Monthly Archives: August 2011

A Feeling that Doesn’t Fade

So much to say. And really no good way to put it all into words. A tired, four-person team has finally made it back to America – safe, sound, and certainly a little different than when we left.

We got back to our readers late on Monday because of our terribly long matatu ride from Kisumu (emphasis on terribly). This meant we only had half a day, and because we were so exhausted we left early too. I did finish two books though: Radical by David Platt, and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Voneghut, my favorite author. Then we headed home for dinner. The rest of the week with readers went by as usual too. I wish I had had more time to write too because there is no way, after a week as long as this one, to remember all the funny things that we heard from the Kenyans during our reading sessions. I do, however, distinctly remember a few. Ginora asked me if it was true what she seen on her African American friend’s facebook: “Are the Israelis really becoming a big problem in America? I heard they are trying to take over the American parliament.” I responded to her question with a short lesson in American Government and Politics which I am sure fell on deaf ears. My response was followed by an equally difficult question in an entirely different arena, also gathered from her African American friend’s facebook: “Is it true that African Americans are not allowed to get jobs easily in America because they are not allowed to get opportunities at education?” Which is more perplexing to discuss with someone from an entirely different culture in fifth-grade-level-English, American Government or American racism? The answer is yes.

The week also brought meal invitation after meal invitation. We ate dinner at George’s house on Wednesday, dinner at Lule’s on Thursday, lunch at Matilda and Franck’s on Friday, and dinner with Susan and her godfather later that night. Every meal was wonderful and each followed a similar procedure. Light conversation and laughter upon arrival. Pastor Paul arrives. Business-meeting-style fellowship begins: prayer, two songs of praise in Swahili, two songs presented by the Americans, a devotional given by an unsuspecting member of the American team, two more songs of praise, a word of prayer, closing comments of welcome and thanks by Kenyans followed by the same by the Americans. I enjoyed the fellowships. It is refreshing to be so constantly immersed in meditation. But we agreed that PP runs everything with a businessman mindset. The meetings became almost robotic, with the exception of Franck and Matilda’s, for which PP was absent. I did however, discover my favorite African drink – Pineapple Cordial. I made sure to pack a solid liter on my check in.

Early Saturday morning I woke up to a noise at our window. Franck and Matilda had warned us many times to be cautious of intruders, especially at that window. Even despite the steel meshwork of rebar framing, the holes were large enough to get a hand through the windows, which were right by our beds. I got up to investigate and upon finding nothing of interest, simply went to the bathroom and went back to bed. No more than five minutes later I heard the sound again. I sat up, anxiously accepting the fact that I would have to deal with whoever was there. To my relief it was just Abbie. She was putting up decorations for Greg’s twenty-first. Unfortunately it was a sick Greg who woke up with surprise to a room glistening with streamers, a happy birthday sign, and shiny, cardboard balloons. It didn’t put a big damper on the mood though. We went into town to do some last minute shopping with Franck, Matilda and David, and because there was no way to make the cake a surprise, we took Greg with us to get it. The big cake was too expensive, but that was just as well because it seems that the one that best fit our needs and feelings towards Greg was a heart. We asked that “We Love You, Greg!” be written on the cake. Three minutes later the cake came back, “We Love You Guy.” The baker sensed from the abundant laughter that he had made a mistake, but we refused to let him change it. This really was the only message that really summed up, in birthday form, everything that we had experienced in Kenya. A number of friends packed in the small living room to help us celebrate. A few hours after the cake came Fanis’ dinner. And since we had all been living in Africa for a month, we had very few qualms about what we ate. Such was the case with a the fish that Fanis served. The fish that had never, in the week or so since it was caught, been in a refrigerator. The fish that had suffered a thirteen-hour bus ride with Fanis, probably in a plastic bag. The fish that would ruin my night!

Throughout the night, I did not sleep well. I awoke a number of times nauseated, coaxing myself back into a clammy sleep through deep breathing patterns that may have resembled a woman trying to give birth. Finally in the morning, it was too much to deal with. I woke up and told Abbie I wasn’t feeling well. As we began discussing probable causes the thought of the previous night’s fish did me in. I practically jumped through the mosquito netting to get clothes on and sprinted outside just in time to greet Kaitlyn in the front yard with a mouthful of the beautiful stuff. As it turned out, she had a similar experience in the bathroom in the washpail about thirty minutes earlier. Greg too had been sick, making a holy mess of that poor bathroom. Fanis and Kevin worked hard though, and that bathroom never stayed dirty for more than five minutes.

We all opted out of breakfast and arrived at the church by 9:30. It was precisely then that Francis told me that I would again be giving the sermon. We were a sad looking bunch. I gave the lesson and apologized for our lack-luster appearances. Just as I was finishing, Abbie too got sick. Except since there was someone in the bathroom, she left her mark on the bathroom door. It was probably just as well, since inside the small room was the mark I had left inside. Aiming can be hard when your sick and your target is a small hole. I had not passed my target practice with flying colors. A number of the church women rushed to escort Abbie to the church office to be comforted, Susan repeating over and over, “Satan is a liar! Satan is a LIAR!” I guess that was supposed to do something to quell off the nausea. To close the service we all received miniature giraffes and leopards from the church members. As I got up to give my closing remarks to the church, Jerry the Giraffe and Larry the Leopard accompanied me to well-wish the congregation.

After church we went home to some biscuits and pineapple juice that none of us accepted. Then we went to the airport where we were seen off by twenty of our friends in true Kenyan fashion. On our way home I reflected on the trip.

In so many ways the life in Kenya was obviously so very different than my life in America ever will be. I was able to reflect, meditate, and grow so much in Kenya. So how do I take what I learned there and apply it to what I know here? And how do I accept that I will not have that type of time to meditate every day when I get back, but still motivate myself to grow in similar ways? How will I re-acclimate to my life in the states? Don’t get me wrong, I know this was a life changing experience in some ways, but I don’t expect to come back a completely different person in every aspect. And I don’t want to re-apply the same clichés that have already been repeated incessantly. Obviously there is more to wealth than money. Clearly these people can be just as strong in Christ as we are even with less. Of course life is different and that works for them. I don’t want to pretend like these were things that were life-changing things that I didn’t at all anticipate observing. I have heard these clichés before, I have lived these clichés in other places before, I’ve probably even said these types of things before. I want to take back the more subtle things. I want to truly be a student of the blatant and subtle differences in how relationships are formed and interactions take place. And I want to truly be a scholar of not only the cultural education this specific opportunity provides for me, but also what this specific culture says about other cultures and other people.

It’s so interesting how experiences and interactions affect different people in different ways. On the flight between Addis Ababa and Washington DC I overheard and participated in conversations with some of these people. One girl told me she had enjoyed her time in Tanzania but would never want to have to live in any place like that. She talked about the lifestyle in a sympathetic, almost demeaning way. It was as if she were talking about a group of poor dogs with rabies. I heard others bleating about how disgusted they were with America and Americans – their self-servicing, self-centered lifestyle. I harmonize with both sides in small ways, but feel that both are too parochial to fully appreciate the richness of the gap between our lifestyles. Many in Africa could certainly reap benefits in health and comfort if they adopted cleaner living standards and education. And many in America would be a lot less ignorant if they realized the importance and truth of the saying, “Money isn’t everything.” Still, I’m not ready to buy everyone in Africa a car, refrigerator and trashcan, or argue that every American should empty their bank accounts and trash their 401(k). Both cultures are, for the most part, comfortable living how they live for simply that reason: it is how they live. It is how they have learned to live. To act like either needs to completely change the way they live is as culturally insensitive as not acknowledging the difference at all. Different cultures are just different. That’s all there is to it, and that’s okay.

It’s been a wonderful trip. Sitting in my living room with my sister though, I’m glad to be home. But this summer’s undertakings have left on me a lasting impression that will never fade.

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You will bring fish for me?

We slipped though the rest of our week without any extraordinary occurrences. When Thursday came, it was time finally to embark on our much-anticipated trip to Kisumu by Lake Victoria. Most who heard of our plans to travel there might as well have heard that the President of Kenya was scheduled to visit them personally and offer them some great reward. Most of the people we are closest to are from the Luo tribe, which comes from the Kisumu region. Therefore, most of them have family and a homestead there. Hearing of someone going to their region makes them so very happy. So then, it was after our lunch on Thursday that we embarked, but not before much ceremonial procession. Cynthia joined us for lunch and asked that we bring her back a fish. This was not an original request, as six others had already asked the same thing. Another thing about the Luo people: as they come from the lake region, they all, every last one of them, love fresh fish. By six it was enough with the pleasantries. We bluntly and blatantly denied her request. In true Kenyan form she failed to understand our most clear of vetoes and continued to ask. Our answer was unmoving and firm. Then, after a short devotional, an encouragement, two songs, a prayer, and two rounds of Kenyan hugs (which consist of a handshake and an weak and uneasy embrace on eachside of the head) we were on our way to the bus station for a thirteen-hour bus ride embarking at five. “We” consisted of Greg, Abbie, Kaitlyn, Pastor Paul, John, Matilda, Ferdinand, and myself.

When we got to the station the Pastor assigned our seats. John, Matilda and Ferdinand were on a separate bus. The American’s assigned seats were all four next to each other and thus we took up an entire row in the “luxury” liner. The Pastor was on an Island in the row in front of us. This did away with the game of rock-paper-scissors that had previously assigned a forlorn Greg the seat next to Paul. Instead, we sat behind the large Pastor and watched him encroach on his neighbor throughout the night like a broken bobblehead. We watched the process replay like a broken record: Paul’s head begins to sway, finds a resting place on the most proximate shoulder, the shoulder’s owner coughs, moves, pokes, etc., Paul wakes up for just long enough to start again. We could not help but laugh in sympathetic understanding, as this process was only a metaphor for our social interactions with the man. So sadly unaware he can be. As the Pastor Paul obtruded, I unfortunately did the same. My seat was broken, so every twenty minutes it was back in the reclining position on the woman behind me. We had been warned a number of times, too, that we would want to pack sweaters for the “cold” bus ride. We did not, but others on the bus certainly had. The bus reached around sixty degrees Fahrenheit and the Kenyans had come equipped as a Texan might have come equipped for a Penguin-watching expedition in Antarctica.

After a long night’s ride, we reached Kisumu. We went to Paul’s sister’s house where we were given breakfast and a short nap. After about three and a half seconds of sleep we were gathered into a matatu to go to Kisumu’s museum of Luo history. There were interesting things there like a traditional village set-up, a collection of ancient hunting items and other recovered artifacts, a small petting zoo, a snake collection, and a 100-year-old tortoise. Paul made sure to point out that the tortoise was, in fact, a tortoise and that the snakes were, in fact, snakes. Good thing he told us – we don’t have those types of things in America. In all actuality the museum was pretty cool.

We were whisked away next to Paul’s sister-in-law’s house. There were probably three hundred children or so there. We were treated to fresh sugarcane and a wonderful meal. Here I realized why all the Kenyans asked that we bring back a fish for them. The fresh tilapia was amazing. I did feel the need to apologize to it as I swallowed, as its sad little eyes asked simply, “Why?” As we ate, little chicklings played with our feet and defecated on the floor. Here in Kenya, all creatures are welcome. Stray dogs, cats, chickens, everything but rats. The dogs, we were told, ward off theifs, the cats catch the rats, the chickens, er., run around being chickens. After lunch, I tinkered a little with a miserable excuse of a car that the family wished for me to fix. I told them I was no mechanic, had only a little understanding. It would not have helped if I were though. The car’s heart was in its stomach. Inside the cab were the engine block, radiator, header, cams, and various other tubings, all rusted and dirty. We played a little with a few of the children and then were on our way.

We left at what seemed like a reasonable time, and again after what may have been hours of ceremony. Somehow though, it was not until deep into the dark that we got close to our nighttime destination, John’s homestead. When we did get close, we realized the matatu wouldn’t take us all the way. Or maybe the driver was just tired of responding to John’s ridiculous demands. We had already beckoned the poor fifteen-foot machine through ruts, rocks and drops that sounded like they had all but removed all the important parts from the bottom of the vehicle. Because it had been raining the terrain near the village was impassable by our current ride. Four motorcycles came to rescue our things and us now. As we road it began to pour. I road with Ferdinand, and I began to think that the rainwater would not be the only liquid drenching me. Ferdinand sputtered on and on about his fear of a wreck. Ferdinand is eighteen and just about to finish his last year of high school. He is kind, joyful, innocent, and silly. Finally we reached our destination, a mud house with no electricity or running water. We thanked the lord for our safe journey through the rain, and praised him as we ate popcorn and drank warm chai. Then we headed to John’s simba. Simba is a Swahili word meaning lion, and it is also the word used for a son’s one-room house on his parent’s homestead. John’s simba has the exact same layout as all others, as called for in Luo tradition. There is one large room, maybe 12’ x 8’, and one small room separated from the larger by a doorway with no door, maybe 6’ x 8’. There are no windows. Greg and I slept in the smaller room on a thatch pad on the dirt floor. We were tired and it was comfortable.

I awoke the next morning and stepped outside the simba to relieve myself behind the small building. I would have expected that the Pastor would have heard and waited to talk to me until I was done. Wrong. I would have expected that once he didn’t hear, he would have seen what I was doing and waited to talk to me until I was done. Wrong again. I would have expected that he would at least avert his eyes from me, as he was getting a full frontal view. Strike three. I opened my morning with yet another PP awkward interaction. Then John, Greg and I went to pick some corn for breakfast. We stayed around for lunch as well and then carried on.

Afternoon brought us to Pastor Paul’s beautiful homestead overlooking a valley. It was here that we learned how to slaughter, skin, and separate a goat. After the show, we took a hike through a village with a number of mud houses as the town drunk followed and tried to tell us stories. Our journey finally lost him as we proceeded up a rock hill to a viewpoint, where the Kenyans insisted that we take silly pictures, something they have become very fond of. Afterwards we headed back to the Pastor’s homestead. I began playing with Christian, Pastor Paul’s youngest, but soon learned that was a mistake. He was a fruit fly for the rest of the night, no less unaware or unwelcome in our presence than the Pastor himself. Then we headed in for a meal of all types of goat including, of course, intestine, which I was asked to eat. Then we had a lantern-lit devotional and went to bed in the only real beds we have had since we’ve been there. We were very grateful, even though Greg’s double, which was balanced on the top bunk of a twin sized bunk bed, was coming through the boards at me. The next morning we were up and ready when we had planned to leave, at 8:30. Of course we didn’t leave then. At 10:15 we started church with around thirty others in the Pastor’s living room. I learned after a few songs and prayers that I was going to give the sermon. I’m so glad I had time to plan. I stalled as I began by thanking the family for welcoming us into their home. Then I gave a lesson about putting God before everything else, no matter what it means based around Ezekiel 2. I think it went pretty well as far as impromptu sermons go. Another extended goodbye and then we headed on.

We made our way through a labyrinth of cornfields and cattle to Matilda’s homestead, the humble plantation of her eighty five year old grandmother. The active old woman lit up as Matilda approached with her guests. This reunion broke four years of separation. After catching up and teatime, Matilda led us to Lake Victoria. The second largest freshwater lake in the world looked more like an ocean, as we stood like ants on the shore of the titan. It was a real mess so we didn’t swim, but I did meet a frustrated teenager working on his uncooperative bicycle. The sad machine had tired of its breaks, cast them off, and spit the bolt connecting them into the sand. Ferdinand located the misplaced bolt but this did not bring the owner any closer to his solution, so I was able to help. This was a less daunting task than the crippled car of earlier and I was more than happy to be of service. After the bike was fixed we headed back to the homestead. We enjoyed the rest of the night together and then headed to Matilda’s Uncle Barak’s house where we stayed for the night. When I woke up the next morning I sad reading on Barak’s couch. He came in to sit down. After about five minutes he asked me about the church. This sparked a two hour conversation that ultimately took us through the glory of God’s love in spite of the sinful actions of God’s people. We went to take breakfast and then headed to say goodbye to Barak before heading for our bus scheduled to leave at twelve. Barak had decided to become baptized though, so we decided to miss our bus! While we waited for Paul to come back and witness, I talked more with Barak. I took him through a watery version of every book in the Bible and what it meant to really be a Christian. When PP arrived we headed once again to the nasty lake. Only it wasn’t so nasty with such an amazing task at hand. We prayed and sang and then I led Barak out into the water, my first Baptism! As we walked back Barak was beaming. He was a child on Christmas and he had received the best gift of all! I continued to explain until we reached the house, then we left.

We got to the bus station at around six, but because of more ceremonies at John’s aunt’s house where we ate dinner, we missed another bus at five. We would have to take a cramped matatu for the thirteen hour drive home. And the matatu was late. As it became dark, normal, well-to-do Kenyans were replaced by roustabouts and drunks. Roustabouts and drunks who flocked around the “rich” Americans. One particular man, obviously on something much stronger than alcohol, performed a show for us. He slinked around pointing, expressing, mouthing, and encroaching. Greg and I put ourselves between him and the girls. When he was about three feet away I finally asked him if we had a problem. He backed up but stuck around. Someone broke a bottle to our right and behind us men whispered back and forth. A matatu enshrined in red and green Christmas lights pulled up blaring music. I thought a group of Mexican-Americans had moved to Kisumu, and we laughed at the absurd prospect anyone who would ever have to ride on such a creation. Then we rode on that creation. (Don’t worry, I’m dating a Mexican-American, so I can make those jokes.) I sat in a space big enough to comfortably contain a house cat for the entirety of the ride which lasted from 8pm to 12pm the next day. A tweeter pierced my ear, and a large woofer blatted at my leg as we rode and listened to some type of Kenyan rap at the highest possible volume. We made a stop at a restaurant where I bought two lovely sweaters for my next Christmastime ugly sweater party, and another stop at Voi to eat again. Then we completed the journey with a simply breathtaking tour of the red Kenyan plain and its villaged inhabitants. What a journey!