Although adjusting to life in Kenya was by no means easy, the truly difficult chapter of my journey has presented itself in the last week, since returning from Kenya. Adjustment from the third world back to the first, I have found, is a process that leaves one with more questions than answers.
Sitting in the house of my childhood, where everything is left as I remember it, and where old friends and family have been and continue to pay me regular visits, all sorts of stimuli nevertheless surprise, offset, offend and confuse me. Even though I’m home, I feel like a stranger.
Going to a restaurant, I’ll take one glance at the menu and immediately my eyes will dim into the thousand-mile stare. The coffee costs three dollars here? I knew a man in Kenya who delayed medical treatment for his ailing wife because he couldn’t come up with that much! Perhaps television will offer solace? No, it does not; in Kenya, what little television I saw advertised cooking oil, soap, cement and other basic necessities. Here, I witness programs interspersed with advertisements for sports cars, children’s fashion (children’s fashion!) and casinos. My sensation is that, in one day of aerial travel, I must have accidentally stumbled into another dimension.
The dichotomy is this: America is a culture constructed around the individual, while Kenya is a culture of community. In the United States, an eighteen-year-old is expected to move out of his or her parents’ house and begin work or studies shortly after high school. In Kenya, one is welcome to live with their parents indefinitely. In the United States, it is forbidden to touch children who are not your own. In Kenya, children will climb onto the laps of complete strangers to make room for other adults on public transportation, and the strangers will happily and wordlessly embrace them. In America, most meals (except dinner) are eaten alone. In Kenya, it is taboo to eat alone, and someone must always join you, even for a snack. I found this latter trait the most surprising and the most admirable: I brought a large quantity of granola bars and beef jerky to Kenya to give to friends as a novelty, and every time I shared this food, without fail, it was placed in the pocket of the recipient, only to be opened and consumed later when the whole family could have a taste.
Those commercials I mentioned earlier reinforce this idea. Kenyans advertise antibacterial soap to protect one’s children from disease, cement to construct a sturdy home, and cooking oil to provide better nutrition at family meals. Americans advertise clothes that turn children into fashion accessories, cars whose sole purpose is to flaunt wealth, and casinos where whole paychecks are blown on cheap thrills and vice.
Apologists of individualism often make the claim that America’s individual-oriented culture is responsible for its fantastic wealth and productivity, and that communalistic cultures like Kenya’s are comparatively slow at the generation of wealth. I don’t dispute this claim; to some extent, it is likely true. But is this really a good reason to strive toward individualism?
I say no. Indeed, although I’m enjoying sleeping on a real mattress, eating a wide variety of foods and having a car to drive, my heart still pines for Kenya. I had something there that America (or at least my corner thereof) seems to be lacking:
I feel as though I, along with most Americans, are described perfectly by the following passage from Ecclesiastes:
“There was a man all alone;
he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked,
‘and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?’
This too is meaningless—
a miserable business!” (4:8)
I would trade all of my first world conveniences in a heartbeat to reenter the tightly-knit community I had in Kenya. Over the course of eight weeks, I learned to listen to people like I’ve never done before, to invest emotionally in them and allow them in turn to invest in me, to eat together, pray together, solve disputes together, keep no secrets and be proactive rather than reactive in dealing with others. Truly, I caught a fleeting glimpse of what it means to love one’s neighbor. And, just as my roots began to fasten me to the land, the language, the people, and the culture,
My time expired, and I was uprooted.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer. […] God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself” (Life Together, 19, 23). I couldn’t agree more.
In America, I feel isolated. Ours is a society of human love rather than spiritual love, and human love is simply no substitute for what I became accustomed to in Kenya. Bonhoeffer explains, “Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake. Therefore, human love seeks direct contact with the other person; it loves him not as a free person but as one whom it binds to itself. […] It creates of itself an end, an idol which it worships, to which it must subject everything. It nurses and cultivates an ideal, it loves itself, and nothing else in the world” (34-5).
A quote from Ecclesiastes is once again appropriate: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!” (1:2).
There is, however, one positive aspect to my having lost the Kenyan community: now, in the land of consumerism, irreligiously and superficiality, it is the time for me to test my spiritual mettle. Indeed, “this is the place where we find out whether the Christian’s meditation has led him into the unreal, from which he awakens in terror when he returns to the workaday world, or whether it has led him into a real contact with God, from which he emerges strengthened and purified. Has it transported him for a moment into a spiritual ecstasy that vanishes when everyday life returns, or has it lodged the Word of God so securely and deeply in his heart that it holds and fortifies him, impelling him to active love, to obedience, to good works? Only the day can decide” (Bonhoeffer, 88).
Thus, my uprooting has taught me that we cannot escape from the world into the security of our Christian communities, no matter how intoxicating that idea might be. God commands us to confront the real world, and to transform it. As I stated in my last blog post, one of the duties of Christians is to live their lives as testimonies to the love of Christ, in a sort of passive evangelism. This cannot happen if Christians are entirely insular.
In conclusion, community is indispensable to the Christian, because it gives him or her strength, proper understanding of the Gospel and an opportunity to witness the first fruits of God’s Kingdom. Simultaneously, time apart from the community is equally necessary, in order to test the resolve of individual Christians and spread the message to nonbelievers. Only a proper balance of both will ensure a Christianity that is as true as it is strong.