The elevation delivered stunning views.
The 5 PM sunlight filtered through the trees, the air tinted gold, evidence of earth picking itself from the ground, becoming one with the air.
My kinfolk and I were whipping through the newest highway in the city, the only one perched high above, winding itself past Kenya’s capital city, offering new city views never seen before.
“Nairobi is one of the greenest cities in the world.” I said, soul drinking the sights through the car window. My sister, who lives in Kenya, disagreed “It’s a concrete jungle.”
I attempted to explain what I meant: the rapidly expanding capital is still more green than other cities around the world. As I come up with reasons and explanations to counter sis, it hits me: “I’m one of those visitors now.”
One of those first-time (or returning) visitors to Nairobi who can’t.stop talking about the green lungs, the fresh air, the sprawling game park just minutes away, the restaurants and food scene, the nightlife, the fresh vegetables and fruits, the warmth and goodness of people. Those visitors.
And there’s something about that that sits sideways in my heart. I’m still not used to belonging to two places at the same time (I’m Kenyan born and raised, and also American) and the pulls that come with it.
Last month, I returned from a one-month break – which became a two-month break – from online work. I spent a few weeks in Kenya, and once I got back Stateside, promised to write a post reflecting on my time there.
5 Reflections from my time in Kenya
1. Kenyans are some of the most entrepreneurial, industrious individuals on the planet
I used to hear people say of Kenyans, “You are so hard working. Everyone runs a business here,” and I didn’t get it. Now I do.
Kenya is a small business country. There’s formal employment and a big workforce, but for many Kenyans, small businesses and the informal sector are how they make a living and create a life.
I think it’s a reality in many developing parts of the world. Not only is life set up differently, but resourcefulness, creativity, and persistence are things you can’t not be. Dynamism is huge in the culture (contrary to general narratives about Africa.)
2. A settled nervous system
In America, brown or black skin often = a state of hyper-vigilance.2
Being followed as you shop. Microaggressions. Receiving different (or no) services. Being terrified your male loved one won’t make it home.
Existing in a world that wasn’t really designed for people who look like you to thrive. Grappling with “well-intentioned” people who will read your reality and attempt to diminish, justify, or minimize it.
It all sets your nervous system on edge.
In a local Kenyan restaurant, watching my spoon disappear into a creamy purply bowl of gluten-free flours blended into glorious goodness3, my insides said, “You are home.”
I let myself sink into the sound and sensations of home. The low hum in the background, multiple languages of my homeland, all black4 faces, in different stages of eating, communing, talking, laughing, staring into phones. It’s hard to put into words how my soul feels.
That state of belonging, the calm of rooting, the soothing of safety, the smells of home, of a Pin dropped somewhere in Africa. Home.
3. Reflections from Kenya: when we shall be enough
I spied a giant billboard announcing a big Christian meeting, and of the four smiling faces, two were famous white American figures.
In my past life, when I was part of a high-control, works-based evangelical church in Nairobi (a church founded and still led by white missionaries), we hosted a fair share of American preachers. In my 14 years of being a part of that church, I do not recall us ever hosting a local Kenyan preacher.
I stared at the billboard, almost tasting the sweat and grind. The hours of planning. The endless volunteer hours. The financial giving (even when an event is marked free, it often isn’t. There’s still a lot of pressure on the congregations to give financially towards those events.)
My heart longed for the day we shall be happy with only two Kenyan faces on a billboard. When decolonization and deconstruction are part of us, when we will be enough.
4. Christ, the Middle Eastern
Our Holy Book says God incarnate was a Middle Eastern man. Much of Western Christianity worships a god many shades of lighter.
I thought about this Middle Eastern man, my deconstruction and decolonization journey, breathing African air, and Christ felt closer. Much closer than He sometimes does in America, where most people don’t have skin-hued near or past honey browns.
There’s a fresh understanding of the multicultural nature of the worldwide church that is lost when there’s little to no experience of multiculturalness.
I believe that’s why some people love to correct me: “God is not white, God is not black, God is God” when I talk about how white cultures and customs form and influence Western Christianity and why that must change.
Centering the experiences of brown and black Image Bearers triggers a collective “yeah He’s not your culture either,” and many don’t seem to realize the comeback just proved the point I was making.
He walked into the elevator, and I caught his American accent as he said goodbye to some acquaintances or friends.
I said hi, and he turned and hi’d back, before punching a different floor from mine on the elevator. He leaned back against the elevator wall, turned and looked me. And asked if his room had been changed that day.
I didn’t understand. He repeated the question. And as he waited for an answer, a light was going off in my head: it was a housekeeping question.
“I don’t work here,” I told him. Still confused and wondering at the strangeness of the question. And he seemed so sure of himself. He laughed, quickly closed the gap between us, and lightly tapped the side of my arm. “No, no. I was just joking!”
I was nervous that he touched me so casually. Perhaps the word “joke” activated my brain to send laughter to my lips. I don’t know why, but I joined in the laughter. I was more confused than jolly and, shortly after that, livid. He wished me a good day and stepped out to his floor.
I rode up to my floor, and the first thing I told my husband when I walked into our room was about the white American male who thought I was a worker in the hotel. How he said it was a joke.
And how I didn’t know which was worse: him feeling so “superior” as to assume I’m a worker in the hotel because I’m an indigenous Kenyan woman. Or him feeling so comfortable in his place he could bare that part of his soul to a random Kenyan stranger in an elevator. Or him making racist assumptions and, instead of apologizing, twisting it into a “joke.”
My husband listened and sat with me, as only one who is familiar with racism and classism and its many different shades and presentations can listen and sit with someone. “I’m gonna find him and tell him he’s a racist, not funny.” I determined.
I changed my mind (because once you return your body to a place of regulation, sometimes the last thing you want to is return to the source of stress.)
But, throughout our short stay, I found myself scanning the many non-African faces, alert, aware that someone was so comfortable in his privilege he didn’t mind sharing it with those he deemed himself superior to.
Reflections from Kenya: I’ve grown to accept that happiness and melancholy can co-exist.
I don’t have to dismiss the hard to create room for the happy.
And so I invited all my experiences without feeling like I had to stuff the hard with the sunny and happy. I had good experiences. But these five left me thinking and reflecting, and I wanted to share them with you.
Coming Soon: My Brand New Book
A safe, healthy and committed relationship takes two.
But in the Christian world, we often hear “you can fix your partner’s harming/chronically hurting ways by simply ignoring your own limits, shrinking your needs and absorbing all the responsibilities of the marriage.”
The reality is that marriage was not designed to operate solely on the goodness or decency of one spouse.
If you are tired of being told to take your place in the valley of desolation, Courage: Reflections and Liberation for the Hurting Soul my new book is for you. Tentative release dates: Dec 2023.
Thoughts from an early reviewer: “COURAGE has put into words the unheard cry and unseen tears of bleeding souls.” K. M
1. Image Source
3. We call it porridge; the closest thing I can compare it to is grits. But porridge flour is made from wheat grains and other local grains (for example, cassava, yum, etc.). Its consistency is smoother.
4. Generally, Kenyans (or Africans) don’t refer to themselves as “black” to communicate who they are as a people. They might also use their country. “I’m Kenyan.” Or their tribe. “I’m Kikuyu.”