I’ve gotten a handful of questions about my recent short story release, Wanakufa, and I feel like that makes it the prime subject of my next installment of ‘Why I Write’. I promise this one won’t be quite so heavy as the last. In fact, the story that Wanakufa is based off of is one of my personal favorites to tell people when I am getting to know them. I mean, who else can say that they’ve not only gotten to go to Kenya, but got a deadly disease and still made it out alive? I’ve been surprised at the amount of people who automatically assume from the story’s subject that Wanakufa is a period piece, as if typhoid is something people can’t possibly get anymore. If nothing else, it tends to be a good conversation starter.
But if I’m being honest, it is something else. Something much more than just a ‘conversation starter’. It was a moment in time that changed my life in so many ways. Not that I didn’t expect that- 17 years old, bright eyed and bushy tailed on my first mission trip overseas with a small group of young people similarly on fire to change the world in the name of Christ (yes, I am unapologetically Roman Catholic). We were tasked with helping to build a well for a small village in Kakamega. Our guide, at the time a professor of African History in Colorado, had been born in our host village- we’d be building a second well several hours away. Our trip to that village was the first time he’d seen his hometown since the death of his beloved mother. We entered that community to the sounds of a stirring memorial.
It was that kind of reception that hit me the hardest, and would stick with me for the duration of our stay. Here I was, expecting some sort of wild joy to receive us. Some kind of acknowledgement that we, the Americans, were there to make their lives better. And yet, that didn’t matter to them until after the memorial was finished. More important was the welcoming home of their prodigal son. More important was the completion of a mourning that had been missing an integral piece for too many years. I am ashamed to admit now, years after the fact, that I felt upstaged for the briefest of moments. Uncomfortable, even. Ever since, I have pinpointed that moment of my own awakening to the awareness of my own privilege and the ways that it hurt people down to the bone. Of my own colonialist attitude, of the racist society I had been raised in and the self-absorbed way in which I had been dreaming of conducting my own skewed sense of social justice.
Which is not to say that I was all of a sudden enlightened, no. I still have so much more to learn. It has only been through years of fever dreams and obsessive remembrance of my time in Kakamega that have even brought me to this point- the point of attempting to write down my own process of growth in order to continue the dialogue through storytelling. I don’t want to ruin too much of the story, but I can safely admit that the story does closely mirror my own experience of contracting typhoid during my stay. (I couldn’t stand not shaving my legs because it was part of my routine and so I did, nicked myself, and let tainted water directly into my bloodstream, stupidly enough). The story was born from that experience, though the details and the ending might be a little different.
So why write it? Why not just leave it to talk about at gatherings for shock value? Because I felt like there was something in that experience that I needed to work out- namely, my own guilt over the attitude I had taken going into the mission trip. The arrogance that I had had to assume that I a) had any strength to offer our host village that they did not already have and b) that I could bring Christ to them any better than they could already feel Him. I also wanted to admit to both myself and the world how othering I had been from the outset, and how it had taken nearly dying to make myself truly, and not just cosmetically, accept my host village as family. And how sad it is for the world as a whole that white colonialism, and the attitudes born from it still alive and well today, continue to hurt a people who have their own rich cultures and voices. It’s a story that wants to say “I was wrong to be so arrogant, and I had no right. I came here, guns blazing, into someone elses’ family, thinking I was stronger than all of this, and now I’m about to die of a sickness most of our host family have had multiple times since they were children though the rest of the world considers it ‘ancient’, and I might never get to see my family again. And I might deserve that.” The story is fixated on longing and human closeness, and an insecurity in the face of death that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake.
I thank God every day for that humbling experience, and for the further humbling experience of having to learn even more about it through writing it down in fictional memoir style. It is one of my hopes that this story, this ‘confession’ of mine, if you will, will lead to learning even more about how I can put aside old ways of seeing the world, and be able to truly work towards a better way of being. This is all I am capable of saying- admitting my past shortcomings- and now, I must prepare myself to listen.