Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lost in Translation

Even though here in Kenya I’m mostly surrounded by people who speak English, I’m the only American on staff at KAK right now, so I still often find myself totally confused by what people are saying (and they’re often totally confused by me too). Even Ruth, my British roommate, and I sometimes have moments of total non-communication when we’re talking to each other.
So, I’m working on learning 3 new languages right now – Kiswahili, British English and Kenyan English – all very different from what I’ve grown up speaking, but all equally valid ways of communicating. Languages are always evolving, so who am I to say that the American English is “better” than Kenyan English? I’ve gotten quite a lot of flak (mostly good-naturedly) from some of our British short-term team members about the way I speak and spell (and I’ve usually given it right back to them with comments like “well, we’ve just streamlined your language for you. You’re welcome.”), and I’ve realized that as long as we understand one another, who cares whether the way we’re communicating is the “right way” or not?  
It’s been fun learning these new ways of communicating, but I still have a long way to go. There are still MANY moments throughout my day where I find myself saying “Can you explain what that means?”, “say that again?” or simply “What?” Not being able to understand or communicate well has been a challenge for me at times, but God is teaching me a lot about humility, patience and trust through it all – I’m also much more inclined to laugh at myself these days than maybe I used to be. I have made some pretty funny mistakes, so instead of getting embarrassed, I laugh at myself. And my Kenyan friends and co-workers laugh with me too. And we laugh together when they make funny communication mistakes. And we all grow closer together and understand one another better through the laughter.
 As I’ve been working on improving my language skills, I’ve created a little glossary for myself to help me keep everything straight – some are phrases that I’d never heard before but are just how people say things here, and some are Kenyan pronunciations that were confusing to me at first or Kenyan re-workings of classic English phrases/colloquialisms.  

Here are a few of my favorites:                                        

Kenyan English
My American Translation
Paper Bag
Plastic Grocery Bag
Iron Box
Biskwit and Moskweetoh
Biscuit and Mosquito
Brother (said with a specific, knowing tone)
From the Blues
Out of the blue
It’ll cost you a leg and an arm
An arm and a leg
Isn’t it?
Do you agree with me?
I’m coming
I’m leaving but I’ll be right back
Said as a greeting when shaking hands (clever way to preemptively answer the question and skip over the “how are yous”)
Up and Down
Kenyan directional words meaning right or left depending on the grade of the road (if the road is flat, I’m usually completely lost)

Funny conversation Ruth had a while back:
“So Ruth, are you going to the vaganza?"
“What’s a vaganza?"
“I don’t know. I was hoping you could tell me."
"I've never heard of a vaganza"
"Well anyway, I guess this isn't the first vaganza because they said this is the extra one”
“Oh I see - An extravaganza!”

I'm getting there - slowly and with a lot of laughter, I'm getting there.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

This World is Not My Home

I think sometimes people in full time cross-cultural ministry are tentative about sharing the hard stuff that we sometimes deal with. At least I know I am.  I know personally I’d rather only talk about the joys, blessings and miracles I see God doing here in Kenya because I don’t want anyone to get a wrong impression. I LOVE my life here, and I know this is exactly where God wants me. I feel so much purpose in what I’m doing and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

But life here is hard sometimes. And maybe I’m not being completely honest if I don’t share some of the hard stuff too. This post is a recounting of a dream that I had within the first few months I was here. It was so vivid and felt so real that I had to write it down. I’ve been sitting on this post for a few months now because I wasn’t sure if it was an appropriate thing to share, but I think it is. I think it’s important to be transparent not only about the good things, but about the hard stuff too.
While some of the circumstances in this dream may seem silly or overdramatic, I think the feelings that it highlights are valid and even common for cross-cultural workers. I also think that the lessons that God has taught me through this dream are invaluable and applicable not only to people serving across cultures, but maybe to everyone in some way or another. 
I’m sharing this not because I want sympathy or to make anyone concerned, but because I think it’s worth sharing. And maybe it can be an encouragement to other cross-cultural workers who maybe have had similar feelings at times. And maybe it can help those of you who are not serving abroad to better know how to be praying for those of us who are.
Background: Maranatha is the location of family’s summer cottage on Lake Michigan. It is my safe place - the place that most feels like home and where I feel most like myself.

My dream:
After being in Kenya for some time, I was magically whisked away to a Starbucks at Maranatha – There isn’t actually a Starbucks at Maranatha, but the point is that it is an extremely familiar place where I know all the rules, how to behave, what to do and how to communicate. I’m competent there – maybe even an expert. I understand everything that’s going on around me – what people are doing and why, what they are saying, etc. and I feel known and understood.
 In the dream I was excited to be there, to have a break from life in Kenya and feel like my old self for just a minute. When I entered the Starbucks though, everything was not how I expected it to be. People started talking to me about bands and other American cultural things that I had never heard of. People began pushing and shoving in front of me in line, seemingly on purpose and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. Was I the only one who valued waiting your turn? They took advantage of my niceness for a while but then I actually got in a fist fight with a girl to maintain my position in line. She ended up winning though, and I went defeated to the back of the line.
After waiting in line for what felt like hours, I got up to the counter and found that the menu had changed – I didn’t know what was what or how to order anymore. To top it all off, the barista started addressing me in Kiswahili and all of the other Americans understood her and looked at me like I was crazy for not – I was the one who lived in Kenya after all  - shouldn’t I know more Kiswahili than them?! In the dream I felt so disappointed, confused, bruised and embarrassed. I ran through the crowd of jeering people to the bathroom and locked myself in the stall to cry.

That’s when I woke up and realized that I was actually crying.  I’ve never cried in my sleep before...

This dream is significant in that it highlights a lot of the feelings that I have occasionally struggled with here in Kenya (especially when I first arrived), but often have tried to ignore or pretend aren’t really affecting me. I have felt incompetent, uninformed, unable to understand most of what’s going on around me, misunderstood, sometimes helpless, taken advantage of, lonely and unknown or unable to be fully known.

The fact that in the dream everything happened in a place I had expected to be familiar but wasn’t added weight to the feelings of disappointment and frustration (expectations – so key).
After I calmed myself down, I opened my Bible and read Psalm 120:1 and Psalm 121.
“I took my troubles to the Lord; I cried out to Him, and he answered my prayer”
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm —
he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore. “
Those passages were exactly what I needed right at that moment. Then I began to pray for strength and peace.  I was reminded that He is the only one who truly knows and understands me and what I’m going through. Other people may be able to encourage me or cry with me or give me words of wisdom at times, but He is the only one who is ALWAYS there for me (time zones don’t mean anything to Him) and always knows and is willing to give me just what I need right when I need it.
 I think that this dream was a gift from the Lord, and that it was meant to remind me that I won’t ever feel truly at home, comfortable or known anywhere in this world. I won’t feel like that until I am with Him.