Oct 4, 2005

Missionary Style

From an email Marina wrote describing a dinner with missionaries in August.... In Kenya.

So, the potluck was actually much better than I could have imagined. It started at 5, and I left 10 minutes beforehand. With heavy, thundering rain clouds to my back, I ran to get a boda-boda (a bicycle taxi), and fled to Milimani, the ‘rich’ neighborhood of Kitale. Boda-bodas are not exactly fast – they’re heavy, Chinese-made bicycles with a single gear that a guy smelling of sweat and wearing old, dingy clothing pedals with all his might. Occasionally, the hills are too much, and he stops to hold the bike while you get off, and then we both walk up. Anyway, because there are also no street names here, let alone house numbers, directions are always a little shady. So, constantly looking back at the menacing clouds, I finally steered us to the ‘rust-colored gate’ that Beverly had described on the phone. And, how did I recognize it? The silver Prado (4x4) turning in, and the mzungu at the gate greeting his guests. The mzungu was Larry, Beverly’s husband, holding an umbrella, his face pockmarked and his eyes cold until he sees you are looking at him in which case he lights up with a politician’s smile. Ah, missionaries.

So, you had to take your shoes off upon entering the ‘mud room’ – and then, you enter AMERICANA LIKE YOU’VE NEVER SEEN. Or, rather, it’s a cut-out from the Southern Living magazine that adorns their wicker coffee table. Yes, from the golf-course length lawn to the curtains to the floor to the green wicker shelf to hold the toilet paper in the bathroom, this is an American home in Kitale, Kenya. Someone flattered Larry by saying this was one of the nicest houses in Milimani. “Yes, Beverly has a gift. And, you should meet our daughter.” I can only imagine. It’s also as sterile as you can get – your socks are probably cleaned by walking on their floor and the kitchen is WHITE and complete with all appliances you could want. The pantry is filled with peanut butter and macaroni, with one half of a shelf filled with Betty Crocker cookbooks. You can only imagine the food: two, count them: TWO chicken casserole dishes (one was actually called: chicken-spaghetti surprise and contained, I am sure, campbell’s chicken and noodle soup), TWO baskets of home-made rolls, a small green salad, my own pepper/bean salad, and three desserts – one of which was a cardamom flan that the sole Indian guest had brought – and because no one had ever even heard of flan, she immediately apologized for the texture, saying she’s new to cooking such dishes. No alcohol of course, though decaf and caf coffees were available and hot during dessert. Wow.

And the people? Well, Beverly fits in this house as you can only imagine that a 50-something year old woman from Alabama will. She’s impeccably coiffed, made up, chic clothing as only a true southern belle can carry off. And, true to her background, I suppose, she did not clear any dishes except for her own and her husband’s (who was sitting across the table from her), only to bring him his ‘special’ bowl of dessert (he’s on a low-carb diet, which has resulted in, he told us proudly, a loss of 50 pounds in the last 8 months – and he could easily lose another 50) and a cup of coffee just like he likes it. Then, she sat back down on ‘her’ side of the round table, where, somehow, all the women had gravitated – except for me, of course. I was sitting in between Larry and Patrick, a 20-year old kid from Mobile, Alabama who is having a hard time making it through college, wants to be a musician, so is majoring in music, but tells me he will become a real-estate agent upon graduating, like his father, so he can make some money, and support his wife – a girl, he says, he’s ‘already picked out’ (does she know, I wanted to ask? What model is she?). It’s his first time to Africa, and he’s new to traveling at all – and I have to say, he’s definitely intelligent enough to make this a turning point in his life. It’s these ‘alternative’ influences in his life that make me hesitate… He told me he was also in a rock band only AFTER we’d been speaking for a while, and he immediately searched my face for a response. When I smiled in affirmation, he looked away, a mixture of shame and relief, and said, “Okay,” as if he had just been waiting for the lecture.

Pam and Mike were from West Virginia, evangelicals here for nine years now (how many years you have stayed is a true testament to your devotion and how ‘hardy’ you are – Pam and Mike win the overtly competitive prize – Beverly and Larry have been here for ‘only’ 7 years) – and, fortunately, came already recommended from the AMPATH people I work with in Eldoret. She is a nurse who apparently trained at AMPATH for HIV treatment a few years ago. Both are typical middle-America; underneath her perm, she squints and blinks her eyes a lot; and he talks not only fast but with a ceaseless energy that reminds you of a rushing river – filled with puns. Another couple (Nancy and ???) are evangelicals who tour the hard-to-reach spots, bringing the gospel to a population, they claim, is ‘thirsty for spiritual guidance.’ And, Russ, well, Russ seems to be a mixture. Originally from Seattle, he’s the only Catholic from the group, works with street youth here in Kitale, having recently moved from Nairobi, where he was also working with street youth. He’s 40 or 50 or older, bald, but with his hair pulled over his pate; he looks a little like Harpo Marx – his expressions at least. He’s quiet, new, shy, just becoming familiar with the local missionary scene. I’m sure he’s gay.

And then ‘Shi’, the Indian, a total suck-up to this group of wealthy Americans. I felt sorry for her husband and father-in-law who run the hardware store that has helped me with a few things around the house – Indians who have been here for a few generations now, and who I hardly thought were Christian.

“So, tell us what you do,” Beverly ordered with a sweet smile from across the table as everyone dug into their casserole. People were polite, acknowledged that HIV is indeed a huge problem, but that has ‘many solutions’ to the problem. Including, of course, spiritual guidance. They told me about members of their respective congregations who are or were HIV+. “Is it true that it can hide in your body for 7 or 8 years???” “Wow, you could lead a seminar!” Hardly. And, then, “how many countries have you been to?”

Upon leaving, Beverly hugged me (again), saying how pleased she is that I came. Larry apologized to everyone for having to take off our shoes.

Such is the flavor of the mzungu scene in Kitale. Another go-round would be interesting to be sure, especially since apparently there are as many who are on leave. So, in October, here I come…

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