Strangers in a Strange Land

We are in what some would call “chaos”. This time of transition, which can take from several months to a couple of years, is stressful and represents “culture shock” in the true form. This is not the short term culture shock that one experiences on brief trips such as being appalled by bad smells or feeling overwhelmed by new and strange sounds. This a deeper, more profound sense of being out of place in a new culture and disconnected from one’s home culture. We are currently in what is called the honeymoon period where everything is new and exciting. But it is also a time when we are trying to sink our teeth into the Kenyan culture which will ultimately allow us to better minister to the people we are serving. Connecting better with the culture here can also potentially soften the blow of culture shock down the road, at least in theory. Language acquisition is a big part of learning the culture as it provides a direct way for us to interact with Kenyans. The challenging part of this period of growth is that it is a process. It is a humiliating, frustrating, embarrassing, funny, but ultimately very rewarding process. We thought we would share some of these experiences.

It is amazing how unfamiliar words and sounds carry so much meaning. In Swahili, a single change in one vowel can communicate the difference between “to be drunk”, “to understand”, or “to be married” (kulewa vs. kuelewa vs. kuolewa). For a newbie-Swahili speaker, this can spell disaster. Fortunately, we have excellent teachers who have pointed out these language land mines so we can avoid making some embarrassing mistakes. However, I am a slow learner, and generally learn best by trying a bunch of wrong ways first. An important part of our day is spending time with a language helper. These are Kenyans who come to our school to sit and chat with us in Swahili. The first week, my language helper and I just stared at each other in uncomfortable silence as all I could say was, “Jina langu ni Heath.” After 15 minutes of repeating what my name was, it was clear that my helper was bored and could not understand why I have such a weird name. But as we have progressed, the conversations have gotten longer and more interesting, and with this has come as many mistakes as there are correct pronunciations. The other day, I was discussing my favorite foods with my helper. I eagerly explained that my favorite food is beef, which in Swahili is said “meat of cow.” As I finished, I glowed with pride that I was starting to actually be able to communicate. But my helper began to smile. First just a little, then a lot. “What?” I asked. “You just said your favorite food is cow butt.” “Oh…”

So, that is how it goes. But recently, I have been able to use Swahili to actually communicate important information. For several nights in a row, one of the guards who patrols the grounds where we are staying sat by our window and played music on his cell phone at maximal volume. It sounded like a distorted Swahili version of “Party in the USA” by Mylie Cyrus. It was funny the first night, but by the third night of our girls not sleeping well because of the music, I decided I needed to say something to him. I carefully planned the Swahili words I would use, then went out and explained that our girls were unable to sleep and asked if he would mind turning his music down. Graciously, he stopped playing it. However, I felt bad because here was this guard protecting our house and vehicle, and I wouldn’t even let him play his music. So, I decided that I would give him an extra pair of ear buds which we had brought, and he seemed very pleased to have them. As I walked back inside, I felt good that I had been able to solve a cross-cultural dilemma with both sides feeling happy. “Maybe I am cut out to be a missionary,” I thought. Once back inside, I began to hear what sounded like a dying cat singing Mylie Cyrus in Swahili. It was the guard singing his heart out to the music that only he could hear through the ear buds. I guess he had never used ear buds before, and he seemed to have no idea how loud he was. Angela laughed so loud in response that it woke up our girls who then they couldn’t go back to sleep because of the singing.

Another way we have been learning the culture here is through stories told by our Kenyan instructors. The other day, one of our instructors, who had grown up in a remote area of northern Kenya, told us a hunting story. He loves to hunt and hopes to come to the U.S. someday to shoot some bears. Several years ago while hunting in a remote area of Kenya, his dogs cornered a jaguar. Now, most Kenyans would prefer to avoid jaguars, however, the big cat began to attack one of his dogs. In response, the hunting party was forced to kill it. After jabbing a few spears into it, our instructor went to roll the animal over only to discover that it wasn’t completely dead. The jaguar attacked and ultimately was shot, but not before rewarding our esteemed teacher with several wounds whose scars are still easily visible today. I was quite amazed by this story which apparently showed in my expression. He asked me if I had a story like that, and without completely thinking through my response I said “yes”, and I proceeded to tell him about the time when I found a stray kitten in Angela’s grandmother’s barn. When I had tried to pick up the fierce kitten, its mouth clamped down on my finger giving me a nice puncture wound. After a trip to the ER, a tetanus shot, and a course of antibiotics, I made an uneventful recover. When I had finished my wild animal story, our teacher just stared at me with similar amazement that I had showed him. Although, I would imagine he was amazed for different reasons. What a display of the contrast between our two cultures.

Despite embarrassing moments, set-backs, and struggles we remain grateful for these experiences and for new friendships. I have looked forward to practicing medicine in a place with such tremendous need, and indeed, I am counting down the days until I am able to get back into the operating room. However, this time in language school has been an incredible time of learning and transition which I would not trade. Next week, we leave for Tenwek to start yet another transition and do so with anticipation and gratitude, humbled by being strangers in a strange land- at least for the moment.

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