Simon reflects on three years in Kenya

My friend Simon arrived at NEGST at the same time we did in 2005; he graduated with his MDiv last July. Recently, I sent him a few questions challenging him to write down his reflection on his three years here and the transition back to the US. Here is what he had to say:

For starters, give us a little basic background: Where are you from? What are you doing now?
I am a 6’4″ Dutch male born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, grew up in a town north of there called Cadillac, and did a Bachelor of Social Work stint at Calvin College because it was the only social science degree that was actually hireable. During my social work internship at Lawndale Christian Health Center in Chicago, I felt the need to go to seminary and explore who God is and what it meant for the world to follow him.

Since I graduated from seminary, I’ve been in the ordination process for the Christian Reformed Church, currently fulfilling an internship at Madison Avenue CRC in Paterson, New Jersey.

How did you wind up at a seminary in Africa?
simon-gradI always wondered what salvation might look like beyond my own need for peace of mind when I die. I was reading the prayer of Jesus when he tells us to ask God for daily bread, and I realized that I had never really done this my whole life long. In this regard, I felt like I should probably learn what that means, that we are dependent up Providence for daily calories as well as eternal assurance. Secondly, I was excited to learn theology developed by Africans born outside the global West. Finally, there was that exotic image in my mind of strange exciting foods and colorful clothing, of distant undiscovered mountains and verdant Savannah, and the sole possibility of learning about God in such a place kept me awake for nights on end.

What were the best things you took away from your three years here?
Jesus would answer this with a story involving milk or wind, but I’ll try to Westernly itemize the biggies: (1) that human relationships are the bedrock of our lives (2) that living lives of sacrifice and hospitality, with Jesus as our messiah, are how we foster health and stability (shalom) in this world (3) that God is big enough to enable us in this task (4) that any religious institution or theological framework that is not actually helping this world should be ignored and left to die, wheezing.

What were the hardest parts of your experience here?
Arriving I was a total extrovert. Soon after arriving in Kenya, I found that I was spending weeks upon weeks without any excursion at all, rarely having people invite me anywhere. I began to blame my classmates for being so exclusive. But soon I found that people were willing to be friends if I stopped by their houses rather than waited for formal invitations, which helped because I began to deliberately visit people more often. But the cultural divide still made my American practice of friendship rare, and so I spent at least 5-10 hours alone each day (including most major holidays), and left Kenya quite an introvert.

If you had to do it over, what would you do differently?
I’m not sure how I could have, considering the process. For instance, I wish I would have been more able to socialize within primarily African friendships, but this only came after at least two years had passed. I wish I would have had more to do outside of class (independent studies or humanitarian work) but these sort of activities are not setup from Michigan because you don’t know your free hours until you arrive. I wish I would have had $2500 for a car, because I could have had more of a social life with mobility beyond the minibuses (which are too dangerous past 7 or 8pm).

In light of your experiences, what do you have to say to your American friends?
Don’t go to abroad in the name of salvation. Go there to learn from it (or have a nice vacation that helps its economy). Once you know the place, the only help it needs is the enabling kind. I met many teams of missionaries there, one I remember which spent $200,000 for twenty-five punky kids to feel like they had helped ‘Save Africa’, but Kenya actually has the same percent professing Christians as the US (CIA World Factbook), and the punks only poured a foundation to a kitchen (true story). Meanwhile many of my close friends were eating on $15/month, unable to afford text books let alone any healthcare. It was awful to live between this dichotomy.

. . . to your African friends?
To those who could handle my Americana: thanks for being my friend and fellow believer. Thanks for introducing me to ugali and sekuma, Ethiopian food and dance, for bringing me to your distant homes and cooking me your foods. Ben, I don’t think you’ve gotten to the downtown Habesha during the weekend (talk to Mesfin), but they have free live Ethiopian music and dance, and its the best indoor entertainment in Nairobi.

What were the best things about coming home?
I have no idea. Its nice to drink out of the tap (though this is changing). Its good to call my family at any moment without paying Skype. I would say safety, but I went from Nairobi to Paterson, New Jersey, which is just as violent.

What were the hardest things about coming back?
Ben knows this, but for those who don’t, once you move around enough you stop belonging anywhere. So basically right now I feel nearly as alienated as when I lived in Kenya, though Ben showed me how to laugh about this and live with it. Also, I deeply miss roasted maize; the withdrawal has been near clinical.

How do you think your three years here will impact your future?
Good huge question. I suspect my understanding of God and this world, of people and community, of the power of faith, it will all be enriched and matured. I used to joke that seminary in Kenya was my Dagobah (where Luke got trained by Yoda in Star Wars), but now I realize how truly changed I am by that stretching time. God is truly the world’s greatest hope, and this fact has been confirmed time and time again. We prayed for food during hunger, and it came; for rain during drought, and it came. We prayed against disease and handed out medicine, and people were healed. A seminary experience is something that should verse folks in the depth of this world’s need while enabling them to join God’s restorative work, and I am proud to say I learned this during my MDiv in Kenya.

Simon blogs at Up from the Stump;  Reflections during his time in Kenya: Nairobi Diary (He saw a fair bit of East Africa in those three years.)

5 thoughts on “Simon reflects on three years in Kenya

  1. phmerrill says:

    Great interview!

    Having lived for 5 years in Nairobi, I can relate to some of Simon’s experiences. You both have gone beyond the surface to delve deeper into some of the cross-cultural experiences Americans experience.

    • Ben says:

      Yeah. I’m glad he took the time to write it down. Some of those thoughts we have in times of transitions are crucial.

      How long ago were you here? What were some of your reflections along the same lines?

  2. Pastor M says:

    Good stuff!

    I had the reverse experience (Kenyan studying in US seminary) and yet resonate with Simon’s experience. One thing from that experience that I’d say to anyone wanting to do as he did is – connect with a local church and get involved in ministry. Easy to justify not doing so because of all the work, but a great way to make some deep and lasting friendships. And to retain your extrovert-ness 🙂

    • Ben says:

      Pastor M., I feel honored that you stopped by and commented. We always enjoy hearing all the good news from your church (we attend your sister church at the Jamhuri Road tents), and I remember you preaching for us when we were back at Impala.

      In Simon’s defense, he was pretty plugged into a church here and even led worship regularly. (One may quibble with his choice of church, but that’s a different issue ;-)– it was probably the best choice for him given his personality and the other ministry he was already doing outside of school). Unfortunately, public transportation from here to Mavuno–where he might have met more young Kenyans of his own ilk–is a bit of a hike. In addition to all the cultural adjustments, there is also simply the adjustment from the vibrant university life that we all remember so well to an environment where more people are older and are just trying to survive parenting young kids. There are a few vibrant, young people here (you probably know some of them), but most of us are older foggies.

      As you say, getting involved in church is definitely key. If only more churches were as young and vibrant as yours!! (It would probably drive some of us old foggies nuts, but that’s okay.)

      Looking forward to more from your blog.

  3. Hi Ben,
    Thanks so much on your interview that sheds light on Simon’s stay here in Kenya. I would like to congratulate his on his stay. I was a student at Daystar University which also has a student exchange program and i enjoyed interacting with fellow students from the U.S. Simon’s story has reminded me of my US friends who really loved roasted maize. We went ahead and showed them how to roast maize and sell them to our fellow kenyan students. They made so much money because everyone wanted to taste roasted maize by the Americans. They made a huge amount of money, and I must admit that I got a little jealous.They simply loved it and I see Simon got addicted to them. Did Simon learn any dance? Thanks.


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