Diversity…it’s a beautiful thing. Los Angeles, my birthplace and my home, is nestled in the “melting pot” of the world where different races and cultures combine into one gloriously, bubbling masterpiece that is constantly spilling out onto every sidewalk. In my little section of office alone we have the Filipino/Pacific Islander culture (represented by me), the Latin American culture, the Mexican Culture, the Chinese culture, and the African-American culture all located in a 30 x 30 ft radius. I love that. So there’s no way I would ever judge someone based on their race, right?
Well, Africa taught me many, many things about myself, including the areas that aren’t so loving and nice.When I first arrived in Kenya, I had already met up with 4 fellow travelers during my layover in Amsterdam. They, too, were from all parts of the United States, so there was still a sense of familiarity and camaraderie. Even when we first stepped onto Kenyan soil and were shoved into a matatu (taxi van meant to hold a maximum of 10 people) with 15 others, and I was forced onto the lap of a random group member, I still felt comfortable. It wasn’t until The Incident that I truly felt the divide.
On a 6 month trip to a completely different nation, one expects to be thrown into the midst of an entirely different ethnic circle, experiencing a new language, different spice palates and styles of eating, alternative expectations of what is appropriate to wear in public and what isn’t, etc. So I definitely was ready to adjust my ways of thinking and acting to better acclimate to my new community. But it wasn’t so easy. Our group had a fairly equal split of Kenyan born members and “Westerners” or “mzungus” as we were often called, and I honestly loved every single one of them. But the cultural differences kept us all fairly divided. Westerners became best friends with westerners and Kenyans with Kenyans. It wasn’t intentional, but it was comfortable, and it really didn’t cause any major problems.
Until, however, money went missing. 3 Westerners, my best friend included, had American dollars and some souvenirs stolen from their suitcases. Instantly, everyone was on the alert. Fingers were being pointed and accusations were flying out the window. Many Westerners were absolutely 100% sure that one particular Kenyan brother was to blame. He had come from a “rough” upbringing where money was tight and he supposedly fostered a drug addiction, but that was all hearsay that came to the surface during the commotion. Our Kenyan friends justifiably bristled at the harsh words, taking it as a slight against their whole community. Of course we think the Africans did it. It was an extremely tense situation that divided our entire group and paused our humanitarian work for an entire week. No one felt safe and everyone felt threatened by the others. Personally, I wasn’t sure who did it, but I knew there was no way a Westerner could. I had gotten close to each of them! I knew not a single one of them would do that. We were all here to help the people of this country; why would any of us steal?
The hostilities got to a point where nothing was getting done, and the base leader had to put his foot down. So he forced all of us into a room to spend time together eating, drinking, and playing games for an entire day. The initial progress was slow, but all of us had come there to do good in the world. That yearning to extend love and grace inside each heart leaked its way to the surface, breaking the tension, allowing for forgiveness. Slowly, but surely, the palpable anger began to seep from the room and the old friendships we had before the stealing replaced it. By the end of that time together, it was almost as if everyone was in agreement, “The past is behind us. Let’s move forward as a team and do what we came here to do”.
So we did. And I learned such a valuable lesson: no one is safe from the deceptively sneaky tentacles of bias. It is easy to stick to and defend what we THINK we know…what we believe to be comfortable and safe. But comfort and safety aren’t always synonymous as I have learned throughout my life (see this post). It is important to recognize that anyone can fall short of extending grace to those who are different, even those of us that think that’s the last thing we ever need to worry about. It’s hard thing to admit, but it is a lesson that I hold dear to my heart. Recognizing and admitting that I am not perfect used to be such a difficult thing for me, but now? It is the most freeing.
I am not perfect. But I’m working on it. That’s enough for me.