The Great Divide (Lessons From Kenya #41)

Melting-PotDiversity…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. RedSea

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.

Lessons from Kenya #4510

airplane

I remember the day I left for Kenya; I was a bundle of excitement and sheer energy, ready for the next step of my life. This embarking adventure was a dream come true for me, something I had been waiting for since I was a little girl! While other little girl dreamt of joining the ballet or one day reaching the moon, my one dream way to see Africa. So when the day finally arrived, nothing could dampen my mood!

That is…until my plane actually took off.

The first leg of my journey involved a 14 hour flight to Amsterdam, where I would then have a 9 hour lay over before continuing on to my final destination. Up until take off, I had been so preoccupied with other things – checking in, doing the barefoot thing for security, trying my hardest not to forget anything or misplace my ticket, so I never truly had a moment to process what was happening. When I finally got settled into my seat, buckled up, and watched the airport shrink into the distance, a feeling set upon me. I was still extremely excited for the upcoming 6 months, but I think it was the first time that I even considered reflecting on what I was leaving behind.

As the rumble of the plane engines dulled at cruising altitude, my thoughts took off in an entirely different direction. I pictured the face of my mother who was scared out of her mind about me being half way across the world; I pictured my then boyfriend’s tear stained face as I kissed his cheek and promised I’d be home soon; I pictured my bed, my home, my life as I knew it; and I realized that something in me was about to change. I was going to shed a distinct part of who I was in the hopes that I would come out on the other side of this whole thing a better person. Things were going to change, whether I was ready or not.

That’s when the tears hit. They just leaked out of me like a broken faucet, steady and seemingly ceaseless. Luckily, I was sitting by the window, and I was able to turn my body away and block out my neighbor. Ah, solitude! And I cried and cried and cried. After a a good 30 minutes of silently (or perhaps not so silently) heaving, I felt the gentle touch on my shoulder. I quickly tried to wipe the snot from my face and turned to the sweet woman sitting beside me. She smiled and simply held out her hand in which were a variety of different candies. I was touched by the simple gesture and whispered my thanks as I took a sweet, returning quietly to my former position. From then on, the my kindhearted neighbor kept offering me different items throughout the flight. She sent tissues my way, asked the flight attendant for a blanket for me, and woke me up for snack and meal times. She was my airline mother! and in the midst of missing my actual mother, she brought me the greatest of comforts.

So my lesson from Kenya today is this: even when times are difficult, when everything seems as though it is morphing before your very eyes into something unknown and you are scared, trust that there are comforts all around you. Sometimes they are in the little things – a text from a friend, a blog post, or a handful of sweets, but they’re there. All you have to do is look around and let your heart be open to the gentle embraces your Higher Power is trying to send your way.

To be honest, I don’t even remember the woman’s name now, but I will always, always treasure the comfort she brought me through her simple acts of kindness. So thank you, airplane mom. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Love always,
-Freedom

Lessons from Kenya #198

Do you remember ever going bowling as a little kid? Well, I don’t know about you, but anytime my family took me, I would get a special lane all to myself. And this lane was magical. There was no way for me to lose in this lane. Why? I had the bumpers! I had those guard rails that lined the gutters and protected my ball from ever going down the bumperswrong path. Needless to say, I LOVED bowling.

I have always thrived with bumpers set strictly in place – certain rules and standards that I lived by in order to guard and protect myself from danger. Now, these guidelines worked well for me in my home environment, but I quickly learned that they did more harm than good in Africa.

For instance, prior to my 2011 trip, I had gone completely vegetarian. I hadn’t touched meat since 2008 purely for the purpose of protecting my health (a.k.a – a guard rail). On one of my first days in Kenya, as I was returning from my morning meditation walk in The Bush, I noticed a group of people crouched around something just off the road. My mentor – who would later become like a father figure to me – standing amongst them. When he noticed me, he waved me over with a gigantic grin on his face. Cautiously, I approached the crowd, which had parted for me to get a better view of what was sitting in the center of their gathering. There, lying helpless, was this dik dik (antelope type thing). Apparently, it had gotten stuck in the fence surrounding the base and had broken its legs. The animal was going to die of starvation, so the workers decided it would be best to kill it and cook its meat as a special welcome dinner for us newcomers.

That night, as we all gathered around the great hall tables, I had special insight into what was in our meal, and my stomach was in knots. However, as I stood in line to have my bowl filled with meat stew, I saw the beaming pride on our hosts’ faces as they announced to each person what they had cooked up. Instantly, I knew that I had to let my bumpers down or risk offending my new friends. So I filled my bowl to the top, took a seat, and dove in without a second of hesitation! That’s when Kenya first felt like home to me. Sitting around a dinner table with good food and in good company was an exact snapshot of my childhood, and if I had chosen to close myself off and forgo dinner, I would have missed that very special moment.

Sometimes, guard rails can hinder us from the most amazing experiences. Yes, it is a comfort to know that with our defense systems in place, we minimize the risk of pain and heartache, but we also prevent ourselves from experiencing a new kind of joy – the one that comes with getting that strike on our own. I know that for me, I had to let my rails down time and time again throughout my stay in Kenya, and in every situation, I was just as nervous as the last. But each time, I was rewarded with new friends, new memories, and a new-found confidence that has made me a more well-rounded person overall.

So, today, my reminder from Kenya is to put my guard rails down again, and aim for those life points on my own. Even if I fail a hundred times, all I have to do is to reset my pins and try again, each time perfecting my technique. And one day, I’ll get that strike, and it will be the most amazing experience because I did it all without my bumpers.

strike

Exciting stuff is ahead! I can just feel it.
Love Always,
-Freedom

Lessons from Kenya #1077

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. chaiLessons 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.

community

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.
-Freedom

Lessons from Kenya #64

Don’t drink the water. I mean…seriously, no matter how filtered they tell you the water spigot is, just don’t do it. Take it from the girl who was diagnosed with Typhoid and Malaria by the Kenyan doctors. I found out later that I actually had a nasty bout of parasites called Giardia Lamblia, but it really did still feel like I was dying of the plague. Mt.Koh

Looking back on everything now, the series of events surrounding the acquisition of my little parasitic friend, Gary, is actually quite comical. Our major team of 30 had been divided by then into two groups of 15, and my herd was staying at a host home in a little town called Chesta.  it was actually one of the nicer places we were able to visit, and the family had a borehole that connected to a filtered faucet which they drank from repeatedly. I, of course, not even thinking twice, quickly filled up my camelback and quenched my thirst. I did this over and over and over throughout my stay there…this is important to note.

Three days later, we had a day off! So a handful of people, including my very best friend K and I, decided to hike Mt. Koh. Now mind you, here I am picturing an adventure much like the ones that I was used to in Los Angeles: distinctly marked dirt trails, alternating uphill and downhill slow gradients, and a leisurely pace. This was definitely not the case. Not only was there no path and pretty much a direct uphill route, our guide was just about running the whole time.

We finally make it to this plateau where a beautiful waterfall was trickling down over giant, flat rocks, and our guide said we were only about halfway to the real scenic area he was so set on reaching. But I would have no more of it; we had already been trekking for 4 hours! Thankfully, K was just as winded as I was and volunteered to stay with me in this little oasis we had discovered. So the rest of the group journeyed on, and K and I sprawled out in the cool shade with our feet dipped in the water. After about an hour of relaxing, though, things started to take a turn for the worse. I suddenly had the most excruciating stomach pain and became violently ill. There was no way we could head back on our own, so I was stuck on the side of the mountain when Gary first came into my life.

Some hour or so later the group finally returned. Turns out they were too tired to make it to the top and turned back (luckily for me). So here I am, super sick, and I still had to find my way down the mountain. Needless to say, I fell on my butt a good 12 times, but I made it! By then, my stomach had settled down to a small rumble, so I thought I was in the clear. Again, I was greatly mistaken.

By the time we reached the next town, Kitale, I was experiencing the same severe stomach pains but this time coupled with intense body aches and chills. Kitale was at least 100 degrees outside, and I was zipped up in my mummy sleeping bag all the way, still shaking like a leaf. Then, every 30 minutes or so I had to run down the road, past the aggressive donkey, to the outhouse. Man, was I a mess. Finally, one of my group leaders decided it was time for me to see a doctor, which was not the easiest feat. We had to take a piki-piki (motorcycle) to the main road then hop on a matatu (mini van taxi thing filled with people) just to get to the main town. It was an hour or more trip one way.  matatu

Now, let me describe the doctor’s office for you. The front of the building is a little convenience store that sells household items such as rat poison and traps, disinfectant, and other miscellaneous goods. I had to walk through this foyer into a tiny back room where the doctor did an initial check up and took down my symptoms. He then sent me next door for blood work. The lab was a dark little shack that fit two people, myself and the technician, with one microscope and hundreds of little glass panels with drops of blood in them. He quickly pricked me and sent me back to the doctor. After waiting what only felt like 2 minutes, the main physician declared that I definitely had Typhoid and Highland Malaria (which was supposedly resistant to the medication I was taking that was meant to prevent this exact situation). The treatment? One intravenous cycle of medication and one shot right in the buttox. I looked at my mentor nervously, but she seemed confident in the diagnosis, so I agreed to the prescription. Once that was over, I was sent back with about a weeks worth of Ciproxin.

To be honest, I didn’t feel much better even after taking the Cipro. I knew I wasn’t going to be 100% again until I was able to get proper treatment back at home in California. So I had to make a choice: do I stay in Kenya and finish out the last month I had? or do I go home early to get some relief?

I stayed. I knew in my gut that I would forever regret leaving early, and I only had a few more weeks left. I could do it..no, I WOULD do it. So I did. I was diligent about my medication, then took on a more naturalistic remedy of tea and filtered (for sure this time) water, and I survived! But I wouldn’t recommend it.

So here is another lesson from Kenya: unless you were blessed with the stomach and immune system of a native, think twice before you drink the water. Trust me, you don’t want Gary knocking on your door. But even if he does come to visit, know that it will be ok! You will survive. You will get through it. And you will have the most amazing story to share. I know I do.

Love Always,
A Gary-Free Freedom

Lessons from Kenya #465

AfricaKenya changed my life. Sounds fairly cliché, but it is one of the facts that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is true. Contained within those 6 months that I spent traveling from one side of the country to the other are some of the best experiences as well as some of the most challenging situations I’ve ever been through. I learned much from my time there, and I was smart enough to write almost all of it down in this beautiful leather-bound journal. After re-reading it, I’ve decided to start a little mini-series recounting some of my stories.

A little introductory background info:

Ever since I was a little girl, Africa has had a special place in my heart. This greatly baffled my mother, but being religious, she figured it was my gift from God – a missionary’s heart. Thus, I knew that I was destined to visit that “mystical” land. In 2011, I decided to make that dream a reality. Firstly, I got involved with an organization called Youth With a Mission (YWAM), and found that they had bases all over the world that supported young adults who were looking to do some good. I knew that I wanted…no, needed to be somewhere in Africa, and I specially wanted to work with kids. One program in particular fit my two criterion: the Discipleship Training School at the Athi River Base in Kenya (roughly 40 miles outside of Nairobi). It was 3 months of schooling and preparation at the base and then 3 months of traveling and humanitarian work. I was pumped! So I raised the money through a series of letters and garage sales, packed my bags, and prepared for the craziest adventure of my entire life.

One of the greatest lessons I learned happened before I even left Southern California, though. In the days leading up to my departure, my mother started to become extremely nervous and hesitant about the whole situation. I was her baby girl…her ONLY baby girl, and she was about to let me fly some 3000 miles to a foreign country for 6 months. Without deliberately trying to stomp on my dreams, she kept questioning if I was really ready to be on my own in such a way. Seeing my mom, my rock, start to waver actually put a little anxiety blip on my radar that was normally honed in on excitement and possibilities. Should I really be doing this? Was my heart wrong about everything?

But I had already spent money on the plane ticket, and on the day of departure, I figured there was no turning back now. So I went! I cried like a baby on my flight from Los Angeles to Amsterdam (where I would be meeting fellow travelers before continuing on the Kenya), but the minute I stepped out onto African soil, I felt like I was home. All of the doubt simply evaporated, and all that I could think of was: “I can’t believe I’m finally here”.

So lesson #1 for me is to never let fear in your mind stop you from what the conviction of your heart is telling you to do. If I had listened to my mother, to my worries and my fears, I would never have gotten on that plane. I would never have met my best friend. I would never have gotten to see the beauty of Kenya. And I honestly wouldn’t be who I am or where I am today.

I am grateful for my relentless heart. Maybe it’s time to trust yours.
-Freedom