“Ask her ‘mwirio,’” my husband said.
His sister/cousin turned to me and said, “Mwirio?”
I responded, appropriately, “Nambola. Simanya uwe?”
Cue the joyful shrieking. Everyone was so excited to hear me speaking Giryama that they didn’t even finish the greeting.
Kenyan schools are taught in English, so most of the time I get by just fine communicating in English. I have picked up some Swahili and not as much Giryama over the past 7 years, but with everything else I have to do, it’s difficult to get serious language study to the top of my priority list.
Lesson 1: Language
We talked a bit in a previous week about the benefits of speaking someone else’s language to them, but in this final section of Born a Crime, Trevor Noah brought it up again. While in jail, Noah noticed a language barrier between the police and one big, scary looking man who had been arrested. He bravely stepped in as an interpreter. The big, scary looking man wasn’t scary after all.
Noah says, “When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.’” Speaking someone else’s language communicates more than just the words you say.
Lesson 2: Fitting In
Another lesson is one I’m going to call The Fitting-in Paradox. All along, Noah has been talking about being a cultural chameleon, navigating between different cliques in school, but never really belonging to one. The stakes are raised in chapter 17 when he had to choose which racial group to wait with in the holding cell before his hearing, where, “if I picked the wrong table I might get beaten.” He could fit in with any or all of those groups in a different context, but now it’s complicated.
The paradox is this: we build relationships with people when we’ve got some common ground, when we fit in. But, we can’t fit in all the time in all ways. That’s we in the general sense of we humans but also more specifically, we, cross-cultural people. We need to fit in while not fitting in so that we have enough common ground to establish relationships with people, yet we don’t compromise the counter-culture of following Jesus. This applies to our home culture as well as our host culture.
Lesson 3: Systemic Racism
Systemic racism is an overarching theme throughout this book. What can we take with us about that? It is a massive, evil monster with an extremely broad reach. It’s not a South African problem or an American problem. It’s a human problem.
Back in the holding cell, when Noah was choosing which table to sit at, he said, “I still had to pick. Because racism exists, and you have to pick a side. You can say that you don’t pick sides, but eventually life will force you to pick a side.” In the immediate sense, I see what he’s saying about having to choose which race to sit with. But I don’t understand the last statement. What are the sides, and how does life force me to choose?
Lesson 4 (and then some): Patricia
The last and longest chapter is all about Patricia Noah, Trevor’s mom. We can learn so much from her about love, faith, ambition, risk taking, bucking/mocking the system.
I wondered last week why Patricia dated and married Abel. That’s not answered in this chapter, but she did explain to Noah why Abel married her. Though Abel wanted “a traditional marriage with a traditional wife,” he married a woman who refused to be that. “If he wanted a woman to bow to him, there were plenty of girls back in Tzaneen being raised solely for that purpose. The way my mother always explained it, the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women.”
This chapter was the most heartbreaking: normalized domestic abuse, police refusing to file reports about it, Patricia being shot, a hospital that discouraged saving her life because it would be expensive. Even so, Patricia’s story doesn’t come across as a cautionary tale. It’s a story of love for her sons and unwavering faith.
Ultimately, Born a Crime is about how someone with a unique cultural background developed his own identity. What’s your takeaway from Trevor Noah’s memoir? What lessons have you learned?
You’ll want to join us next week for a fun author interview here in Book Club!
Beginning October 8th, we will be reading Glorious Weakness: Discovering God in All We Lack by Alia Joy. We’ll be slowing our pace down so we can dig deep into this book over eight weeks in October and November. We are excited to be able to interact with Alia while we read her beautiful words!
Here’s the schedule for Glorious Weakness:
October 8: Forward, Intro and Chapter 1
October 15: Chapters 2 & 3
October 22: Chapter 4
October 29: Chapter 5
November 5: Chapters 6 & 7
November 12: Chapter 8
November 19: Chapter 9
November 26: Chapters 10 & 11