It was the 4th of July and here we were in a fellow missionary’s car headed north on Kenya’s main ‘highway’ (a two-lane tarmacked road). Months before, we received word that we had been approved to serve as missionaries with Elim Fellowship, based in Lima, NY. Now, sitting in the back seat of the tiny station wagon, while the men chatted, getting to know each other, I was free to muse on our trip.
It was only the 2nd time I had ever flown, unless one counts when I was 2 years old when my mother and 2 siblings and I were flying to one of the many locations we lived growing up, to meet my father, who had driven ahead with the moving van, to our new home. I hardly counted that, though, as I really couldn’t remember but one few seconds’ episode of that flight. So, this was both scary and exciting for me…the nervousness and exhilaration felt simultaneously as we accelerated, then felt the nose of the jet suddenly in the air and realized there was no more pavement beneath us. I constantly marveled how something so large and obviously heavy could possibly stay airborne. Much to my relief, we did, until we safely landed. To this day, though, I still get queasy and somewhat alarmed when turbulence hits!
Our first surprise upon exiting the airport, was the chilly air that greeted us. I mean, this was after all, Africa, and a nation on the equator to boot! How is this cool weather possible? The missionary who came to meet us at the airport explained that the weather in Kenya is opposite from the northern hemisphere, taking its seasonal cues from the southern hemisphere. I wondered how, being on the equator, it decided which hemisphere to side with. Actually, I still wonder. In addition to that, I was surprised to discover that Nairobi has an altitude similar to that of Denver. It certainly did not feel that high! And where were all the mountains?
Our second surprise involved our stomachs. We arrived not long before lunch time. Jerry, our host missionary, suggested we get a bite to eat. Wow…our first meal in Africa! Surely, we would get something exotic! He then promptly took us to, of all places, KFC! That’s right folks, Kentucky Fried Chicken! Chip and I looked at each other, puzzled, bemused, and a tad disappointed at the same time. But we were hungry, so…
Finally, after some running around in Nairobi, the nation’s capital, in preparation for the wedding of a pastor this missionary was participating in (we were invited too), we headed on the main 2 lane highway north (now a major, multi-lane superhighway much of the way).
After about 1 ½ hours on the road and wondering when this trip would finally end (I was so jet lagged!), we came to a town and our host stopped to get fuel for the car. I looked with disappointment at the dirty, crowded little town we were in and fervently hoped this was not Nyeri, our town of destination, and where we would live and work for several years. “Oh, Lord, please don’t let this be Nyeri! It looks horrible!” The potholes wracked my tired body. The poverty disturbed me. Dirt was everywhere. The crowds of strangers (remember this was the shy girl) frightened me. I suppose I should have looked upon it all with more ‘missionary fervor’, but missionaries are still human and in my exhausted and naive state, all I could see was despair around me.
After fueling up, fortunately, we continued down the highway and about a half hour later arrived in Nyeri. Ah, much better. Nyeri, though it had its own poverty pocket and-not-so nice part of town, was a much pleasanter place. I was satisfied. Our final surprise for the day would be our destination.
I have been trying to capture my thoughts, impressions, lessons learned and emotions surrounding my daughter’s marriage to a Kenyan man. This is quite the rollercoaster ride in cross cultural experiences…scary and thrilling at the same time!
It all began with the Ithege. Once we realized our daughter and her beau were serious and had definite plans to marry (after all, we saw her post on Facebook flaunting the engagement ring while we were in the U.S.), we knew we were about to embark on quite an adventure. After Amanda graduated from university, she trotted off to the U.S. for a year and a half to do a course in massage therapy. It was towards the end of this time we all realized that if they were to get married in the summer (before Chip & I were to leave for some months to the U.S.), we all needed to get started on the round of family meetings required for a proper Kenyan marriage. Thus the first meeting was planned to take place even before Amanda returned…the first meeting of the families.
The way I understand it, this first meeting, which they call Ithege (a type of tree, I was told), was actually a combination of the requisite first and second meetings. The way it was explained to me, in the traditional Ithege, the proposed groom’s family representatives come along with the groom and some of his friends, to meet the proposed bride’s family, see where she lives, and be reassured that indeed the girl is interested in marriage…that this is not a figment of the young man’s fancy. Once all this is established, traditionally, a tree would be planted at the entrance to the young lady’s family compound, basically to warn any other interested young men that this one’s taken! This is the equivalent of an official engagement. In this modern day, the Ithege tree now takes the form of money paid to the bride to be’s parents. The funny part to us was that there was considerable agitation that our daughter’s intended had ‘jumped the gun’ and given Amanda an engagement ring before having had this meeting of the families. They were particularly aghast when they discovered that the ring had been given and accepted even before the young man had even officially asked to court Amanda. What is done in that case is that a fine is paid by the young man – determined by his uncles – to the young lady’s family! All these discussions and activities were done with great seriousness and ritual.
There is one cardinal rule in the Ithege…the parents of the bride and of the groom must not speak! This was something which I found both comforting and difficult at the same time. On the one hand, this was all so new to me that I was lost much of the time and so was grateful I was not required to speak. I was sure I would say the wrong thing and offend everyone! However, it was also hard to keep my mouth shut when I felt something needed to be clarified! Chip and I had to keep mum and to trust our Kenyan ‘family’ to do all the necessary negotiations, ritual discussions and explanations.
So what did I learn in this first of several family events leading up to Amanda’s wedding? The first thing I learned was that in 36 years of living in Kenya and working especially among the Kikuyu community (Thuo’s tribe), I realized with great shock that I know nothing at all about their culture! This was a very humbling experience for me…and probably a much needed one! In addition to this was a profound sense of gratitude to the 2 couples whom we approached to help us navigate these tricky cultural waters (later joined by 2 more couples in the next meeting). We would certainly have sunk and drowned were it not for these wonderful friends who were willing to adopt us as true family, even to the point of doing all the uncle and auntie duties they would do for their own biological nieces and nephews. Finally, I was filled with a deep sense of satisfaction in these new discoveries. Even at nearly 60, there are lots of new things to discover and learn. This made me anticipate the upcoming meetings with relish, even as I felt nervousness over what challenges may face us ahead.