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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Entering a New Culture, in many layers

Here in Kijabe, Kenya, we are entering many cultures at once. We're in a small Kenyan town clinging to the escarpment of the Rift Valley that has grown up around the AIM mission station over the last hundred years, facilitated by the famous Lunatic Express railroad, heavily Kikuyu, with small gardens and cows and forests descending into a grassy valley with pastoralist Massai and wild animals. We're about an hour west of Nairobi, a huge international congested city of contrasts with shopping malls and slums and highways and potholes. We're in an AIC-run African hospital with some 500 almost completely Kenyan staff and administration, with it's cluttered wards and spacious new operating theatres and very reasonable ICU, where my main working "team" consists of Kenyan nurses, interns, clinical officers, an Indian long-term resident, a Swiss short-term resident, and an American medical student. (In our two weeks in our new house, I estimate we've had about 15 people over for meals, among them five nationalities from four continents!). We're living on "Lower Station", the sprawling maze of small cinderblock houses, dry grassy yards, splashes of bougainvillea color, with the other missionary (and local) doctors and senior staff, blending into the largely Kenyan staff of the Bible college, dental clinic, printing press, nursing school, hotel, etc. And we're a short steep walk below the island of small-town-America that exists within the fenced compound of RVA, the missionary boarding school.
This weekend we've been immersed in the latter culture. In RVA tradition, the Junior class puts on an annual "Banquet", the main social event of the year, when the boys spiff up in suits and escort the girls in their beautiful dresses. It's the equivalent of the prom in an historically conservative fundamentalist no-dancing missionary tradition. The kids have been planning and fundraising all year, but this is the major push weekend prior to Friday's production. It is an impressive effort, with a theme kept secret from the rest of the school, but which always involves construction of an elaborate dinner-theatre type set, murals, painting, atmosphere, lighting, a drama, music, table settings, costumes, etc. All in a place that is strictly DIY: do it yourself, make it from scratch. So the parents of the Junior class are invited to come on campus while the rest of the school clears out for midterm, and WORK. Scott has been hammering and drilling and sweeping; I have been ironing and glueing and folding and cutting. And Caleb has been photoshopping on his computer while covering as DJ for music to keep the atmosphere pumped up. The class is well organized and I think the whole thing is going to be as spectacular as every other year. One of the faculty sponsors told us on the first evening: our purpose is to glorify God and to get to know each other, because those priorities last for eternity, but Banquet is only for one evening. Amen.
I'm thankful to be here for this time, to immerse and understand a little more fully this culture. It is an incredibly valuable one, a place of sacrifice and honor and idealism which has been turning out generations of well-educated and dedicated young people, from dozens of countries around the world. It is also a place that is rule-oriented and cliquish at times, and just being inside it helps me understand the places that are hard for my kids. Many of the parents I've met have amazing life stories, decades of Africa experience, long connections with the school . . . but we also clearly sense that we're now the new people, unproven and unknown, here in this cross-roads of mission stations and nationalities. I've been reading the history of the school which has been insightful as we go along, The School in the Clouds by Phil Dow. I think he gives a balanced picture of respect for the place RVA has played in the development of East Africa and even the emergence from colonialism, while being realistic about the challenges the school continues to face. I feel the same awesome respect for the century of perseverance, and yet a yearning for what could be here in the future.
Meanwhile it is good for the names I've heard from Luke and Caleb over the last few years to now take on faces and personality, good to see a class gel around the hard work and play of creating this celebration, good to interact with a wide cross-section of our missional peers, parents in their 40's and 50's who like us have taken the road less traveled, good to wear jeans and speak English. Tomorrow we'll be back to the more African culture of sick babies and tuberculous men and bright young doctors and straining to understand Swahili. And I guess that our life here will continue to be a weaving of the lower (hospital and other ministries) and upper (school) station cultures. Hoping we can find a good balance and fit in all around.

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