Lent 2022 newsletter
Megan Hamilton, Kenya
As she prepares to go to her mission placement in coastal Kenya — after her first three months studying in Nairobi — new Maryknoll lay missioner Megan Hamilton sends a Lenten good-bye from her vibrant, international school, musing on the power of words, community, grace and transformation.
I’m on the campus of my language school near Nairobi with students from dozens of countries, speaking nearly as many native languages. I study Kiswahili and think about the Tower of Babel (Gen 11.1-9). “Let us go down, and confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” As a kid I remember thinking, Bummer! We had a chance to all have one language, and we lost it!? Maybe it added to my typically American view of language learning as beyond hard: all those words!
In a way my kid-self was right. With my ADD, dyslexia and clinical memory loss, learning language is tricky. But here I sit in my shiny, blue room believing wholeheartedly that, good at it or not, God has sent me here, to … the Tower of Babel antidote! Not a tower exactly, but a sprawling complex loosely called Consolata, the name of the Italian-founded mission order, here masterfully managed by Consolata priest and Kenyan native Padre Cyrus.
Like many awesome institutions, it has its toes on earth and its head in the heavens. Self-sufficient on her 18 acres, Consolata grows vegetables, raises pigs, chickens, ducks and a pond-full of tilapia. Water comes from her wells, cooking gas comes from manure, and banks of solar panels abound. Cars are repaired, parked and cleaned. Furniture is built for the fathers and brothers’ house, the convent and women’s hostel, the seminarians’ rooms, the guest house, the chapels and offices. The clean, modern buildings of the philosophy and language schools face a sunny quadrangle. Sheep graze amidst lawn signs with quotes from famous and not so famous philosophers. I love them. The words seem to walk up to me, like a friend ambling across the lawn to share a good idea.
Students from Poland, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Vietnam and beyond come to learn words, language, faith even. They’ve left their homes to do what for some of them is no big deal, but to me seems an impossibly brave undertaking: learning a new language. Powered by the courage of their callings, they move to new countries and cultures, working for change in the most civil way possible — through language, by talking to people one on one. Through faith. Through accompaniment. I am mad-humbled to be among them.
Kenyan Father Chris speaks 14 languages — most of them tribal tongues from the mother continent. He is brushing up on his Spanish while he waits for law school to start. After serving his Kenyan archdiocese as a lawyer, he hopes to return to the beloved Latin community he served for seven years in the U.S.
Sister Theophila comes from Rwanda. She’ll use her English to start a chapter of her congregation in Kenya. With her high wattage smile, seemingly charged by an ever shining sun, I can see her doing so. Viola isn’t going into religious life. Petite and lovely, she is from South Sudan and says, in the English she works on diligently, with clear diction, and even clearer intent, “I want to be a nurse. I want to save people’s lives.”
Zach is from Texas, the only American seminarian in Mother Theresa’s male order. After his studies he works in the slums of Nairobi. Padre Philip is from the Philippines; with his near photographic memory he is almost fluent, using his Kiswahili to support students at a Don Bosco school in a low-income community downtown.
Doing dishes at the outside sink, I catch up with Sister Dafrosa. In her tidy, grey and white habit she’s just come from South Korea, studying English to help with her congregation in Uganda and South Sudan. She fearlessly jumps in with her few words. I explain about Maryknoll Lay Missioners (“lay missioner” being a new idea here). Sister shines me a smile. “Maryknoll has helped my country a lot,” she says. “Thank you.” I explain it wasn’t me, but I’m proud to pass it along.
Some scholars say the Tower of Babel is about hubris. About God sharing a dose of humility with those who need it. Others say it was a way to create more words, languages, more cultural beauty. I don’t know, but … as I sit in the din of over-amplified African music in the assembly hall for “Culture Day,” I am grateful (shukuru! I remember the word!) to be called here.
There is a parade of flags. Then a massively tall Luo, vaults off the four-foot high stage, screaming, knocking over chairs, his steel tipped spear aloft, ready for conquering. A spunky Salvadoran leads a smartly synchronized traditional dance — executed by himself, an American, an Indian and two Africans. The novice sisters with some helpful guy tenors, sing a shimmering acapella prayer for rain. But mostly the day is about African dance. Not the kind I’m used to in the States — carefully choreographed, polished, almost formulaic. This is about Africans dancing. Different!
The priests-to-be are jazzed! They’ve ditched the black pants and pointy shoes. The stage is packed full of traditional and not so traditional costumes (tribal textiles worn with sunglasses, body paint and grass skirts accented by tennis shoes). Everyone is having a blast! Relaxed in steps learned as children, joyous dancing with new friends. A young man, regally robed in deep orange fabric and a cardboard hat, resplendent with pride, offers me his hand with a smile.
I forget about my lame language skills and remember the lawn signs. Nelson Mandela says, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” Kenyan theologian John Mbiti says “I am because we are.” Heck, I love to dance! I take my new friend’s hand, adding a stray mzungu (white gal) to the flowy, fun dance party on stage.
During my last Sunday Mass in the Consolata chapel, the young men sing in a round, in harmony, in Kiswahili, Latin, and English. Their deep voices roll as one out the windows, towards the Ngong Hills, as fundamental, essential, and foundational as the ancient Rift Valley beyond — the Valley where our human species evolved. I know I have far to go. Humility to search for. More willingness. But in this holy place I’ve taken the first steps and been blessed to find learning, spiritual growth and an emerging understanding of the vast community I am part of.