The most important elements of an introduction, aside from shaking hands, smiling, and making eye contact, is of course, the exchange of names. When we arrived in the airport Thursday evening, the first Kenyans we met were Pastor Marcy and Pastor Chris of Karura Chapel. They were also some of the first people we saw the next morning when we stopped at Karura Chapel to meet the rest of the church staff.

We were in for a confused greeting, however, when we walked into Pastor Chris’s office. He jumped up from his desk, and warmly shaking Scott’s hand, said, “Hello, you are… Kamau,” and turning to Christine, “you are…Wanjiru.”

Surrounded by kids in Huruma.

Surrounded by kids in Huruma.

Then taking a thoughtful pause, took my hand and wondered aloud, “Who is this one?” Our faces betrayed our confusion. This man had known our names only the night before at the airport. What was he doing?

Then it dawned on us. We had just been christened with our Swahili names. Soon the whole staff was informed that I, Jessica, now also known as Njoki, would be spending the summer as an intern at Karura (whether I could pronounce my new name was another question!).

After sharing chai and cake and getting a tour of the grounds, it seemed like everyone agreed to simply drop the “Jessica” and call me Njoki. I was officially one of the team!

Playing with a child in the schoolyard.

Playing with a child in the schoolyard.

Later that afternoon, when our team headed to nearby Huruma slum where Karura’s social justice ministry has been working for years, I received another lesson in the power of exchanging names.

We hadn’t been out of the car more than 60 seconds before beaming kids came running up to us, first in two’s and three’s, then in swarms. In the yard of a school building, we had a chance to play with them, spinning them in the circles by their arms to their absolute delight.

But by the time I had the third boy in the air, I had moved too close to a wooden post, and knocked his little body right into it, bringing us both to a sudden stop. You can imagine the horror I felt when I looked at his stunned, tear-brimmed eyes. How was it that within 10 minutes of meeting this child I had managed to hurt him? And how was I supposed to tell him how sorry I was? I hadn’t learned that word in Swahili yet.

Without crying, he calmly sat down on the bottom of a slide. Even though I rubbed his head, he kept his eyes averted. Away from the boisterous clamor of the others, I decided to attempt the one Swahili sentence I had learned: “Jina lako ni nani?” I formed the words slowly, then repeated them again faster, more for my sake than his.

I had asked him his name, and not getting the hoped-for response, I continued, “Jina langu ni Njoki.” My name is Njoki.

Asking a child his name.

Asking a child his name.

With the amazing resilience that all kids possess, he now faced me with dry eyes and started chattering in Swahili before scampering up the slide. Then he was back tugging on my hand to follow him. I love that 6-year-olds don’t mess around with grudges.

For the rest of our time in Huruma slum, I persistently asked each child who would listen for their name. When some started shouting “Mzungu! Mzungu!” – the term for a white person – I quickly responded, “eh?” in a tone that meant, “Hey, not so fast!” I wanted them to know that this white person had a name. With a simple introduction, we became a little less like strangers. I was Njoki and they were Virginia, Stephen, and Isaac, according to their English names.

My favorite connection came toward the end of our visit, when two shy girls approached our group, curious to see what all the commotion was about. “Jina lako ni nani?” I asked the first one. “Njoki,” was her whispered response.

I think I was more excited than she was to learn that we shared the same name, but we both clearly understood that we had something in common.

Despite a world of differences, a name can build a bridge. The simple word had welcomed me to the Karura community, overcome my blunder on the playground, and brought me closer to people in a slum.

This mzungu has a name. You can call me Njoki.

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About the Author: Jessica Shewan is a journalist with World Next Door. She graduated in 2009 from The University of Evansville with a bachelor's degree in History. She loves making new international friends and is passionate about seeing the global church pursue justice and peace!

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Comments

  1. Dave Quigley said... 

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    June 15th, 2009 at 8:45 am  

    I love the simplicity of perspective om something so simple as the impact of a name. To be called. To be recognized. To be in community. Great insights Njoki!

  2. Bill Shewan said... 

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    June 15th, 2009 at 9:32 am  

    I feel like I was right there with you, experiencing the joy and pain of this first day – as you are becoming a member of the Huruma community. How cool to share a name with that gentle, little girl. Njoki (n-JOE-key?) thank you for bringing us into our world next door.

  3. Greg Monaco said... 

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    June 15th, 2009 at 10:49 am  

    Njoki, love to see you connecting! Did you ask your folks to tape “So You Think You Can Dance?” while you are away???

  4. Jo Nading said... 

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    June 15th, 2009 at 11:06 am  

    So, Njoki, from what tribe are you? :-)

    I love it that God blessed you with this insight – and the patience and tenderness and persistence with which to pursue your little, “wounded” friend.

    And how cool is it that you met another Njoki? And to think we sometimes forget or plain don’t believe that God cares about those tiny details.

    I am living every moment with you through the writing all of you share….and I have no doubt you will have plenty to share. I already feel like I know you as Njoki (esp. since I did not know you ever as Jessica).

  5. eness said... 

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    June 15th, 2009 at 11:09 am  

    Great story, Jessica! Do you know what your new name means? Tell Christina that ‘Wanjiru’ is my Swahili name, too!
    Send me your email when you get a chance. I think about you guys all the time and I’m praying…

  6. eness said... 

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    June 15th, 2009 at 11:10 am  

    Oops, typo – obviously I meant “Christine”. :)

  7. Amy Osgood said... 

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    June 15th, 2009 at 11:39 am  

    Jessica, We’ve not met but I am praying for the 4 of you faithfully. Your story touched me personally as it is a great lesson. As a young woman you’re spreading your wings on another continent. My “young” woman (11 year daughter) is spreading her wings by nervously serving at VBS at Grace for the first time (with 4 year olds). This very simple encounter you had will be great for her. God amazes me constantly w/ the simple things. The healing and peace that comes in exchanging names! Blessings!

  8. grandma Mack said... 

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    June 15th, 2009 at 2:08 pm  

    I , too , feel like I am with you there! What a gift this new computer is turning out to be. I love your writings and your heart to serve and understand these little ones. God bless dear one. Grandma Mack

  9. Barry Rodriguez said... 

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    June 15th, 2009 at 2:19 pm  

    Great article Jess. I hope that during your time with Karura you get many more chances to interact with (and learn from!) those amazing kiddos…

    Can’t wait to see what else you’ll be experiencing!

  10. Njoki's brother said... 

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    June 15th, 2009 at 2:36 pm  

    Great job Jess! Very nice descriptions. I’m glad to see you are fitting right in. I look forward to hearing more about your experiences. What does Njoki mean in Swahili? Love ya.

  11. Dave Rod said... 

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    June 15th, 2009 at 5:09 pm  

    Njoki, Sadly, I am terrible with names but your article reminds me to work harder at it because saying and knowing someone’s name gives entry to their heart. Thanks!

  12. Linda Quigley said... 

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    June 15th, 2009 at 5:53 pm  

    Jess, I was so excited to read your first story…and then was so quickly ‘touched’ by your encounter. Thanks for the reminder that even when things seem to fall apart before our very eyes…that God can and will redeem the moment to much more than our original intent. You’re the best!!!

  13. Steve Buczkowski said... 

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    June 16th, 2009 at 10:42 am  

    Jessica – I admire your courage and openness to follow God’s call. Beautifully written story and the pictures absolutely complete it.

  14. Michelle Shewan said... 

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    June 16th, 2009 at 10:44 am  

    How great that in a sea of kids. you were able to zero in on a few and let them know that they are important enough to get to know their names. It reminded me of the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, whom Jesus noticed up in a tree and called out his name. Can’t wait to hear about your next visit when you see your new little friends again!

  15. Penny said... 

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    June 16th, 2009 at 11:05 am  

    Loved reading your post, Jess! Great writing and great insights….. I’m just thrilled for the experiences you have already been able to have in such a few short days! You 4 are in our prayers SOOOO often.

  16. Penny said... 

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    June 16th, 2009 at 11:06 am  

    Whoops, for some reason Penny looks an awful lot like Dave. No idea how to fix that….

  17. Angie said... 

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    June 16th, 2009 at 1:16 pm  

    I’m from here and I totally teared up! Its a wonderful article.

  18. Tracy Curfman said... 

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    June 16th, 2009 at 2:07 pm  

    The photos and story touch my heart. I am so proud of you. Who knew 23 years ago this little baby I met would one day change our world.

  19. Susie Bennett said... 

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    June 16th, 2009 at 3:27 pm  

    Jess a beautiful story. I cried as I remembered the faces of the children and the joy of sharing a few moments getting to know them..by name.Your story and pictures captured it all again for me. Thank you for that.

  20. Brad Ruggles said... 

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    June 16th, 2009 at 3:55 pm  

    Great post Jessica (or should I say Njoki?). Love the insight into the culture and the story of meeting the little kids. I’m envious of your time there, your ability to interact with those kids face to face and see their bright smiles.

    I’m continuing to pray for you and the whole team.

  21. Annie said... 

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    June 16th, 2009 at 4:58 pm  

    Your story reminded me of the time I accidently dropped the 2 or 3 year old boy I was playing with on his head. He was fine, but it was a traumatic few moments for both of us. It’s good that little kids are so resilient and forgiving.

    Enjoy your time with the kids and learning to answer to a new name! I’m looking forward to reading more.

  22. Em Shake said... 

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    June 16th, 2009 at 9:16 pm  

    Njoki, I must confess; after finding out the little boy was okay, I laughed when I thought of your horror after swinging your precious, new friend into the fence. I saw the entire event take place in my head. I’m so glad he wasn’t hurt and didn’t hate you forever. :)

    I’m looking forward to reading more from you. Truly inspiring first post.

  23. Bee said... 

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    June 16th, 2009 at 10:23 pm  

    Reading about this first day brings Kenya back for me. I’d forgotten what a wonderful writer you are, and the pictures are beautiful. Can’t wait to read more stories!

  24. Jessica Shewan said... 

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    June 17th, 2009 at 5:42 am  

    Hey guys! I’ve just learned that Njoki is a Kikuyu name with a long story attached to the meaning. From what I understand, it is traditionally given to a daughter when she is born after an older daughter has passed away. It’s as though the spirit of the one who passed on is alive again in her, so rather than give a second name to the same spirit, Njoki is used as a filler. Every name really has a story!

  25. Amy Sorrells said... 

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    June 17th, 2009 at 7:24 am  

    Jessica–indeed, everything is in a name. I’m still weeping from reading about Peter’s journey to his new home. Oceans apart and with nothing to give other than our prayers, when we learned Peter’s name and his story, we might as well have moved him into our home. Perhaps you and your precious team have already read it, but I’m reviewing THe Hole in Our Gospel, by Richard Stearns of World Vision for the publisher, Thomas Nelson. All I can say is that you and Barry and every other part of your team are FILLING THAT HOLE. By bringing the names and faces to us, and by writing stories that make their tear-brimmed eyes stare deeply into ours–even across oceans–you are filling the hole that Jesus is aching for us all to fill. Thank you for giving us a way to help do that, too, through praying over you and loving these people through you. Thank you. (Here’s a link to the book if you’d like: http://tinyurl.com/b2uoql)

  26. Jess, James, Calum and Eilidh said... 

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    June 17th, 2009 at 9:54 am  

    Way to go Njoki. Great story, and we love the pictures. We know how quickly children trust you!
    Love you.

  27. Connie Sharp said... 

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    June 19th, 2009 at 7:57 am  

    Hi, I was looking for Christine, whom I met at the University Nursing Center in Upland, In. I am the Asst. Activity person she talked with.. Was wondering how she was doing? she told me all about her taking this trip. If you see her tell her hi from Upland, Indiana…Thank, Connie

  28. David Bell said... 

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    June 24th, 2009 at 2:23 pm  

    Jess, we shared this at Access this past Sunday night, reading the beginning in hopes of enticing people to continue on at home. Your post reminds me of the power of name calling in John 20 when Jesus says Mary’s name, and it is in that moment that she realizes he isn’t the gardener, but her Rabbi! Loved how you shared your heart here. You are where you belong!
    Blessings.

  29. Breanna Sipple said... 

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    February 17th, 2011 at 5:14 pm  

    Aw, that’s so sweet you both had the same Swahili name :)
    My first response after reading the first part of this article? “That is so cool, I want a Swahili name!” But I don’t think by just reading yours I could pronounce it… 😉

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