I am out of place in Kenya. Everything from eating to driving to greeting is different from what I’m used to. Obviously I look out of place in Kenya. Every time I sit with girls in a Zana Africa EmpowerNet class they gawk at my physical differences. They run their fingers through my hair, pinch my finger nails and stroke my arm hair like I’m a different species instead of just a different race.

After a month in Kenya, I’m comfortable being out of place, but I’m not comfortable with the reputation that precedes me. Kenya was once exploited as a British colony, and since becoming independent they have received buckets of international aid—monetary and otherwise—that has done as much damage as good.

Kajani making sure that all of the girls are following the lesson.

In Kibera slum, the summer months bring countless groups of internationals with hearts full of good intentions, but also a nasty stigma: you’ve got money, and you think you have the answers.

I’m uncomfortable seeing myself in this light. Am I just another mzungu holding babies in Kibera? Do I belong in the fight for social justice in this slum? In Kenya? In Africa?

Amos in an EmpowerNet session. (Photo by Barry Rodriguez)

That question troubles me constantly. Last week while setting up an EmpowerNet session with preteen girls from Kibera slum I couldn’t help but think, “These girls don’t need me to talk to—they need some young women from here who know their struggles.”

My thought was interrupted by the start of class—a warm, charismatic greeting from none other than Kajani, a man. Then another man, Amos, started the session by explaining that today we talk to the girls about what they liked and disliked about local sanitary pads.

“Excuse me??” I thought. How do young men find themselves talking to girls about sanitary pads? More importantly, why are they here, as advocates for women? I mean, I know I’m not Kenyan, but at least I’ve used pads.

Then I remembered the day I met Amos. I was listening to him explain the story of ZanaA, when someone in my group asked, “Do you find yourself stepping back a little on days when ZanaA hands out pads or talks about personal topics?”

His face lit up in a confident smile as he raised his arms and told us, “No—I love women!”

Ok Cassanova. I was a little hesitant to be working with this guy all summer. But after one month watching Amos and Kajani work, I’m convinced that they are in exactly the right place even without “fitting in”.

Girls playing outside of their school in Kibera.

I asked Kajani if he ever feels uncomfortable as a mentor to young girls, and he explained he needs to be here because girls in Kibera are vulnerable. Generally, people living in Kibera are poor, but a girl in Kibera is at risk of prostituting herself for food, getting pregnant and dropping out of school and into the cycle of poverty.

He says, “For me, helping girls is like helping my sisters.” Moreover, “This is an opportunity for them to see a male as someone they can trust.”

His position is not unlike that of Amos, who grew up in Kibera and is sick of the mentality of abuse. He laments that many women think, “It’s normal for men to beat me up. It’s the culture.” Amos also sees his position as a chance to demonstrate trusting, respectful relationships between men and women.

Their role is clearly important as mentors…but talking about periods?

Amos and Kajani acknowledge that girls are feeling embarrassed and ashamed over something completely natural because of how other people—especially men—react to it. They are talking about menstruation to be intentionally counter-cultural.

It’s beautiful to witness. I couldn’t help but smile this week to see Kajani crouched at a desk with attentive girls talking about buying pads. And there was something so moving in reading Amos’s blog post entitled “Women Are Not Objects!”

Amos makes the most of his time with all of the ZanaA students.

These guys are not substitutes to the presence of women on the field officer team. Let’s face it—their knowledge of being a woman only goes so far. But they also bring an irreplaceable, critical dynamic to the empowerment of women in Kibera. Their willingness to be “out of place” puts them in a unique position of influence.

Maybe being out of place is the right place to be. I keep thinking about the story of the Good Samaritan. Every time I hear it, I’m impressed by the kindness that the Samaritan showed—but I’m more impressed that he was a Samaritan helping a Jewish man in a time and place where the cultures were not on good terms. Our actions may hold added weight when they are to benefit the “others” in our communities.

But when is the right time to bandage wounds and lend out my donkey like the Samaritan? Misplaced help can be harmful. I know so little about the world that I’ve stepped into, and even at home I sometimes feel inadequate while trying to serve those around me struggling with addictions and situations I’ve never experienced.

Me with some of the girls at class. (Photo by Barry Rodriguez)

Yet we’re called to do something. At home, maybe I’m poised to be a Kajani or an Amos. Maybe being female or young or middle class adds an important dynamic to a struggle I’m passionate about. Maybe engaging with the “others” is powerful on its own; Jesus told us “The poor will always be among you,” but I worry that we’re building a world where suffering is easy to ignore—we need to consciously engage.

In Kibera, engaging is the most important thing I do. I’m here to learn, to listen, and to witness. That’s my place.

Serving others looks different in different contexts. I’ll probably hold quite a few more babies while I’m here, but mostly I’m learning from people who are fighting for things that have nothing and everything to do with themselves.

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Next Steps
    • Visit the blog posts of Kajani, Amos, and the rest of the ZanaA team http://www.zanaa.org/blogs/field-blog/ to learn more about their perspectives.
    • Is there an issue that you care about that you’re not involved with yet? Find a connection! Your support is valuable. Volunteer locally, lobby for international policy, donate money or skills to an organization that moves you…so many options!
    • Pray for wisdom and courage for those who act on the behalf of others. Let us know when to listen, when to act, and how to approach the needs around us.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.

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Comments

  1. kajani said... 

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    July 13th, 2011 at 7:26 am  

    lt is good to know that men like myself can engage girls by breaking the cultural barrier that says that men should not talk about reproductive health to girls and especially about Body changes.

  2. Amy K. Sorrells said... 

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    July 13th, 2011 at 9:21 am  

    Kajani and Amos, I’ve never met you but I love you! Laura, please hug them each for me! It is no small thing, what you’re doing for these girls. My knees are buckled with gratitude for you all. Thank you for being evidence of good, kind men to these girls. The world needs more of you!

  3. Rob said... 

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    July 13th, 2011 at 9:29 am  

    Such a great line of thought and appropriate in EVERY culture. One word, in your title, changes everything: “for”. In many places it’s more like “men fighting women” but it needs to be “men fighting FOR women” – protecting them, caring for them, honoring them, partnering with them.
    Thanks to you and to Kajani & Amos!!

  4. Anna in AZ said... 

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    July 13th, 2011 at 1:26 pm  

    Laura, that photo with you and the girls is so incredibly sweet it brings tears to my eyes. God bless and keep up the good work!

  5. Steve Bliss said... 

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    July 13th, 2011 at 2:00 pm  

    Laura,
    I like what you are saying. You’re connecting to the reality that good intentions are not always enough or can even be destructive to cultures. The question of how do we truly help others in ways they need not as we feel they need based on our limited perspective and constrained schedule is often never asked. I’ll digress. I enjoyed the blog and welcome you to come and volunteer here in Central America with us when your tour with WND is finished.

  6. Ambarish said... 

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    July 13th, 2011 at 2:33 pm  

    Laura,
    This is very well written. Your blog speaks about the unseen part of the local culture and is very enlightening. The photo is also very nice. :)

  7. Tyler Tenbarge said... 

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    July 13th, 2011 at 4:16 pm  

    Thanks for your witness, Laura.

  8. Tindi Amadi said... 

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    July 13th, 2011 at 5:39 pm  

    As an African woman who only recently moved back “home” and is struck by some of the things “witnessed”, I am so pleased with the sentiments expressed in your piece, “Men fight for Women”.
    Amos and Kijani, thankfully, represent a new era of men that are changing the norm and breaking the cycle.
    It is my recent experience that being “out of place” does provide the men “an irreplaceable, critical dynamic to the empowerment of women in Kibera.”
    That being said, your presence is just as valuable. Your perspective on this matters is appreciated and all because you are different.
    Thank you for your witness!

  9. Phil Grizzard said... 

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    July 14th, 2011 at 1:48 am  

    Laura, you are such a great writer–weaving together those ideas into striking analogies, and such a thoughtful witness with your introspection. Your reflection made me think of the issues with the PCM Peru trip. We with the means for international mission trips need to consider if we’re doing this for others or doing it for ourselves. And I wanted you to know that the picture of you and the girls is now the desktop background on our computer.

  10. Laura Stump said... 

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    July 14th, 2011 at 5:53 am  

    Thank you so much for reading–it’s a pleasure to let others know about what these incredible men are doing here in the context of such a great organization. I’ll be sure that Kajani and Amos receive your gratitude :)

    Steve and Phil–Trying to figure out the best way to help or support others is a tough question, but it’s such an important one! Unfortunately, evaluation is often not a priority in “development” type work.

    But like I said, we are called to help. We just need to humble ourselves and be patient–especially in new contexts–to figure out how.

  11. Marla said... 

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    July 18th, 2011 at 3:36 pm  

    “I’m learning from people who are fighting for things that have nothing and everything to do with themselves.” …amen sister! I love the sense of connectedness that this article brings. May we no longer assist in building a world where suffering is easy to ignore. I love you and the work that you’re doing!

  12. Julie B said... 

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    July 19th, 2011 at 4:22 pm  

    Beautiful and thought provoking article, Laura. Your posture is both humble and confident. Maybe that is the best way to do it… First, humbly learn well from those who understand the unseen dynamics. Secondly, with confidence believe (that we/you are called to serve) and discover (how we/you can best serve).

  13. Tyler, Jenn & Lexi said... 

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    July 20th, 2011 at 1:53 pm  

    Laura, the words that you present are so inspiring. It is so remarkable to see that you are sharing such insightful experiences and that you are able to give recognition to such deserving men. How overwhelming it must be to witness how god sees no barriers and for these men to be empowered the way they are! We love you and god bless!

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