Colonialism Repackaged

4 continents in 3 weeks. Finally, I’m living up to the title of this blog. Even as I write this I am on an Amtrak bus to Sacramento.

After bidding farewell to Australia I prepared for my next project and adventure in rural Kenya.

SONY DSCI had been asked in Christmas of last year to accompany my grandmother, mom and dad on a trip to meet a pastor (Paul), his family (wife Mary and their three kids plus adopted children) and his ministry in a place called Kitale (a bumpy 9 hour drive northwest of Nairobi). My grandmother’s grassroots ministry, Tamar’s Voice, which reaches out to heal the wounds of sexual abuse, had been contacted by the Kenyan pastor with a similar vision for healing in rural East Africa.

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Left to right: Jan Tuin, Mary Odari, Paul Odari

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“Mama Jan” speaking to women at Divine Love, Paul translates.

IMG_1687 My only other experience in Africa had been a trip to South Africa in 2004. I didn’t really know what to expect. Even more so considering the trip was happening with 3 generations of my family and with no structural support of a big organization or church.

In essence a family from the US was meeting a family from rural Kenya.

I had the intent of visually telling the story of this unique connection for other’s to learn as we did, but I didn’t realize how much I would become involved in it. The video will be used to raise money for the women’s rescue home the two ministries will build together in western Kenya.

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Children at the Amazing Love school, part of the Divine Love ministry in Sikhendu.

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Strapping on speakers and heading to church.

Poverty is something that has always been on my mind. And, like most upper-middle-class-Christian-white-folk, I considered myself an expert on it. Rockin’ my TOMS shoes and going on short term missions trips, I was actively engaging with what I saw as a major issue in the world.

SONY DSC SONY DSC R1-05328-0007If nothing else, taking a trip to Kenya expanded my view of poverty.

Feedback on this thought would be much appreciated; I want to know what you think. It is beginning to grow on me that to view poverty as merely a lack of resources is to severely misunderstand it.* What if poverty is ANY situation where human flourishing is compromised? So perhaps Australia, The United States of America, other industrialized counties are living in extreme poverty of a certain kind? Let me explain.

Imagine a dusty, rough landscape. Rich, red soil and deep green vegetation hung beneath a vast blue sky. A rutted red road cuts through the green and disappears into the horizon. Covering nearly every square meter of this place is the buzzing of activity: women carrying children in back slings sell roasted maize and potatoes along the road. Children haul bundles of sticks. Cows graze by the roadside (on grass!). Rows of tin shacks open up to reveal electronic appliance stores, cell phone top-up shops, car repair centers, agricultural veterinarians, even hair salons. Motorbikes zoom in and out of goats and sheep (that eat grass!) herded by young entrepreneurs. Chickens (that ate bugs and grubs and seeds) hang in butcher’s windows. Old men sip tea and watch the activity. Old women roll chappati and stir ugali (made from the corn that grew just meters away). Everywhere, everyone is doing something, and all the while interacting face-to-face with each other. Smiling faces, straight teeth, hardly a set of eyeglasses to be found.

SONY DSC R1-05328-0010 SONY DSCNow imagine a wide open road. Smooth concrete, big parking lots, rows of lit storefronts pass by. A pattern in the businesses emerge (mostly owned by a few people far away). Hardly a person to be found except within their glass and steel (or plastic) escape pods. Shelves stockpiled with products made from a few ingredients. Plastic and chemicals sterilize every surface. Everywhere there is space, air conditioning, and silence.

Poverty?

Of course financial poverty is very real, with some living not far from starvation, with little disposable income for malaria drugs. And corruption in Kenya can’t be ignored, it is a cause of suffering to its people. Of course the majority of Kenya lives on less than $1 per day. But maybe we miss the power of that statement. They LIVE on less than $1 per day. These are people of extreme resourcefulness and hard work.

So with this in mind, financial poverty isn’t the problem. It is a symptom. The highly toxic nature of our food and personal care products in the US isn’t the problem. It is a symptom. To treat a symptom is to miss the bigger picture of human flourishing. The good life. The Kingdom of Heaven.

The book When Helping Hurts (by Steve Corbett, Brian Fikkert) talks about aid in three different ways: relief, rehabilitation, and development. It suggests that to provide one where another is needed is to stunt the growth process.

In our experience with the pastor of the church, we were surprised and impressed by the leadership structures put in place, the room for growth in the visions he and his team had for a women’s shelter, an already existing primary school and youth ministry. It became clear very soon that this community was above needing relief. There was potential, is potential, for development. And the possibilities are nearly limitless when local people, who have an acute awareness of local needs, take initiative. Our time in Kenya began to take on the look of a partnership, not a mission’s trip. We were siblings in the family. The agenda wasn’t ours, as the outsiders. We allowed ourselves to experience Kenya (as much as possible in 11 days) along with our Kenyan brothers and sisters.

And it was sometimes awkward, sometimes without sure footing and sometimes we got it wrong. It was clear we hadn’t practiced partnership in cross-cultural interactions. It seems that no matter how well our meaning, we have another, more sinister default setting.

Now I don’t want to make the mistake of leveling all of poverty in every part of the world as equal. There is a major difference between the poverty of finance and the poverty of social capital and relationships: we, in the US, can go about our daily lives largely unaware of our lack. In the developing world, there is no choice. Waking up to need every day is the only way to wake up. I’m not proposing negligence as an alternative to colonialism. So maybe partnership is needed, but it has to be partnership. The dignity and empowerment of everyone involved must be a priority. As wealthy Americans, we are more than our dollars (do we really believe that?). And rural Kenyans are more than their lack of resources. There is a larger goal we can work towards than simply having more disposable income. Do we think that to make East Africa like the US will somehow allow them to experience more of the richness of being human? Will it allow them to experience relationship with God more clearly?

Perhaps in more ways than one we have much to learn.

Are you preparing for, leading up to, a missions trip or “serving trip”? What goal is implicit in the actions and schedule of your team? Are you narrowing the definition of the good life to financial resources? There is no shame in getting it wrong.

So why is this post appearing in a blog about a filmmaker? Now imagine a production company in the developing world that trains children from the slums in photo and video skills and then employs them, giving them vital skills for a creative and constructive future. Imagine this production company sustaining themselves financially on commercials and corporate productions while consistently emphasizing the creation and distribution of their OWN content. Stories about their world, told by them.

I would love to start such a production company.

But what if it already existed? Film production in East Africa? We’ll see. More to come on that.

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*Our team of 4 read excerpts from a book called When Helping Hurts, which helped prepare us for what we would soon experience.

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2 comments
  1. Gcjwm@aol.com said:

    Ty, this is an interesting summary of your trip and some of the things you learned. Sounds very good. One of my primary concerns was would your family make it there and back safely. You obviously made that. A very interesting idea you have. Have you considered any joining up with other organizations who work in areas like Kenya. I know Samaritans Purse part of the Billy Graham organization does a lot of things in that area as well as other areas of the world. Your ideas might fit with them. Also the ideas might find a place with some of the work which Bill Gates is doing to help Africa. I mention both of these as potential resource for contact. Might be worth trying to find out. Your write up is very good and so interesting. More than anything else I am glad you each returned safely. Opa

  2. Beth said:

    Your musings, to me, are right on. I feel like Taiwan is a really interesting meeting point of the two kinds of poverty, or maybe more accurately there is a lot of interesting infrastructural (is that a word?) and financial ‘advancement’ while still maintaining a lot of what I think is rich in many communities that live in more financial poverty. Also, I can’t wait to hear more about that production company you’re dreaming of. Lastly, LOVE that book!

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