Third Culture Kids often joke that their safe, happy place is the airport. Any airport. It is the place between worlds, the no place world. Like in The Magician’s Nephew in the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, the Wood Between the Worlds:
“Why, if we can get back to our own world by jumping into this pool, mightn’t we get somewhere else by jumping into one of the others? Supposing there was a world at the bottom of every pool.”
“But I thought we were already in your Uncle Andrew’s Other World or Other Place or whatever he called it. Didn’t you say–”
“Oh bother Uncle Andrew,” interrupted Digory. “I don’t believe he knows anything about it. He never had the pluck to come here himself. He only talked of one Other World. But suppose there were dozens?”
“You mean, this wood might be only one of them?”
“No, I don’t believe this wood is a world at all. I think it’s just a sort of in-between place.”
Polly looked puzzled. “Don’t you see?” said Digory. “No, do listen. Think of our tunnel under the slates at home. It isn’t a room in any of the houses. But once you’re in the tunnel you can go along it and come out into any of the houses in the row. Mightn’t this wood be the same? –a place that isn’t in any of the worlds, but once you’ve found that place you can get into them all.”
“Well, even if you can–” began Polly, but Digory went on as if he hadn’t heard her.
“And of course that explains everything,” he said. “That’s why it is so quiet and sleepy here. Nothing ever happens here. Like at home. It’s in the houses that people talk, and do things, and have meals. Nothing goes on in the in-between places, behind the walls and above the ceiling and under the floor, or in our tunnel. But when you come out of our tunnel you may find yourself in any house. I think we can get out of this place into jolly well Anywhere! We don’t need to jump back into the same pool we came up by. Not just yet.”
Kenya is my Third Culture Kid airport. Since I’m not a TCK, I don’t love airports. I pretty much despise them. They have a warped sense of timing, a claustrophobic atmosphere, terrifying bathrooms (sometimes without doors, water, or toilet paper), expensive food, nowhere to do yoga, and the constant buzz of calling out the names of whoever is about to miss their flight. I find airports exhausting and head-ache inducing.
But I do have a happy, safe, in between place, albeit, one that isn’t actually so safe. Nairobi, otherwise known as Nai-robbery.
I didn’t realize this until a friend said it to me.
We had just flown into Kenya from Minnesota. The previous five weeks, in the US, had been a whirlwind of family, laughter, presentations, soccer games, Dairy Queen, and more presentations. I met new people and had deep conversations with old friends and felt re-invigorated for our work and hardly wrote a single word because in America, I just can’t think. I can only go.
So we landed in Kenya kind of exhausted. And then we had to deliver our teens over to boarding school, which thrilled them and which made me feel sad and yet confident in them, on top of the exhaustion.
I got to my friend’s house. Green grass, shade trees, bananas growing. I rested. I read. I laid down and did nothing. I got up and didn’t start sweating.
The US is my place of GO! And Djibouti is my place of work. Apparently Kenya is my place of in between.
Nothing goes on in this in between place except recovery from the previous place and preparations for the next place. It is both launching pad and refuge of renewal.
Where is your TCK airport?
Hotel massacres in Mogadishu. Museum terror in Tunisia. War across the water in Yemen and refugees heading into Djibouti.
I joked the other day that perhaps the refugee boats going out of the Horn of Africa pass the refugee boats coming into the Horn of Africa, each group urging the other to turn back, each group determined and pressing on.
It wasn’t a funny joke.
And then there was Thursday. I checked the news and there had been a shooting at a university in northern Kenya, Garissa. 17 dead. 17 is awful.
It wasn’t over.
I checked the news again later.
One hundred and forty-seven.
Boqol iyo afartan iyo todoba.
Maybe if I keep writing it down it will stop being true. Maybe if I keep writing it down it will stop happening. False. The delusion of thinking writing it down will change anything. Words that get sucked away by grief, letters on a computer that do nothing but disappear into the black hole of hate and violence.
A room of students at prayer. Dormitories. Classrooms where students prepared to take exams. Muslims separated from non-Muslims and the non-Muslims shot in the back of the head. Shot in the back of the head by men who shoot Muslims when they are across the border in Somalia. In the aftermath, a photo of a student in hijab wailing, her arms wrapped tight around the bodies of two non-Muslim survivors. Students crumpled to the ground in pools of blood. Hiding in closets for two days. Hiding beneath dead bodies. Hospitals and mortuaries overwhelmed. The only university in the entire, rural, massive region.
And I don’t know what to say. I want to scream, ‘how can this seem right to anyone?’ How can people do this to each other? When did life lose its sacredness? When did it become so easy to slaughter people who disagree with you? And I struggle against anger and sorrow and yes, fear.
Why? What do they want? What can be gained? Why?
I read the news and then I had to run out the door, I was late for a Good Friday luncheon. I shouted to my husband, “What do they want?” and then I drove away. As I drove I could only whisper, “Jesus.” And, “mercy.” And, “Help me love them.” These are the only words that matter.
Jesus. Mercy. Help me love them. These are the words that will help me breathe.
(this post is titled after the post I wrote following the Westgate Mall attack)
*image credit: Oxfam East Africa – A mass grave for children in Dadaab” by Oxfam East Africa
Today’s Flaneuring post is by Heidi Thulin who lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya (and happens to be from Minnesota too!)
It is evening by the time I’m hanging up my last load of laundry, but I’m not concerned. For months now, the air has been hot and dry, and with this wind blowing through our palm fronds, I know these towels will be foldable in no time.
This is the beginning of our third year in this Nairobi house. We came to this country with only ten suitcases to our name and furnished this house from scratch. No wedding registry this time around, and as a result, we live minimally. A few cozy couches in the living room, enough dishes to host a dinner party, and a handful of postcards and family photos to decorate the walls.
We feel comfortable here, content.
But I remember my surprise when we first pulled into the driveway and saw the fifteen-foot wall topped with razor wire that ran alongside our house. It was daunting and unfriendly, a cement cage. A city of four million people, many of whom live below the poverty line, lends itself to dramatic security measures.
The longer we lived here, though, the more that wall became part of the scenery. We planted vines at the bottom of it and watched the leafy fingers crawl upwards. We enjoyed the privacy it offered. And because every other house, office, and high-rise in the city had similar walls, its presence settled into the realm of normal.
On the other side of our wall is a forest full of tropical plants, acacia trees, and thorny shrubs. Not too many people here can say they live so close to the wilderness, so we count ourselves among the lucky.
A vast variety of birds live in that forest, and several of them frequent our yard. Weaver birds collecting long strands of banana leaf for their nests, mousebirds making a chattering racket in our bougainvillea bushes, and fire finches stealing grains of rice from our dog’s food dish.
Monkeys live in those tall trees too, and about once a month, a troop of fifty vervets trot along our rooftops, causing dogs to howl in their direction, children to scream in delight, and mamas to close their kitchen doors.
This place is alive.
My dog’s ears perk up as I reach to clip another clothespin, and then I hear it too: the rumbling growl of our Land Rover coming down the road. As Ginger bounces and barks, I fish out the keys and open the front gate for my husband.
He drives the truck into the driveway, and in the instant after he turns off the engine, there is an alarming silence. Until I swing the gate closed with a rattling bang.
It took awhile, but I’ve gotten used to the high walls and the bars on our windows. They no longer feel like a prison, but more like an embrace, one that welcomes us inside and holds the two of us snugly in our tiny piece of land.
They say home is where the heart is, and as long as our little family is tucked within these walls and razor wire, it’s safe to say that this place is ours.
Heidi Thulin is a staff writer for a media team in Nairobi, Kenya, and she blogs at thulinsinafrica.com. She and her videographer husband greatly enjoy traveling together, tossing ideas around with their creative team, and catching glimpses of the everyday lives and work of their fellow expatriates. She loves her Saturday mornings filled with a good book, a cup of hot chai (with plenty of sugar), and the company of her Kenyan mutt.
This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel (there is one more scheduled post coming up and then, unless I hear from you, the series will close, but if you have an essay in the future that you feel might be a good fit, feel free to contact me).
Today’s What I Learned post comes from Heidi Thulin, writing from Kenya about culture shock and rock climbing in her first year in Africa.
I stood in the shade of a gigantic cliff at Hell’s Gate National Park, a harness strapped around my waist and my fingers fidgeting nervously with my hair. We had come to do some filming for an outdoorsman ministry, and after we’d conducted interviews and gathered several hours of B-roll, they said we could give rock climbing a try.
The borrowed climbing shoes felt foreign on my feet, and I bounced lightly on my toes while my belayer secured knots and gave me a quiet pep talk. I had never climbed a real cliff before, only a cement rock wall speckled with color-coded handholds. And that was ten years ago.
I was pretty nervous–but the excited kind–and I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t conquer this rock.
Raising my hands above my head, I felt the smoothness and the roughness of the red-brown rock and lifted my foot into a crack. Then my other foot, push, then hand navigation, pull. Straining one part of my body at a time. And slowly, I rose above the crowd.
About halfway up, I got stuck. The rocks all around me felt too smooth, my arms felt too weak, and I was too quick to call down and say I was done. “No, you’re not,” my belayer called back. “You’re almost there! You’re at the hardest part, but you’ll soon pass it.”
I suppressed a panicked laugh and pressed myself against the cliff. It felt cold on my skin and the distance above me looked daunting. I shifted my weight, my foot slipped, I gasped. But the rope supported me. Up until that moment, I hadn’t truly believed I could trust in that rope, but now I knew I was not alone and that I could finish the climb.
Taking a deep breath, I grappled around for a handhold and slipped with my feet until it rested on a small ledge. Below me, people cheered. I had only six feet to go. With renewed vigor and a triumphant smile, I scurried up the rest of the rock and dangled restfully from my rope. My arms hurt in new places, but my heart was beating happily. I did it!
I looked down then and was shocked by the distance I’d traveled. My small husband gazed up at me, smiled, and took a photo. My belayer gave me a thumbs-up and said, “Now I will let you come down.”
My husband and I are more than halfway through our first term in Nairobi, Kenya, and in some ways, this leg of the journey is harder than the first. On some occasions, I’ve had to physically leave the house to prevent me from packing up all our belonging and booking the next flight back to the States. But God taught me a special lesson that day I conquered the rock wall. A lesson that I desperately needed to learn.
Culture shock is like rock climbing. You need take the journey one handhold and foothold at a time. You require encouragement from those with a different perspective. You develop new problem-solving skills and stretch your already-sore muscles. But if you trust in the rope that holds you up, you’ll find relief and smiles at the top of the cliff and, with slight disbelief, you’ll look down and realize just how far you’ve come.
Therefore, I can do this overseas life. Even when I’m confused and don’t know how to move forward, even when my heart (and stomach) hurts in uncommon ways, even when I want to give up. I have the hope that, one day, I will look back at this time of struggle and unpleasantness and be surprised (and maybe impressed) by my progress. I will see how God gave me the strength for each small step and how each of those small steps turned into a grand journey.
By the end, I will be a new person, a person transformed and strong, and I will celebrate my journey with a smile.
Heidi Thulin is a staff writer for an On-Field Media team in Kenya. She and her videographer husband work in Nairobi. They’ve greatly enjoyed traveling together, tossing ideas around with their creative team, and catching glimpses of the everyday lives and work of their fellow expatriates. She loves her Saturday mornings filled with a good book, a cup of hot chai (with plenty of sugar), and the company of her Kenyan mutt.