The first time I met the Somali Bantu I was at a sprawling farmhouse in the countryside, the wind blowing a terrible cold into my bones. I had come at the beckoning of a church friend who told me she was throwing a Christmas party for some refugees and wanted me to come help out.
This girl, Jan, was the epitome of the kind of woman I had idolized growing up: strong, fearless, and passionate. Jan had spent the previous year teaching missionary children in Africa, and still seemed a little shaken up by some of her experiences. She told stories of spiders as big as her hand crawling across her bed, bats and moths attacking her tent, and having to eat all the strange and rubbery parts of goats. In quieter moments she spoke of people begging for food, of being worn out by all the misery, of resenting the very people she had come to serve. But most of all, when I met her she was processing the value of what she had accomplished. Like so many missionaries, the failures loomed large in light of a Western church that is obsessed with conversions by the number. Jan had been back in America for several months and seemed dazed by the luxury of choices suddenly available to her again, and dazed by the expectations to make choices so quickly and self-assuredly.
She had found the Somali Bantu in an unorthodox way. One day while trolling Craigslist for jobs she stumbled across an ad: WANT 2 WORK WITH AFRICAN REFUGEES????!!!! Yes, yes she did. Jan answered the ad (which turned out to be a desperate ploy by a local charity organization to get some new volunteer blood to help out with the sudden influx of Somali Bantu refugees) and was matched with a recently arrived family. Suddenly, she was swallowed up in the community, buoyed by the need and the excitement and her own missionary zeal. She did everything for many of those families, helping them get sorted and settled into their new American life. She was the only person they could depend on. For years, all the kids thought all helpful white girls were named Jan. I still get called that on a regular basis.
But I didn’t know any of this as I stepped out of my car that cold December day. There was no snow on the ground, but the wind was chilly, the temperatures near freezing. I immediately noticed two dozen or so strange figures dotting the pastoral landscape: women in billowing thin cloaks that were brightly colored, men in loose button-up shirts and trousers wearing tiny hats on their heads. And children, wiry children dressed in shorts and sandals, as unprepared for winter as one could possibly be. After a moment or two to get over the shock of it all, I snapped into missionary mode: bustling about, shaking hands, introducing myself, being the welcoming fool. The adults seemed wary, but the kids ate up the attention.
Normally, I tend to avoid children, and the feelings have always been mutual. But all of the sudden I felt as though I had fallen into a World Vision ad, the kind where they blindside you with pictures of malnourished children and then ask you for money. Some of the children ran around the small playground, yelping with joy. Others gazed rapturously at the cows and horses scattered around in nearby pastures. And still other children huddled together in groups by the swing set, shivering. It was difficult to tell the gender of many of them, as they all had identical buzz cuts (due to an outbreak of lice, we later found out) and greatly ill-fitting and outdated clothing.
Everyone was ushered in for a meal. Confusion ensued (many had never used utensils before, we inadvertently offended by not offering food to the men first, etc). The adults half-heartedly picked at the pasta with red sauce. The bread was devoured in seconds. The salad stood alone and untouched.
My friend, whose parents owned the farm, had her dad read “The Christmas Story.” A large, jolly man with a successful family medicine practice, he read “The Christmas Story” like he had probably done every year: authoritatively, boomingly, reenacting the scene (complete with voice changes) for the little ones. I vaguely remember trying to act out the nativity scene: there was a lot of shrieking, and kids rolling around on the floor. We sang Christmas carols for a while, but then somebody brought out a couple of hand drums and the Somali Bantu took over, playing their traditional songs for us.
I have little to no memory of the adults in the room. My gaze was helplessly fixated on the children, who appeared intent on the story, but more likely than not were just full on bread and warm for the first time in days and perfectly happy to sprawl out on the floor. A little girl around four-years-old crawled into my lap and promptly fell asleep. Her family (there were four separate Somali Bantu families at the Christmas party that day, although it would take me months to be able to sort them out) had only been in America for three days. Three days? I felt like the luckiest soul in the world to be the first American to hold her, that dusty and cold and beautiful child. When she peed on me, supremely comfortable in her sleep, I was shocked to find myself suppressing a smile of joy. Like Jan, like the Somali Bantu, I had been feeling more than a little overwhelmed by the outside world. Cradling that little girl in my lap, soaked in urine and singing Christmas carols, I had never felt so needed in my life. And before Jan could even ask, I told her I was in.
Whatever this was, I was in.
I signed up to volunteer the next day.