Kenya to Arizona: An Airman’s perspective on diversity

  • Published
  • By SSgt. Winnie Adipo
  • 56th Fighter Wing

I never thought I would find myself outside of Kenya, until, one day when I woke up to a “spam” email that said, “Congratulations! You have been randomly selected for the Diversity Visa Lottery.”

Every year in October, the United States government opens a special application to receive permanent residency, commonly known as a ‘Green Card.’  It's called the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program and it’s an annual lottery that makes a limited number of visas available to people who meet strict eligibility requirements from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. Every year, the program has many interested applicants around the world and very few get selected.

During the rotation I applied in, 11 million people applied and only 50 thousand were selected. I knew about the program, but never considered applying because so many people never got it.

In 2014, I had a friend who was applying and with their encouragement I gave it a shot on the last day before the deadline. The following year, I received the notification email despite the email address being foreign and mistakenly being delivered as spam. Fast forward and I arrived in Washington State, where my culture shock and exposure to all kinds of diversity began.

I was born and raised in Kenya, East Africa, in a medium sized family of seven with four siblings. Most of my upbringing was in the coastal part of Kenya in a city called Mombasa. We lived in a brick house that had no water or electricity until I was 14. I spent my childhood going to a well to fetch water, doing laundry by hand, playing with other kids in the sand, and exploring the nearby bushes in search of wild fruits. We were a happy family that went out to church activities and attended lots of fun yearly fairs.

I started embracing cultural humility and acceptance of people from different ethnic groups at a very young age. Kenya has more than 44 tribes who speak different languages and have different cultural backgrounds. My parents were from two different tribes and that meant we had to learn both cultures, languages, and accept the views of different people. Additionally, the majority of Kenyans are Christian, but we were brought up in Mombasa, which is a predominantly Muslim city.

I am grateful for all my childhood experiences and my life in Kenya, as they have shaped me to be the person I am today and made me more patient and accepting.

When I started life in Tacoma, Washington, everything I had embraced and learned had to be put on pause. I had to relearn almost everything. However, I am grateful for all my childhood experiences and my life in Kenya, as they have shaped me to be the person I am today and made me more patient and accepting. My “official” race here is African American, but if I were to check the boxes, nothing matches who I am on the inside. Yes, we all have the same complexion, but our cultural backgrounds are totally different.

My cultural humility and patience with people of different walks of life were elevated again when I joined the military. Cultural diversity supports the idea that every person can make a unique and positive contribution to the larger society because of, rather than despite, their differences.

The military has exposed me to not only people of different cultures, but different belief systems and sexual orientations. They say, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. I have found the truth in this, because if we measure anyone’s ability from how they look or how they talk, we would miss out on incorporating brilliant minds that could help build our military force.

We can learn from one another, but first we must have a level of understanding about each other in order to facilitate collaboration and cooperation. We should all strive to search and learn about different people, orientations, and cultures in this world, but most importantly those that are connected with the people around us. For instance, when people assume things like “Africa is a country”, it just shows a level of exposure that can continue to be developed.

They say, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Learning about other cultures helps us understand different perspectives within the world in which we live and helps dispel negative stereotypes and personal biases about different groups. Cultural diversity helps us recognize and respect “ways of being” that are not necessarily our own, so that when we interact with others, we can build bridges of trust, respect, and understanding across cultures.

I will end this by saying, diversity makes our world a more interesting place to live.  People from diverse cultures contribute language, skills, new ways of thinking, new knowledge, and different experiences that make life richer and contribute to making the world a better place.