The Trauma Lines Blog

Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists

“Stranger in a Strange Land”

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Some of us may not know what it’s like to be an outsider. Maybe we’ve never experienced what it’s like to be  the “odd man out” amongst an unfamiliar group of people, or what it’s like to have to adapt to a new culture.

Ron Hall, LMFT, CTS, experienced each one of those feelings and impressions when he arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Kenya. Immersed in unfamiliar surroundings, Ron couldn’t help but utter that all-too-familiar classic-movie quote: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

“Stranger in a Strange Land” is an original article by Mr. Hall where he shares his experiences of living, working, and gaining the trust of a people who at one time considered him a stranger:

Arriving at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, it was apparent that I was “not in Kansas anymore.” The waiting area was filled with colorfully-dressed Massai Tribesman sitting with their wives and children on blankets laid across the floor. The early morning hours in Nairobi seemed a bit surreal since I had just completed crossing eleven time zones. After clearing customs and being greeted by the director of the non-profit organization called Chosen Children of Promise (CCP) ( ), we put the luggage in his van and, drove out of the airport. Immediately, more impressions of this foreign land barraged me: the strikingly-beautiful acacia trees, the ant-like streams of people walking along the pot-holed road, the minuscule distance drivers allowed between their moving cars (I’m talking inches not feet), and Barack Obama billboards and bumper stickers! Remember, President Obama has Kenyan heritage!

Yes, it was a busy time of day as people headed into the city to work. Considering that the unemployment rate in Kenya is about 50%-plus, the reality was that these people were the fortunate. This advantage was to become especially apparent a few hours later as we arrived at our destination: the Nairobi slums.

What was I doing in Kenya? I had been invited by an NGO (non-government organization) to do trauma training with Kenyan social workers and teachers that worked among the very poor. The people that lived in the slums had come from all parts of the countryside looking for opportunities to not only feed their family, but to survive. CCP was here to work among even the most disadvantaged in the slums: orphaned children whose parents had died of AIDS or the hands of violent thugs.

Subsidized by a state-side church, CCP has one American overseeing an indigenous staff of approximately 10 social workers and 10 teachers. They oversee a sponsorship system similar to Compassion International or World Vision. The center of operations is a compound with three tin-roofed buildings in the middle of the slums. These buildings serve two purposes: educational classrooms for tutoring children — a place to get physical and emotional needs met — and a center of operations for the social workers to visit foster homes where children have been placed. My role was to come and do clinical training with the helpers on the front lines.

Seeing the slums for the first time was quite a shock. As we turned the corner from the pavement, we proceeded down a six-foot-wide dirt road between a few homes. We immerged on the back side of those properties to a shantytown of wood and tin buildings with open sewage ditches – home to over two million people. If I thought the roads by the airport were full of people, it was nothing compared to the multitudes now.  As our van bumped along, everyone was staring at us. We were the only white people in the only car in the area. This is not something these very poor, darker-skinned people see everyday.  Children would call out the only English words they knew: “HOW ARE YOU? HOW ARE YOU?” Unlike the more privileged Kenyans who learn English during their average third grade education, the very poor only speak Swahili or in their tribal tongues.

The preceding impressions were my first impressions of the Nairobi slums. Having now completed my fourth tour of duty in this African nation, I now feel much more at home. My last trip was soon after the Kenyan national election that transformed the slums into a tribal warfare zone.  Reminiscent of Rwanda, Luo tribesman were using machetes to slaughter Kikuyu tribesman, and vice versa. The newspapers reported a few thousand killed, and at least half a million driven from their homes…obviously the reported numbers were far less than the actual statistics. Being in such traumatic circumstances, I remember my internal turmoil with such thoughts as “How can I possibly make any difference here? I came prepared, but how can any western world clinical skills help?  Who am I fooling?”  Yet, my intentions were to humbly contribute at least a sense of compassion and care. 

This was my fourth annual training, and I anticipated a joyful reunion with the Kenyan social workers. As we entered the gates of the compound, all the staff poured out through the classroom doors. We hugged and exchanged greetings. As we began our five-day training, it was quickly apparent that the recent national violence had brought about a desperate need for more skills to deal with trauma and loss.

One of the goals of this most recent trip was to train the participants in a step-by-step procedure to follow when helping traumatized adults and children. The mornings began with singing, and some “get to know you” activities…and we had fun! That was usually followed by a few introductory remarks of the teaching material, and then role play, followed by a question and answer time. Usually after a Kenyan coffee break (and Kenyan coffee is awesome!), participants were sent to practice in triads as I supervised. Debriefing time followed. These experiential workshops focused on subjects like evaluation and management of stress, loss, depression, as well as trauma treatment options. The trauma approaches that were taught included interventions using CBT and thought field therapy, and play therapy modalities. Needing something simple as well as progressive, I choose to train them with the Critical Incident Stress Management debriefing model. 

How did these Kenyan social workers and teachers respond? These participants were some of the best students: smart, articulate, full of questions, and excited to learn…and funny. Oh how they love to laugh! It was a challenge at first to know what is humorous to Kenyans…but it it’s amazing how people from different cultures laugh about similar things! And they got it! I remember doing one exercise with Thought Field Therapy in which I asked participants to take out a piece of paper and rate themselves subjectively on an anxiety scale. After guiding them through this tactical exercise, I was pleasantly surprised that about half of the participants had a substantial drop in felt anxiety!

The morning meetings were exciting and quite enjoyable, but it was only half of my task on this trip. Being part of a teaching team, another facilitator taught the second half of the day. The afternoons were designed for me to be available to meet with any of the Kenyan workers that desired personal trauma debriefing and/or counseling. When the director first asked me to make myself available, I was very hesitant. Think about it: an American in a strange land, half way around the world. My first concern was why would a Kenyan share something personal to someone that’s so culturally different. Also realizing the Kenyans mistrust of expiates (non-Kenyan, English speaking, self-serving people who have used and abused the native Kenyan population consistently for the past one hundred years), why would a Kenyan trust a white person? And, oh yes, the issue of my gender (Kenyan women do not usually share personal matters with the other gender…and over 65% of the workers were women). Another reason I was hesitant was because even though I had met these folks a few times before for annual trainings, it didn’t seem to be quite enough of a relationship for one to open up one’s deepest hurts. Lastly, and to be perfectly honest, how was I to know this trauma stuff that I learned in the USA  would really would work in a culturally different place like the slums of East Africa? 

When my afternoon availability was announced, there was a silence in the room. Everyone just stared at me. Yes, my doubts jumped to “I knew it!!!  That is too big of a jump for them!” But the gauntlet was laid, and they had the invitation to privately ask me for an appointment. 

We concluded our morning sessions, and all preceded to a prepared lunch of the traditional dish called gugali (think of a sticky, dry doughy substance) and vegetables. I picked up my lunch and sat down with a group to enjoy my meal. We laughed, joked, and told stories. To my surprise, as I went back to refill my drink, a social worker asked when she could meet with me. Wow. Then, a few minutes later, another; and later, another request. In conclusion, I ended up meeting with over half of the Kenyan workers.

What did we talk about? We talked about a variety of personal issues: dating, marriage, family-of-origin issues, anxiety, and some depression. One common theme that ran through all the meetings: loss and trauma. I heard descriptions of gut-wrenching, heinous atrocities — either experienced or observed. This left me feeling personally overwhelmed, but at the same time filled me with compassion. Thank goodness I found a sense of hope that only my personal faith could fuel. 

Due to confidentiality, I am choosing not to tell any specifics of their issues in this article.  I apologize. One thing about Kenyans is that their privacy is paramount. Each one without exception asked that I not share even a hint of their personal stories. To be given that trust, I am sure you can understand why I can’t elaborate.  

A great insight was gained from this most recent trip to East Africa: we all have one thing in common, our humanity. No matter how many differences we might have with other people groups, our humanness is a common denominator. Yet, the greatest insight I found was the universal usefulness of some of the recent innovations in trauma treatments.  They seemed to work great…even for a stranger in a strange land!

Ron Hall is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Trauma Specialist, and a Board Certified Professional Christian Counselor. He presently serves as Pastor of Encouragement at Christ’s Church of the Valley, San Dimas, CA where he oversees emotional care ministries. In addition to working overseas, he does trauma work in such settings as disaster services and with our veterans. If you would like to contact Ron, email him at


Written by traumalines

March 3, 2010 at 7:06 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Good post, thanks. Can you tell us about the third paragraph more?

    Noel Ferguson

    March 10, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    • Noel,

      I can put you in touch with the author if you’d like to learn more about it.

      Be sure to let me know, thanks,


      March 11, 2010 at 8:04 pm

  2. […] March edition of Trauma Lines also features an article written by ATSS member Ron Hall, CTS. “Stranger in a Strange Land” is an original article by Mr. Hall in which he shares his experiences of living, working and […]

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