A friend saw beyond my cultural differences

During her time in Tanzania, Abigail Andersen grew close with a local girl who had the courage to stand up for her.

Photo+courtesy+of+Abigail+Anderson

Photo courtesy of Abigail Anderson

Abigail Andersen, Writer

I lived in Kahunda — a fishing village in East Africa — for 18 years while studying at a school in Kenya as a daughter of long-term missionaries who barely ever seemed to make it back to the “home country.” My earliest memories include a collage of thundering rain, monkeys chattering on a tin roof, dust, fireflies, frogs, the ever present danger of army ants or snakes coming in my room at night and the loneliness of being the only English speaker among my friends.

more than a simple feeling

Growing up I straddled two cultures and ways of life: my family’s and those of the local Tanzanians who lived around us. It was hard to fit in anywhere, no matter how hard I tried.

Ministry can come in the most surprising ways, and sometimes through the most surprising people. When I was in fourth grade there was a girl who reached out and ministered to me from the very community my parents were ministering to. Her ministry was short and simple, yet made a memory I will never forget. It showed me that the love of Jesus is much more than a simple feeling. Her name was Filimina.

Red-brown dust exploded from my feet with every step I took, billowing up around my cheap blue ndara, or flip-flops. Filimina’s chocolate brown hand swung by my pale one as we emerged from within a shaded tunnel with hanging vines and the scolding chatter of monkeys leaping above us. The blue sky spread out above us, heralding another hot day under a golden African sun. Two girls, together: one white, the other black.

STANDING UP

Soon we reached the center of our sprawling fishing village. Everywhere I looked, I could see familiar houses lining the streets, sprawling chickens clucking in dusty roads and yards and bright eyes staring back at me. Beside me Filimina chattered on, oblivious it seemed to a growing crowd of young children trailing behind us. My face burned as shrill laughter and mocking calls rang in my ears. I began to desperately wish I did not stand out like a sore thumb, but rather that I was a dark as Filimina so I could blend in.

Suddenly, Filimina turned to face the large triangle of children behind us, shaking her finger. Rapidly, she scolded them, miraculously sending them away and leaving us alone again. Shocked, I looked at her friendly face, already laughing again.

I have never forgotten that particular trip to Filimina’s house, nor the numerous ways she treated me like any other Tanzanian friend, truly welcoming me to my foreign home. By standing up for me in the middle of a main street, she taught me what it means to be a true friend.

I have no idea if she actually was a Christian because we could not speak the same language fluently enough. However, she showed me the ministry of Christ in a way I will never forget. She stood up for me when I felt I could not. She defended me to her people and her own culture. She included me and welcomed me when I stood out. That is the same love Jesus calls us to.

a glorious finale

Two years later Filimina graduated from seventh grade, passing a difficult exam with scores that meant the government would send her to further her education elsewhere. I knew we might never see each other again. Before she left I wanted to minister in return, though I never thought of it in those terms.

The cavernous room, filled with the nervous palpitations of 30 sixth graders around me felt full and warm as we eagerly awaited the finale of our sixth grade graduation. Earlier, the flowing and quick sounds of our sixth grade band had echoed past the upturned faces that surrounded me. Now it was dark, only the screen at the side of the hall splashed light across the smaller forms of the first through fifth graders seated in front of us.

Nervously, I twisted a finger through my short brown hair, half of it pinned up in a messy ponytail, as I half-heartedly watched the pictures slide through on the screen. Soon it would finish and the music would form a glorious finale as “Congratulations Sixth Grade Graduation!” flashed across the screen. Then our names would be called up to receive the certificate and hard-earned Bible given to all who had memorized enough Bible verses.

Smiling inside

I stood up as my name was called. Smiling inside, I imagined Filimina’s face as she received the best gift I could give her: a Bible in her own language of Swahili. This would be my final goodbye gift to her; sharing a book I had earned and grown to treasure.

This ministry was not flashy or large, but simple. It was a relationship that meant so much more to me over the years than the gifts of corn or beans we used to give each other.

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