Lessons From Born a Crime {Book Club}

Lessons From Born a Crime

“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

Photo by Olivia Bauso on Unsplash


  1. Jenny September 25, 2019

    I really enjoyed reading this book, though it was difficult at times because of how sad it was. It reminded me again that we are all more alike than we think we are. I did not know who Trevor Noah was before the book came up in the Book Club list. My husband told me he was a comedian after I started reading the book. We watched some clips of his comedy acts together, and I noted in his stand-up comedy, and in the book, that he often explains things from one culture in order that they might be understood by those of another culture. I’ve always been fascinated by cultural anthropology, and I was intrigued with the way he explained different situations and events.

    I was also motivated to learn phrases from local languages in my host country. I speak the common language (French), but it is not the maternal language of the people in my host country. I know that learning various phrases from their local languages (I only know a handful) would go a long way.

    1. Rachel Kahindi September 27, 2019

      I love talking cultural differences – so interesting. That was probably my favorite part of this book.

      It’s great to have renewed motivation to learn language – so easy to get into a rut, or start feeling like it doesn’t matter much.

  2. Sarah Hilkemann September 25, 2019

    I have really enjoyed this book! I listened to the audio version, which was really different for me, but I especially appreciated hearing him speak all the different phrases in the local languages. The chapter about his mom was hard but good, to be able to hear her story. I have not had a lot of exposure to domestic abuse and it makes me very frustrated that there’s not more options for women to get help, at least in the context of this story. Unfortunately, I think that is the case in a lot of places around the world.
    I think this book has made me want to be intentional. Am I reaching out to speak the language of others- whether that’s actual language other than English, or just learning what is really meaningful to them? How am I caring well about others’ stories? I also want to keep pondering all that Noah shared in this book.

  3. Rachel Kahindi September 27, 2019

    That’s such a good takeaway.

    This book seems like one that would really come to life in audio.

  4. Abigail November 5, 2019

    After discovering Trevor Noah’s Daily Show YouTube clips with my husband, and catching up on US news through them at times (we need some humor when watching the current drama going on!), it was eye-opening to read about Trevor’s growing up years. It helps explain his compassion for other cultures, and how he pokes fun at things in them to educate others. I’ve been hearing horrible things about the situation in South Africa recently, from the viewpoints of varied stations in life. It was helpful to hear an insider’s take on it too. South Africa really needs prayer!

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