Crossing barriers in your own culture

May 23, 2012 | Young Voices
Theodore Wiebe | Special to Young Voices

On March 24, I travelled with a group of 16 from the Calgary airport to Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. We spent the next two weeks on a learning tour, studying and working on MCC projects, travelling across rural and urban areas and meeting many people from across many walks of Kenyan life. The thing that none of us in the group thought about before getting on the plane was differences that might exist between us.

From a distance our group looked very much like a homogenous mass; a collection of people that was largely white with a disproportionate amount of sandy, vaguely brown hair. But upon further inspection many small seams and colours spread across the faces of our team, turning our monolith into a subtle mosaic. We were nearly split down the middle in terms of gender. We represented a wide spread across the spectrums of age and Mennonite denominations. There were differences in everything from worldview to personal habits to—most dangerous of all—opinions.

I quickly decided that I would need to be very judicious in how I spoke my thoughts and that I better avoid speaking my mind.

The flight to Nairobi was long, two stretches of over eight hours each, with a rushed layover in Amsterdam that my memory has now turned into a madcap comedy that seems made for a Jerry Lewis film. The plane landed late! (It didn’t.) We only had minutes to make our connection! (We had a couple of hours.) Nobody knew how to get to the next terminal! (The Dutch are really great with the clarity of their signage.) Everybody needed to run! (Mostly, folks just power walked.)

I had barely spoken ten words on that first flight, preferring the company of books and music but that tiny slice of adventure in Amsterdam drew me out. Whether they knew it or not, it drew everybody else out, too. I started to know and understand the people with whom I was travelling. Construction teams began to assemble and bridges began to form. For my elitism, that was the beginning of the end.

As the trip continued, our group shared experiences and continued to grow closer. There were the car rides that rattled the dust from everyone’s bones, the shared challenge of trying to meet people through a language barrier, the truth of character that comes out from sweat and labour and the frustrating cliché of North American guilt. These experiences were a communion. The differences in age, history, and opinion never left, but gradually they ceased to matter. By the end they didn’t seem to matter at all.

So I went to Kenya and learned something about sand dams, NGOs (non-government organizations), the struggle of living with extreme poverty, and using holes in the ground as toilets. It was powerful and affecting and I hope that I can live up to the challenges that opportunity provided. But standing shoulder to shoulder with all of that is another realization, much smaller but no less real.

You don’t have to cross an ocean to find and conquer a divide.

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