A Cross-Cultural Friendship

By: qwerty53

Jun 05 2008

Category: AL, Helena, Uncategorized, Women's Friendships


Focal Length:22mm
Shutter:1/0 sec
Camera:NIKON D70

What if you exercised your voting rights and then saw your neighbor’s house burned down in protest of the election outcome? What if those who opposed the election winners rioted and shot and killed random citizens on your streets? What if your favorite dinner on a regular basis consists of turnip greens and home-made chapatti? What if you lived willingly without health insurance, without the assistance of Medicaid or food stamps and, though very willing and available, found it difficult, almost impossible to get work? What if this was the experience of your friend who happens to live in Alabaster, AL?

The cross-cultural friendship of Helena resident, Cathy Vanderkamp, and Veronica (Wanjiru) Ngae is an eye-opening saga. Cathy and her husband, Dan, and two children, Hunter, 8 and Parker, 6, moved to their home off Hwy 95 last year, having made the acquaintance of the Kenyan family earlier in 2007. Cathy had begun to often find a small spiral notebook page attached to her front door that said, “I clean houses” with a phone number. One day, while home, a knock revealed to Cathy the writer of the note and a unique friendship gradually begun. When she found herself agreeing to Veronica’s “I clean your house, yes?” Veronica instantly slipped off her shoes at the door and set about the task!

As Cathy began to assimilate the story behind this family’s experience in America and the cultural challenges they have encountered, she found herself teaching Veronica in small ways how ‘things are done’ in the USA. She spends much time researching services and solutions to help the family adapt to their logistical challenges with food, transportation and jobs. It is also, Cathy notes, a valuable learning experience for her daughters to broaden their own perspectives beyond their southern roots.

Cathy is grateful to Veronica, too, for her joyous spirit and credits Veronica with encouraging her to move through the depression and grief that followed the death of her mother.

Cathy has now introduced Veronica to McDonalds and shared the experience of her first milkshake, hot chicken wings and taste of barbecue. She convinced Veronica that having a goat in their backyard is not a good idea, even if it is their preferred meat in an otherwise mostly vegetarian diet. The Ngae’s diet has not become Americanized; it is still very economically centered on turnip greens in native dishes such as mukimo, maize (canned corn niblets), beans and potatoes, or a stew, ngima, which Cathy has sampled that consists of a flour and water dumpling which is used to sop up the turnip greens. Although George is diabetic, his simple diet precludes the need for him to take medication. Veronica is hoping this summer to be able to grow her own greens and corn among the yucca plants in their home flower bed. Occasionally they purchase fruit, bananas and pears, and Cathy has discovered they are fond of her Southern Tuna Salad,
which Veronica has now learned to make.

Right: Hams Eating Tuna Salad

Hannah Ngae, Parker and Hunter Vanderkamp

Veronica and her husband, George, whose native tribe and language is Kikuyu, applied for immigration status because they wished for a better life for their children, now ages 21 – 32. They were randomly assigned to
live in Birmingham and will be eligible to apply for American citizenship next year. In Kenya, George taught school – Swahili, English and Math, and Veronica was a mother of seven and a farmer. With no car or transportation, George walked to work each day; crop yields were dependent on rain, as they had no irrigation. George is currently studying to become an RN and working part time. The Hgaes also make it a priority to send money back to their families in Africa, where circumstances still remain difficult.

Cathy says she has been inspired by Veronica’s willingness to be a compassionate and unswerving friend and by her complete and genuine faith in God, which is a natural and open conduit. Veronica has a beautiful singing voice that is usually heard only in church, but which is always active in her mind. “Sometimes God will wake me up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Veronica, sing me these two songs.’ He puts the words and the music into my head and I sing very softly to not wake up George.

Veronica and daughter, Hannah, sing at their Birmingham church which offers services in Swahili or English, if visitors are present.

Photos & Commentary

Copyright 2008
Laura Brookhart


4 comments on “A Cross-Cultural Friendship”

  1. Wow, what a great story!

  2. Cathy’s and Veronica’s friendship shows how much we have to offer and learn from each other if our minds and hearts are open. Very inspiring!

  3. I cant believe this is my 5th year in America. am so proud to be an American. Cathty is our hero an my role model. This is a great story.

  4. I love this story! I was so glad to meet Veronica and beautiful, beautiful Hannah when they came with Cathy to drop the girls off at VBS.

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