Reverse Culture Shock, The Black Panthers, and Kroger

For the first time in two weeks (although it seems much longer), it's quiet. I'm sitting at home, alone, after returning from Burundi last night. Bonnie and Liz are at the store. There are no street noises, no children playing, no loud music, just blissful quiet.

Whenever I return from a missions trip overseas, I experience a certain degree of reverse culture shock. This trip, it started on the bus ride from the airport to the parking lot, where our car (and home) awaited. I don't remember who was the first to make a remark, but soon all three of us were joining in. We noticed that the windshield of the bus didn't have a hole and wasn't cracked. Another noticed that there were actual lanes on the road that people seemed to respect. The third observed the lack of motorbikes whizzing in and out of traffic and the lack of bicycle taxies and pedestrians. In the video I posted above, you'll spot all of these things in abundance. By the way, this video in no way communicates the sheer terror of a local African taxi ride. In case you're wondering, closing your eyes doesn't help much.

But the real shock came, as it always does, when we arrived home. Oh it doesn't hit at once, but sometime within the first 24 hours I realize that, while by American standards our modest home may not seem like much, but the standards of the majority of the rest of the world, we are part of the über-wealthy. Most people reading that last sentence roll their eyes and go, "Yeah, yeah, I know." But they don't know. No one knows until they experience the crushing poverty of much of the rest of the world for themselves.

But this year my reverse culture shock took a slightly different form. The first night at home, all of us were completely exhausted. We had been awake for over 40 hours with only slight cat-naps on the plane for rest. I had the most energy of the lot of us (which wasn't saying very much) so I went to the local Kroger for some frozen pizza. It was there that I thought, just for a moment, I was back in Africa.

I noticed in the store two extremely well-dressed black men in suits. That's not all that unusual in North America. What struck my eye was the other black man in urban fatigues with an army insignia on his color (O-2), bolstering a sidearm. You see this in Africa on occasion, but I confess that I've never seen it in my local Kroger before.

Now, before I tell you what happened next, you really, really need to remember that I was sleep deprived. Liz tells me regularly that I'll speak to anyone. That's true. But this is a little over the top even for me. But I was tired. I wasn't thinking straight. Seriously.

Well, in my sleep deprived brain, I associated the men in the suits with the body guard with Africa. So, being generally fearless and exhibting my usual lack of good judgment, I approached the one that looked like the leader and said, "Samahani Bwana, wewe onasema kswahili?", which being translated is, "Excuse me Sir, do you speak Swahili?" The man looked at me with surprise and said, "Excuse me?" The bodyguard looked confused and squared his shoulders to me. I don't think anyone felt threatened, which, considering the sidearm is a good thing. Still, I looked like I had just crawled out from under a rock. I felt like it too. I imagine they thought I was crazy. But…well…did I mention that I really, really tired?

In my sleep-deprived state, I was genuniely surprised by his answer and said, "Sorry sir, but usually you see an armed guard with two well-dressed men in Africa. Since I just returned from there about an hour ago, I thought you might be visitors." It was only then that I saw the patch on the guard's shirt. It had a panther's head in a circle. A black panther's head.

For the record, the man I approached was the perfect gentleman. He stuck out his hand and introduced himself. I don't remember the first name, but the last name was "X." I appologized again and wished him a pleasent day. Then I headed for the frozen pizza.

Another man saw our exchange of pleasentries and greeted me as I walked by. He was also an African American but, while he flashed me a huge grin, he was less than complimentary to the New Black Panthers he kept watching closely. I don't remember exactly what he said (I was really tired), but it was clear he knew the men involved by reputation and didn't approve. He even knew Mr. "X's" name.

When I checked out, the young man ringing up the ticket also commented on our (what was rapidly becoming famous) exchange. He didn't have much to say about the black panthers, but was amazed that a white man like myself would even talk to them, let alone initiate a conversation.

To be candid, if I realized they were New Black Panthers, I probably would have avoided them. I would have refused eye contact and walked different aisles. But, and this should be no surprise, the reality was different than the reputation.

I'm still working through what conclusions to draw from this little encounter. I confess I don't understand why someone requires an armed guard in a suburban Kroger unless it is part of a mystique they are trying to maintain. What I do know is this: I'm thankful to live in the United States, where personal armed guards are primarily for appearances, not protection.