“It was totally different than we thought – but it worked better,” is how Dominik Karolak describes the three years he and his family spent in L’Arche Nyahururu, Kenya, to offer the support that only comes from good solid experience in other communities. His wife, Agnieszka, with leadership experience in Belgium, Poland and UK, agrees: “coming from the UK, we had the desire to go and learn; and if we could share our own experience then so much the better. But once there, we realised that taking a back seat was not so easy after all. It was only in going to L’Arche Nyahururu, that we realised how much our home culture has shaped us: for instance, even after many years in L’Arche how much we are still very ‘task-focussed’ rather than ‘relationship focussed.’ We had a lot to learn?”
And to teach. Agnieszka’s role, apart from taking on house-leadership in the newly opened house, was to be assistant leader, in support of Maurice, the new leader, while Dominik’s experience was put to good use in the recently established workshop. Not forgetting little Sarah, then just two years old, whose role was simply to make a lot of new friends!
But teaching demands trust, and trust needs time, “especially given colonialism’s dark and complex legacy: it affected us all.” Dominik: “if we had stayed in Nyahururu just one year it would have been a waste of time on both sides- since it was only after the first year that our working together really took off!” Fortunately, in this settling-in period, they could always turn to Fr. Gabriel, the Italian priest whose long experience in the St. Martin’s Society had led to the invitation to L’Arche to come to Nyahururu. “I cannot imagine how we would have got by without him” Agnieszka continues: he was a cultural bridge for us to really understand the local ways: how meetings work, for instance, which was different to what we were used to.” The turning point was a pilgrimage that Agnieszka and Dominik organised for the community. “It opened a new page in our relationship, we began to grow deeper in friendship and trust”.
Dominik and Agnieszka are now back in L’Arche Brecon, UK after full three years in Kenya. The geography and climate may have changed, but not their sense of mission: “For us, this has been far more than just a passing experience – our relationship with Nyahururu continues to bring life, and who knows, this may lead to the two communities becoming twins?”
Final thoughts? “It is very important to have a sending community, a place to call home; we returned to Brecon with a deeper sense of belonging in the family of L’Arche.”