Me, You, and We

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Words by Jeremy.

Upon the first few month of our living here, we absorbed and observed various aspects of Kenyan culture. Of course, this wasn’t limited to the likes of eating ugali (a dry, mashed potato-like corn meal), right-handed driving, and shaking hands for an awkwardly long period of time. It included other aspects that seemed backwards or impractical for our ever ”advanced” Western minds: preference for talking on the phone rather than texting, walking everywhere, and being in no rush (or, rather, keeping time) for anything except driving (I’m still dumbfounded by this). One other example that I found so interesting and confusing was Kenyans’ handling of burials for the deceased. Rheanna and I tend to consider ourselves culturally sensitive when traveling internationally, which may manifest through exhibiting more patience, grace, and respect of locals and their way of life. Regarding burials, however, and probably amongst a handful of other cultural differences, I probably lacked the sensitivity required to fully understand and appreciate the complete happenings of a burial. I haven’t yet attended one yet, but here’s how I perceived it upon hearing about them:

When someone dies in Kenya, it’s a BIG deal - for family, friends, villages, and, really, the entire community. People will literally stop what they’re doing to attend a burial ceremony for a couple of days, including taking time off from work or school. People in attendance may travel for an entire day by public shuttle to the deceased’s rural village to pay their respects. Eventually hundreds, maybe even thousands, will gather over a three-day period to send off the deceased into the afterlife. I recently discovered that it’s “common law” for the burial to last three days, which includes traveling with the coffined body via caravan - something that’s obviously inconvenient for my oh-so busy schedule (read: sarcasm) - visiting the bereaved family, and attending the funeral ceremony. During the family visitation, I was told the bereaved must provide food, drinks, and even accommodations for guests. I’m not sure if there’s a cap on how many need to be taken care of, but, in general, it’s the responsibility of the bereaved to provide for any and all visitors.

Okay, seriously? This family’s brother, sister, grandmother, or elder just passed away, and you’re demanding them to feed you and give you a place to sleep? Talk about insensitive...

Also, does a burial really have to be three long days? Why does a funeral have to be some showy event as if the president is coming to town?

These, and similar thoughts, ran through my mind when I first heard of how a burial is handled here. I couldn’t believe that Kenyans spend more money on the dead than they do on the living, and I was so frustrated at how much of an inconvenience was imposed on the bereaved.

That was my thinking until a few days ago, after speaking with Larry Neese and George Wafula, directors of the Kenya Ministry Training Institute. Larry has been living in Kenya for more than 20 years, and George is one of the sharpest men I know, Kenyan or not. As cultural and spiritual mentors, they gave me insight into just how insensitive (my word, not theirs) my thinking was. Thanks to Larry and George, I learned that the key word when it comes to burials is interdependence. When a Kenyan farmer is looking to plow his shamba he probably doesn’t have the resources to do so with his own equipment. In fact, he will borrow almost everything from neighbors or friends. One will provide the oxen and yoke, another will have the plow, and perhaps a third will lend the chain that connects the oxen to the plow. When this man is done plowing his field, he will then assist the three friends in plowing each of their own fields, along with everyone who lent the other equipment. A burial is conducted in the same manner.

In my brash judgement of assuming the bereaved pays out of pocket to accommodate their guests, I was blinded from realizing that other people contribute to the costs. Additionally, what I thought was an inconvenience to my actually not-so-busy schedule, that is, the 20-car caravan, is really a sign of honor amongst the guests for the bereaved and the deceased.

You see, rather than the immediate family of the deceased taking care of everything, much of the community is involved. A chairman of the village coordinates with a family representative regarding the logistics, local government officials may provide a generous financial contribution to pay for the drinks, another villager may donate the two cows for the beef stew to feed the hundreds of visitors, and the church may offer its property for the funeral ceremony. The point being - everyone contributes. Of course, in some cases it may not be completely altruistic; someone may contribute because he knows his time will be up one day and is looking to reap what he sows, but I think it is a beautiful picture of community nonetheless. It goes beyond “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” All of it - the tireless travel, the long ceremonies, the endless hand-shaking - is a true sign of honor and respect for one another.

As Christians, we often reference the church in Acts as a prime example of, well, Church - sharing everything with anyone who is in need or want. It’s kind of a romantic idea of what church can look like, yet in the modern day I think we tend to consider this principle only in terms of material goods. Can I borrow your car? Can I do some laundry at your house? Do you have a hammer? Will you house sit with my golden-doodle? I never considered how it could actually relate to life after death, to the lives of the bereaved, and how honor is given to our brothers and sisters who have passed on before us. I’m learning that amidst whatever confusion, frustration, or inconvenience someone else’s way of life may cause me, there’s always something to appreciate about how that person’s life may actually be a blessing to me and others. I hope to dog-ear this page in my own story and be more mindful of the various spheres in which community can truly flourish.

Here’s a Kenyan proverb that perfectly sums up the point of all this:

I am because you are, and you are because we are.

I need you. I rely and depend on you, maybe even for my very survival and livelihood. But as much as I need you, I am there for you, too, and as much as I am there for you and you for me, everyone else is there for us.

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As a Westerner, I don’t think I can ever fully understand the Kenyan mind or culture no matter how long I live here. In fact, I’m probably not as culturally sensitive as I thought I was before arriving in country. I know I’ll get frustrated when a meeting is scheduled for 9:00 a.m. but doesn’t actually start until 10:30 a.m., and I know I’ll always exasperate, under my breath, why that driver had to pass me so dangerously on the road just to get stuck behind the delivery truck going 15 mph. Fortunately, there are two things I can always count on: 1.)  the forgiveness and kindness of a Kenyan, simply exemplified by his or her gentle smile and awkwardly long hand shake and 2.) the grace of God to remind me that I am still just a visitor in this strange land.