A few days after I returned from my trip to Phnom Penh I went to see Jools Holland & his Rhythm & Blues Band with Jim – his birthday present from September. It was phenomenal on many levels, and two highlights were Ruby Turner, who caught us all up in seventh heaven with her spirited rendition of Peace in The Valley, and 80’s icon Marc Almond. Having been a complete 80’s Essex teen it was quite surreal dancing and singing along to the anthems of Tainted Love and Say Hello, Wave Goodbye just two rows from the legend instead of around a handbag!
The latter song felt very apt as I had been pondering the greetings I have received in various slum communities. When I visited several slum communities in Kampala in 2012 I was taken aback by the smiley children who all waved as we walked into their neighbourhoods and shouted gleefully ‘Bye bye Mzungu’. This was on the way in, not on the way out! And this was not only in one particular community, but in every one of the few that I visited. What could have happened that caused this to become a normal greeting I thought?
My limited experience told me that a considerable amount of ‘outreach’, ‘service’ or ‘humanitarian aid’ in Kampala was delivered by white people (Mzungus) of various nationalities, belonging to a multitude of NGOs, and was frequently brought in by visitors who invariably lived elsewhere, often in a compound with high security. My presence in the slums, and that of the other white people on the teams I was accompanying, was obviously regarded as temporary, to the degree that the children said ‘Goodbye’ even as we arrived.
In contrast, as I entered the slum community in Phnom Penh with my travelling friend Alex, even for the first time, some children gave a little shy wave and a smile, whilst others simply ignored us or looked a little bemused. Within minutes of arriving at our host’s humble home a few children from the neighbourhood appeared to say hello and mock our feeble attempts to greet them with ‘jim-rip-sewr’! They then accompanied us on a walk around the community as our host showed us our home for the week and, in a mix of broken English, sign-language and points to an English-Khmer dictionary, tried to explain certain dynamics.
The following morning, after a night acclimatising to the heat, the sounds, and the smells, we went to the church in the middle of the community (more about that another time). It wasn’t until late afternoon that we left the community for a Sunday evening with the team, returning in the dark to our home. The next day, Monday, we left the community in the morning to meet with some of the team, and as we walked out towards the shops on the main road which mask the slum behind, we departed as people who had slept in their neighbourhood, trusting for our food and our rest, able to say good morning, as best we could, as we headed out. As we walked along the path out of the neighbourhood a group of white people walked toward us, arriving for a day’s work in the slum community. We wondered what they might be doing – helping the church maybe?
What struck us most was that at the end of the afternoon, as we walked back into the community, the children greeted us once again, this time more overtly. We began to recognise some of them and maybe we began to look more familiar too. As we returned, along with others finishing their day’s work, the team that had arrived in the morning made their way out of the community. I cannot, and would not want to judge the team that served for the day and I am sure that many contributions from day visitors are imperative for some of the world’s most marginalised localities. What I can discern however is that I found it very uncomfortable to have the wave of a hello and the vocabulary of a goodbye presented together in Kampala. I was far more comfortable being able to say hello as an, albeit temporary, resident of this Phnom Penh community.
In Kampala I was told that it would be impossible as someone from a ‘developed country ‘ to live in a slum community. It would be too dangerous. Yet it seemed perfectly possible in Phnom Penh and I ponder the differences. I respect those who have chosen to live in such communities for the long-term and for whom these communities have genuinely become home. Their presence, and the respect they have gained from living humbly within their neighourhood, no doubt paved the way for us, as their friends and visitors, to be welcomed so warmly.
I use the phrase ‘incarnational mission’ frequently. To me it means the practice of taking your location and place seriously, of recognising home as more than a dormitory or purely personal space, of seeking the welfare of the neighbourhood wherever you are, but also rising to the challenge of relocating and becoming incarnational in places frequently overlooked. I believe in it. I experience it. I continue to learn more about it. I wonder whether incarnational mission is a privileged conversation of those who can choose where they live and wonder what it means for those with no choice and for the third of our global population who are in constant movement. And I wonder what it does to my theology and my practice if it is deemed ‘impossible’ to be incarnational in some locations on this beautiful earth? What do we potentially miss if ‘wave hello and say goodbye’ is all we can aspire to? And what can we who are barely comprehending the challenges of living in an urban world, learn from those who have grown up in slum neighbourhoods, who are effectively serving and mobilising their communities?