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Sunday, January 3, 2010

On Identity

This Monday will be the fifth week I have been living in Kenya. In the grand scheme of things that really isn’t a long time and it hasn’t felt like it. Now, things are much different. Last week Rick Allen, the other Presbyterian Missionary came to visit and took me to a hotel where we had lunch. When we walked into the dining room I immediately felt out of place but not for the reasons you would think. I felt out of place because I was surrounded by a room full of mzungus! It was the most absurd feeling being out of place in what used to be normal. Now, I am not used to seeing mzungus and I often have the same reaction has what I received when I first got here. I want to know who they are and where they came from. Haha!
When I first arrived in Nyeri I felt very out of place. It is a small town where few mzungus(Kiswahili term for a white person) pass through ad even fewer stay. It was very uncomfortable constantly being stared at and approached whether it was for money or attention. I sought out the solitude of my room when I came home each night for some time just to be alone and it began to wear on me. I realized recently why I was so uneasy; it was not due to the stares- I could deal with that since I rationalized that, to them I was so different- but it was my identity to those surrounding me that had changed. I was no longer Margaret. To them I was just another mzungu to stare at and ask for money; another rich person whose only value was to give them donations.
You know when you are in your own element that there are things that are always associated with you. For example, when someone would try to describe me they often say ‘that tall girl…etc”. Here in Africa it was a new set of associations that I had to adapt to. Not only am I tall girl, but I am the girl who wears glasses, funny clothes, has different hair, has dirty shoes all the time and can only speak a few words of Swahili and Kikuyu. Sometimes when I am in a conversation with someone I have to hold my tongue for I am afraid I will respond rather harshly. Often people will ask me for money to sponsor their child for school or to buy them clothes. If the situation is right and it seems appropriate I will often answer “Don’t assume that all mzungus have money.” They will ask if I have money and I will tell them that most of my money I am making is going to my student loans and they are always surprised. People often ask if Canada has problems with homelessness, drugs and violence. When I tell them yes they can never understand why a country with so much wealth has the same problems as Africa. They pose a good question. I think the main idea that I am trying to get across to them is that people are really all the same and money shouldn’t define a difference.
As time as past here in Nyeri people have come to know my name it that is Margaret or Wanjiku. I rarely walk to or from work without someone addressing me by my name(s). They know who I am and I am getting to know who they are too. What I have really appreciated is that there is now an understanding between myself and the community that I am here as their friend and not their bank. Since that has become the unremitting notion it has led to some wonderful connections and opened up the opportunity for me to become Margaret/Wanjiku to them. Both parties are so much more interested in what we can learn from each other and it is such a wonderful place to be.
On the other hand, receiving new identities has positive sides to it as well. I am considered a sister to both Ndegwa and Grace (my host family), an auntie to 3 wonderful children in Nairobi, and a daughter to Anthony my supervisor.
The greatest lesson throughout this journey of identity has been where my true identity lies. As life changes around me I always have an identity in Christ that never changes. I never have to question that. Bwana Yesu Asufiwe!