East African Mission Exposure Trip: Reflections a Year Later

A year ago, I had the opportunity to go on a mission exposure trip with five other people. We visited Kenya and Tanzania over a three week period, traveling to city after city, seeing some of the projects that were being coordinated by Maryknoll and its partners.

Going into the trip, I thought I was prepared. I figured, I’m a student of Global African studies, I know plenty about the history and culture of the region as well as the socio and political realities. Growing up as the son of a man committed to mission, I’d seen the videos and the pictures, heard the stories, met some people.  But for the most part, I was wrong.

I knew that African countries and the current realities are complex, but I didn’t realize the degree to which they are. There are over 50 countries and thousands of different ethnics groups. So the pictures I had seen, the stories I had heard and the people I had met, represented the smallest fraction.

During and after my time in Kenya and Tanzania, I realized the African continent is even more largely ignored on a wide scale in our country than I had thought. My prior knowledge of the continent came from growing up around Maryknoll and getting talked into taking an African-based section of a required history course. The majority see Africa simply as a dark and dangerous “country,” filled with tribal violence and poverty.

There’s so much more than that.

The people that we met were unbelievable. Many of them filled with more happiness than I could imagine, despite tough living conditions. Incredible scenes of nature painted permanent graffiti on my mind. Here in the United States, life and death are the focus of everything we do. They are equally important entities that shape the way we live each day. The philosophy is to get in as much as you can before you die to make sure your life was worth it. Our views of death seem to mask the fullness of life. In Kenya and Tanzania, I saw that the focus was simply life. Death wasn’t a deterring factor like it is here. Instead of living with the idea of a ticking clock overhead counting down the remaining minutes, everything was just in the moment, people were just living. Life was fully exposed.

Coming back, one of the feelings that stuck with me was this underlying guilt. It was deep-rooted and difficult to dig out. When we were in the slums, we saw families with just a few personal items in rooms smaller than my bedroom at home. Some were faced with health concerns that I couldn’t imagine having to deal with. Here I was, fresh off a way too expensive flight, realizing my bedroom filled with so much excess stuff was bigger than a family's combined living space. The question we received floored me.

“Can I get you soda or tea?”

The willingness to offer up precious resources to complete strangers haunted me. I thought back to home and all the times I was unwilling to even offer up a smile to a random person on the street. The hospitality of the people that we met was indescribable. My simple words here can’t fully express the magnitude. Not only were we welcomed into their homes, but they were willing to give up what little they had.

Over the last year, I have tried to be less of a stranger and more hospitable in my life. I don’t go around inviting people inside my apartment and offering them tea or a Coke, but I have realized there are other ways to do so. In having a conversation with a person, trying to be more present and giving my full attention instead of texting or checking for tweets. Saying hello, good afternoon or simply sending off a smile to people I pass on the street.

The biggest lasting impact of the trip is the seed that was planted inside me. Upon my return home and then off to another school year in Seattle, I forgot the seed was there at times, too busy with school, work and other distractions of my daily life. Initially I didn’t realize what was happening, but I soon discovered that the seed kept growing. Every time I looked at pictures from the trip, talked to a friend about it or saw the countries in the news, the seed was water and nourished. I have to go back and I’m not talking about want or desire. It’s simply need.