Seeing the value of intercultural connection

IVEP partner insight

A woman stirring a large vat of dairy
Naomi Kwanza (Tanzania) is making cheese at Grazing Plains Farm in Whitewater, Kansas. Photo/Gwen Obermeyer

When I greeted Naomi Kwanza at the airport after arriving in Wichita, Kansas, following IVEP orientation, memories of my own arrival in my SALT placement 21 years ago flooded over me. Naomi had traveled from her home in Tanzania to work on my rural Kansas farm for this year. All those years ago, I had made a long journey to a rural placement in South Africa to work on farming projects.

Observing as Naomi adjusted to her IVEP placement, I remembered those first days in a placement very well. The exhaustion of trying to communicate across cultural differences. The excitement and heightened awareness of all the new details of your new surroundings. For example, Naomi couldn’t believe how many banks there were in Wichita. My arrival in rural South Africa left me in amazement at the number of people who could crowd into one taxi bus!

But it’s amazing how fast we can adjust to a new experience. I am lucky enough that Naomi has experience and education in dairy farming and dairy processing. She understands farm animals, and milking cows is not a foreign experience to her. Her yogurt making skills that she learned back home in Tanzania has given her a jump start in learning our cheese making processes at Grazing Plains Farm. Her intelligence and curiosity are an asset to our farm.

Thinking back to my own SALT experience, when my host family in South Africa received a milk cow through the organization Heifer International, I eagerly took on the responsibility of morning milking. For me, the familiarity of milking the cow was a comforting connection to my family who were far away. But, watching Naomi, I’m also reminded what a different world we now live in today as opposed to two decades ago. Old fashion letters were still my primary form of communication, taking two or three weeks to arrive. Internet was only available in the cities. And a phone call to my family was a monthly luxury. Naomi can chat with her sister any time of day! I love hearing her easy banter in Swahili with her family as she goes through her tasks on the farm.

At two months into Naomi’s placement on my farm, we are finding that comfortable rhythm — understanding each other’s work habits and personality quirks. We’ve crossed that boundary in a cross-cultural acquaintance, where we now see past the cultural divides and just understand each other for our own humanity. The other day, Naomi reported to me that stress is my vice (actually, it was our head cheese, Miriam, who had noted that to Naomi). I loved her honest analysis of myself!

To me, that’s the true beauty of MCC — bringing people across the world together where we can be reminded of all of our deep humanity and interconnectedness. I have admired seeing my rural Kansas community embrace Naomi into their lives and have appreciated seeing Naomi’s strength and graciousness as she finds her own place in our community.