The Day Tourists Took Pictures Of My African Child

We were on our way back from the most glorious 3 day safari in Amboseli (highly recommend it!), and we had stopped at a small curio shop to use the bathrooms before continuing on our long journey back to Mombasa.

Just as we were about to leave, a tour van filled with middle eastern tourists arrived. They alighted the vehicle with their khaki pants, fanny packs, and cliché safari hats along with their large DLSR cameras strapped around their necks. All of the sudden they notice my Mercy. They all gravitated towards her with big smiles on their faces and talking in their interesting accents telling her how cute and beautiful she is. Not to boast, but my girls do tend to get a lot of attention for their looks probably because they are both beautiful and very different. I tend to let people state their praises and I respond with a gentle, “Thank you.” (Because seriously, what else are you supposed to say to people who admire your kids’ looks?)

Then they whip out their big, fancy cameras, probably full of shots of the elusive Big 5, and start snapping photos of my daughter. One by one, they go stand beside her and take pictures with her.

Everything inside of me cringed.

Mercy seemed OK with it. She wasn’t upset but she definitely wasn’t loving it. I will always make sure my kid feels safe and protected.

I walk over to Kelvin and our driver and say, “Is this ok? How do you guys feel about this?” They just laugh and say it’s all good.

The mommy in me started getting a little territorial about my kid’s face being all stored up in their big fancy cameras. Where was this picture going to go? On the internet? In a photo album? Or just stay on their memory disk and eventually deleted? I don’t know. But I didn’t like (and still don’t like) the thought of my child’s face out there for everyone/anyone/no one to see.

I eventually was over all the picture taking and gently asked Mercy to come to me so we can go.

There is a lot of criticism for foreigners taking photos of African children. I have always tried to be conscious of this but it wasn’t until this particular event that I got a whole new perspective. I was put in their shoes and I really didn’t like it.

It’s a hard balance to figure out which pictures to take and where or how they should be posted, if at all. Social media has made things complicated but at the same time wonderful and beautiful.

As someone who lives in Africa and has family and friends on the other side of the world, social media is so important to staying in touch with my loved ones back home. I have debated on many occasions giving it up but because so many of our dearest people live so far away, it’s often the only way we can keep up with each other.

But I do live in Africa and the majority of my friends are African. I can’t shy away from taking pictures with my friends. Often if I take a picture with an ‘African child’, it’s usually the child of a really good friend of mine. And quite often I am the only one who knows that fact so from the outside it might just look like a photo of another white girl with the African children.

Because we run a non-profit organization, we have to take photos. It is hard to gain donors if they don’t actually see where their money is going. It’s just not effective. We have been criticized in the past for taking photos, particularly of soccer kids, for our own gain. It stung a little bit. However, once these people, who were questioning us, saw how generously we give back to the community through our soccer tournaments, their mouths were silenced.

The other day I was at the field taking photos of our tournament and some guy walked in and made some off handed comment that of course the white girl is taking photos. That stung a bit too. I wanted to stop him and explain why I am taking photos and who will see them and how they will benefit the community but I knew that he would then just laugh at the while girl rambling at him about taking photos.

Because of all this, I have come up with a few personal guidelines when it comes to taking photos here in Kenya:

  • We make sure people are aware of why we are taking photos especially at our soccer tournaments. Kelvin made a whole speech of it actually at the end of our tournament. We also make sure that we follow through with what we say we will do with the photos and that the community will benefit. If we say this will help us get kids into to school, we make sure we pay kids’ school fees.
  • We tell people in the beginning that if they want to be a part of our programs, they need to expect to have their photos taken because these programs don’t run without donors and donors rarely give without seeing where their money is going.
  • In saying that, we also make sure that the photos represent ACCURATELY what is going on. I can take a photo of a young girl with a sad face and say that ‘women are oppressed in this community’ when in reality this girl might just be sitting watching a game unaware her photo is being taken so she doesn’t put on a smile.
  • We only post photos that we know the people featured in the photo would be proud to have it displayed. I don’t want anyone going, ‘Oh man why did they have to post THAT picture of me?’
  • We also try give photos to the people in them. If I take a flattering photo of you playing soccer, I will do my best to send it to you for your own use. I know I love when people do that to me!
  • I personally try not to post snarky photos. I do have a witty sense humour that not everyone gets. I try not to let it come out in photos especially if it might offend someone. Like for instance, the other day there was a white guy in a speedo sun tanning in our compound….I could have taken a picture and posted something witty about this guy getting burnt to a crisp in his tight panties…but I refrained and just giggled to myself. I don’t think I would want someone to do the same to me.
  • Then this might be the most important rule for me: always make sure I am posting and taking a picture of something that is true and meaningful and honouring to all the people in the photo.

Here are two photos of me and Kenyan girls. From first glance, they are both great photos. But knowing the story behind them changes how I use them.

The above photo is one of my all-time favourite photos of me because it very accurately represents my relationship with these girls. This photo captured one of the thousands of moments I have had over time with these girls. I know their names, their stories, their lives. They are dear friends to me that I still keep in contact with. I would be doing the same thing even if there was no camera taking my photo.

The second photo doesn’t have the same story. I had been running into this girl at the field so we started talking and hanging out a bit when we saw each other. However, just before I took this photo, she pleaded with me to help her pay school fees. I had to explain to her our organization’s policy in giving out money for school and, unfortunately, she didn’t qualify. I only took this photo to lighten the mood after our conversation. This is the ONLY photo of me from our recent tournament and I SO wanted to use it, but I didn’t quite feel comfortable considering our conversation. Hopefully, I can meet her again and start building a relationship that goes beyond school sponsorship.

I will admit that I don’t always get it right and I am sure I have offended people. For that, I’m sorry and I am purposing to do better.

Being able to take photos is a gift! I love all the treasured memories I have on my phone or computer or in hard copies. Let’s keep making sure we do it honourably, responsibly, and with meaning.

Figuring Out Where We Fit

2017 will go down as the year we spent figuring things out.

Profound, right? (You can now book me for my motivational speeches;))

There was a lot of things to figure out from school to church to cheese and curtains and so much more.

But one of the biggest things we had to figure out was where we ‘fit’ or ‘belong’ when it comes to community and friends.

This was supposed to be easy. Kelvin grew up in Mombasa and already has a built-in community not to mention his entire family lives here. I moved to Mombasa just over nine years ago so I have a solid set of friends that I call community. But after four years of living in Canada, things changed. Our good friends and family were definitely still here, but we all had moved on and grown. As Kelvin put it, we needed to almost ‘re-friend our friends’. This was actually a lot harder than we anticipated.

At some point, I said to God, “Can you please build my community? Can you bring people into my life that you want me to be around? People who you know are good for me and my family and that we can also be good for them. People who we can call family and do life with genuinely.”

Then I had to lay down all my expectations and let God work. This is an exciting and dangerous thing to do because knowing God the way I do, He will find something for us that is so different that what we imagine and yet exactly what we need.

I can tell you for sure one place that we fit that wasn’t even on my radar….

Uwanja wa Mbuzi (directly translated as ‘field of goats’)

I have imagined my kids getting older and being asked, “So tell me about your childhood? Where did you grow up?” and their answer will involve this soccer stadium in the middle of a vibrant, ghetto community on the coast of East Africa with a community of middle-aged men who adore the living pants off them.

Weird, right? Yet, it fits so well for us.

My kids walk into that stadium like they own the place. They know every nook and cranny of the field. They know where to find the bathrooms and where the sewage holes that Amina threw her shoes in a few weeks ago are. They know when they are allowed to run on the turf and how many stairs there are to the top. They know not to step on the tiles that move and not to climb on the fence.

They adore the people who hang out and work there. And I am pretty sure they are equally adored by the people. You need to understand that most of the people who hang out there on a regular basis are younger to middle aged men. Only a handful of kids play there. My girls have these men wrapped around their man-fingers. Mercy bounces into the stadium and makes an effort to go hug and say hi to all the men she knows. They call for her from the other side of the bleachers and she races to give them a high five. The referee brings them on to the field at half time and chases them up and down. They join into the team huddles at the end of the game and look up at all the exhausted, sweaty men making the guys giggle at their cuteness. They know the men who chew miraa (a local drug) who always have a pack of gum ready to give them.

They are two small, Kenyan-Canadian girls who belong at a stadium filled with middle-aged men in a ghetto on the coast of Africa.

On Sunday, I took the girls to the field to go pick up their Daddy after his game. Like usual, they left me alone and frolicked around greeting everyone. After a few minutes, they race back to me with gum in their mouths (from their miraa chewing buddies) and Mercy declared, “MOM! I just have SO many friends!”

This is so not the community I anticipated for my family. However, it’s completely the community that I believe God is so fond of. A community where total opposites love and are loved. A community where we are free to be who we were created to be and still be accepted. A community of misfits. A community where a tiny, half white, half black Christian girl, jumps on the back of a big, rough and tough, Muslim man and the two of them laugh in delight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shattering The Expectations I Didn’t Know I Had

 

If you have been following us and our move to Kenya, you will know by now that our transition back here has been rougher than we expected. We realized that we had a slew of expectations of what our life would look like here, mostly on the basis of what our life looked like when we used to live here. But alas, it’s been four years since and things have changed.

Let me just say that this is not a bad thing. It just has meant that we have had to take time and effort to readjust our mindsets.

It has been some bigger things like how we were excited to head back to the church we used to go to but, after much prayer and some tears, we have settled into another great church.

It’s been smaller things too like the fact that I didn’t think we needed a microwave because we did just fine without one in 2012. Fast forward to 2017 and I tried to live without one for a week and I just couldn’t do it. I caved and bought one. Now it’s probably the most used appliance in the house.

Again, most of these things have just needed some minor readjustment from our end but it has all worked out for the best.

But, there has been one expectation that I have wrestled with for months. I debated writing a post about it because I wanted to hash it out with God and get it all sorted before I decided to write about it. But I am not there yet and I am now at peace with not totally understanding it. It is an expectation that I didn’t even know I had until it started slapping me in the face.

It’s the expectation that my kids were going to grow up like I did.

 This hit me in the gut on Mother’s Day. I headed to Mercy’s school where they had prepared a special presentation for Mothers. I arrived and was ushered into the cafeteria for some snacks before the performance. As I sat down at the table (alone), I looked around at the rest of the mothers and realized how different Mercy’s childhood is going to be from mine. I grew up in a small, white, Canadian town where religion wasn’t evident and everything was clean and most of the people were all middle class who looked fairly similar. And here I was in the cafeteria surrounded by women of several different faiths, from a myriad of backgrounds (Arab, Turkish, Somali, Kenyan, British), a handful of different cultures and languages, and quite the mixture of exotic perfumes.

I tried to convince myself that this was so cool. My daughter was going to have such a rich and interesting childhood. But deep down, that was a hard truth to grapple with because it was so very different to what I know is ‘normal’ for childhood.

I started to see some really large differences that my daughters were going to experience and I couldn’t (and still can’t) quite decide if they are better or not. Education is one of them. The Kenyan education system is admittedly not the best. There are a handful of private, international schools in the area but as I have researched them I have realized that they are either way too expensive or the education is still not that great. I’ve dabbled with the thought of homeschool but my Mercy thrives around other kids and it would drive all of us insane having her home all the time. This is may be my biased opinion, but none of them can compare to the great, FREE education we can get in Canada.

And here is the part that stings: we can actually have that great education. We can pick up and get on a plane tomorrow and my daughters can have a great education along with great healthcare, water parks and playgrounds, clean and safe environments, governments that take care of them well, the comfort of blending in and not being the minority, and all sorts of amazing opportunities Canada has to offer.

But they are here because their parents have been called to serve God in this place. It is because of our choice to follow God’s leading in our lives that our children won’t experience the ‘best’ that they have access to. Because I have chosen to lay down my life, my kids may not get the ‘best’ childhood like I got.

Whoa. That’s hard to digest as a Mama. Cause don’t all us Mama’s want the best for our kids?

Enter in the Mom guilt. It’s so real, isn’t it Mommies?

You might be reading this and think I am way too overdramatic or that I am being selfish for not giving my kids the best. Maybe you can totally relate or you may have some answers for me. Trust me, I am feeling all the same feels. I have had so many mixed emotions over this.

But here are a few truths that I have come to realize:

  1. Yes, my childhood was awesome. I was safe and secure and well taken care of. I had a great education and loads of opportunities. But the biggest reason my childhood was the ‘best’ was because of my parents. Their parenting was on point – something I am realizing more and more as I am now a parent and find myself reverting back to things my parents did to us when we were little.
    Not to toot my own horn, but one thing Kelvin and I are kind of awesome at is parenting. By all means, we definitely don’t have it all figured out but some of the basics like security, boundaries, discipline, choices and consequences, quality time, teaching them Jesus, and unconditional love we are getting a good handle of. I was chatting about this issue with my friend the other day and she said to me, “You know you can have kids grow up in Canada like you did but they have terrible parents and turn out to be messed up kids.” That was like a light bulb for me. So my kids can also grow up in a community that is a little more dysfunctional than I did but with an awesome family life they can still thrive.
  2.  I need to let some things go and just flow it. Like Mercy’s new accent…..oh Lord have mercy on us! This accent is something I have never heard before. This poor 3 year old is all mixed up with everything we have exposed her to that she is trying to make sense of it and it comes out in some crazy accent that is a mix of Kenyan/English/British/Indian and Peppa Pig. I was determined to force it out of her by speaking only the most Canadian of English at home but I have conceded to just let her have her own special accent. She’ll just have to get used to us mocking her about it.
  3. God loves my kids way more than I do. He has amazing plans for them. He has given them their own lives and their own stories and their own childhood that may be different than mine but that doesn’t mean it will be worse. I need to trust that He knew that their parents would follow Him and that fact will be apart of my daughters’ own lives and stories and testimonies. He’s got them in His hand. And that is probably the BEST place for them to be.
  4. My kids will have an AWESOME childhood. Did I mention that Mercy rode a camel yesterday? Or that we had the most delicious, fresh, local mango for lunch? Or that the kids can swim at the beach all year round? Or that they have sleepovers with their big cousin every weekend? Or that they get to go with Daddy to the nicest soccer field and run around whenever they want? Or that they have an amazing community who love them like their own? Or that Mercy takes a tuktuk (rickshaw) to school and back everyday? Or that they often see monkeys on our balcony?

I think they are going to be just fine.

Mercy gets to play with the funkiest tuktuk parked at the field one day.

 

Don’t know many kids in Canada who trudge through back alley slums to get to the soccer field.
Their usual: playing on the sidelines at a soccer game. This time they got out of the city and into the village for a day.