I thought I knew what kindness was, what genuineness was, what joy was before I went to Kenya. But my mind was blown on my trip there, and every definition I had of what it meant to be “a good person” was put to shame.
Growing up, my mother worked really hard to provide me with a lifestyle that was comfortable. We were not the richest family, but we certainly didn’t want for much, and she instilled in me the value of money from a very young age. To top that off, all throughout my formative years, especially growing up in the church, I had heard admonition after admonition telling me to be grateful for what I had because millions of people were in need. And I was…or at least I thought I was.
In Kenya, much like their British ancestors via colonization, the culture in Western Africa is very particular about having tea (“chai”) at every gathering. Lessons being paused for chai and mandazis (a pastry similar to beignets) was a common practice on base, but I honestly didn’t expect such luxury anywhere else in the country. Boy, was I blown away. Every house I visited on my outreach, even if the living quarters were clearly run down or even if the family was blatantly in need, they never failed to dole out their finest spread for us. No matter how little material possessions they owned, these families were quick to offer the shirt off their backs to people they had never met before. Even if we protested, they would insist. And I thought I was generous…
And these amazing individuals that so graciously opened their homes and offered us meals and doted over us always, ALWAYS did it with joy and a kindhearted spirit. It would have been one thing if they felt as though we were offering them major things in return or if they were begrudging about it, but that just wasn’t the case. They knew we were only there to share our faith and fellowship with them, yet their open hearts remained constant. Sure, we fixed some houses and played with their children for awhile, but we absolutely got the better end of the bargain. Funny how that worked out – the missionaries were the ones walking away 100% grateful for the encounter.
Those moments redefined my whole mentality in life. Many people say visiting a third world country changes you, and I can tell you now that it really does. Experiencing the love that total strangers can offer even in what I consider “hard times” truly makes me want to be a better person like nothing has before. I know I am quick to whine at the slightest inconvenience, slow to open up and allow others into my home, and ultimately distrusting of people outside my immediate circle. But what kind of life is one lived behind closed doors and behind closed hearts?
To be honest, I know that part of the discrepancy between me and my Kenyan friends has to do with the overall culture we grew up in. Even though my family was born in the Philippines, I am a true Californian, founded on an individualistic mindset. It’s all about the self…how can I get ahead? What can YOU do for me? Kenya, however, is a collectivist community, meaning that they all look out for each other, stranger or family, it doesn’t matter. Now, I’m not saying one lifestyle is necessarily better than the other, but having grown up on one side of the spectrum, I definitely can appreciate the other.
My lesson learned today is simply to embrace more of the culture that I fell in love with each and every day – one that is centered on giving without needing to receive, loving without needing to fear, and accepting without needing to understand. I am so appreciative of the luxuries that I do have, but they don’t define me. How I choose to give my time, my energy, my love, to others does. I want to be more mindful of that.
I want to make my Kenyan friends proud.