Missionary Unlearning

Visiting a mission of the Xaverian Brothers has been an experience of unlearning.

Growing up, Africa was talked about as a monolith. Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda, it didn’t matter the specific country because the overall narrative was these were all Africa. They could be inches or miles apart because, regardless, it happened over there in the unsafe continent of war, poverty, AIDs, and every parent’s go-to excuse to get their children to eat their food, the land of the “starving kids.” Even recent news of monkeypox has called people to question my travels to Kenya even though I was closer to cases in the US than here in Kenya. (A fact I had to double-check because even now, I fail to understand the expansive distance of this massive continent).

The unlearning is far-reaching and deeply personal. My assumptions of what to wear and bring were guided by the images of “For 25 cents a day, you can save a child” commercials. When in reality, I should have recognized the fact that I had been video calling this community for months prior, and they all wore the same clothes as I do daily and had healthy access to the internet. Years of ill-informed and misguided assumptions peel away slowly.

More challenging still is my own personal intelligence and self-inflated ego. As a teacher and rector, I’ve had the luxury of power and influence. When I spoke, people listen. Now when I speak, people stare blankly with little clue of deciphering my American accent, often responding with silence or returning to their multi-lingual conversation of intermixed English, Swahili, and various regional and tribal languages. The frustrating silence seeps into long-held insecurities and doubts. Questions that sit just below the surface awaken as my mind beats itself, asking, “Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Cool enough?” The poise, talent, and authority I once held barely qualify me to wash dishes, so I scrub and wipe silently, hoping this little gesture gains me some favor.

This process of unlearning roots itself in generations of internal and systematic structures. To unlearn, we must ask ourselves:

  • Is this true?
  • Why do I think this way?
  • Why do you think this way?
  • Is there another way this could be done?
  • Why am I reacting like this?

Asking these questions presents a great deal of challenges. The mere questions frustrate tradition and confront the status quo. Upsetting cultural differences and ways of living. In truth, one culture does not “do it better” than another culture. The cultures are simply different. For any unlearning and relearning to occur miles and kilometers of sharing and relationships must develop.

May we all have the grace to unlearn our ill-held beliefs, question internal and systematic norms, and relearn how to live and be together.

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