Narratives (part 1)

Let me tell you about my friend Gretchen. We met my first semester at Smith during Professor Link’s office hours for Advanced General Chemistry, or Chem 118. We both showed up so often to office hours with a few other students, that eventually we formed a study group. And let me tell you, I would not have survived three semesters of Chemistry at Smith without this study group. Fast forward four years, Gretchen is living in Nairobi and I flew up from Johannesburg a few weeks ago to visit her.

In more than a few ways, Gretchen inspired me. She’s spent the last four years learning Swahili and watching her speak to people really shifted my view on language and role it plays in connecting with people. Even though I couldn’t understand the words being exchanged, I could see people warm to Gretchen as she spoke and somehow give me grace for being her friend. People were so surprised to hear a “Mzungu,” the Swahili word for “white person,” speaking their language. It seemed like these Kenyans were used to Mzungus swooping in, speaking English, and swooping out, or maybe staying in the country but isolating themselves in nicer neighborhoods and rental cars. This reinforces the narrative that the only languages worth spending your time learning are European or maybe Chinese. If you want to get ahead per say, you must learn English. And indeed, we live in a globalized world.

But then, all of the sudden, they hear a Mzungu speaking fluent Swahili and the narrative changes. People start to wonder why she knows Swahili? And the simple answer lies in the famous words of Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understand, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, it goes to his heart.” Investing time in a language that the rest of the world says is useless to connect with others is radical love, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that Jesus calls us to.

Jesus spent time with the Samaritan woman at the well, a woman cast off from society (John 4). He seeks relationship with us, He wept (John 11:35), and ultimately died on the cross so that we may know Him. In Luke 10:38-42, when Martha and Mary hosted Jesus, Mary sat at Jesus’s feet while Martha was busy preparing the house. Jesus said, “Martha, Martha,”…” you are worried and upset about many things, be few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Mary chose connection and relationship, even at the expense of doing what seems practical. She was wise and sought Jesus first by being in his presence, because indeed, that’s what it’s all about.

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The view from our train from Nairobi to Mombasa.

One guy that we met on a train to Mombasa from Nairobi, another person amazed by Gretchen’s Swahili, said he’d like to exchange stories, and I found that interesting. He meant just totalk more, but it got me thinking more about narratives, the stories we embody, perpetuate, and internalize.

There are narratives floating around about Mamelodi, too. I’ve spent the last few months talking to a lot of people about Mamelodi. I’ve talked to security guards, entrepreneurs, university professors and administrators, young people at bars, social workers, youth pastors, and artists, even Capetonians and people from Joburg. People talk about danger, chaos, busyness, and the rioting that occurs every few months in Mamelodi. One Capetonian woman remembered the Mamelodi soccer team, the Mamelodi Suns. Some talked about the lack of education in the township and others spoke about the high quality of education there. Mamelodi encompasses stories of rebellion, unkept promises, disrupted processes, and micro economies.

And as I listen to all these stories, I wonder if the narrative of the gospel has taken root in Mamelodi. Do the children of Mamelodi know that they are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26)? Do they know that they are loved by Him (1 John 3:1)? The gospel is the ultimate narrative. It is the narrative through which I hear all other narratives. That “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).” He died for you and I, and He died for Mamelodi.

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