Category Archives: Third Culture Kid

Perfect Timing

Shooting from inside a moving car by Jenny Mealing via Flickr (CC by 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/9Yvaev

Ever last minute,
family weighs
2 suitcases exactly 50 pounds each
against 3 hours early to the airport.
Off like a herd of turtles
into Mombasa Road traffic
I drive
to squeeze
in the last moments together,
goodbye,
I love you.
See you on the other continent.

My passenger seat is empty
a tentative text that I’m in the area
since I know he works downtown.
A long shot.
As I pull away
he calls just leaving work
quick pick up line.
Discover we’re going the same direction
ready for home
delighted to have company.

Squeeze in a few moments together
before his bus stop
see you later
and we finish the journey alone
to rest at last.


Destined to edit books for the church in Africa

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Our missionary family “prayer card” – about a year after my salvation

Last month, I moved into a new associate acquisitions editor position at Oasis International. Over the weekend, I realized that God has been preparing me for this for twenty years!

I moved to Tanzania as a two-year-old and grew up there as a missionary kid. When I was four – exactly twenty years ago this weekend – I decided to follow Jesus. I don’t remember it, but my dad recently unearthed his old journal and came across the night I became a Christian. Earlier this year I noticed the file on my computer, realized this would be twenty years, and decided to celebrate my “re-birthday.” So I read over what my dad had written:

October 22, 1996        Hannah is 4

Dear Hannah,

I want to write this now for you to read later so you can remember what happened tonight. Tonight at bed time you wanted to read your Swahili book and they you wanted to read a book that your Sunday school teacher at the PEFA church next door gave you awhile back. (We had never read it before.) It was in English even though he only speaks Swahili. It was about heaven and hell and a little African boy named Mutu having salvation explained to him. You and I had talked about heaven and that Jesus died for us and what that means.

My dad writes that he explained the gospel in four-year-old terms and we prayed for my salvation.

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Mutu’s story might have come from this Christian bookstore in my hometown in Tanzania

I shared this story with a friend, who noticed, “Books have been part of your story from the beginning.”

“Wow, I never thought about that. This was even before I was reading on my own. But I guess they have!”

And as I thought about it more, I realized that it wasn’t just any book. It was a Christian book written in English, contextualized for Africa, distributed to me through a local pastor. It was exactly the literature that Oasis creates and distributes! Jesus saved this little American-African missionary kid through the same work that I do now!

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Editing Christian literature for Africa from my office in Nairobi, Kenya

From there, God weaved the rest of the story together: The second-grade teacher who told me I’d become a writer. The pastoring grandparents who always gave me Christian books for my birthday. The many childhood visits to village churches. My preteen years on a seminary campus where my friends biked to the bookstore for candy, browsed the shelves, and made our faith our own. The last-minute English major in college and the unexpected call to ministry. An Oasis job opening after graduation asking me to move back home to Kenya – literally to my parents’ house. Getting sick of Pulitzer winners and discovering African fiction. Multiple people randomly telling me last summer that I should go into acquisitions editing.

How does God do it? Not only saving me and continuing to affirm our relationship as I grew up, but designing the way I was saved to chart my destiny? I’m so in awe. I felt like I stumbled into this path, but what a comfort that God has known all along where we’re going!

So all I do is echo Ephesians 3:20: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”


Dear Nairobi

1024px-Nairobi_UhuruPark_Panorama_2010

Arthurbuliva at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Nairobi,
Siku hizi you’re growing on me.

I grew up next door in Mwanza, Tanzania
so we’d always been family friends
waving at the dentist, guest house, summer camp.
But I thought you were a Western wanna-be.
When you met me at the airport when I was 16,
You said, “Jambo! Karibu!” and I corrected you with, “Sijambo.”

I didn’t want to like you
couldn’t betray Mwanza by forgetting farewells.
The “Mzungu!” unspoken on the streets still chanted in my head
my closet still clothed me in ankle length skirts on Sundays
and Sukuma was a tribe or a verb, not a vegetable.

But this small world gave us a second chance.
This time I listened to your story, learned to name your plants and people.
I trained my reflexes to respond to your roads
and my mouth to greet with the slang Sasa? instead of Shikamoo.
I styled up with polished work shoes and MPESA.

Yet maybe I was not so much settling
as discovering a soul mate
who dances to Swahili songs in church but speaks English
who eats passion fruit, yogurt, kimbap, chapatis, and burritos
who listens to the BBC and Christian hip-hop on the radio.
We’ve got a lot in common.

I can run with you all year ‘round.
We both enjoy poetry slams.
You accept me as a Pentecostal and a professional woman.
We buy books at coffee shops and haggle at used clothes markets together.
You can relate to
my British education, Indian classmates, and missionary worship nights.
I guess we’ve had a similar identity crisis!
My family knows you
and my old friends are always coming from out of town to visit you.

I know you have your secrets and regrets
but we’ve grown in the same direction.
Siku hizi you’ve grown on me.
Maybe one day we’ll make a home together.


Sunburn: A Memoir Intro

The first page of God Bless the Children of Tanzania, a memoir I am considering writing:

Sample coverWhen people ask “What was it like to grow up in Africa?”, I want to tell them about the sun.

They are usually our family and friends from Minnesota, so they will think I am talking about the weather. I never understood how the weather could provide conversation material until I went to college in Minnesota. In Mwanza, Tanzania, the sun was an assumption. You depended on it waking you up just before the BBC news on the radio at breakfast. Its predictable leave was accompanied by the buzz of a mosquito and the scent of Queen of the Night.

Sometimes, provoked by the sun’s long harsh reign, the sky would throw a party with a strobe light and a thumping beat on the tin roof. My sister and I would run outside to join the downpour dance. Or when I was little, my siblings and I would jump up and down on our beds and build blanket forts for our stuffed animals, snuggling and giggling. In comparison to the power of thunder-lightning, the drizzle in America feels like someone spitting in my face. So if I say “rainy day” they will think I mean something sad.

But here I am being dragged into a discussion of the weather. I want to describe the sun. I want to describe opening my eyes on Saturday under a mosquito net shot through with sunlit dust. Only then, they will think my childhood was magical. It is tempting to be lulled into nostalgia.

If that were the whole truth, I would not be coming to talk to you.

I pour myself a cup of chai – by which I mean regular tea with milk, not the lattes with Pumpkin Pie Spice – and stir in a spoon of (cane) sugar. I settle into one of the wicker chairs with my back to the reception desk. The books on the display shelf are to do with Christian marriages, raising cross-cultural kids, and grieving. Outside the windows is a vibrant garden, bursting with the life of this Green City under the Sun, Nairobi, Kenya.

Yes, the sun was bright. But there was also darkness in the daytime that I am afraid to look at alone. I am waiting for you to examine my sunburn.


Shalom and Integrity

I want to be an integrated and whole person.

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By W. Carter (Own work). [CCo] via Wikimedia Commons

My life can feel fragmented: Tanzania, Kenya, the USA. Christian and secular environments. Extended family, family friends, peers. I could be a different person to everyone and probably get away with it. Online, everyone now has access to impression management simply by choosing who can see each facebook post. But I’ve found over and over that it’s a small world. I’ve seen hypocrisy hollow out foundations as effectively as termites. If I cut myself up into compartments I might not know who I am.

Like a building with structural integrity, an integrated person has a grounded sense of self to build a life on. If you have integrity, people trust you because you have consistently good character. To be the same person to all people, you need to integrate the various parts of your life. Shalom is Hebrew for wholeness and deep peace. I feel like becoming whole involves making peace from the pieces: the positive and the negative experiences, conflicting worldviews and different cultural environments.

But it’s impossible – and unwise – to be exactly the same to everyone. In some situations you should wear jeans, in others you should eat with your hands. The challenge is adapt to others’ expectations while retaining your essence. For instance, successful communication results in people understanding each other. So I adjust my vocabulary and accent to match the person I’m talking to. I avoid proper nouns that are unknown to my listener so that I don’t alienate them by exotic name dropping. But being a good chameleon can make it hard for people to see you. If people don’t read me in context, if I censor myself and translate my existence – will people understand who I am?

By Dan Pelleg (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Dan Pelleg (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Another meaning of shalom offers a potential solution. It is used as a Hebrew greeting and farewell. Amidst transition between so many worlds, saying hello and goodbye is a way of recognizing and welcoming each other. Just like one greeting prompts another, hospitality fosters more shalom. I invite people into one of my homes, introduce them to loved ones, let my guests taste my food and hear my music. When I feel welcomed, I add a Christian perspective to a sociology assignment and then bring the finished product to a family reunion. And in this small world, sometimes an old acquaintance speaks my mother tongue with all the proper nouns. Or a best friend and I stretch a string across the ocean and listen as good and bad rattles in our tin cans. Affirming the many parts of my life makes me feel whole.

When I make connections, I feel alive. I am a third culture kid, born into the in-between of a globalized world. It can be hard to hold two things together, especially in a polarized society. As my pastor once said, bridges get walked on. Social network theorists say that middlemen who connect two otherwise unrelated groups can benefit from bridging structural holes. I hope that integrating myself and my worlds brings peace to myself and others.

I’ve talked about integrating good and bad to make something beautiful in recent posts. Next, I’ll write about temptation’s threat to integrity and perhaps ways that my prayer for shalom has been answered so far. I’d like to hear from you too.

What are your perspectives on shalom and/or integrity?


Find rest: My childhood as an artistic pillow

Lately I’ve been processing what it was like growing up in Tanzania – in my school, family and Christian communities. In fact, if I do any more introspection, I’m at risk of turning inside out. I’ve discovered the power of a little word: “and.” It frees me to affirm the good memories and the difficult parts of my experience. In typical Hannah fashion, I memorialized what I’m learning by delving into a challenging art project laden with symbolism. I made a two-sided pillow. Like with this project, I hope I can make scraps of hard and happy times into something beautiful and useful to comfort myself and others.

(Click on the pictures to view them larger).Pillow art symbolism_01

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Stateless at the African Union

Note: I expanded this post for Oasis International’s blog. In that version, I also explain how the Africa Study Bible is part of Africa rising.

Last week I visited the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa.

I had been invited to Ethiopia for a conference. The leaders of Christian student movements throughout English-speaking Africa had gathered for training and collaboration. They invited me to present about my work with the Africa Study Bible project and brainstorm possibilities for partnership.

I had never been to Ethiopia, but the conference felt familiar. As an undergraduate, I was a student leader in this Christian student movement, in the American branch called InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Most of the pivotal points in my college career were sparked by an InterVarsity conference. Now, I was with the staff leaders of the movement across the globe, but the training was as high quality as ever.

So I fit in – mostly. I was the only white woman there. But that’s been a lot of my life. So I switched between Swahili and my East African accent, relished the njera (sourdough flatbread) and helped myself to chai (black tea with milk and sugar, not the US coffeeshop stuff that tastes like pumpkin pie).

But then we took a field trip to the African Union.

Africa with gold rays

The main lobby had marble walls. The ceiling was twice as high as the palm trees, which rose like columns. In the center of the building stood the circular Nelson Mandela conference hall. Marble steps led up to its entry. Above them was a vast gold Africa:

We took a picture beneath it, hands raised. Instead of “cheese,” we said, “Africa rising.” My dad had preached about Africa rising to explain why Americans should invest in missionary work. But for this group, “Africa Rising” symbolized their hopeful destiny.

Inside, the conference hall was like Congress, with seats for hundreds of delegates. Everyone scrambled to find the placard for their country. They posed for photos in the cushioned seats, hands poised on the light wooden table, wearing a headset.

Kenya hosts me and my family now, but I didn’t look for Kenya’s sign. I’ve only spent two years there. If it had been the UN instead of the African Union, the USA would have been there, but I wouldn’t have gravitated toward my passport country anyway. I spotted Tanzania, land of my childhood. But it wouldn’t be right for me to sit in that chair. As an mzungu (white person) I don’t represent Tanzania. So I posed with someone else behind my seated Tanzanian friend, supporting her in a group pic.

Kwame NkrumahWe went outside to the statue of Kwame Nkrumah, who was Prime Minister and first President of Ghana as well as a pan-African activist.

After a photo frenzy, we linked hands and prayed for Africa – that Africa would unite, that Africa would rise. The prayer rose in volume. Individuals saying “amen” and “yes Jesus” acknowledged becoming one through the prayer.

I felt honored to participate in such a powerful moment with my brothers and sisters.

I also felt a little jealous.

When I returned to my room that night, I told God I wanted to belong to a country too. I want a flag, a national anthem, countrymen, national holidays, a history of heroes and battles.

Then I remembered some heroes. They too were “looking for a country of their own.”

Hebrews 11 describes the heroes of the Hebrew Bible as “foreigners and strangers on earth,” living in tents, moving when God said so, not knowing where they were going (that sounds familiar). They were “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

“People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:14-16).

That city will have a flag. Jesus “will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him” (Isaiah 11:10). People of all cultures will be one people – the people of God. With my countrymen, I’ll put my hand over my heart as we hear our national anthem:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelations 5:9-10)

Then I realized – that’s what I had been doing all week.

In fact, that morning people from Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan worshipped together in their own languages. We’d even sung from Revelations: “Worthy is the Lamb to receive praise.”

We’d recited victorious battle stories of the Christian student movement – how groups were fighting Ebola, building peace in war zones, and promoting holistic health for students.

I even had national holidays in common with these people – Christmas as our Presidents’ Day, Good Friday as our Memorial Day, Easter as our Independence Day.

I spoke Swahili and giggled and prayed and danced in worship with these people.

No wonder I had felt so at home here. I was.