Reflections on Kenya & Uganda: Travel as Withdrawal

August 20, 2013

Yesterday, I made the observation that travel is a sort of incarnation. In our case, a seventeen-day adventure in Kenya and Uganda included a ministry of presence with impoverished children at risk, new small-business owners, school teachers and pastors. Just being there brought a message: “We see you. We know you are here. There are people praying for you. We support your work for the Kingdom of God in this place. God knows what you are doing here with so little, and he will provide for you.”

Over the years, we have discovered our best vacation memories revolve around encounters with people. Both the expected and planned-for meetings and the spontaneous “risky” forays into conversation with strangers have made their indelible impressions in our memory. That is why, on this trip, we made sure we saw our college roommates in Tenwek, Kenya, who led us into the day-long hospitality of a village family; we met the resident staff of Village Enterprise in Kakamega, Kenya, who introduced us to successful small business owners; and we let hundreds of children grab our hands and sing to us in Bwassandeku village, Uganda. It’s why, when waiting for our plane in Nairobi’s new international departures tent (post-fire accommodation), I welcomed conversation with a poised Kenyan woman on her way to participate in an international conference in Portland, Oregon. You just never know when God is going to surprise you with companionship and significant insight from others.

On the other hand, we also went to view birds and follow wildlife in remote parks and reserves. Yes, we went to “get away from it all.” This, too, is patterned after Jesus’ example. The Incarnate One also withdrew to solitary places to pray, to commune with his Father, and to refuel (drawing upon the unlimited spiritual supply available to him and to us). For this we need silence and solitude, and you can find that on the vast plains of the Great Rift Valley and the Maasai Mara. Elephants in Maasai MaraYou can find stillness on the savannah of Samburu National Wildlife Reserve. You can laugh with the monkeys and the birds in the Kakmega Rain Forest. My favorite moments on safari were when we stopped the safari van, turned off the CB radio, and just listened. Mostly there was only silence to hear and the wind of the Spirit was blowing.

Karen Blixen, in Out of Africa, shared one of her lessons from silence:

Out in the wilds I had learned to beware of abrupt movements. The creatures with which you are dealing there are shy and watchful, they have a talent for evading you when you least expect it. No domestic animal can be as still as a wild animal. The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take lessons in silence from the wild before they are accepted by it. The art of moving gently, without suddenness, is the first to be studied by the hunter, and more so by the hunter with the camera.

We “hunter(s) with a camera” were astounded by an elephant family that, in total silence, paraded right past us. Elephants Cross Silently(These multi-ton mammals can walk without making a sound, due to “shock-absorber” tissue in their feet.) We picnickers on the Mara plain were surprised to discover baboons slyly inching ever closer behind us as we ate our lunch under a tree. We laughing adventurers were stunned into silence as we rounded a corner to see two huge lions barely ten feet from us, licking their chops after a feast of fresh meat. Lions After LunchYes, we realized early on that we were the ones who needed to learn silence at a deeper level, so that we could hear the heartbeat of God, laugh at his zoological jokes, and enjoy stewardship of a vast creation put in our care.

And we needed to withdraw from the noise of American culture, news media, electronics addiction, and trivial concerns that drain a lot of energy but in the end are not that important. Withdrawing from public life for a time, taking a Sabbath, enjoying a season of jubilee, these are invitations to enter into the silence where God’s still, small voice can be heard. There is a time for Incarnation and a time for withdrawal, and both are part of the Christian life.

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