By Tanner Rollins
I think most people in their twenties have a desire to understand what life is all about. I began traveling two years ago with two goals in mind: to see places that some people only dreamed of, and to form my “worldview” with the help of other cultures.
I began by switching to online college courses and hiring on as a boat deckhand in Alaska. Working every day in the middle of beautiful scenery and God’s creation, I felt God calling me to “step out.” To be honest, I had no idea what the term “stepping out” meant. In my mind, I thought I was already stepping out by living a lifestyle different than the normal college student.
But I realized more than ever I wanted to know what “life was all about,” and I needed a third world culture shock before I could answer that. It took some help from friends and family in order to go, but my trip to Kenya truly changed my life.
I write this article with the hope that it serves as an encouragement to all of us to remember how fortunate we are — while reminding us how hard life is for others. There are many things I could write about, but two observations have stuck with me since I returned from Kenya: my idea of comparing myself to others and understanding how privileged I am living as a middle-class American.
While pondering the idea of going to a third world country, I was struggling with the idea of spending a lot of money to travel somewhere that wasn’t “ideal.” I laugh at times how much God knows each one of us and He (knowing one of my biggest weaknesses) sent a beautiful woman on a boat trip to spark a stirring in my heart about going to a poor country.
This woman challenged me to take a missions trip this year. I was completely taken back at the divinity of her timing, but she confirmed my wandering thoughts.
Two days later, on one of the boat tours I was working, I met a man by the name of Nathan Smith who ran a Missionary organization called Love Africa Missions. Love Africa Missions was founded by Nathan with the purpose to take American college kids to some of the poorest, most difficult parts of Africa and minister to all people, especially children.
Nathan had no idea I was considering a missions trip, but I knew when he told me about his organization that God was talking straight to me. After two more days of fighting it, I woke up in the middle of the night with a rooted feeling that I had to go. At times, I fight with some of God’s plans. Fight or not, I know I need to remember that when God and I are wrestling about plans, at least I’m actively hearing Him speak in my life. So even before I left on this trip, I could tell He was working on things in me.
A few months later I left for Kenya with only one expectation. I told almost everyone who asked me that I wanted to go on an “unselfish” trip and pour myself into the children of Kenya.
Looking back, I realized that I had prepared myself to show very little emotion. I don’t mean emotion towards the people of Kenya, but rather, the emotions in myself. In a sense, this trip meant “business.” I was there to help others… not let God work in me. I was going to go into Kenya, give what I had to give, and leave with a great story.
I was wrong. There were so many breaking points for me throughout this trip. While some of the experiences will be mentioned in this article, others are too hard to put on paper.
One of the first lessons I learned was my issue with “comparing.” In my life, I always seem to compare my material things to what other people had. I wanted other kids’ toys, other people’s abilities, and as I get older, other people’s money. Truth be told, I really didn’t see that I had an issue with comparing until I met a boy named John.
Little John was a 7-year-old boy I met in the poor town of Kijabe, Kenya. The mission group and I found these kids playing in the streets a few blocks away from where we were eating and decided to join in.
As a group, we started teaching the kids how to play “duck, duck, goose,” but I could see John had something else on his mind. The boy came running over to me and with the little English he knew, said “I want to grab my favorite toy, don’t go.” I assured him I wouldn’t leave until I saw his “favorite toy.”
Little John took off on a full sprint about a half a mile down the street and veered left into his house. A few seconds later I saw him come back out to the street and run right back to where I was standing.
From a distance, I tried to make out the object in his hand. The object was white, round in shape, and relatively flat. The first thought that entered my mind was that this was a Frisbee and as John got closer I was certain I was right. It wasn’t until John was about 20 feet in front me that I realized he was not carrying a Frisbee at all. Little John, now winded, hands me this object with a smile on his face. This “favorite toy” of John’s was no toy at all. It was the top of a large Kentucky Fried Chicken bowl. It was trash. I was broken hearted for John until I looked back at him only to see a huge smile and quickly realized I wasn’t broken hearted for him, I was broken hearted for me.
There was not an issue with John’s idea of “toys” or an issue with the Kentucky Fried Chicken topper. The issue was my idea of what a Frisbee should be. I compared John’s toy to the toys I had growing up. I always thought it was the type of toy that brought happiness, but I realized it’s actually the pride of just owning something that was bringing true happiness to my new little friend. John stood back and told me to throw “his toy.” So, like a Frisbee, I began to throw this KFC topper back and forth. The sound of John’s laughter and excitement cannot be explained by my words.
The second lesson I learned from Kenya has been much more difficult to wrap my head around: the idea of understanding how fortunate we are as Americans.
The men in our group spent a day walking around the town of Kijabe meeting some of the different people working on the streets. Villagers were selling everything from firewood, produce, souvenirs, and even their labor.
As we walked around, we began to converse and pray with some of the workers in the town. Initially, I took the approach of just listening. Most people in Kijabe spoke Swahili, but since the national language of Kenya is English, some people could communicate with us directly. For those who didn’t speak English well, we had a translator who helped both parties communicate.
As we listened to the people of Kijabe, there was a certain prayer request that came up almost every time. The adults would ask us to pray for their kids, but specifically, that they would grow up to have a “better life than them.” I know this may seem like an ordinary prayer for a parent to say, but it was the way they said it that grabbed my attention.
We walked over to a group of construction workers and the employees provided us a little picture of what life was like for them. There were many men and their stories were difficult to listen to and not feel sad. As the workers finished their stories, one of the long-time employees asked us to pray for their kids — that they would grow up and have a “better life.” After he said it, all the other men around him nodded in agreement.
The group I was in prayed for them and began to walk to the next building, but I needed to figure out what these people meant by that phrase “better life.” I stayed back and asked the man to explain to me why they all kept saying they wanted a better life for their kids.
His quick response was chilling and truthfully, I was not prepared for it. The man looked back at me and said, “Because there is no hope for a better life here. There is very little hope for my children to create a better life for themselves. My kids will grow up and be poor their entire life. I cannot pay for them to continue their education, nor can I give them any money when they get older. I can only pray for a miracle or that my kids get adopted into a family that can provide them with a better life, because there is no hope.”
At first I wanted to look at him and respond with “there’s always hope,” but the truth is, he was right. I nodded my head to respect his honesty, but realized I had no response. This idea really broke me. I am a positive person who, for the most part, is hopeful and strong in many situations. But just being in Kenya, seeing their poverty first hand, and trying to find hope where there was very little, really shook me. I was broken because for those few minutes, God showed me what no hope felt like. After I regained control of my emotions, I again became thankful for my life. I realized in America we can work to make our lives better, but for many Kenyans they simply work to eat and survive.
My hope is, if nothing else, we can be proud we live in a country where there is always hope… even if it’s only slim… there is hope for a better life.
To sum up my trip to Kenya with one word, the lesson I learned was thankfulness. Some people who return from a third world country find themselves upset or angry with the American people and the way we live. For me, I was just frustrated with myself. There was baggage I had been carrying from my childhood causing me to lose sight of the blessings right in front of me. I realized I need to stop comparing my life to others and focus on being thankful for what I have. I challenged myself this year to find a deeper appreciation for common things like water, fitted clothing, and freedom — but especially, an appreciation for our hope.
The people of Kenya can use our help. Obviously, money is needed, but there are many other ways to help the people of Kenya with prayer being the biggest. For anyone considering a life-changing trip to a third world country, Love Africa Mission is an organization I highly recommend. To learn more, feel free to visit their website at loveafricamissions.org. I also want to thank the people who helped me get to Kenya. There were people who donated to my expenses, but also, many who prayed over my trip.
In closing, I want to say that religion-based or not, we, as fortunate Americans, should take time to help those less fortunate. You may not be called out of the country, or even out of your town, but there are poor people everywhere, and I believe we should step out to help others. As for me, I don’t know when I will return to Kenya, but I do know that God will call me back and I look forward to that day.