by Krista Horn
Two years ago our family moved to Kenya to live and work at a mission hospital which happens to host numerous short-term medical workers throughout the year. For my husband, this means having the blessing of extra hands-on-deck at the hospital. For me, it means occasionally hosting the visitors and answering lots of questions about living here long-term.
Recently I was asked, yet again, what it is that I do here. Besides the kids, that is. I’ve been asked this question many times, in various forms, both before we left for the mission field and certainly since then too. This time it was phrased, “The kids are enough, I know [insert awkward laugh], but have you been to the Pediatrics ward or the orphanages? I mean, what’s your thing?” I was honest: I don’t do anything. And I wasn’t embarrassed or guilt-ridden with that reply.
Long before we reached the mission field, and even before we had kids, I used to vex over this issue. What would I do? What would be my ministry, my “thing”? And how would I ever accomplish said ministry if we had kids in tow? What would it look like to be the non-ministry spouse as we headed overseas?
Well, after five years of motherhood and two years of missionaryhood, I’ve come a long way in my understanding of this issue. I currently don’t vex about it. The pressure to give an answer to the question “What do you do?” let alone give an answer the inquirer wants to hear, simply isn’t there. Not only have I given myself the grace to “do nothing” but take care of our three very busy and active little boys, but I’ve really begun to understand the fact that the value of “doing” and “accomplishing” is a cultural value – a high value in our American culture but not necessarily in this Kenyan culture. And that’s not always a bad thing. In fact, it’s often a very good thing.
It’s no secret that our Western culture is work-driven and success-oriented. It’s a wonderful thing in that it’s allowed our culture to come so far in areas like medicine and education and technology and infrastructure and countless other things. And being a Type A, super organized, task-oriented, efficient person, I love this part of our culture. Actually, I appreciate it so much that, since living here in Kenya, I’ve often had to fight my own cultural superiority when I see inefficient systems in place that perpetuate poverty and disease and lack of education. Sometimes I want to shout, “If you would just do something then it wouldn’t be this way!” And that’s partly true. There is certainly room for this culture to grow in just getting things done. However, I’ve been able to pull back a bit and see glimpses of the bigger picture, which has shown me that our own work-driven culture doesn’t get it all right, and this less-efficient culture doesn’t get it all wrong.
Here’s what Kenyan culture does really well: focus on people. Case in point: stopping to greet people is very important here. It’s unfathomable to the average Kenyan why you would have anything so important to do that it would cause you to breeze past them without stopping to say hello and shake hands at the very least, if not ask about the family as well. Another case in point: when you meet someone for the first time, the question “So what do you do?” never comes up. Why would that be pertinent? Most people are subsistence farmers anyway and wouldn’t be able to regale you with tales of their career path to date. On the contrary, people are not generally concerned with what anyone does, but they are concerned with how your family is doing and whether your children are well and how they’re enjoying the break from school. The people here care about people.
And that is something I’ve grown to love about this culture.
It’s also something that’s inherently hard to adjust to because, truth be told, it’s tiring to greet so many people along the way. It makes going anywhere twice as long as it should be, which is especially hard when you have a tired toddler on your back who really needs to get home and take a nap, or when you’re just simply not in the mood to say hello to anyone. And my husband often has a hard time coming and going from the hospital because there are so many “speedbumps” along the way (which is a Kenyan expression used to describe being late because of greeting people). But the point remains: this culture cares way more about people than our own culture tends to, and that is a good and godly thing.
So what do I do around the mission compound? Well, technically I teach Preschool and Kindergarten classes for MKs as well as coordinate all the holiday gatherings for the missionary community, which is something I suppose. But more than anything, what I do is take care of our kids. I feed them and clothe them and change their diapers and wipe their noses and teach, discipline, and encourage them. In other words, I have three little disciples in my charge every day, and mothering them is what I do each day as a missionary.
Doing the mom gig definitely looks different over here than in America, and our kids need some extra guidance and management due to living cross-culturally, and that is enough for me, especially during this first term on the field filled with major transition. We’re planning to be here for the long haul and we’re not trying to change the world in a day, which I know may not be the answer that people hope to hear. I know the idea of being a missionary who’s handling the home life on top of ministry and speaking the language and doing any number of other missionary-ish roles sounds so romantic and so right, and there are certainly plenty of people even now who are doing that, but it doesn’t have to be that way (and sometimes shouldn’t be that way).
As someone who knows and feels the expectations of others, especially as we are literally supported by others to be here doing this life and ministry, I am somehow able to presently say that I don’t do much of anything as a missionary except take care of our boys, and there is freedom in being able to say that confidently, without guilt. I am thankful to live in the freedom of doing less and being more with our kids. I am learning from this culture how to care more about how our family is doing than to care about what our family has done. And I truly believe not only that our boys will be the better for it, but that God is pleased that a Type A, efficient American is learning how to let the discipling of her boys be the greatest accomplishment He could ask her to achieve.