Tuesday, May 31, 2011

City Versus Country

Since spending the weekend in rural Kenya and spending another day in Kibera, I've been thinking a lot about the dichotomy between the city life and country life I've seen in Kenya. Here's my breakdown of the situation. In the country, people were probably living on just as little as the people in Kibera do every day, but the quality of life seemed astronomically better. They were still living in huts without electricity or running water, but the values of reverence, community, and family were amazingly present where they aren't in Kibera. People took joy in their labor, and though they live simply, they had what they needed to support their families because of the work they put in to use the land and natural resources. The homes were kept neat and the families worked together to take care of things.
In Kibera, people just want to get out. Its all a competition because they can look across the skyline and see Nairobi skyscrapers from the business district - thats where the money is at, and to put it bluntly, they know they don't got it. Some of the high school students I was talking to last week were explaining to me that they spend about 11 hours in school each day and have to do homework afterwards still. The sad bit is that they know this is their only chance of getting out of Kibera, so they work hard every day, but still aren't guaranteed to get out because they have to get grades competitive enough to get them accepted into college. Once they get accepted, they have figure out how in the world they will pay for college - keep in mind these are people in extreme poverty, some orphaned, so parents helping them pay is not an option. Most high school students end up spending two years after completion of secondary school to find sponsorships for their higher education. This may be capitalism, but I know that at age 15 or 16, I never once had to consider any of these things. Maybe I didn't have a college lined up for me or a job secured afterwards either, but I never had fear of being stuck in a slum for the rest of my life.
So what is it about the slum that makes it so much different? Why do kids want to get out so badly? Well basically, there is a complete lack of that family structure, system of values, or sense of unity brought in through the community. Those that don't make it through school are "doomed" to be in the slums for life, so many give up. Not working is the absolute worst thing that can happen because it then brings in a host of other vices that can latch on to their lives (i.e. alcoholism, acts of rape, depression, etc). Not to mention, if they have a family or children, there will no longer be any way to support them. Some do try to work, but the competitive nature causes many of the small businesses in the slums to inevitably be an inconsistent source of income.
I don't know if that has made it any more clear, but I've simply been amazed to see the differences the past few days. I wouldn't classify rural Kenya as poverty at all, in fact I would consider them quite prosperous in the places I visited. The simple lives they live are what they are used to and they don't have to be bound by individualism and constraints of time. Their morale is high and they work hard every day to get what they put in. Kibera and other slums are bound by competition, which drives fear and feelings of inadequacy to reign over their lives. Hard work is often not present or not valued, and therefore some give up while others claw at the ground trying to dig a hole that will never get them to China.
All of this is to say, perhaps it's the simple things in life that should be driving us day in and day out. Values of reverance, community, family, and hard work such as those of the rural Kenyans. Thats not to say that every family in rural Kenya (or rural anywhere for that matter) has it all right or even has found happiness. But I think its something to consider in the course of our own lives. I think we're often clawing our way out of our own Kibera because we see something greater at the skyline thats not Jesus, and we want it. It may be a college, a job, a new home, a new car, a husband/wife, seriously it could be anything. This whole realization has made me stop to just consider how awesome it is to know and love God, and realize that in the grand scheme of things, nothing else really matters. Do it yourself, I challenge you.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Other Side

This weekend was perhaps one of the craziest I've ever experienced. Chris had mentioned last Wednesday or Thursday that he wanted me to go up-country with him and his family to attend a funeral for an uncle of his that had passed away last week. He said it would be a good experience for me to see more of Kenya and see how people live in the rural part of the country, so of course I was down to join in.
We were supposed to leave at 8am on Friday morning, its about a 6-7 hour drive north to get there, so the hope was that we would arrive in the afternoon and be able to meet up with some of the relatives before the funeral on Saturday. However, a late start due to miscommunications led to our leaving around 10, and this followed by the van breaking down as we climbed up the first hillside put us back even more. We ended up having to get George to come pick us up so we could drive back to Nairobi and get better vehicles for the journey. When it was all said and done, we were actually headed out around 4pm. Aside from that glitch though, the drive was incredible. The lush green vegetation, the hills and valleys, the farms and the towns, everything was simply amazing to see, and the time flew by.
As you drive through different towns, you'll often see locals trying to sell crops on the side of the road. For them, this is all the money they will make, so when we stopped to pick up some cabbage and potatoes around 8pm, about 5 Kenyan women started running towards the cars with baskets of their crops in hand. I couldn't understand any of the transaction that took place, but Chris mentioned afterwards that they were trying to get every shilling that they could out of him. Later, as we were driving onwards Chris picked up some roasted corn from from a local in a similar fashion. He broke me a piece and said to eat it right off the cob. I wasn't sure what to do because at all of the DukeEngage prep sessions they had told us not to eat any foods that are grown locally because they can carry different pathogens my immune system probably won't be able to handle. I asked Chris if it would make me sick, and he said it wouldn't. He had been pretty good about making sure I stayed away from unhealthy water and foods in the past, so I opted to trust him and went for it, praying to God that I wouldn't suffer the repercussions of this decision. And I will say, roasted corn is a good choice.
The little town were headed to was called Westin, and it required us to travel up through the cities of Nakuru and Eldoret, in total the trip was about 350km. As we got closer, the road started to get bumpier because they had stopped fixing up the road. It was dark by this time, but you could see tracks that had formed in the road from cargo trucks that were carrying goods to Uganda. Pretty soon after passing through Eldoret we turned off onto a dirt road that did not look like it was designed for cars to be travelled on it. We drove through a bit and then I realized we had arrived to the place Chris owns out there, about 10km away from where the funeral would take place. It was too dark to really see much because there was no electricity, but Chris and his wife pulled out some flashlights and lit some lanterns to show each of us to our rooms. All the rooms in Chris' place had beds, so I was more than happy and comfortable, and crashed right away.
The following morning, I woke up around 7 to a rooster crowing right outside my window. I walked over to the latrine and stepped in to see that it was just a hole in the ground. Luckily, my experiences from scouts trained me well in how to make use of just about any type of latrine, but I will say that the numerous buzzing flies were a bit discomforting. As I continued to explore around the property, I saw there were two small huts next to the home we stayed in. Chris later explained that these were places that he rented out to people, since he is not at this property very often. They take care of the land and raise animals on the property while he is away. Chris showed me around a bit more and I got to see how beautiful the place was in daylight. It overlooked a valley and there were lots of tress and vegetation all around. The property actually went back pretty far, so we walked down a trail to see all of it. When we got back, we all ate breakfast together and then got ready to leave for the funeral.
The funeral place was not far, maybe a 15 minute car ride, and it involved going down another dirt road. The funeral was like nothing I've ever seen before. First off, there were hundreds of people there, all from around the valley. The funeral was about 4-5 hours long and all in Swahili. Lots of people spoke and in between speakers, the church people, all dressed in white, would sing and dance and bang drums. It was a tough time for many of the close relatives, but people seemed to actually be rejoicing over the fact that Ezekiel was now with Christ. Nobody was wearing black, and I hardly saw anybody sobbing. I think it is better that way, and perhaps even more respectful to the life of Ezekiel.
After the funeral service, I was introduced to tons of relatives. Most didn't speak english, but I got pretty used to shaking hands or hugging them and saying, "Habari!" which is simply Hello. I didn't think it was possible to have so many relatives, but more kept coming and coming as we circulated the crowd. They were all amazingly warm and inviting, many saying "Karibu sana" which means you are most welcome. They considered me to be part of the family since I was a friend of Chris and his family.
Soon after, we got to walk down a path in the valley to see where Chris and his family grew up. As we passed, there were lots of families I saw that were living in little circular mud huts with pointed hay roofs. The style of life here is much different than even in Nairobi. There is no electricity or running water, so the families have to work for everything they will eat and drink. When we got to Chris' childhood home, I saw that it was similar. It was beautiful, but certainly less developed than where we currently are staying in Nairobi. We sat down inside and had a meal of ugali and chicken. Everything is eaten with your hands. Honestly, I couldn't tell that it was chicken at first. I'm pretty sure it had been freshly slaughtered that morning because the skin was really pully and the meat was a bit tougher to chew through than what I'm used. Nonetheless, I fully appreciated and enjoyed the meal, and afterwards explored a bit around the home. All kinds of fruits and vegetables were grown in the yard - avacadoes, guavas, cabbage, tomatoes, corn. It was pretty wild. There were many relatives here at the house too, I really couldn't keep track of how anyone was related to anybody else at this point though.
When we walked back towards the place of the funeral, word spread to me that they had just tipped over the cows to slaughter three of them in remembrance of Ezekiel. It was quite a sight to say the least, which is pretty ignorant of me to be saying. I eat meat pretty much every day, but never really consider that there is a process of raising, slaughtering, and preparing that takes place before that burger can make it to my plate. I'm still definitely not planning on going vegetarian anytime soon, but it was certainly something to see. Shortly after, as we were saying final goodbyes to more relatives - I turned around to see that about 10 kids were gathered just staring at me wide-eyed. I guess they had never seen a white person before, so I was making their folk tales come true right before their eyes. I reached out to shake all of their hands and say Habari to them, figuring I could at least give them a memorable experience and perhaps a story to tell to their friends at school.
When we got back to Chris' place, we at some dinner of ugali, potatoes, and cabbage and Chris cranked on a generator so we could get some electricity to watch the Barcelona vs Manchester United soccer match before heading off to bed.
The next morning, I wasn't exactly sure when we'd be leaving, but Chris informed me that he needed to pay respects to another relative that had passed away before leaving. I went with him, but one thing led to the next and we ended up visiting several houses before the actually heading back. At one house, they gave us a live chicken to take back with us as a gift for stopping in. A few hours later, we were actually off and headed back to Nairobi for the 6 hour ride back.
It was a pretty incredible weekend all in all, one that I will never forget. Life is so much different for people who live in rural Kenya, but most seem to be much more joyous than many families in developed areas. The simple things in life, and the values of loving God and all of his children are really what propels these people to get up and live out each day. I hope to live with many of those values in my own life, no matter where I end up living.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Figuring More Out Piece by Piece

The past two days have involved more getting acquainted to Kenya and the work that First Love is doing. I started off the day yesterday by helping George to go load up the truck with firewood from a nearby neighbor. The house was pretty far back in the woods, and I even got to see some wild monkeys swinging from the trees as we were loading the truck. Collecting firewood may seem like an odd job, but its actually really important for the ministry because the food is prepared for the children in Kibera and Karen using wood burning stoves. Thus, firewood is very necessary. After this I went into to Kibera with Karen to go help with the feeding program. Because there are so many students, they come into the cafeteria in shifts to get their food, so there is a line of students to serve for a long period of time in the middle of the day. The first meal they get is a cup of porridge. The second is a bowl of maize and beans. It may not seem like much, but it provides them with the proper nutrients they need and can be produced in large quantities.
After finishing serving out the food there, I went into town for the first time with a friend named Phillip who serves with First Love at the Kibera school. I needed to go to a store to purchase a cell phone and some groceries. We walked a little bit up the street in Kibera and then hopped in a "Mutatu", a privately owned van that transports people around town, to get the rest of the way there. The Nakumatt is like a supermarket that sells groceries as well as lots of other goods. I exchanged all the US dollars I had in my wallet and then purchased some food for my room. Phillip insisted on carrying my bag of groceries while we were shopping and as we headed back as well. I felt bad having him carry it and told him I would take it, but he took it back a couple minutes later. I guess its a custom..or Phillip is just a really nice guy.
When I got back to the Karen compound a while later, I helped set up some things in the gift shop that is being started. The shop has a lot of items that women from the women's ministry made, as well as a few other goods. The money raised there will help support the ministry as well.
After helping there, I went with George to drop off some friends at the airport that had stayed in Karen for a few days. It gave me another chance to see some more of Nairobi, this time seeing some of the city near the airport during daylight. I also got my first taste of Nairobi evening traffic. On the way back, we took a shortcut to try and avoid some of the congestion on the road. It took us down a dirt road with Nairobi National park on one side and a slum called Mitumba on the other side. Good thing we were in the Land Rover because the road got pretty bumpy at times.
When I got back, the kids at the Karen compound were finishing eating. I finally got a chance to meet a bunch of them and play some basketball with them. I tried to teach them how to play four-square, but I don't think they quite got it, luckily we have plenty of time to work on it. Every evening they also gather up to do for music and prayer time. The kids pretty much run this themselves, the children play the drums and sing and then one of the students will say the prayer aloud afterwards. Once this is all done, the students work on homework and head off to bed. Some of them stayed with me for a while though to ask me about the United States and what I think of Kenya so far.
I'm gonna go ahead and zip through the today as well to get caught up here. It wasn't as scattered today as it was yesterday, but still an active one nonetheless. In the morning Karen had to go to a parent's meeting at St. Mary's school, the school which most of the students from the Karen compound attend. I went with her because we'd be going to Kibera right after. I could only catch bits of what was said at the meeting because they kept switching back and forth from Swahili to English for the entire time, but the gist seemed to be that they wanted parents to try and gear home lives towards a conducive study environment so that test scores would improve...maybe, I could have misinterpreted that a bit though. The meeting went for a while, but eventually, we left and went Kibera. I helped serve meals again, and then my friend Eric took me into a different part of Kibera that I hadn't seen. He told me more about Kibera and what the government has been doing to try and improve it. Recently, they installed electric wires and some periodic water points throughout the slum. This improves the quality of living greatly, though it is still less than ideal. For bathroom use, the people who live there must go to one of a few central bathhouses that are located throughout the slum as well. Later in the day, we walked deeper in to see more of the markets as well. There are tons of small businesses run by citizens living in Kibera. They sell everything from fruits and vegetables to clothing, or sometimes imported goods. It was a pretty wild experience, walking in the deeper parts of the slums is like nothing I've ever seen before. The walkways get pretty narrow and muddy at times and being white, you get looks constantly coming your way. We stopped when we got to a dirt soccer field where some of the locals were playing a competitive game. We had walked pretty far at that point so we sat for a few minutes before going back to the school.
So that was the past couple days minus a few details, but I'm still feeling challenged in a lot of ways. Seeing the slums up close is honestly really overwhelming. I knew it would be, but there's definitely a feeling of restraint when you desire to help but feel completely lost and unsure of how to do so. The good news is that we serve an awesome God who does have the power to enter into the lives of these people and change their hearts for the better, right now I'm just trying to contemplate how I could best be used a vessel for this process. One thing I'm realizing is that providing materially is not always the best route, sometimes it doesn't help at all. We need to reach people internally as well to alleviate poverty, this task which might be even more difficult. More to come later.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Getting into a foreign country that I had never been to during the night really took away from the initial amazement that I felt when I woke up the next morning and stepped onto the porch to look out across the First Love compound in broad daylight. Kenya is really a beautiful country in a lot of ways, and I'm getting to see more and more of that each passing hour that I'm here.
The first order of business was to meet up with Chris, so that I could hear more about First Love and everything they are doing. We talked for a while and he narrated to me the entire history of how it started and where it is today. I won't get into every detail, but the basics are that it started about 10 years ago with a feeding program they felt called to initiate in the Kibera slums at Raila Odinga Primary School to provide orphans with two meals each day. A lot of the children otherwise do not have consistent meals to count on each day.  The attendance at the school increased from 240 students to 1,000 students once word spread that the children were being fed for free. The program alone impacts the lives of the children in huge ways - physically, mentally, and spiritually. It gives them daily nourishment for their bodies, gets them to attend school regularly, and has also allowed for a chaplain to speak to the students on a weekly basis about christianity. The feeding program led to the start of a women's ministry for some of the guardians of the orphans. A lot of these women were widowed or living in other poor circumstances, so First Love began bringing them in and feeding some of them. The requirement for them being fed was that they would use some of their skills in things like sewing or cooking to make products that could be sold. They also began attending a women's bible study. The Karen compound was later purchased and built up to house several of the orphans from Kibera. After speaking to Chris, he took myself and a couple other visitors around the compound and showed us everything. The compound is still under construction, but already has a dorm for the children, a dining hall, play areas and a basketball court, offices, a guest home, a woodworking shop, food gardens, a building for the women's ministry, running water, and electricity. This is all funded by the grace of God through supporters from around the world who have generously given to First Love. I could probably go on to talk about each of the things on the compound, but I'm sure there will be plenty more to tell over the next few weeks. The bottom line is that the compound is like the First Love home in Karen, Kenya and it is a safe place for a lot of kids to live and grow.
You might be wondering why the title of this post is "Mzungu". Later in the day, I got a chance to visit Kibera for the first time at the school with the feeding program. We arrived during the lunch hour, so all of the children were just getting out of class. As I stepped out of the car, tons of children started walking over to me, grabbing my hands and saying "Mzungu" which translates in English to "white person". Even more started coming over when I pulled out my camera. They all started gathering together to pose and then would ask me to show them the picture on the screen. Once I put the camera away, several of them stayed latched onto my hands and arms as I walked around a bit to see the school. I was honestly a little worried about touching so many of their hands because of all of the germs being passed, but I got to a point where I realized that it just didn't matter. Showing these children love meant a ton more and I couldn't let that concern stop me. They continued to tell people they had found a "Mzungu" as we walked by other students. Children in Kenya learn English in school, so a lot of the younger ones still only speak Swahili. I wasn't able to communicate with them other than to smile and gesture my appreciation for their acceptance of me (or probably more just their amazement of my skin color). The older children were mostly playing soccer in the dirt field outside of the school rooms. I got a chance to kick around with some of them a bit later.
Once the bell rang and the children went off to class again, I met some of the faculty and volunteers. They are amazing people to put it lightly. So much of their lives are given up on behalf of these children, and the work they are doing is directly impacting these lives in real ways. I'll be working with a lot of these people this summer, but many of them told me that they plan on being my teacher as well..for Swahili, which I currently only know just a few words of.
On the way back to the Karen compound I got to see a bit more of Kibera. It's really a whole different world. Nothing like poverty in the United states. The streets are lined with many small vendors that operate out of mud huts that have tin roofs. Behind the vendors are many more mud huts that families live in. The huts are single square rooms with no running water or electricity..and there are thousands of them in Kibera. You'll hear more about Kibera too in the coming posts, but for now I'll end here since this post is getting pretty long.
Just a note, I intended to add pictures to show you the things I'm talking about, but the internet connection isn't quite strong enough for me to do this. I'll try to post them later when I figure out an alternative method. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Starting Off

The past 3 days have been pretty much a whirlwind of a lot of different things happening - mentally, spiritually, and physically. I was able to make it to Kenya last night after a full day of traveling across the world. The flight was broken up into two 8 hour segments, with a four hour layover in Amsterdam. Add a 7 hour time change and travel time becomes more than a full day.
When I arrived in Kenya I had no clue what to do, so I took the most logical approach to figuring that out - I followed the crowd of people exiting the flight hoping that they had a better idea than I did. The first stop after getting off the flight was the travel visa line. It took somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-45 minutes of waiting in line before I finally got through. Then I grabbed my bag and began to consider how in the world I would ever find my friend Michael who had said he would be at the airport to pick me up when I talked to him over email last week. I again took a logical approach here and whipped out my cell phone, figuring one international call wouldn't cost too much. Unfortunately for me, Michael's cell phone was disconnected so the call wouldn't even go through. Next course of action, walk outside and ponder the next course of action. This approach proved to be great, as I found Michael in the crowd of people outside holding a sign with my name on it. Michael was accompanied by Chris, the Kenyan director of First Love, and George, a Kenyan staff member for First Love. It was about 9:30pm when I found them so I wasn't able to scope out much of the landscape upon arrival because of the lack of daylight. It was then about another 30-45 minute ride by van to get to Karen, the suburb of Nairobi where I'm living this summer. The time was good though because I had plenty of questions to ask about Kenya, First Love, and the culture during the ride.
Karen was a bit different than I expected when we arrived. I assumed that it would like any typical suburb in America, but its far from that. It took driving on several unpaved, bumpy dirt roads to get to the property. Not all properties are developed, but the ones that are, are all enclosed by stone walls and have a guard at the entrance. Most properties are wealthy single family homes. The property for First Love is about 5 acres of land and has several buildings. About 50 students live in the dorm on the property, in addition to a few of the First Love employees. I'm living in the guest apartment of the dorm for the time being.
The children were all asleep when we got in, but Karen (this time a person, not the the name of the suburb), one of the staff members of First Love and the sister of Chris (the Director) was up with some guests staying in from Ghana. They had food from their dinner still out, so I got to try my first Kenyan meal right away. It was ugali (a starchy porridge-like cornmeal served as a side dish), greens, and fish. Karen was chuckling watching me eat as I tried to follow everything Michael was doing. This meal was eaten without utensils by rolling the fish and greens into pieces you break off of the cornmeal - its really not that hard to do but I was a little dazed to be jumping right into it after just getting in.
I went off to bed shortly after that, lying awake for a few hours, partially because the flight had thrown off my concept of nighttime, but also because I felt anxious about a lot of the unknowns that were still ahead. I'm in a foreign country by myself, I don't speak Swahili, I don't have a phone, I don't know what I'm doing yet, I don't really know where I am because it was dark outside, and I stick out like a sore thumb because of my... well, caucasian complexion to put it bluntly. This verse came into my head though, and I'll leave this post with it even though there's still much more to tell: Matthew 6:25-34 "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?...But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Welcome to the Safari

Safari means "journey" in Swahili. This summer you'll be part of the journey if you choose to follow along as I post my thoughts, pictures, and memories each day that I spend in Kenya. By now you've probably figured out that I'm going to be serving in Nairobi, Kenya for about 9 weeks this summer with an organization called First Love International. The project is being funded thanks to a program at Duke University called Duke Engage. Nairobi, Kenya is the largest and one of the most developed cities in eastern Africa, but it also has one of the largest slums in Africa, somewhere between 150,000-1 million people living in extreme poverty (I realize that is a huge degree of uncertainty, but different sources give you varying numbers. The reality is that nobody really knows exactly how many people live there). A lot is up in the air still about what exactly I'll be doing when I get there, but one of the main focuses of First Love is taking care of the youth. They currently have started two orphanages and operate a primary school, all which pull in children from the slums. The goal here is to serve these children through efforts that will be sustainable - which education can certainly satisfy. Other than the school, there are several initiatives that First Love has been working on that are also possibilities for where I might get involved, such as microfinance projects for widows, feeding programs, building relationships with families living in the slums, and physical site development for one of the orphanages. 
So a lot is still yet to be figured out, but I guess you could say that it just adds to the excitement. I'll be leaving this Sunday, May 22 from Dulles Airport, and returning on July 29. Thanks for stopping in and taking interest in what's going on in Kenya and my experiences there. I'll be having some fun with this this summer, so I hope you'll continue reading. Welcome to the safari!