By Larry Livingston, senior writer
I recently traveled to Kenya. My main reason for going was to meet people sponsored through Unbound and listen to their stories. I also wanted to meet members of our staff in Kenya and learn how they work with the families.
Since I’ve returned, several people have asked me what I learned from the trip. I have a hard time answering that question at this point, mostly because I need time to sort out my memories, feelings and insights. Like last year’s Christmas tree lights, they’re going to take a while to untangle before they can be illuminated.
Besides, as I get older I find that the most meaningful insights I take away from travel experiences aren’t new. Rather, they’re reminders of universal truths that I had either forgotten or, perhaps, taken for granted. Those insights are always more about people than things. They’re also, in a way, about God.
Here are some ‘old’ insights I took from my trip to Kenya.
Being poor is hard work. I met many families in the Unbound program who labored from before sunrise to after sunset every day, just to subsist. Many had taken on new livelihood initiatives — often supported through loans from Unbound parent groups — that involved selling chickens, rabbits, various foodstuffs, souvenirs of all kinds, and whatever else they could think of that might bring in some income.
James is a good example of this entrepreneurial spirit. The father of one sponsored child and the foster father of another, when he isn’t spending time with his family or tending to his chickens, he rides his bicycle several miles to the roadside market where he sells prepaid telephone cards. In a fiercely competitive environment with many more sellers than buyers, James knows that the only way to succeed is to be there first, go home last and be diligent every moment in between.
I was also reminded that a home is a sacred place. The most profound experiences I have had on previous Unbound trips were visiting the homes of sponsored persons, and it was that way in Kenya as well. There was a mutual vulnerability to these encounters that required my leaving, for a time, my comfort zone and the family sharing an intimate part of their reality with this foreign stranger. But whatever unease there was quickly melted away in the warmth of goodwill.
The homes were usually small and dark, and I always needed a moment for my eyes to adjust after having come in from the equatorial sunlight. At these times I often thought of the Gospel stories of the disciples visiting the tomb of Christ on Easter morning. But where the disciples were surprised to find Christ missing, I was always humbled to discover him present in ways I hadn’t expected.
I certainly found Christ in the home of a caring woman who lives in a slum in Nairobi. Impoverished herself, she took in a baby girl she found abandoned in a garbage dump, and raised the child as her own. To enter that home was indeed to set foot on holy ground.
Lastly, I learned (or, rather relearned) a truth about which I seem to need a refresher every now and then. People are people. Nations differ. Cultures differ. Religions differ. Climates, terrains and geography differ. The social and political contexts in which people form their respective worldviews certainly differ. But when it comes to the most important things — the most elemental human desires — people are the same.
All people want to be recognized and respected. They all want an opportunity to realize their potential. And they all want their children to be safe and have the chance to thrive.
While this is the simplest of truths, it is one that many North Americans like me can become easily insulated from. That’s why I find it good to leave this country now and then and put myself in an unfamiliar place with different rules. It’s good, once in a while, to be the stranger. It’s good to be, if only for a short time, the odd one on the street, the one who attracts the curious stare.
It is when I am out of my element that I am most attuned to what is essentially human. It is then that I realize that my way of living, my way of looking at the world, is not the only way or, indeed, the best way.