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Theology professor bridges American, African cultures

by Virginia de Leon

Moses Pulei serves as a bridge between cultures.

As a Whitworth University theology professor and member of the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania, Moses has been instrumental in building relationships between people in the United States and his community in East Africa.

Moses  Pulei
Moses Pulei promotes Whitworth's Africa Initiative.

He is involved with several organizations with links to Africa, including Blood: Water Mission, an international grassroots organization that brings communities together to find solutions and hope amid the HIV/AIDS and water crises in Africa.

He is also part of Whitworth’s Africa Initiative, a program that seeks to help students become “global Christians” by immersing them in the culture of the Maasai and other African communities through cross-cultural visits, home stays and exchanges that involve study, travel and dialogue.

“We want to help students engage and interact with African culture,” said Moses, one of eight faculty involved in the initiative.

Earlier this year, Moses took 22 Whitworth students to Tanzania during Jan Term, an academic session that enables students to travel and spend several weeks abroad under the direction of a Whitworth professor.

Although they met once a week in the fall to prepare for the trip and learn more about Tanzania, many of the students still experienced culture shock, he said.

“Sitting in Weyerhaeuser Hall and talking about Africa is one thing,” Moses said. “Actually being there is a completely different experience.”

Students were surprised on several levels, he said. They not only had to adjust to the culture—the language, food and customs—but also had to confront their own misconceptions about Africa.

For instance, in the tourist town of Arusha in northern Tanzania, the students stayed with well-to-do families who lived in opulent homes with servants.

Some students weren’t accustomed to a life of luxury and were surprised to find that it existed in Africa, a continent often portrayed by mainstream media as plagued with famine, poverty and strife.

“They expected Africa to be poor,” Moses said.

They were especially astonished that “people with that kind of wealth didn’t want to engage with those who were poor,” he said.

In the rural community of Himo  near Mount Kilimanjaro, students experienced a different challenge. Because many of the villagers in this small town lack modern conveniences, students had to use pit latrines and walk as far as three miles just to access water for bathing or washing clothes.

They also experienced communication issues because of  language and cultural differences.

People in Africa have a different sense of time, Moses explained, so on many occasions they had to adjust to last-minute changes or a lack of planning by their African hosts.

One example of misunderstanding happened during their first few days with host families. When students asked the families what time they were to wake up, the response was “three.” In the Swahili language, however, “three” translates to “9 a.m.” Because this wasn’t clear to students, some set their alarms for 3 a.m. and discovered they were the only ones awake in the house, Moses said.

Although it was sometimes difficult for students to communicate with the families in Himo who spoke only Swahili, they still became friends and learned about each other’s way of life, he said.

As someone who regularly travels back and forth from Africa to the United States, Moses knows about culture shock and can relate to the experiences of his students.

Sixteen years ago, Moses left the arid lands of East Africa’s Rift Valley for the pine-covered campus of Whitworth to pursue a bachelor’s degree. It was his first time away from home and the Maasai culture.

Moses was born in a mud-and-stick hut in Namanga, a Kenyan village near Amboseli National Park at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. As a boy, he spent his days tending his family’s sheep.

Like others from Namanga, he attended a school operated by the Roman Catholic Church and later became a Christian after meeting Americans from Young Life and World Vision, a Christian relief and development agency. They told him about Whitworth and Spokane.

He received a scholarship from the private liberal arts school and sponsorship from Christian missionaries in Florida.

As a student at Whitworth, Moses became so popular on campus that he was elected student body president and chosen to be the school’s homecoming king.

After graduation, he worked as a safari guide for the Kenyan government and also worked with Young Life.

He continued to travel to the United States, where he earned a master of divinity degree and a doctorate in intercultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. His dissertation was titled, “Preachers of a Different Gospel: The Emergence of the Word-Faith Movement in Kenya and a Trans-National Religious Culture.”

Moses spends about four months a year in Africa. In addition to bringing students to Tanzania for Jan Term, he also goes to Kenya to serve the Maasai and work with churches throughout Africa.

During the summer, he brings his wife and two children—ages 7 years and 9 months—to his hometown of Namanga, where he trains pastors.

He also travels to Africa throughout the year to build relationships with religious congregations and to work on community development projects. During his visits, Moses brings medicine, vaccines, supplies and colleagues from the United States who wish to learn more about Maasai and African culture.

In addition to being a board member of Blood: Water Mission, he advises World Vision on some projects in East Africa. In recent years, he has worked with LifeWater International to provide clean water. He also helped establish the Makobe Children’s Home that serves AIDS orphans in the Shimba Hills in Kenya’s coastal province and helps develop small businesses among the Maasai.

People in Africa have much to learn from Americans, particularly from students and faculty at Whitworth, he believes.

“We assume this culture of serving each other is what’s happening all over the world, but it’s an American way of doing things,” Moses said. “Servant leadership is a foreign concept for Africans.”

While people in the villages of Tanzania and Kenya certainly help each other, they often stick to “their own kind” and rarely reach out to people from other tribes and communities, Moses said.

In the urban centers, people often are oblivious to the plight of the poor and others in need. In Arusha, students were disappointed that some of the wealthier families they stayed with didn’t want to hear or learn about the orphanages and other places they visited as part of their Jan Term trip.

“They didn’t want to feel responsible for children in the orphanages,” Moses explained. “So many people in the cities don’t feel compelled to help others or even interact with them. They want to work in their own cultural settings.

“That’s why service learning is important.  It’s something Americans can export to the rest of the world,” he said.

At the same time, Americans have much to gain by immersing themselves in African culture, said Moses.

Many African cultures value family above everything else, so they do all they can to take care of their children, their relatives and their elders.

As people who have herded cattle freely in the highlands and who lead simple, nomadic lives, the Maasai also can teach Americans and the world about sustainability, he said.

“We live in harmony with nature and the environment,” he explained. “We believe the Earth is a gift from God so we must try our best to care for this gift.”

As someone who speaks nine African languages and must constantly transition from one culture to another, Moses often experiences a “homelessness of the mind.”

“You’re always on your toes when you walk in all these cultures,” he said. “At the same time, I’m at home wherever I am, in Africa and in America.”

As a result of his efforts and those of local churches, individuals and African refugees who make the Inland Northwest their home, Spokane has evolved into a community that cares deeply for the people of Africa and strives to build connections, he said.

 “Every time I speak at a public event in Spokane, I meet people who have traveled to Africa and engaged in the culture,” Moses said. “Spokane has a heart for Africa.”

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