Africa changed nothing–and everything

Backs on the grass, faces to the sky, we counted stars as the music from an Irish band on the stage a couple dozen yards away filled our ears.

“There’s one!” “And another!”

We so seldom look at the night sky. By the time the sun sets, we’re usually inside, ready for bed, at least the little ones, and we live close enough to the city that stars are sometimes a luxury.

The half moon shone brightly, illuminating a plane in a way I’d never seen before.

And my thoughts drifted to Africa.

We saw the stars in Kenya, close enough to touch. We looked up one night on our way from one place to another and paused because we couldn’t number them and they seemed so near. We looked for familiar constellations in a different spot in the sky. “Look for the southern cross,” we were told because it’s not something you can see in our part of the world. I think we might have seen the Milky Way, too.

As I lay in the grass in Pennsylvania looking at the same sky from a different perspective, I marveled at how a person could see things so differently but still be on the same planet.

We say that sometimes, when people are disagreeing with us or can’t seem to see what we see.

“Are you from another planet?” “What planet are you on?”

It’s the wrong question because we’re all walking this same earth, but what we see from where we are is just so very different.

The same week we returned from Africa, I yelled at my kids over something that wasn’t important. I was tired, probably, and still trying to process all that happened, and we were adjusting to each other again.

But none of those are excuses. I beat myself up for freaking out at them.

Didn’t Africa change me at all?

It’s been almost three weeks since we’ve been back and I know the answer to that now.

It did. And it didn’t.

I didn’t go to Africa and come back a different person. I’m still the same body, mind and spirit.

But I did come back with a different perspective. Like seeing the stars from a different spot on the earth, I’m seeing my life and God and faith from a different angle.

Fundamentally, though, I’m still the same. Africa wasn’t like a magic potion that automatically made me more patient or compassionate and head-over-heels in love with my kids every minute of the day. There are still roots of sin and selfishness, things that didn’t die just because I left the continent.

Expecting Africa to change everything about me in one trip is an unrealistic expectation. I know that now.

But shouldn’t something have changed?

And what about Africa? Did we change anything by being there?

Two days into our Kenya trip, but we didn’t know about it until afterward, our pastor, who was on the trip with us, received an e-mail from someone who didn’t identify themselves criticizing our decision to raise $30,000 for a mission trip to a boarding school for missionary kids in Africa. Weren’t we wasting our money? the person asked.

It’s a valid question (although I have to question the timing, and my years in journalism have made me unsympathetic to anonymous opinions and criticisms). You can read our pastor’s full response here. Here’s the heart of it, though:

We have concluded, however, that it is vital for first world citizens to get out of their comfort zones and see the world with their own eyes. The impact is much greater than simply watching video or seeing pictures. Are there other local, less expensive means to achieve the same result? Possibly. Perhaps I was totally wrong for facilitating this trip. But I also watched God provide for this trip in miraculous ways. He has the ability to fund this trip as well as the needs of the people in Kenya. Sometimes he uses a trip like this to open our eyes, rend our hearts, so that we can be the means to raise the money for the needs in a place like Kenya.

I think most of us on the trip would agree that we didn’t change Kenya, but Kenya changed us.

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 And I don’t know about the rest of the team, but I’m still discovering how Kenya changed me.

I wrote about how my lungs are different after hiking a volcano, and that holds. I took a lap at the park with the kids this week and I’ve never been able to walk the entire loop without gasping for breath. I wasn’t even winded after two laps.

But it’s more than that.

I find myself talking to strangers more. In Kenya, life is more relational than transactional. I’m a task-oriented person by nature, but just before we left for Kenya, I was convicted about this. How I elevate convenience over people. (That’s another blog post, maybe, for another day.) In Kenya, it’s rude to not ask about people’s families or make conversation before getting to the point. Even while shopping at the local shops, negotiating a price is seen as a relational act, not something to be offended by.

In the weeks since we’ve been home, I hear myself making small talk with people I would have passed by, like the people offering food samples at Costco. Usually I just want to get in and get out, especially if a crowd is gathering, but I’ve made tiny bits of conversation. At the concert in the park the other day, I addressed a couple behind us when we moved our blanket back so the kids could dance in front of us instead of behind us.

“It’s for your safety,” I said. “They get a little wild.”

“They look pretty harmless,” the woman said. “We have two grandkids, so we know.”

It was not an important exchange, but it was human connection. I need more of that, and Kenya helped spark that change.

Whatever happened in Kenya, it’s far more important that I was changed than that we left a mark on Kenya. That sounds selfish, but if I’m changed because of my experience in Kenya, then I can effect more change. If all I did was paint a dorm and hand out some T-shirts to some kids who need clothes, then the impact will only last until the paint peels and the shirts wear out.

The view while painting

The view while painting

Maybe going to Africa looks like it changed nothing, but maybe over time, it will have changed everything.

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