Painting Pictures: A Transitional, Formational Life

risingThis week’s Painting Pictures comes to you from Kelley Nikondeha. I met Kelley, virtually, through our SheLoves writing (you can find her gorgeous essays by clicking the link) and as I became more of a blog reader, I started to see Kelley’s name and links and comments more and more often. She is talented and tenderly courageous and filled with wisdom and I love the way words roll off her fingers seeped in grace.

A Life in Transit

Open suitcases strewn on the bedroom floor signal that summer’s coming. Once more we strategically pack clothes, electronics, books and all manner of sundries into our checked and carry-on luggage. We’re leaving the United States, bound for Burundi, known as the heart of Africa.

This isn’t a family vacation. It’s our annual family migration. We move together between familiar places, our lives stretching to fit these diverse locales. In this kind of life-style, airports are demystified at an early age and travel amenities become daily tools. When it comes to in transit vocabulary, my children are well versed in both words and icons.

Living between Burundi and the United States marks my son and daughter as third culture kids in a strange sort of math where 1 + 1 = 3. But I see the logic of it now, several years in, because while they’re dual citizens neither passport fully defines them. I see them as exponentially more owing to their friends from both countries, their ease with other languages and currencies, and their inside knowledge of extreme poverty and middle-class comforts. My children inhabit a larger world.

Not everyone thinks this is the case. My own mother wonders if one day, when they’re grown, they’ll tell me how much they hated this life between worlds.

Maybe she’s right. Maybe one of them will look back with regret, wishing for a normal childhood in one home, one city, one culture. This possibility jiggled around in my mind like a loose pebble in my shoe for many months. What if they grow to despise this life?

Only recently did I find some resolve. What if…well, by then it will be too late. The die will have been cast long ago on African soil and around tables filled with sweet pineapple and fiery pili pili sauce. Their memories already saturated with pictures of women in bright fabrics balancing baskets of cassava on their heads, cars and bikes criss-crossing the city without the need for stop lights, ebony-skinned relatives telling Kirundi jokes that they’ll never forget. They won’t ever shake the Burundian drumbeat pounding the ground, cracking the sun-starched air, reverberating through their bones. By then, their hearts will already have been recalibrated, their minds mapped by multiple languages.

My son will play soccer learned in the African street and baseball he picked up in his American school. My daughter will move her arms, liquid and limber as a river, to the Burundian traditional songs as easily as she can bust out a hip-hop attitude to Beyonce. They’ll understand American slang as readily as Kirundi proverbs, instinctively know not to stare when stateside but find the freedom to in the streets of Bujumbura, sometimes they’ll crave my mac n’ cheese and other times the comfort of Senge’s bugari and sauce with glistening silverfish.

My kids will remember our home filled with people all the time, friends from South Africa and Luxembourg, Kenya and Australia, Uganda and Canada. They might recall playing with Muslim friends, as well as Catholics and Protestants. And they’ll see black and white people as good, smart, funny and safe. And they won’t be able to unknow these truths – the sheer goodness of all these people from all these places who loved them and left their subtle imprint.IMG_0698What freed me from my fear that they might end up hating this life is the fact that they will already have been shaped by it. They will already know too much to ever see the world in flat or narrow ways. They won’t be able to see Western culture without Burundian sensibilities providing a gentle corrective. And Non-Western cultures will be familiar, yet tempered by their American experiences. My children won’t be able to deny the multiple lenses that allow them to see the world with such texture, nuance and richness.

As the mother of third culture kids, I’m letting go of the fear and leaning into the formation afoot. This life isn’t only about migration, multiple places and varied cultures; it’s about the formation of a sweeping worldview. My son will see things I miss, my daughter will hear things I’m deaf to – and this is what I want for them, to have eyes that see and ears that hear so they can engage with greater insight than I ever imagined. This kind of life might not be easy, and I’ll give them that. But our bi-cultural life is good, and they will reap the rewards in irrevocable ways. I trust that to be true.

I’ve been wondering about the life of Jesus in all this. He resided in heavenly places with limitless access to glory, goodness and power. He moved to earth inhabiting a humble home in Nazareth with a stay-at-home mom and a tradesman for a father. And both these places were home to Him, shaping who He was and how He grew to be Messiah. No one could say He was only God – because He knew what it was to live on the underbelly of the empire that oppressed His people. And yet we can’t say His humanity was simply that, surely it was shaped by His deep remembrance of His heavenly home. Maybe it took both places for His formation, both places contributing to our salvation through the most stunning Third Culture Kid.

My kids and I talk about this over dinner sometimes. My son’s pretty convinced that our kind of life isn’t unprecedented. We think this is how Jesus lived, and it helps us push through the hard times. I hope they hold on to this – even when they are grown. Either way, I know this is formational.

How do you see the TCK lifestyle as formational for your kids/yourself? Have you ever thought about Jesus as a TCK? As a parent, how do you deal with the fears of raising TCKs?


kajcanadaKelley Nikondeha is a thinker, connector, advocate, avid reader, mother of two beautiful children, lover of God’s justice & jubilee.  She leads theological conversations at Amahoro Africa and is chief storyteller for Communities of Hope. Kelley lives her life in transit between Arizona and Burundi. She’s in transit between continents but also in terms of her own experience of motherhood, discipleship, theological engagement and living into God’s dream for the world. She savors handwritten letters, homemade pesto and anything written by Walter Brueggemann. She is fueled by space and snacks (and Diet Coke).


Twitter: @knikondeha