Clark, Hannah, and I arrived in Zanzibar three weeks ago to study Swahili on the island considered to be “The Birthplace of Kiswahili.” We came prepared for fumbled greetings and haphazard conversation. For daily humiliation and (hopefully) growth.
Language learning is painful. Emotionally it takes you back to those peri-pubescent years–one day you’re invincible and the next you’re hopelessly questioning the purpose of it all.
Our days are spent studying with our teachers at the State University of Zanzibar and roaming Mji Mkongwe (Old Town) with Hannah in tow.
Conversations are easy to find. We are in a tourist hotspot, but the shop owners know Baba Hannah and Mama Hannah are worthless as customers. Instead, they sit and chat for as long as we like. We talk about their child who was sick last week, about Kenya’s love of ugali (boiled cornmeal), about snow.
Somehow, many conversations seem to end with free snacks for Hannah…
The wazee (elders) sipping their coffee greet Hannah almost as enthusiastically as she greets them. They are delighted to hear her initiate conversation and respond appropriately in Swahili. The extended greeting is a ritual repeated a hundred times throughout the day, so it is no surprise that even small children do this!
Last week, my teacher took me on a field trip. The previous day, he had asked me to consider the importance of studying science as we would be discussing it the following day.
At least, that’s what I thought he said.
In actuality he had said, “Tomorrow we will be visiting a school. You will stand in front of 60 students ages 8-14 and give a speech about the importance of studying science. You will then answer any questions they have. You will, of course, be using only Swahili.”
I feel no need to linger on the “speech” part of this experience (see paragraph 2)…
After I had finished my hotuba (speech), the questions started.
“Why did you choose to study medicine?”
“What are schools like in the US?”
“Will your daughter marry an American or a Zanzibari?”
“You have said that you moved to Kenya to help the people there. Why didn’t you come to Zanzibar to help us?”
This last question was from an earnest, 10-year-old girl. The room was completely silent for the first time since we’d arrived. Every eye on me.
How to cross the barrier of language and culture and age to explain a decision that was made over the course of a decade?
Why help our Kenyan neighbors? Why not help our Zanzibari friends? Why not help our friends in Kentucky?
The answer: Because our lives have been transformed by God–by His love and forgiveness–we obey Him as best we can. His command: “Love me and love others.”
Clark and I both felt a call to work overseas in our mid-teens shortly after we became Christians. The decision to work at Tenwek Hospital in Kenya followed a decade of prayer, research, seemingly happenstance meetings with many others who had served at Tenwek, and advice from the wazee in our lives.
Some of our friends in Kenya
When we were in Kentucky, our mission was to love our patients and neighbors. In Zanzibar, our mission is to love and serve our host family and new friends. In Kenya, our mission is to love. And irrespective of location, we seek to love and serve our Lord.
Truly our hearts’ desire is that we would be able to communicate this—and all the Lord has done in our lives—clearly and in the language of our neighbors. Until that ability is ours, we trust the Lord can speak his Truth through us, however inadequate we may feel.
““Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.””
Daily life in Zanzibar