January 30, 2006

And Who Saves The Missionaries?


Family values?

The long lead article in this weekend’s NYT Magazine (The Call – link) follows one family, The Maples, who have been working as missionaries in Northern Kenya.  (I must say that Jackie Nickerson’s cover photo, of Rick Maples with a member of the Samburu tribe, is simply stunning.)  Aside from the moral arguments surrounding their work, the aspect of the story I found most interesting involved the couple’s children, four year old Stephanie, and twelve year old Meghan.

At various points in the story, Meghan laments the isolation she is forced to endure; discusses her difficulty picking up the local dialect; and reveals how traumatic it was for her to accompany her mother to witness an actual ritual circumcision.  Regarding Stephanie, she is observed to break down when the reporter first comes to dinner, crying about missing her friends.

The couple, Rick and Carrie, first came to Kenya when Meghan was four.  That initial assignment was supposed to last two years, but instead turned into six.  Meghan was able to attend school at home in California for about half of second and fifth grades. Otherwise, there have only been two shorter trips back. (The Maples are not due to return to the U.S. until December 2007.)

Meghan was less unhappy in their last location, which was more populated and provided some access to other missionaries.  Their current post, however, in a village called Kurungu, is much more remote.  In reading about the couple, Rick and Carrie, they seem thoughtful, well meaning, and obviously idealistic and intent.  From the reporter’s standpoint, they also seem reasonably pragmatic about what might be accomplished in an area that has proven quite resistant to their ideology.

What is scary, however, is the couple’s near delusional dependence on seemingly random indicators as divine signals that they are doing the right thing.  The other pronounced aspect about the couple (or is it mostly Carrie?) is an identification as “bold and progressive social activists, champions of female emancipation and sexual fulfillment.”  If the feminist mission is not unusual, I’d say it is as it relates to the Maples’ concern for their own daughter’s welfare and state of mind.

There is a family portrait in the article — unfortunately, smaller than the version in the magazine — taken with a Samburu women identified as a family friend.  (Link.)    Maybe you can’t draw global conclusions from it, but everyone looks unhappy.  If you notice, Meghan has her hands clasped in front of her in a kind of protective pose.  She is clearly the forward most figure, as if she’s attempting to get closer to the photographer and establish some autonomy from the rest of the family — especially Mom.

The really striking image, however, is the portrait above.  (Again, the shot in the magazine was much larger than the on-line version, although I have enlarged it so it’s now approximate.)  I would be happy for your help in reading this image with me.

As a window into Meghan’s situation, I find it quite profound.  Although her life is completely interconnected with the lives and the plight of the Kenyans, she demonstrates almost no relationship or attunement to the small child.  Instead, her gaze burn into ours, as if she commands our attention to transmit what looks like some combination of pain, hard resolve and possibly anger.  With the sweater suggestive of a womb, it’s easy to see Meghan cast as a surrogate mother, in which the African child (and maybe, Africa itself) has physically co-opted her being.

If the evangelical movement wasn’t so strong these days, and the American “public square” wasn’t so saturated with the signs, slogans, assumptions and presumptions of radical Christianity, there is one hypothesis a clear headed person might draw from this article regarding the position Carrie and Rick maintain toward Meghan’s well being.

It’s called negligence.

(images: Jackie Nickerson/New York Times. January 29, 2006. NYT Magazine.  nyt.com)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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