Being a missionary is not about doing different ministry than you would do at home; it’s about being willing to do it in a different (or foreign) culture.

Well, it’s almost been a year since we left Canada, and I have to say it’s been a year of huge upheaval, as expected, and a year of learning—learning about a new culture, learning about myself, learning about mission work in general.

I’ve learned that I was not fully prepared for missionary life, despite the fact that I have been collecting books about missionary women since I was a young girl. One of my all-time heroines and favorite authors is Elisabeth Elliott, whom most of you will have heard of.

Living the reality of life on the mission field, however, is far different from experiencing it by proxy. A lot of the romance just evaporates when you hit the ground.

Short-term missions did not prepare me either. Nineteen years ago, I traveled to a rural town in Uganda with my high-school missions team. I don’t remember feeling much else but excitement and awe throughout my three weeks there. But back then I was only sixteen. I was part of a team. We were young and rosy-eyed, full of the confidence of youth and not quite able to empathize with anyone. We played at being teachers for two weeks and then took off on safari, patting ourselves on our backs at what amazing team players we’d been. Sure, we held babies and chatted with kids and painted a wall, but we knew we were returning home.

I now understand better why Bible schools offer cross-cultural training and help prepare people for the shock of a different culture. I was prepared to be a visitor back in 2000, but this time I was not so well prepared to live in an isolated, quiet community and establish a home for five children.

I think I spent most of my mental energy just getting us out of Canada, but I did little to prepare myself for the cultural and lifestyle changes the kids and I would face here.

But can one really be prepared?

I think perhaps we just have to be willing to go through the process and expect it to be a little rocky.

Before I delve any further into personal experience, let me explain a little bit about Kenya. Aaron has always told me that Kenya is a country of extremes—wealth coexisting with extreme poverty; Christianized at first glance, yet very stunted in true spirituality; modern, multi-cultural cities juxtaposed with small rural towns hobbling into modernity and holding on to tribal traditions.

Last May, driving into Nairobi on the busy eight-laned Thika Superhighway, surrounded by cars and concrete, I glanced across the highway and saw three camels, with their Somalian riders sitting atop, whips in hand. I couldn’t believe my eyes; it seemed crazy at first, but this ancient-meets-modern phenomenon is the norm in 21st century Kenya.

Nairobi is the capital, where the colonists settled at the turn of the 20th century. It was chosen for its pleasant climate. The word Nairobi is taken from the Masai phrase “cool water”—a reference to the river that runs through the city. Over three million people are crowded into the city itself, and the metropolitan area is over nine million. The city is a mishmash of government buildings, luxury hotels, malls, highways, residential areas, shanty towns, and slums. Kibera slum, to the south of the city, is the largest urban slum in Africa, clearly visible from the new Southern Bypass funded by the Chinese government.

At first, I found Nairobi to be unattractive and chaotic. But now that we’ve been here a year, I have come to enjoy Nairobi and its multicultural feel. It’s not unlike where I grew up (the lower mainland of British Columbia) where multiculturalism is the norm.

At University I was accustomed to mixing with all kinds of cultures – daily I could hear the Muslim call to prayer from the library and watched the antics of Asian meditations on the front lawn; the Harry Krishnas were always trying to get us to eat their rice dinners. Nairobi has many cultures living side by side: African tribal peoples, Indian, Asian, European, which means lots of great food options if you know where to find them! Alongside this is a deep sense of British colonial history.

Kenya is still considered a developing country. Apparently, the term third world is now considered insulting, so I am careful with what I say. I have read in various places that the nature of a developing country is not the absence of resources, but the fact that they are ill-divided and there is a lack of infrastructure and organization to enable the trickle down of prosperity.

There is much wealth in Nairobi, and that is obvious from the fancy hotels and the numerous expensive cars on the roads. Excellent healthcare is available as we have experienced firsthand with our kids, and Nairobi is the go-to city for medical care in East Africa; it is the hub of the UN in Africa, and also is home to a huge American Embassy. There are numerous international prep schools and universities (education is a huge priority in Kenya).

There are many big, beautiful malls with expensive shops and nice restaurants. Several communities are geared to expats who live and work in Nairobi and have settled into a very comfortable lifestyle. But sadly these things are not available to a huge section of the population.

Many will not have access to the healthcare they need. Many still live in the shanty towns built up behind fancy hotels. Street kids roam the highways asking for a few coins to feed their habits; mothers carrying babies will come up to your car window looking for money. Poverty is everywhere, and yet so is money. The extreme differences are hard to take in for a Canadian like me. I’m not of a political bent but having lived now in a country that struggles with poverty it is easy to see why a level of shared wealth is a good thing.

One of the most obvious differences for me is the idea of a shared community space that is cared for and beautifully planned out. In Canada and most Western countries, we take time to plan and think about spaces and parks that we all share for free. Regardless of your income, you can enjoy lovely, safe spaces and waterfronts that are open to all. For the most part, in Nairobi and Kenya, this does not exist.

Things are changing rapidly, however, as the digital age comes into its own here in Africa, and Kenya has set itself the goal of becoming a first world country by 2030, which is quite achievable, at the present rate of pace. The advent of mobile phones and solar energy means that even the most remote areas are fast becoming “modern,” or at least using modern devices and utilities.

Kenya is also very much a Christian country, in the nominal sense. Churches are everywhere; Bible verses and Christian slogans are plastered on everything, especially buses and taxis. Politicians pull religious phrases out of the air. It seemed at first a little odd to me for us to come as missionaries to a country that is more Christian than our own! But this is a very nominal Christianity, left over from colonial days. Charismatic theology has taken root and a very shallow prosperity gospel pervades Kenyan thought. It clashes and seems out of place in a country where suffering and poverty is so obvious; the human problem of pain and sorrow has not yet been cured by the slogans and shouts of Pentecostal preachers.

Discipleship and training of pastors and church leaders are why we are here; our goal is to be a resource to the local indigenous pastors in a region about three hours north-east of Nairobi so that they can more effectively reach their own people.

It’s very humbling to be a missionary, whether it’s for a year or two or a lifetime … anything we can do feels like a drop in a bucket, and the cultural differences and inconveniences only serve to highlight our inadequacies. But in His faithfulness, the One who calls us also equips and strengthens, and ‘slowly by slowly’ (as they say here in Kenya) our missionary muscle is growing.

Being a missionary is not about doing different ministry than you would do at home; it’s about being willing to do it in a different (or foreign) culture.