Top ministry moments – #8: Kenya (and other mission trips)

kenya

Crowds waiting to see the doctors in Kenya

Even though I’ve been to numerous domestic mission destinations with the youth group, have traveled to Haiti three times and later went to Madagascar, the mercy medical team trip to Kenya in 2013 stands out for me. First, it was our first trip to Africa. Second, I was immersed in a much different culture that expanded my view of the world and its people.

We received a very good orientation in the culture of Kenya when we arrived. One lesson was about public displays of affection. Men and women, even married couples, would not walk hand-in-hand in that culture. However, two men who were good friends would. I didn’t think much about this dynamic until I began working closely with the local bishop of the church where our mercy medical clinic was. As we walked around the church grounds and talked about the masses of people lined up to see the doctors, we held hands, something I hadn’t exactly pictured myself doing in my pre-trip preparation.

As the week went by, the growing number of people who came for care became unruly. For example, when I simply wanted to hand out the toothbrushes and toothpaste we had brought with us, a mob of men, women and children rushed up, grabbed everything out of my hands and ran off. As the bishop and and I talked and watched the crowds, he said, “This is terrible. We can’t have this.” And then he turned to me and said, “Let’s go have some sugar cane.” He had brought some with him from his brother’s farm. He skillfully used a large machete to chop up some pieces for us to chew on under the shade of a nearby tree. I learned a valuable lesson that day. When life seems out of control, you don’t have to step in and fix it. You might just need a break and a little sugar cane to gnaw. (I seem to remember Jesus also taking breaks when the crowds following him became overwhelming.)

I had the opportunity to preach in Kenya the Sunday I was there. It was the first time I had ever preached with an interpreter. We visited an elephant orphanage, got to go on safari and saw hippos in the wild. It was a memorable ministry moment in so many ways.

I think you should go

 

As my wife prepares to lead another mercy medical team to Kenya in November, recent events have given us cause to reflect on the risks involved with her return to that country. Since her first trip there in July, a very carefully planned terrorist attack on the West Gate shopping mall in Nairobi has created concerns about her returning to that country. More than a few family members and friends have discouraged her from going. The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod leadership is in a wait and see mode until later in October. Our missionary friends on the ground in Kenya are safe, cautious and encouraging so far. And her husband? Well, here's why I am encouraging her to go as planned.

First, staying home is not necessarily a safer option. With recent shootings at the Washington Navy Yard and Newtown, CT and the bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, there have been more problems at home than abroad. Those headlines don't include the narrow misses, planned attacks that were averted by authorities. Those dangers are an ever-present reality in our world, in both cities and rural towns.

Second, travel security will be on higher alert now than before. You will see it everywhere in Nairobi. Plus, once you fly in, you will only be there for a short time before you head out to a rural village in the west. Missionaries and church leaders are already planning for your safety.

Third, Jesus told us not to be afraid of “those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). If you feel called by God to do this kind of work, his commission must carry the most weight in any decision to go or not.

The real danger? It doesn't come from a flesh and blood enemy. We're in a spiritual battle, and if the enemy can convince us to stay home rather than go to the ends of the earth, then we lose, and so do so many others who desperately need some good news — the good news — that the church brings into the world.

And, if it's your time, wouldn't you rather go out making a difference instead of just sitting around the house watching reruns? Maybe you call that foolish. Maybe you call it faith. But while some might be afraid of dying, maybe we need to more afraid of never really living.

Kenya retrospective

I’ve been home from our trip to Africa for four days. Time to reflect on the twelve days I spent in Kenya.

One of the first things that impressed me about Kenya was how similar it was to Haiti. From the way buildings were constructed to swarms of motorcycles giving people rides to makeshift roadside stands selling anything you can imagine, I often had to remind myself I wasn’t in the Caribbean, but on a different continent. One of our friends in leadership told me that Haiti is much more African than most Caribbean nations. I still don’t know why that is.

Photo Jul 19, 10 04 23 PM Photo Jul 19, 10 04 46 PMI was surprised at how much of the English language we encountered in print. While the majority of the people and worked among spoke a dialect of Swahili, the newspapers, advertisements and signs were just about all in English. While sitting at lunch in one of the school classrooms where we were working, I peeked inside one of the teacher’s lesson plan books, and found a physics test — in English.

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Photo Jul 22, 9 40 45 PM

Every inch of available soil was used to grow food in the Kisii region. Corn, carrots, kale, avocados and bananas grew in between the small plots of ground where the cows and goats grazed. A wide variety of fruits and vegetables was available in every market we passed. Away from Nairobi, it was definitely an agricultural society.

Everything we had to eat was prepared fresh. This city boy was surprised to hear the sound of chickens coming from the kitchen. I was also surprised one day when our van suddenly pulled to the side of the road and one of our interpreters jumped off to purchase a live chicken, which was then tied up and put in a box on top of the van. We may have had chicken at every meal, but it was always fresh.

Photo Jul 23, 12 42 25 AM

IMG_6636We had ugali at every meal, too. A thick, corn meal dough substance was carved into thick slices and added to our bowls each noon and evening meal. Late in the week, I discovered that our hosts actually used it as scoop to eat the rest of their food.

At our first meeting with our missionary hosts, we received a little cross-cultural training, which turned out to be very useful. In the rural areas of Kenya, male-female couples never held hands in public. However, two men would, a sign of close friendship. I soon found myself walking hand-in-hand with many men, from the bishop to the elders of the church, a very new and different custom for me.

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Western influence was very evident, even in some very traditional settings. Cell phones were ubiquitous. Traditional Maasai villagers wore some very nice American sandals. American dollars were as readily accepted as Kenyan shillings. And everyone had an email address to share with me.

I am very thankful for the insights of Rev. Shauen Trump, who directs LCMS work in Kenya and Tanzania. He told our team that even if all we did was show up, we would have made a tremendous impact on the church and people there. Know that we would spend our time and money to come all that way to be with them made them feel significant, loved, and a part of a Christian church that really does stretch to the ends of the earth. As it happens, we were also able to bring some medical care, the gospel and prayer with us, too.

Of course, it made an impact on me and our team as well. We traveled all that way and found a joyful, vibrant and faithful worshiping partner church, who welcomed us, loved us and reminded us that relationships are often more important that schedules and tasks. Definitely a blessing.

Out of Africa (July 24)

Final day in Africa was outstanding. First stop was the Elephant orphanage, established about twenty years ago to rescue baby elephants who had been orphaned when their parents were killed by poachers for their tusks. They currently have 25 in the preserve, ranging in age from 3 months to 5 years. Each elephants stays there from seven to twelve years, and every one returns to the wild. So far, 150 have been rescued and returned to their native habitat. Incredible place, and we watched them from less than ten yards away.

 

 

After a quick lunch at the Java House and a disappointing walks around a Nairobi “mall” we went to the Kizuri bead and pottery factory. There we saw the amazing work of single moms who make absolutely beautiful bead and pottery creations to support their families. Yes, we shopped.

We met with Pastor Trump, the director of missions in Kenya and Tanzania, and debriefed out medical mission. We had suggestions, he had encouragement, and it was good to be with Shara and Catherine, our coordinators one last time.

After a quick supper at the mission house we headed for the airport. Always a hassle, we made it through many levels emigration and security, arriving at our gate with time to relax before boarding the first leg of our flight home.

Some of the team are having stomach problems and I'm losing my voice after battling a sore throat these last few days. We are plenty tired, so sleep should come easily and I am already working on my sermon for Sunday.

Farewell, Kenya, for now.

 

Kenya (July 23 back to Nairobi)

We got to sleep in a little later today and stopped at a Maasai village on the way back to Nairobi. They showed us around their homes, let us take pictures and of course offered to sell us an endless array of carved animals, masks, bowls and jewelry. Traditional Maasai dress, lifestyle and customs meets the traditional tourist stop.

We then drove to Nairobi, about five hours on unpaved and then paved highway. We stopped for lunch at another souvenir-type place, and got back to the Scripture Mission Center around 5.

We went out for supper at Tamambo Karen Blixen Restaurant in Nairobi. Awesome meal. Karen Blixen is the woman who was played by Merrill Streep in the movie “Out of Africa.”

Tomorrow: Elephant orphanage, more shopping and we begin our flight home.

 

 

 

 

Kenya (July 22 Maasai Mara safari part 2)

Happy birthday to me!

The day started out pretty much the same as yesterday: up early to fight our way to the breakfast table, and a 7:30 departure back into the park. We took a different route through the park this time, in search of some more big cats and larger herds of elephants.

We did see a couple more lions eating the last of a wildebeest before beginning their “honeymoon,” an intense week of mating. I think there were more zebra and wildebeest on the hillsides than yesterday, as far as the eye can see.

 

We rode and rode and rode, not really finding much. We did come across a lone bull elephant and got very close for pictures. Then we drove all the way out to a place where the borders of Kenya and Tanzania come together and we all stood in both countries simultaneously.

 

Driving just a little ways into Tanzania, we did a short walking tour down to the Mara river where we could see two large families of hippos. Hippos are very dangerous animals, coming out of the water at night to feed, so you only go to see them in the afternoon, when they stay in the water to keep cool. A armed guide took us down the river to see them and assure our safety. The closer we got, the more the hippos bellowed, letting us know we were close enough. Walking the other way up the river we saw a few crocodiles sleeping on the bank and some monkeys playing in the trees. Great sightings!

 

 

Back in the vans, we drove and drove and drove, stopping periodically to view some vultures, giraffes and wildebeest. Finally, just toward the end of the day, we saw three elephants with a baby who was nursing. It was a nice way to end the day.

 

 

 

Kenya (July 21: Maasai Mara safari)

Today was safari day number one. Breakfast was served at 6:30 am. It was tough fighting our way through a group of very rude Italians to try and get some food. On lady took almost a whole loaf of toast from the serving table.

We left for safari with our two drivers, Simon and Edwin, about 7:30. We rode in converted Toyota Land Cruisers that had pop-up tops so we could stand up and see out. As we waited to enter the park, Maasai women pushed their wares on us – bracelets, woven shawls and wooden carvings.

We rode around the park in search of animals all day, with just a short break for lunch. We saw zebra, Cape buffalo, giraffes, elephants, gazelle, elian, topi, zebu, hippos, crocodiles, lions, baboons and thousands of wildebeests. We tried to catch the wildebeests crossing the river, but the presence of too many safari vans scared them off. The lions we saw were mating, which made them very docile and easy to photograph.

The park and views were amazing, but the day was grueling. I wish we could have gotten out and walked around more, but that was impossible.

Tomorrow, a different route through Maasi Mara.

 

Kenya (July 20 at Mountain Rock Safari Camp, Kenya)

We said our goodbyes and left Kisii about 9:30 am, driving as far as Norok, where we met our safari guides/drivers. They then took us to the safari camp, about a two hour drive, mostly off road.

It was much different than what we expected. We are sleeping in permanent tents on concrete slabs, each with a regular bathroom attached. These are the upgraded accommodations. There are other tents on the ground with out door bathrooms, and still other tent sites. Not fancy, but softer beds, better showers, and better food than the hotel in Kisii.

We've already seen some animals on the way here: gazelle, zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, and cebus. This part of Africa looks like what you would expect. Dry, expansive plains, Masai huts here and there, acacia trees and mountains off in the distance.

Supper was beef stew, mashed potatoes, green beans and carrots, pasta, cabbage and fruit. The fruit wasn't as good as Kisii, but there's hardly any agriculture where we are. Oh, and most importantly, half liter bottles of Tusker beer, which tasted great.

Rule number one here: zip up your tent. We already saw monkeys stealing stuff from a tent that someone hadn't zipped up all the way.

We are out of here bright and early tomorrow morning for an all day outing. Others we talked to today said they saw a herd of over 80 elephants and countless wildebeest, which are running right now.

 

Kenya (July 19 in Kisii)

The day started in an unusual way, to the sound of someone power washing the outside walls and the noisy talk and clattering tubs of the laundry people, all about 5:30 am. When we went down to the dining room, it was dark, and no one was around. I guess the staff was pretty tired this morning, too. Our team was dragging.

It was a pleasant ride to the church because the road had been graded. The people waiting with numbers from last night were orderly, at least to start. I could tell we were in trouble, though. Even though we worked hard to cap today's number, there were just too many there already. And people started calling in favors. The bishop's friends from Tanzania. Students from the boarding school next door. A mother with a sick child. And of course, all of them are “not well.”

Forgive my cynicism, but most of the people were perfectly fine, suffering a few aches and pains that I would consider normal. But because white American “doctors” had come, everyone was ill and needed to see them. So much so that they started arriving at 5 am to get in line.

The people in line quickly devised ways to hack the system. Single adults from the day before suddenly had four children in tow. Others forged numbers to try and get a place in line. A promise of only ten students grew to sixteen. Yes, my compassion lagged and my annoyance grew.

Members of the team had brought toothbrushes and toothpaste, with the hopes of doing a little dental education. Didn't happen. As the day drew to a close, I decided to just give them away to those watching. The first batch I gave out went fine. The second bag of toothbrushes was torn from my hand as a mob literally fought to get their hands on them. I doubt if some even knew what they were grabbing. The dental clinic was over. No way I was going back in there.

We got to see some ver interesting conditions again today. I prayed with several moms whose children were very, very sick. I wish we could have filtered out the ” not feeling well” people to spend time with those who really needed some extraordinary care. But how do you do that?

At the end of the day, we saw those from the church who had helped us during the week, so we didn't get done and packed up till nearly 7 pm. After supper, we saw the hotel staff before we finally called the clinic “closed.”

Tomorrow we head to Nairobi, and some of us will split off for a safari, while a few head home. Time to relax a little now and decompress.