A Trip About People and What Connects Us

Steve Charles—The following entries from Robby Dixon ’13 and Professor Rick Warner will be our final words about the History of Christianity in Africa course until the Fall 2011 issue of Wabash Magazine. But first, some gratitude.

DeVan Taylor at work on a blog entry in the hallway of the Franciscan Family Centre in Nairbobi, our home for two weeks in Kenya.

Thanks to those of you who read these entries, who traveled with us through words and pictures. I believe most of our students will tell you this was one of the most significant—perhaps the most life-changing—journey they’ve taken. Thank you for honoring them and their experiences by paying attention.

They jumped into this journey mind, body, and soul, and it shows in their writing. As editor I was in the enviable position of getting the first look at these entries. They had me smiling, thinking, laughing, wondering, and even in tears, from Jake German’s promising introduction and John Plaiss’s wonderful entry about “shaking off the dust” and dancing to Professor Warner’s reflection on the trip and what it means to immersion learning and Robby Dixon’s memorable “teaching by being.” They brought honesty, insight, and their true voices to the work. They took chances, they didn’t hold back. I’ve never been more grateful to a group of writers, or more convinced of the importance of capturing at least a “sketch” of these imersion experiences while they are fresh in the mind and still central in one’s life.

See photo albums from the last day of the trip here and here.

Thanks to Professor Rick “Wherever you go, there you are” Warner for inviting me to document the trip. Rick has been the common denominator on the two immersion trips I’ve documented for the College, my only long stays in the developing world; you’ll find no wiser or more encouraging traveling companion, or one who better understands the value of all those one-on-one conversations on the bus and between “stops.”

I’ve imagined accompanying Professor Bill Cook ’66 on an immersion trip since I first interviewed him almost 10 years ago and discovered he was one of the world’s top experts on St. Francis and Franciscan art. I’d expected the dream trip would be to Assisi, but this one to Kenya was even better; rather than seeing where Francis had lived, I saw where he is living and working today. And Bill generously integrated writing for the blog into the course, encouraging careful observation and reflection and the need to put it in writing. In fact, the questions he and Rick asked during our evening class meetings were the best writing prompts of the trip.

But I’m most grateful to the men, women, and children of Kenya who welcomed us and took care of our students— especially Father Odunga, who accepted us with open arms and opened his world to us. To Steve, Matthew, Denis, Victor, Martin, Father Chris, Immaculate, Petronilla, and Fatima. To Father Herman and the sisters and workers who took care of us at the Franciscan Family Centre, the youth at St. Francis in Ruiri, the girls and sisters at the orphanage, the students at the schools, the parishioners who were our angels and teachers in Kibera. To Sheikh Yasin, Fatma Anyanzwa, and Sheikh Jamaldin. To those who welcomed us in Kisimu, Eldoret, and Machakos. To Father Orobator. To the folks at Fish Eagle Inn and Stahere School and Nairobi International School and St. Jude’s Parish and…. There just isn’t room here to thank everyone, but the list goes on and on, as does our gratitude. Asante sana.

What is Immersion Learning?
Professor Rick Warner—Let me be honest about how I feel about the term “immersion learning.” Although I am aware of studies that show that students and their professors can make great leaps in crossing the divide between our own culture and that of the “other,” and although I have “immersed” myself in my own trips directly and in those of my colleagues indirectly, I have always been a little skeptical of such laudatory claims. I continue to believe that we as a college need to reinvest in semester abroad experiences for our students, but my own appreciation for the value of short-term class trips has increased exponentially over the last two weeks.

This trip, in short, has been about people. As can be quickly gathered from the awesome photography of Steve Charles and heartfelt student blogs, we have met and talked with literally hundreds of Kenyans. Professor Cook and I can take relatively little credit for this remarkable succession of interactions. Though he is not standing over my shoulder as I write this I know that Bill would agree that these encounters would not have been possible without the efforts and connections of our gracious host, Father Godfrey Odunga. From the photographs, perhaps you can identify some of the Kenyans with whom we shared our journey. We were always in the company of Franciscan friars and brothers, and some of their friends. It would be impossible to count the number of one-on-one conversations that we had with Kenyans.

The course is about African Christianity. We certainly learned a lot about that subject here, especially in terms of the varieties of Catholic experience in this one nation. We non-Catholics on the trip attended more masses than we had previously in our lifetimes, with a variety of comfort levels at first. Yet we were welcomed into each church community with such kindness that many of us are still stunned by the friendly nature of the Kenyan people. We discovered that even within Catholicism, Africans approach their faith from a variety of vantage points.

We have stood among Kenyan Christians in the poorest of slums, Kibera, as well as in a parish in a professional-class neighborhood, St. Jude. In every case we were publicly welcomed, showered with food and drink, and expected to introduce ourselves. The professors were asked to speak—something I usually left to Prof. Cook though I did have the opportunity to address 700 people in the Kibera church. We were invited to participate—though never obligated to. By yesterday, as I found myself singing and dancing with some Pentecostals, I realized that we were often involved in “participant anthropology.” There was a lot of shaking of hands and hugging on this trip.

Though the class is about Christianity in Africa, the trip was about much more than that. Our students were moved by the difficult conditions that many Kenyans face on a daily basis. They were equally moved by their response to these conditions. Many students remarked to me that those of us who possess so much in the developed world would do well to adopt the positive life attitudes of Kenyans. While I appreciate and support the efforts to send our students out to Europe and other developed regions for immersion learning, I do hope that we can send more trips to the developing world. This is the sort of life-changing experience that we should be proud to offer.  This is liberal arts education at its best.

Professor Warner enjoys a lighter moment with students during breakfast at the Franciscan Family Centre in Nairobi.

We have now completed the first Wabash College immersion trip in Africa. It will not be the last. I myself will definitely return to Kenya, for personal and professional reasons. I hope that many other Wabash people will follow us. I am extremely grateful to Prof. Bill Cook for concocting and sharing this adventure with me, as I am grateful to the new friends I have found in this country. Though I could easily write many more pages reporting and reflecting on this experience, I have learned in Kenya that there is great virtue in simplicity. So I will close as I opened: This trip was all about people.

Speaking in Silence

Robby Dixon is greeted by Father Godfrey at Lake Naivasha following our weekend trips to three different locales around Kenya.

Robby Dixon ’13—This trip has been a real challenge to my habit of loquacity. All the things we’ve seen and done, many wonderful and some disturbing, demand to be met with a lot of thought, and one of the uppermost thoughts in my mind has been that I can think of no adequate response. That is, of course, just what one should expect. We have seen God in Kenya, and there is nothing to say about God.

Last weekend we divided into three groups going to three different places outside of Nairobi. My group went to a rural area near Machakos with one of the Franciscan priests, Father Chris. The three churches where we attended mass on Sunday lacked some luxuries, such as floors, windows with glass, and (in one case) benches. It was a poor place. The country was beautiful, but not the easiest place to try to grow things. Water is not abundant, and you have to dig very deep to find it. That takes money, which is not abundant either.

All this seemed to make no difference to the conduct of the service; the singing, the dancing, and the obvious joy and devotion were just the same as in the better equipped church we attended a week before. So was the way in which we, complete strangers, were greeted like family and treated like dear friends.

As always, though, during the most important moment, the elevation of the Body and Blood of our Lord, the church was silent. No matter how noisy a Mass might be, it is only to give honor to this one moment of silence. On that day, both the noise and the silence were more beautiful than I can say. The place was materially poor but spiritually rich. That, our Master has taught us, is to be expected. It somehow seems disrespectful to say much more than to gratefully acknowledge the fact.

The next day we visited Ndalani Secondary School, having found out only the night before that we would be teaching classes there. This was a different proposition than Sunday, of course. We would be going not to worship, but to talk. At the time this was terrifying, since I still felt that I had nothing to say. That was not true, of course. The students asked some very good, thoughtful questions about America, as well as some funny ones, and I tried to ask a few good questions as well. I can only hope they got as much out of the experience as I did.

In another way, though, I was right. We were to teach them not so much by talking, though I hope some of what I said was worth their time, as by being: we were something different. In the same way, they taught me less by what they said, though they said some great things, than what they were. By any ordinary measure, the Wabash students and the Ndalani students were about as different as students can be. Like us, though, they were trying to learn and in learning to make something better out of their lives. If all of us realized the extent of the differences, enjoyed them, and at the same time discovered a transcendent bond of identity that connects us—and I think I for one did— then we did at Ndalani exactly what we came to Africa to do.

The trip is over now. Everyone will be asking about it, and I don’t know what I will tell them. I know I will not be able to convey what Kenya has said to me, which is enough to change me forever. And it has not always spoken by speaking.

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2 Responses to A Trip About People and What Connects Us

  1. Rick Warner says:

    Excellent, Robbie. I think you convey the mystery, power and sublime nature of the trip. Your participation was greatly appreciated by the professors and Kenyans.

  2. Gina Tollini says:

    It’s been a real joy to follow this immersion experience. My thanks to everyone for their beautiful and thoughtful stories, and to Steve Charles for some wonderful photos. Welcome home.