I have heard it said that modern young people prefer spending their resources on experiences rather than possessions. Living here in rural Nakuru County, Kenya as a Human Needs & Global Resources (HNGR) intern, I have had the chance to give this a try. When I arrived in June with just a suitcase and a backpack, I found myself navigating a radically different way of life than the familiar world of an American college student.
Here in Kenya for my six-month HNGR internship, I am working with a grassroots community organization called Wendo Youth & Family Trust, which operates a camp, retreat center and arboretum for the betterment of both the surrounding rural communities and other nearby populations. A few of our programs include a literacy initiative for the nearby village children, a three-month-long special needs program for area schools and a weekly ministry for children living in the Bahati Forest.
In a matter of days, home-cooked meals in my New Jersey home and dinners at Saga became nightly plates of “ugali” (East African maize flour porridge) and “mboga” (cooked spinach). Doing laundry no longer involved a machine—it became an afternoon-long process of scrubbing clothes over a bucket, then hanging them at the right time to avoid the rains. Of course, I figured I would stand out when I agreed to spend six months in an agricultural village in central Kenya. Thankfully, my host organization has been welcoming and understanding. In moments of cultural confusion, I have tried my best to laugh with my coworkers rather than giving in to the initial embarrassment.
Recently, a Kenyan friend of mine commented that my initial struggles to hand-wash jeans, cook East African staples like “chapati” or “mukimo” or converse with the local kids in Swahili are all things that matter deeply to God. These moments of frustration foster humility and open eyes to Christ’s presence in unexpected places. In June, I told Charles and Evelyn Wahome, my host supervisors, that I was not sure where or how I could ever belong here. “It will come with time,” Evelyn said. “That’s how a community works.” More than four months in, I continue to ask some of the same questions I was asking in June and experience many of the same frustrations.
Many of the rural village children Wendo serves, who primarily belong to Kenya’s Kikuyu tribe, cannot remember the last time they saw a person with white skin—they often refer to me as “Mzungu,” a non-derogatory Swahili term for white foreigners. During my initial discernment regarding my HNGR internship a year ago, I was not very concerned with my geographic placement as long as I was working with young people. But I realized within a day of living in Kenya that it would take some time for the kids to warm up to me—and for me to adjust to a new way of being viewed in public.
Before I was known as “Charles,” I was a person of great fascination—whenever I heard the Swahili word “nywele,” I would chuckle to myself, knowing that the children were talking about my blonde hair. But with time, the youth here are coming to know me as more than a foreigner. Although I was never bothered by hearing the kids call out “Mzungu!” as I walked down the street during my first few months in Kenya, it always makes me smile to hear this chorus change to greetings of “Charles!” or “Mwangi!”, the Kikuyu name they gave me. Likewise, I am able to better recognize their faces and greet them with their names, too.
Perhaps it is not possessions or experiences that our generation desires, but rather belonging. I would be lying if I said it was not difficult adjusting to a new way of life or daily reminders of my Mzungu-ness. But even having one’s name remembered or knowing another’s name is of great value, especially when in unfamiliar surroundings.
Charles Wahome frequently tells me pieces of Wendo’s story. When he bought the property and moved here from Nairobi in the late 2000s, it matched the rest of the surrounding area—cornfields sprawling for miles, perhaps similar to some areas in rural Illinois during the warmer months. What was once a vast forest had been converted for agricultural use. The Wahomes set out to restore just a small piece of this land by planting 121 indigenous tree species (and counting) over the 15 acres, an act of environmental and community restoration. Wendo, which has historical connections to Wheaton’s own HoneyRock through Assistant Professor of Outdoor and Adventure Leadership Program Coordinator Muhia Karianjahi, exists as a “place apart.” The Wahomes are adamant that their position is not to own or manage Wendo, but to steward it, creating a place where all are welcome.
I am reminded every day of what Jesus says in Luke 18:16: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” During our three-month special needs programs, school buses full of differently-abled children with their parents and teachers would pull into Wendo daily and be greeted by our staff singing “Jambo Bwana,” a well-known Kenyan pop song often used to welcome “wageni,” guests. This is a completely different environment for many of these children, who are accustomed to daily reminders of their peculiarity and who have experienced injustices from the moment they were born. Yet they are welcomed in and told, “you belong here.”
Wendo exists to welcome communities from all backgrounds and walks of life—from church groups coming for short retreats to the rural-dwelling children who arrive weekly to practice their English skills and choose books from Wendo’s Haradari Library. “Haradari” means “mustard seed” in Swahili, and “Wendo” means “love” in the Kikuyu language, reminders of the potential and hope that the Wendo community sees in the village as they work every day to promote human flourishing.
In witnessing the welcoming of those whom society often neglects, I have realized that because of our God-given human dignity, everyone belongs in God’s reality. That includes the village families, the area children living with disabilities, and me with my poorly-rolled “chapatis.” Although I will never fully understand the experiences of the children I have spent these last few months with, it is abundantly clear how God cares for both them and me by showing us this: we are all equally part of a larger story.