve been sick four times now, twice requiring antibiotics, but no malaria, so that’s good. I accidentally joined the women’s volleyball team, which has been a fun way to spend afternoons, but going for tournaments on the weekends has caused some all-nighters I wasn’t planning. I did well on our first Arabic quiz, which felt really good for all of the work I’ve put into that class. We have another quiz next week and I should be writing my third seminar paper and preparing to lead a round table discussion on the differences between mainstream Islam and fundamentalism. Instead I’m writing an update to you all. There aren’t any pictures, but LOTS of fun links to learn more!

I mentioned in a previous post that I think I might just become a missiologist. The paper I should be writing right now is for my missiology class.

“What is missiology?”

Missiology is the study, historically, theologically and contextually of the mission of the church. Missiologists seek to understand and improve practical mission strategies.

“Aren’t all Christians missiologists, then?” 

I wish they were, just like I wish all Christians were theologians. Many Christians don’t think that formal study should be involved in faith. But just as many are involved in the study and practice of missions; they just don’t always use the formal term.

Missiology in modern day is a branch of practical theology that asks questions that place it in the crux between several disciplines; Why do we do missions (theology), Who is involved in missions (anthropology and sociology), What structures are used for mission (nonprofit management, church administration), How do we do mission better (ethics, pastoral care, law, public policy, economics, development, international relations, psychology, public health, etc). David Bosch, a well-known South African missiologist, described the field as such:

“Missiology acts as a gadfly in the house of theology, creating unrest and resisting complacency, opposing every ecclesiastical impulse to self-preservation, every desire to stay what we are, every inclination to provincialism and parochialism, every fragmentation of humanity into regional or ideological blocs, every exploitation of some sectors of humanity by the powerful, every religious, ideological, or cultural imperialism, and every exultation of self sufficiency of the individual over other people or over other parts of creation.”

This fits in very well with my common answer to “Why are you in seminary?”

Because I’m a rebel.

Over the last year, I’ve lost sight a little bit of why seminary was the right place for me. As I’ve gotten deeper into the path of ordination, I’ve calmed my inner restlessness at the idea of working in a local parish. I know that being an elder is important, and so I expect to serve the church in the traditional role of pastor for some time in my early career. I worked very hard to restructure my thinking; the local parish is not a sign of defeat. I have grand ideas of working at the UN Church Building or for the World Council of Churches. But the reality of serving a mostly white, aging, suburban congregation being my future, at least for several years after seminary, had to be place on my radar to cool my ambitions. And I will go, and I will serve whatever church I am placed in. I will serve earnestly and devotedly. It would be plain ignorance to think that I could help direct the goals of the global church without being in community and relationship with the Christians that comprise it. But the discovery of this field of missiology is so clearly in my path, it’s hard not to want to jump right into a PhD or head to the Bossey Institute for another masters.

The prompt for the paper I am writing is to critically assess two of the six “constants” of mission according to Stephen Bevans:

1) Witness and proclamation

2) Liturgy, prayer and contemplation

3) Justice, peace and integrity of creation

4) Interreligious dialogue

5) Inculturation

6) Reconciliation

Honestly, it’s hard to focus on just two. My brain is pinging away, making connections about the importance of a holistic approach toward mission, especially in the post-modern world we live in. My immediate reaction was to write on three and four, sense since my focus at Candler is in Justice, Peace and Conflict Transformation and I’m here to study Muslim-Christian Relations. But instead I’ve decided to stretch myself.

Through the last two rounds of papers my cohort has written and presented, I realize how Western my world view really is. I consider myself to be a culturally aware person, not culturally competent (I know enough to know there’s a lot I don’t know), but I had thought I had become fairly adept at cross-cultural dialogue. But as I presented a paper on the history of Islam in the United States, I saw how deep my bias is. It wasn’t until after I had heard the rest of the cohort’s presentations that I realized I had written the paper with the assumption that the reader would understand certain American historical and cultural allusions, which of course, my African colleagues did not. It made the presentation a bit of a stumbling mess as I tried to fill in the gaps. I had found out I knew even less of what I already knew I didn’t know.

I’m writing my paper for Missiology on one and five, Witness and Proclamation, and Inculturation. Witness and proclamation in Kenya is an unabashed part of church life. Every church service I’ve been to allows for an open time of testimony, where anyone can come up to the mike and speak to God’s work in their life. Each time someone introduces themselves in a public setting they begin with “Praise God” or say “I’m so-and-so and I’m saved/born again.” If someone in the US introduced themselves that way, I would have rolled my eyes and mentally discredited everything that followed. But I wouldn’t be able to take seriously any Christian I’ve met in Kenya if I still reacted that way. I’m going to take this opportunity to explore my own bias and resistance toward witness and proclamation.

Inculturation is obviously a pertinent topic as well. I spent the last year trying to help refugees learn and navigate American culture. Now I’m trying to read into and understand culture here. There are only a handful of people I trust to have conversations deeper than the weather report with, because I know they will be patient enough to clear up any cultural mistranslations. (Check out this great blog post about Cultural Humility) And even with those friends I haven’t yet begun to discuss topics of faith or theology beyond answering questions about what I am currently studying. On more than one occasion someone has asked me how I can live in a country as bad as Sodom and Gomorrah, with “all of that homosexuality”. Trying to explain separation of church and state lead to such confusion I didn’t even try to explain liberal Biblical hermeneutics. But you don’t have to travel outside the States to face the question of how we claim to be one body as the church when we have so many different and conflicting theologies. Crossing cultural borders changes even further complicates the crossing of those theological divides.

The good news is that the students here are facing many of the same questions and challenges we are. How do we reconcile interdenominational disputes? How do we help the church grow? How can the church be a force for change? How can we as clergy and church leaders hold our government officials accountable to ethical standards? How do we interact with our Muslim brothers and sisters or deal with family members that don’t accept Christ? How do we feed the hungry and care for the orphan and protect the widow? Because ultimately, the Missio Dei (mission of God) is about sharing unbridled love and reducing all pain, suffering, evil and inequity in this world.

Though I may have difficulty expressing myself here and now, my eyes, heart and spirit are being widened. It only makes sense that a field meant to unsettle and challenge the work of the church is introduced to me in a place where I am currently, personally, unsettled and challenged. Despite the current discomfort, I could not be more excited to see where else this new focus will take me.

Peace and Blessings,

Blair

 

Lockdown

For my birthday I just wanted something simple, a trip to the local shopping mall to get a slice of pizza and some frozen yogurt. A simple slice of home. Instead, I got a lockdown.

I wasn’t at Westgate. Village Market is another western style mall I mentioned in a previous post, that’s where I was planning to head to celebrate 24 (which feels exponentially older than 23). I’ve never been to Westgate, but a friend of mine went there the week before the attack and bought me a shirt that says “Mzungu” across the front. I’m not sure how I would have reacted had the mall been Village Market instead. It is located along the only major road between me and the US Embassy.

I had been in Naivasha all day on the 21st, visiting a recovery organization for commercial sex workers. That night, before I headed to a birthday party of a friend, I checked my Facebook. There were a few messages waiting for me from concerned friends. Then I checked my email. It was FULL of security alerts.

To be clear, I get security alerts every day. They come in a list of all major events across the continent of Africa. Usually I skim through, read in detail anything about Kenya, and delete the email. This time it was ALL about Kenya, including messages directly from the Embassy.

I was shaken, more than the other international students I was with. They convinced me that al-Shabaab had no reason to be in Kibuku or Limuru, so I went to the party. I asked if I should go back and get my passport since we were going outside the gates of campus. One friend said jokingly, “Your skin is your passport. Stop worrying.” I called my mom that night so she would know for sure I was safe.

The next morning, the situation was still going on. I ate breakfast alone, watching the news coverage.

Here’s a definite difference between the US and Kenya. I imagine the coverage in the US showed violent images of victims, crowds fleeing the mall and police officers with machine guns (which they all carry, not just “special forces”). In Kenya the coverage on day two of the attacks consisted of a video feed showing the street outside the mall, a list of phone numbers people could call for information about family members, a death count and in the lower right hand corner, gospel music videos. Mind, every Sunday morning they play gospel music videos, but not even a terrorist attack would interrupt the vigor of this country’s Sabbath day. Bet al-Shabaab loved that.

The Kenyan newspaper, the Daily Nation, was highly criticized and fired an editor for use of a violent image as the Sunday front page. Kenya was in mourning, but it would not sensationalize the grief. As Buzzfeed pointed out, the New York Daily News ran the same image with no criticism whatsoever.

The emails from the embassy kept coming. Stay in your houses. Don’t move unnecessarily. Avoid “soft” targets like tourist attractions, transport hubs and shopping malls. Don’t use public transport. Stop calling the Embassy unless it’s truly an emergency. I spent my birthday on lock down, too nervous to even venture out for a queen cake at the bakery across the road until this situation was resolved.

A week before I had told a classroom of 8th grade students about the peaceful origins of Islam, the common misunderstandings of jihad, the specific contexts of Muslim warfare. ”Kenya is a perfectly safe place to be studying Islam,” I’d told them. I’m beginning to wonder if putting my foot in my mouth is one of my spiritual gifts.

But everything about the attack was uncharacteristic for attacks in Kenya. It was in the heart Nairobi, not in a primarily Muslim neighborhood, not near a border, not on the coast. It wasn’t a fully Western target, not an embassy, not a hotel. Most of the victims are Kenyan. This time, Kenya was the target. And there was a WOMAN in some kind of leadership role. The more I learned, the more concerned I became. It feels as if the game has changed.

Monday morning the hostage situation continued. What I couldn’t understand was why it was taking so long to end this. Terrorists do not go into these things planning to come out alive. So why haven’t they just blown it up yet? And how long does it take to get MI6 or the Navy Seals out here to end this thing? Israeli special forces arrived, to answer that question for me. There was so much uncertainty on details and reports, I eventually just stopped following the news asked at meals if it was over yet.

We spent Monday in class debriefing how we felt. Confused. Frustrated. Confirmed in the importance of our work in Christian-Muslim Relations. We each recounted the stories of friends and family calling to make sure we were safe. Four out of six in my cohort are international students. My colleague from Nigeria lamented that this is how he felt every week, not sure if the grenade would fly through the chapel window this service or next. Emotionally, I felt very much the same as hearing reports of mass shootings in the US, but I clearly vocalized my determination that we not allow all of Islam to be grouped in with these maniacs.

We took a break for chapel. The preacher stated during his sermon the absolutely WRONG thing. “This is a Holy War. They are going to try to convince you that it is not, but these attacks are because of Islam.” I almost stood up in my chair and vocally protested. Islamophobia is the LAST thing this country needs, and certainly the last thing frightened Christian students need to be hearing. A decade of watching Islamaphobia play out in my own country and learning about the century of Muslim-American tensions that further fueled it is exactly why I am here. The struggle of convincing American congregations that by supporting Muslim refugees, they are not harboring terrorists. Extremism and greed sent our troops to “the sandbox”, not hijabs and Ramadan. The preacher’s statement had been ignorant, and I am here to help battle this specific ignorance that has led to many hateful and violent actions in my own country.

My classmate from Mombassa was equally as enraged at the remark. Our lecturer encouraged us to open up a dialogue. Thursday afternoons are reserved for public lectures, so we are planning an evening to straighten out all of the questions that students have about Islam, terrorism and al-Shabaab. We are hoping to have a Muslim scholar from the Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh come as well. It feels good to know that we can do something real, even if it’s just here on campus.

But the situation is far from over. The State Department has issued a new travel advisory for Kenya. The places I had hoped to visit to interact with the Muslim community are marked as off limits. Someone mentioned I might want to avoid town for a while as I “slightly resemble that mzungu terrorist.”

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My closest friend was scared to take me into town, so I’ve spent the weekend in my room marathoning tv series (you can get them bootleg for 50 ksh a disc) and haphazardly prepping for a paper on the history and influence of Islam in America. Two weekends in a row I’ve felt completely unproductive.

I was just beginning to work up the courage to make short trips alone, but that confidence has been obliterated by everyone else’s fear. Not to say I’m not afraid myself, though not any more than I ever was walking home alone in South Central LA. But until things calm down, I’m stuck here on campus. Feeling a bit frustrated that I’ve come thousands of miles to see the same 20 acres.

I’m beginning to question my choice to be here alone. I am not afraid of being in dangerous places. I am not afraid of correcting misinformation, fighting misconceptions and forcing people into uncomfortable situations of honest conversation. But it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be to do it without an anchor. At least on that walk home in LA, my roommate would do something if I never made it home. But I go days here without anyone checking in on me. The campus empties out on the weekends and now even my friends here are a little scared that being with me creates a greater risk of violence, retaliatory or otherwise. There are already buzzing rumors that the whole thing was a hoax to strengthen Kenya’s relations with the West. I’m simultaneously the aggressor and the victim, depending on who’s looking at me. I can handle awkward or even scary situations, but the isolation I’ve been forced into by these events has been the most frightening thing of all.

The night before I left, a new friend sent me the note to check out Joshua 1:9,

“This is my command- be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

An excellent verse, I have no doubt God has been present with me through every moment of this experience. But His main mode of communication requires me to be introspective and contemplative, and there is only so much quiet time and meditation this extrovert can stand. Here’s praying for someone to be courageous enough to take me on an adventure soon, or even just to Nakumatt to restock my coffee and cookie supply. And please continue to pray for Kenya to be united as they start the difficult process of healing and reconciliation.

Peace and Blessings,

Blair

Swing(re)set

I’ve had some difficulty getting my course schedule worked out here. Although let me explain some terms for you all that probably added to my confusion in this process.

Course is used to refer to your course of study, equivalent to a program or major in the States. My course is ICMR (Islam, Christian-Muslim Relations), which is a post graduate degree under the department of theology. But considering I am not actually (currently) pursuing a Masters in Christian-Muslim relations but am taking this course as a supplement to my MDiv at Candler, I didn’t know if a whole semester of studying Islam was a good idea. Not because I’m not interested in doing that (trust me, I am) but because I have all of these pesky requirements I need to check off to graduate from Emory before my scholarship runs out and satisfy the UMC ordination requirements.

I tried to figure out if I could take a unit or two in some kind of Christian theology. This is still a little wishy-washy, but I believe units are the individual subjects you enroll in. Most undergraduates take 7 units. This means they are taking 7 different class subjects, sitting in each for 2 or 3 hours a week.  The ICMR takes 5 units, 4 for credit and 1 (Research Methodology) that you have to sit for and take an exam but receive no credit. I figured I wouldn’t take the not-for-credit class and perhaps drop one of the other units to pick up a Christian theology class. I looked at my schedule.

Except it’s not a schedule. It’s called a time table. Each course has its own time table, completely independent from every other course. You tell the registrar what year you are and what course, they print out a slip of paper with the units you’re taking on it. Cross enrollment between courses, I found, is very difficult because of this set up. But looking at my ICMR time table, I could drop Qur’anic Studies because it was in a nice block Tuesday morning and go find another course that would fit there. Or so I thought.

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Are you confused yet?

First I tried to ask for the time table for theology. The postgrad registrar told me Master of Theology was only being offered in the Nairobi campus, so I’d have to go into town. THAT was not happening, so I spoke to the head of postgrad studies (who studied for a year at Candler under Carol Newsome) and he was kind enough to explain to me that a Bachelor of Divinity (BD) in Africa is equivalent to the Master of Divinity in the States.  I’m not quite sure how this works out for the United Methodist Church in Africa, since ordination requires a master’s degree, so I’ll have to look into that more another time. ANYWAY, we had a nice chat and he was even kind enough to print out the BD time table for me.

Score! Missiology was being offered on Tuesday mornings! I would be able to get a unique view of missions from the global south, usually seen as the recipient of mission rather than the missionaries, AND knock out a credit toward ordination. The Candler Registrar said a-OK to everything and I was good to go!

Except NOT.

The problem with each course having an independent time table is that professors don’t have to go through anyone but their Head of Department (HOD) and other professors to approve changing classes. Students don’t have a say in the matter. We’re just supposed to show up when told. Professor 1 wanted to change his class for one of the blocks on my precious empty Tuesday, getting in the way of me taking missiology. The HOD told ME that he’d told Professor 1 no to that change. Professor 1 told me Monday morning the HOD had told him yes. Then Professor 2 (who teaches missiology as well as a course in ICMR) told me he wasn’t exactly sure when his missiology class was, but it might move, allowing me to stay in both classses. The HOD confirmed this was true. Then the HOD and Professor 2 both left the country for over a week.

Trying to get help from the secretaries to confirm the changes, I couldn’t get them past trying to explain that I was attempting to simultaneously enrolling in two different courses. Mind you, all changes to the time tables are posted on various bulletin boards across campus (without the room numbers- you literally just check all the lecture halls til you find the right class), except for ICMR which is only announced in class. Apparently one change had been announced in a class I wasn’t sitting in that week. Another professor I’d never met approached me and tried to get me to explain what I wanted. She promptly told me (very kindly) that what I’d been told changed simply wasn’t possible.

This is where my friend Carrilea would sigh and say, “TIA.” This Is Africa.

To add to that, courses were supposed to begin Monday, September 2nd. I was told by a school official they wouldn’t start til Wednesday, September 4th. Turns out my program started on the 2nd (glad I had the forethought to at least check my classroom that morning), returning students came on the 4th, but in reality, no one (including the professors) except for my course (although we were 2 professors down as well) began class until the following Monday, September 9th.

TIA.

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Things are always done in the most logical way possible, as shown by this local Kibuku traffic jam.

ALSO, I find out from back home that one set of paperwork I filled out for ordination that takes three to six months to process and made sure to turn in before I left (along with a hefty check for processing fees) was actually step one and there was a whole other slew of paperwork I had to fill out before the three to six month processing actually started. Since I didn’t find this out until I was already in Kenya, that’s pushing me back at least another three months into the spring. Again, I question how anyone here gets ordained when practical logistics seem to be an afterthought both in the culture and in the process of ordination.

So in all of this hulabaloo, I’ve been told six different things by five different people and I’m just praying that someone is going to tell me in the morning that they’ve put in a request to have a time turner pulled for me from the Ministry. The whole thing really had me in knots. Adding in the ordination hiccup, I was completely questioning whether coming here was a terrible professional choice as far as the short term goals of finishing seminary, being ordained and getting a job is concerned.

What would the BOD (Board of Ordained Ministry) think of me studying another religion for a whole semester of my seminary training?

How much would this set me back, or at least seriously constrain my course options back at Candler?

Do I even want to be ordained in the Christian church at all or do I want to work for interfaith and intergovernmental human rights organizations?

Why is there coffee growing on the side of the road and I can’t find it in a cup? Unrelated to my vocational crisis but equally as frustrating, disorienting and illogical.

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It’s here. On the tree. Across from Kate’s house. GET IN MY MUG!

I emailed a whole bunch of people. I sat stressing over a situation I could not change without being the annoying and needy American student who wanted special privileges. Worst case scenario I have to take summer school or an extra semester at Candler and push back ordination anyway. Can I live with that?

I knew I needed to spend some one on one time with the big man. Despite my default to seek approval and guidance from other people, I’m old enough now to realize that He’s the only one who can really help me make life decisions definitively.  So I packed my Bible and set off to find a quiet spot.

Next door to campus is a Christian conference center called Jumuia (community). They have pretty cottages, tennis courts and a nice restaurant for visitors of the university. It’s very Karen Blixen. They also, coincidentally have an old but still intact playground.

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Can’t you see her, sitting on that swing, penning her novels?

I tend to break down situations so much during stress that I can’t make decisions or act. My mom calls it analysis paralysis. Anyone who knows me will tell you that when I get stressed out, I do the most childlike thing I can find to de-stress. I learned in college that coloring books were a way to pull myself out of it. The whole wall of my freshman year dorm was covered floor to ceiling with my roommates and my art work.  We added watching Disney movies to that process. When I got a car it became trips to the beach to dig a hole in the sand or just bury my toes. I also enjoy going to the zoo, playing ski ball or cuddling with a puppy.

The process of focusing on something really mundane, but tactile and visual is a sort of mediation. The childhood primer specifically removes me to that state of being unconcerned by the problems of the world. Add to that the sensory stimulation and you have found my recipe for a clear mind.

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Sweet stress relief.

I sat on the swing. Flying sometimes. Drifting side to side for a while. Thumbing through my Bible. I went back to find the verses later and couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I’d found to read that gave me some clarity. Swinging again, feet pumping up and down. I probably sat on that swing for a good  hour and a half. Until I came to the conclusion, as usual, that I was probably supposed to give up control and let my type-A personality be ok with whatever God (and my professors) worked out for me.

The next day they returned our time table to the original order, allowing me to keep all of the units I had originally chosen. I went to my first missiology class this week (during which the professor could only come for only one out of three hours). After just one class, I have a feeling I might just want to be a Missiologist… but more on that later. I’m just glad to finally have a set schedule… err… time table.

Peace and Blessings,

-Blair

The M Word

Mzungu= white.

After Jambo (Hello) and Hakuna Matata (YOLO), it was the first real Kiswahili phrase I learned before coming to Kenya.

It’s not a derogatory term, for the most part. Just a physical characteristic. It brings images of fat tourists, dignified diplomats or do-good aid workers. Annoying in their ways, perhaps, but endearing or at the very least amusing.

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A US Navy officer interviews a Kenyan man. (Source| Wikimedia Commons)

The first time I heard it used in context, I was at a shop across the street from school. A small child, maybe four, wearing an orange GAP hoodie came running up behind me. “Mzungu! Mzungu!” he shouted, finger outstretched and eyes wide. His older sister grabbed his shoulder, embarrassment across her face. I smiled, waved and said hello. He blinked his doe eyes in astonishment as he lowered his finger and bit his lower lip.

My friend Kate giggled and looked at me sideways as she asked me if I understood him. I said of course. After I had provided dinner entertainment the night before by way of butchering every Kiswahili phrase Kate patiently taught me, I think she was surprised I knew that one. I was more surprised that it had taken five days to hear it. Kate told me, “I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.” I took that as a grand statement of friendship.

As Kate and I rode in a matatu toward her home town for the weekend, a tour bus passed us, the faces of its passengers hidden behind clicking camera lenses. Kate gently tapped me, pointed, and whispered, “Mzungu bus.” We giggled.

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(Source| Wikimedia Commons)

Then it became a game. Like Where’s Waldo. I coined it Spot the Mzungu (STM). 

It’s part fun, part reflex. To see a pale face is such a shock, I found myself pointing them out, in some sort of unreciprocated commiseration. I see you. Obviously. I think my friends at first did it to make me feel less isolated. But now it’s become a fun joke we share.

Village Market, a mall 20 minutes down Limuru road is filled with mzungus. It is one of the best shopping malls in Kenya and is surrounded by foreign consulates. Kate took me there to get my Kenyan phone and I’d run into a friend from the states as we were exiting. All the mzungus be at ViMa. We decided STM would be off limits there, as we’d be muttering the m word so often we wouldn’t be able to carry on conversation.

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Posh Village Market at night (http://villagemarket-kenya.com/)

Today we went into Nairobi for the afternoon. The city is chaotic, the roads and sidewalks constantly full. We’d run into a bunch of people Grace knew. One young man sat down with us for a while. I’ve gotten very used to sitting in silence as my friends jabber in Shang (Swahili slang) and Kikuyu, waiting until everyone is laughing before I ask for a translation. The young man who’d sat down muttered mzungu enough times, I finally interrupted him and said, “My name is Blair, as it sounds like you’ve forgotten,” as I outstretched my hand. Kate, Grace and Fatma burst into laughter as the young man shook my hand apologetically.

We walked back through the streets of Nairobi to the central depot of busses and matatus. I should say dodged and weaved our way back, as navigating the city is quite similar to one giant game of frogger. Crossing one street I went in front of a truck as Grace and Kate curled around behind it. As I jumped up onto the curb alone, with a sigh of relief at making it to the final lily pad, a man stopped in his tracks and exclaimed, “MZUNGU!” as if a giant polar bear had just unexpectedly emerged from the flow of traffic rather than a frazzled young woman. I’d been caught as the prize in someone else’s game of STM.

But that is one of the reasons I chose to study in Kenya over Stockholm or Scotland. I wanted that experience of being the minority. The first day I was on campus, I sat alone next to a lecture hall soaking up wifi. A security guard wandered over and asked me what I was doing. He grilled me as to my student status, my course of study, my country of origin, my language limitations and my date of departure. I answered his questions with a smile, and he finally walked away, satisfied that I did in fact belong. So that’s what it feels like to be profiled.

Except he didn’t ask to see my identification. Place his hand on his pistol. Demand to search my bag or frisk me. It was a mild encounter, but still a moment of realization.

Kenya imports from America hip hop culture along with second hand clothes. The undergrads throw around the n word in greeting, in passing, in casual conversation. Yo what’s up my n****r?!? 

In one particularly rowdy post dinner hang out, I finally admitted how uncomfortable it was making me. They didn’t seem to understand. My friend Charles, a native Kenyan, recently returned from spending most of his life in Evanston, explained that using the N\n word could land you in jail in the States.

Yes, if the wrong person heard it. Yes, even if it was just between blacks. No, we’re not joking.

I tried to paint a picture. Imagine if every time someone called me mzungu, it meant that I didn’t belong. It wasn’t just a description, black or white. It implied that I was dirty, diseased, lower, unwanted. To call me mzungu meant that there was something deeply and irreversibly wrong about me.

“That’s what the n word is like in America. And I would never call any of you that. Not even as a joke. Not even if you told me it was ok. Never.”

I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.

The only time I’d felt truly out of place was when we went up to Limuru Town. St. Paul’s is situated about 5km south of Limuru proper, in a neighborhood known as Kibuku. We decided to go up the hill and have a look around. As I stepped out into the main market, I could feel something different. We were far from Nairobi now, the cosmopolitan city. Away from Village Market with its Italian Bistros and international shopping. Beyond the guarded gates of the University. It felt as if everyone we passed was calling out, “MZUNGU!” But the fun pointing and giggling was absent. Only eyes tracking me. Children and beggars holding their hands out with expectancy. Shop keepers startled as I walked by.

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The shops in Limuru Town (Source|fsdkenya.org)

But I didn’t feel unsafe. Just slightly unwanted. Since Limuru was not in need of help, I might be there to harm, or at the very least disrupt, the flow of this rural town. They were fearful eyes that tracked me. A town with a famed country club. A stop on the Ugandan Railway. Colonialism had made impressions on this town in a way that my teenaged colleagues could not grasp. They had not lived in that time of oppression.

The way I could not grasp the use of the n word as anything less than hateful. Because we still live in a time of oppression.

I am thankful that I was made aware in my life of my white privilege. And now I have been made aware of the breadth of its influence. No matter how far I go, I cannot escape it.

But I can hope, by the power of God, to transform it. Beginning with the relationships I form here.

I’ve never called you mzungu because you have a name.

Peace and Blessings, 

Blair

Sawa Sawa in Limuru

I have been in Africa for seven days. If I tried to explain every emotion I’d gone through, this post would be seven days long. I am still at a level of overwhelmed that I’m not yet able to process everything I’ve seen and done. Here’s a short list:

Woke up to the cry of a rooster

Been into Nairobi on a Matatu

Ran into an old friend at a shopping mall

Broke down in tears trying to buy toilet paper

Watched monkeys steal from the lunch hall

Began to learn Kiswahili and a little Kikuyu

Picked coffee, and had people laugh at my excitement over it

Witnessed the roadside bribe of a policeman

Eaten cow intestine

Hand washed laundry in a bucket

Been to a Kenyan church service

and much, much more.

Above all, I’ve been blessed and astonished by the generosity, devotion and hope of the Kenyan people.

So rather than attempting to put all of that into a cohesive story, I’m going to give you a brief into to where I am, what I’m doing, and show you some pictures so you can get a better idea.

For the semester I’m studying at St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya. It’s an ecumenical Christian University about 30km outside Nairobi. I am studying primarily in the Islam, Christian-Muslim Relations Master’s program (ICMR) and will be taking one course (missiology) in the Bachelor of Divinity, which is equivalent to the MDiv I am pursuing back at Emory University. I am the only American on campus (so far). There are only five others in my course of study (all ordained ministers) from Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Mombasa (Kenya). I am very excited to be in course with them, but due to age differences, I’ve found myself spending most of my time with the first year undergraduates I also went through orientation with. Tomorrow the old students arrive to “disorient” us, and classes begin Wednesday.

I’m living in a single room with a shared bathroom, in a cottage on the edge of campus. It is notoriously the coldest part of campus, though Limuru is the coldest part of Kenya. Last week the average temperature was 12 degrees centigrade (53 degrees Fahrenheit). There is one ATM, which was broken last week. I eat my meals in the dining hall and buy essentials from the shops and dealers across the road. I drink tea four times a day and had to ride into the city to buy a cell phone.

Below you will find pictures of my surroundings and happenings, to get an idea of my daily life here.

ImageThe chickens outside my dorm. The rooster actually wakes me up every morning!

ImageMy cottage is the one to the left. The laundry dries outside by the garden/crops and there are laundry lines all over campus.

ImageThere are three mischievous monkeys that wait around the dining hall for someone to turn from their plate.

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The bathroom. Words can not really describe it. You have to carry your own toilet paper. They don’t keep it stocked in any of the restrooms. The toilet is called “choo” in Kiswahili. That white wire on the left leads up to a shower head that warms the water after you flip on a switch outside in the hall. Apparently no one else is worried about getting electrified besides me.

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Doing my laundry!

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My new friends Fatma, Grace and Kate. They have taken very good care of me and laugh uncontrollably every time I try to learn a new work in Kiswahilli.

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The shops across the road. The white van on the right is a matatu, but a very nice one. The ones that transport people are well used.

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Coffee beans! Picked from the tree across from Kate’s house!

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With my ICMR classmates from Nigeria and Ghana. The building on the right is the main hall where chapel is held and behind that in the distance is the library.

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A wise old tree that I sit under to get wi-fi!

 I should be posting again soon with something more cerebral, but I hope this will do to whet your appetite for more Limuru and assure you that I am safe, though stretched, and already having an incredible time.

Peace and Blessings,

Blair