The Africa box is grey, brown streaks of mud encrusting the lower half. Our night-guard Patrick sometimes washes them off before my dad really wants them gone. Those streaks are a grimey badge of honor, proclaiming to all his cushy Nairobi friends that he’s just returned from the bush. It’s a bush badge, I suppose. He admits this little arrogance with a self-deprecating chuckle and says he came by it honestly; after all, he was the son of a hog farmer in Georgia. Dirt is good. Dirt says you’re tough, and you work hard, and that you probably know how to winch a Land Cruiser out of a swollen and swampy river.
So I came by it honestly, too. I grew up in that box in the river, warm orange water creeping in under the side-door until I had to lift my sandaled feet up to stay dry and hold the roll-bar above my head to remain steady as the box rolled and dipped over the dirt road potholed by a heavy rainy season. My earliest memory (maybe just one of the memories you remember once having) is of nodding off as my box drifted under acacia trees silhouetted black against a furiously starred sky.
Dad was talking to some American visitor in the passenger’s seat, “For such a long drive, Jim’s been sitting nice and quiet on his tail back there.”
I awoke and rebuked him with all the indignation a precocious 4-year-old could summon: “Daddy, people don’t have tails!”
My not-tail has since sat hours inside the box on the stained canvas upholstery. Hours to the Maasai Mara National Game Reserve to visit old friends and spot some lions on the way; sometimes we’d pick up tortoises off the road and take them home (little Laura named one “Colonel Rectangle” because she couldn’t pronounce ‘reptile’). Hours down to the coast through the steadily thickening humidity of Mombasa highway and hours through verdant tea fields toward the hills of Uganda, all while listening to Les Miserables on cassette tape. As I grew older and more adventurous we’d venture further, gliding over the vast, flat, dry expanses of Northern Kenya, spinning our wheels in the cold mud of highland forests while dusk crept up on us.
The box doesn’t have air-conditioning, of course (and if you do own a box with air-conditioning, I pity you), so the windows are always rolled down. Fungua dirisha! And the coarse, wonderful wind of Africa whips around the metal frame to tousle your hair, your clothes and anything you didn’t secure with the same unexpected familiarity of a Maasai child seeing an mzungu for the first time as he strokes and pinches your skin. Sometimes an insect of unusual size is sucked into the cabin and the inhabitants scream, swat, or smirk, depending on how long they’ve been in Africa. Once, a devious baboon (a superfluous adjective, as all baboons are devious) leapt through the open front door and, in a frantic scramble to find something edible, hurled a lugnut at the windshield, shattering it from the inside.
Sometimes the breeze flowing freely through the open windows is a serene messenger that collects for you the blossoming jacarandas and the deep calm of harvested tea-leaves, and your box becomes a little arboretum.
Then, sometimes, the dust and exhaust from the trail of lorries and the putrid sewage creeping from the slum become so intense that we close the windows, lock the doors, and turn up the radio. Box sealed.
I’m a missionary kid, and I know all the things you immediately think of me when I say that. No, I don’t wear cargo shorts, although I’d be lying if I said I never have. Yes, I have seen a lion. No, I didn’t ride it to school (we used zebras). For my entire life people have asked me “What is it like?” Or worse: “Did you like it?” These well-meaning interrogators have no idea how difficult it is to answer these questions. Did I like what, exactly? What do people think I experienced? As early as the fourth grade I remember being pedestaled in front of a Sunday school and asked to explain how my parents did the Lord’s work and how much I loved being a part of it. To big white churches in the South, I was a little golden boy. In other situations, I’ve been lambasted for evangelical neo-colonialism simply by association. Most people’s questions begin and end with their own assumptions.
The truth is that the very nature of the term ‘missionary kid’ could imply almost innumerable potential cultural experiences. I have long struggled to extract an identity from the cultures that shifted in and out of focus throughout my childhood. These communities were generally ephemeral, almost always nurturing, and yet never home. Sometimes I was with Americans in Africa, sometimes with Africans in America. Early in my life, I was often with Africans in Africa, the only white face in sight. More recently, I’ve drowned in a sea of white, discomfort choked back in my throat as I fought to assimilate. I found I was not local in any place. In every home I’ve ever had, at some point I have felt myself withdraw, sink back into my difference. Difference was my default.
I was born in Nairobi Hospital in 1996 to American parents who at that time worked for the Christian Veterinary Mission in rural Kenya. They are both from middle Georgia. They left a comfortable life in the South for a prefab house dropped on a rocky, thorny hill in the bush, from which they taught Maasai herdsmen to vaccinate their cattle and planted a church under a tree. Eventually, they’d had enough of the long-life milk, the spotty satellite phones and the abrupt visitations from cape buffalo and they relocated to Nairobi, Kenya’s sprawling tropical capital. From a dilapidated colonial villa tucked away in the heart of downtown, adjacent to the president’s State House, I learned to live in Africa as a white boy.
This meant I clambered up and peered over the compound fence to watch the matatus rattle down the street before returning to the house to finish my math. Later, I would toss a baseball in the backyard with my brother Nathan until some of the neighboring Kenyan children would settle on the other side of the chain-link to watch. Then I would retreat, self-conscious, while they stared. I might play with them tepidly until I could abandon them for my friend Ben, whose parents were also American missionaries and who liked Star Wars and Xbox. We might walk 30 minutes through town to visit our friend Andrew, chewing Big G gum and avoiding eye contact with our fellow pedestrians.
I spoke only enough Swahili to raise eyebrows, not enough to blend in. Most of the Kenyans I really knew either worked for us or lived in mud huts and carried spears; I had very few Kenyan peers. Unlike my parents, who made it their life’s work to build relationships and make an impact, I was timid, aloof, and entitled. I have many memories of watching my father ramble away in Kimaa with long-time friends and silently wishing I had some idea of what they were saying.
To go anywhere outside the compound or the city, we entered the box. It would carry us everywhere: slums, savannah, service projects, Sunday school. It showed me Africa. When I watched elephants traipse through golden grass that would brush my shoulders, I watched them from the safety of the box. When I sipped scalding chai in a dark, smoky hovel, or bought roasted maize on Limuru Road, the box was never far away. In Nairobi’s infamous downtown gridlock, where the beautiful chaos of an African metropolis pulsed all around us, I would wave away the hawkers and the beggars and the best chance I had to know Kenya. Even when the city was overrun by political riots, we would glide home protected by our whiteness and this African armoured car.
I recently returned to Nairobi after several years in university in the United States. Perhaps I’m still too young to make reflections of any note, but I find myself in a curious position. I’m beginning to realize that growing up in Africa is very different from living in Africa. I granted myself authority on being an American in Kenya out of a childhood that was, like most other childhoods, sheltered. I knew nothing of adult life. My Africa was safaris and sodas and serendipity, homeschooling and house-helps. Africa was my own bush-badge of honor to wide-eyed American youth, while America was the indistinct background of my skin colour to equally engrossed Kenyan children. No wonder I thought I was special.
What I didn’t see, or what I chose not to see, was that as soon as I was gone, those American youth, those Kenyan children, went back to their play and didn’t spare me a second thought. I was a distraction from their normal, and like all distractions, I was disposable. But from my point of view, I was always the different one. I lived in a box. I could hop out and dance around for their viewing pleasure, could dazzle them with my white-blonde shock of hair, could disconcert them with my bare tanned feet coated in red dirt, and could then pull myself back in, safe, a fearful observer who could just close his eyes and pretend nothing else existed.
The longer I stand on my own two feet back in Africa, the smaller the box seems, as though it and I are floating at high speed away from each other, the way a long desert highway seems to be the thing moving instead of you. The more I’ve interacted with Kenyans as a young adult, the more I see how narrow and filtered was my exposure as a child. I’ve experienced that bizarre phenomenon of the ‘third’ culture: the realization that the worldview that took your parents to a particular place is very different from the worldview that this new place will condition in you. In other words, it is because my parents believed something so strongly that I will believe something else.
My first reaction is cynicism: how foolish I was! What narcissists we all are, to think we know the world! And then compassion: I was a child.
And then fear: will I ever not be?
But I’ve found a new, unprecedented appreciation for that dusty ruckus of a box, that window into my first world. Coated in cow shit and grime, on an engine that overheats and cooks your shins, it was my window. The only way to explain how I knew Africa, the only middle ground, the only honesty I had. Suddenly I realize: we all have a box! The difference, I think, between being trapped by it and being freed by it is seeing it sit hood-up and smoking, wonderfully small in a wonderfully wide world.
You see, I’ve tried other people’s boxes. I’ve tried those slick extended safari boxes that don’t know when enough is enough, that pop up the roof so sissies don’t get sunburned. I’ve tried those yellow-striped boxes, thick and stuffy and inimitably African, a village in an aluminium can, reggae rattling the doors off. Far worse, I’ve tried the big white suburban box, sliding monolithic, unmarred, and unexamined down a curated interstate. My pitted knuckles are out of place on the wheel, unsteady on a highway that doesn’t move at all.
I even bought a box, an inauspicious travelling companion for my new American frontier. But here too I’ve decorated it with the difference that I desire and through which I perceive: a beaded Maasai necklace swinging from the rearview mirror, as though I could literally watch my future through my past, my world drift by through a glittering Tanzanite porthole. Appropriately, the beads slid off one by one until a ragged bare thread was the only thing holding me to everything I thought I was. When this box, too, sat defunct in a dank Nashville garage, I walked for miles in December frost and shivered, not at the cold, but at the biting loneliness.
I am still young, and I am still blinkered by a host of naiveties, but I am also convinced of this fact: our boxes are made to get us into adulthood safely and then break down. Our cultures (first, second, or third) provide a security from and an angle on the world outside, but if we never use them to get anywhere, if we never drive them fearlessly into the bush until the thorns beguile the tires and the river washes you away, they become cages. We must take them for all they’re worth, and then further. Eventually, knowing full well where we leave them, we must venture on by foot.
Walking, on frozen concrete or baking clay, is the only honest way to face the world—to step outside our cars and cultures too and to breathe in its immensity and grit and grandeur. Which is, of course, all that Africa has ever asked of me; and surely there is nowhere grittier or grander. Sometimes the walk is perilous, and often it is lonely, but it is always true.
What can I do in light of this—this unboxed freedom—but walk on. I will walk rugged African roads impassable even to Land Cruisers. I will walk through suburban neighbourhoods, jumping fences, crossing lawns, where boxes cannot go. I will walk to the crest of Love Circle and to the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I will walk down every street old and new, making eye contact and gripping firmly the earth’s outstretched hand. It is black, white, dirty, calloused, and scarred, like mine. It doesn’t roll up windows or slam doors or dangle distractions from the rearview.
It might, like that delightful, devious baboon, hurl a lugnut of sense through the windshield. Shattered, your shield. Shattered, your lens. Shattered, your fear, and the wild wind whips once again through your hair. After all, that warm orange water could always creep in. The dry flurries from passing safari vans could always bleed through the cracks. My Africa box is broken; always was. And for that I am glad.