Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Misunderstandings Across Cultures

So before I go any further with this blog, I feel as though it is appropriate for me to enlighten you all on some common misunderstandings that the general public in America would perceive to be true about the general public in, well any African nation. To begin, all African nations are different. I've only been to Kenya so far, but I've learned bits and pieces of information about a lot of different African nations since I've been here. All have very unique cultures, often which differ in language, religion, pop culture, foods, economic status, etc. So to throw a blanket statement and refer to the continent as if it were a single nation is a bit degrading to the many nations of Africa that each possess their own histories and their own specific problems.
I had a conversation a few nights ago with a friend named Mike that I met here in Kenya, about the perceptions that Americans have about Kenyans, and in turn the perceptions they have about Americans. Mike is a Kenyan who spent about 4 years in the United States working with YWAM several years back. When Mike first arrived to the United States, his host family began to show him how a shower works as if he had never seen one in his life. There are showers in Kenya. Kenyans know how to use them. There may not be showers in the slums of Kibera or some of the rural villages up-country, but even most of these people are at least aware of how they work. Later on during his trip, he was at an amusement park and he thought it would be funny to patronize the assumptions that were being made, so when it came time to get off the roller coaster he stayed on a bit longer and watched as the attendant tried to motion him off and ask for help. She never thought to just ask him in English, his second language which he learned in school starting when he was 5 years old.
These are just some silly examples, but I think they are somewhat true of the American perception of African nations. Kenya has a lot of development in the major cities, such as Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kisumu. There are also a lot of incredibly intelligent people in Kenya. They don't always have access to all of the latest technology or resources that we have in the US, but this doesn't mean they are incapable of learning new things. The reason I feel it necessary to bring this up is because I realized that I, too, had many of the same assumptions before I got to Kenya. Assuming that we are smarter and more capable is simply racist.
What I can say is that there is value in people coming here who have the resources/education needed and are willing to work with Kenyans to get something done. The best NGO's are the ones that empower Kenyans to do things themselves. Kenyans know Kenya better than I will ever be able to know it, so culturally I will always be somewhat of an outsider no matter how much time I spend here (partially also because my skin color ain't changing anytime soon). Therefore, we are only part of the equation when looking at how to resolve some of the complex problems that society faces here.
I've seen this relationship quite often in the medical field, though its not limited to there. There are a lot of ill practices in hospitals and clinics, so proper training from people who have more substantial knowledge can legitimize the practices of these facilities.
Anyway, this is a recurring theme that I'm beginning to realize more as I try to find my place and figure out where I can best serve the population here that I've come to really have a heart for. I'll get back into more stories of the interactions and circumstances I've been in in the coming posts.
 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mombasa Times

I got another wild opportunity over the past couple days to explore another side of Kenya. This time it was Mombasa, the second largest city in Kenya. Mombasa is actually an island right off the east coast that has a bridge on one end and a ferry that runs on the other for transport back and forth between the city and the surrounding land. There are bus systems that run from Nairobi to Mombasa (about an 8 hour ride) for as little as $12, so a few of the visitors staying here along with Chris and myself decided to make the trip from Monday-Wednesday.
The ride to Mombasa, although very long, was pretty incredible. Along the way you descend through the mountains and continue to drive through the fields and pastures of Kenya. The colors are constantly changing along the way as you pass through different climates and scenery. There are also many small towns and open markets that you pass by along the road. Its something that constantly grabs me when I stop to consider how many variations there are to the way people live their lives. For some people that live along this road, they live each day on a prayer that a wild elephant won't trample down the hut that houses them and their family. For others its the constant struggle each day to retrieve water to bring back home for the family.
Getting to Mombasa revealed even more to me. People say that Mombasa is "polepole" which translates to something like "slowly", because the weather is much hotter and the pace moves slower than it does in Nairobi. I spent most of the day exploring the Indian Ocean. The tide actually goes out pretty far during the day, so you can wade out through the reef for probably a few kilometers before you actually hit waves. There's a lot of interesting wildlife here though. As you walk through, you have to watch each step because the place is teeming with sea urchins that will spike your foot if you step on them (found this out the hard way, but Chris took it a bit harder than I did and got several in his foot). Fishing is evidently a very big industry here, as there were lots of people out in the water the whole day fishing with huge nets.
The place we were staying in was right on the beach with a gate around the whole property and a guard. Mombasa, similar to Nairobi, has a fair amount of crime, so there are many properties with this same level of security. Even from the moment we got off the bus, there were already people trying to get money from us by either following and asking for something small, or trying to sell something that I really wasn't interested in. It's still a constant struggle because I hate to so blatantly give the cold shoulder to people, but you have to just keep walking when put in these situations sometimes.
Later in the day I got a chance to visit a family in Mombasa that is hosting a friend of mine from Duke for the summer. To get there I got to use one of the greatest modes of transportation, the boda-boda, which are motor bikes that you can pay a cheap fare to ride on the back of to get where you need. There's something funny and exhiliarating at the same time about being on the back of one of those things. Mombasa seems to be much more culturally heavy than Nairobi to me. There are large populations of Christians and conservative Muslims. The family I got to meet was actually the home of a Christian pastor, and the sons were all involved in making Christian hip-hop music. I got to hear some pretty crazy stories from the pastor, Collins, about some of the things that have gone on in Mombasa with the interaction between the corrupt practices of the government and businesses and the involvement of church. After the conversation, they invited me to eat supper with them, mind you it was about 10pm at this point. I had already eaten, but they insisted, so I took some supper anyway. They asked me when I would be back as I was leaving. It's a question that really has caused me to grow to love Kenya even more. The fact that I can have a mutual friend and be welcomed in and made a friend of that family myself is amazing. The hospitality and value of friendship is so important to this society, and its something I wish I saw more of.
On the long ride back, the air conditioner was broken, so my sunburnt skin mixed with the lack of airflow was causing me to have crazy thoughts. I was trying to study Swahili for most of the ride, but during my breaks I just felt frustrated. I had caught a glimpse of something so amazing, but it faded quickly, and the new friends I had made were for but a moment. I just desired to have at least one more day in Mombasa, but instead I was on the bus headed back already. Seeing the towns again out my window on the way back just hurt because I felt like my own life is still so disconnected to theirs, and who knows if I'll ever even find myself in this exact location ever again. I guess I don't exactly know what God's purpose is in some of the experiences I've had. I can't pick out in the moment what it is that I'm exactly learning, but I have to trust that I'm being refined through all of these experiences. Perhaps they are growing me in ways I can't pick out yet. Or maybe they are just a glimpse of what heaven will be like when we can fully experience life that is everlasting instead of just momentary.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Tourist in Me

The past couple days I've mainly been tagging along with the team that's been here from the US. It's funny how easy it becomes to relate to people from your own country when you're in a foreign one. They ran a vacation bible school program at Raila Education Centre in Kibera on Thursday and Friday, so I toggled between helping them and helping with the feeding program like I normally do. Another plus for having some Americans here short term is that they've planned a few touristy things for their trip that I haven't been able to do since I've been by myself. I don't really like being such a tourist here because I already stand out as a white guy, so it just gets multiplied for ultimate discomfort when you're with a group of wazungu (white people) with cameras. However, there are definitely a lot of fun things to do here that I haven't been able to so far, so I guess I can manage to be a bit of tourist.
One of the cool things we did was visit the village market on Friday evening. It's basically like a big flea market with different things people have made. As you walk through, the sellers are pretty agressive in trying to start conversations to get you to look at their stuff. You have to bargain with the seller for everything, so it can be pretty funny to hear some of their schemes. The Friday market is a huge tourist attraction, so the sellers know they can usually get away with selling things for high prices to white people that don't know any better. Luckily, Chris and Irene came with us, so I was able to consult them for certain buys I was interested in. One of the things I wanted is called a rungu. Its a mallet-like club that the Maasai used in battle, and I first heard about it because my roommate at Duke last year had one from when he visited Kenya. I'm not sure exactly what I'll do with it yet, but I had agreed to get one while I'm here, and I was able to bargain to get this one for less than $5 by talking to multiple sellers and getting them to lower their prices.
On Saturday we did the VBS for the kids on the property here in the afternoon. I think it went much better here than it did at the schools earlier in the week. Part of this is because the kids on the property can better understand english, but I also think that it works much better to minister to children you have built relationships with already. They were much more cooperative and receptive to the things that were taught which was really encouraging to see from both an operational standpoint and from the standpoint of someone who cares about their personal growth. That night, we had a bonfire on the property and ate a meal that few have ever tried before. We mixed together Kenyan and American staples to have hot dogs wrapped in chapati. It was actually pretty great, I'm surprised nobody else has figured it out by now. The time was pretty amazing though, the children played the drums and sang some of their worship songs and then Tom (the visiting founder of First Love) gave a talk on being the light of the world. It was a rare moment where I really felt right at home even though I'm halfway across the world. It's moments like these that I can say I'll probably never forget. It's hard to believe I've been here for almost a month now.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Into the Eyes of the Beast

Mitumba is a slum wedged between the Wilson Airport and Nairobi National Park.  I'm a bit unclear as to how many people live there, but the estimate given is about 30,000. Chris and Irene had told me ahead of time that this slum was actually in much worse condition than Kibera. I found that hard to believe having spent the past 3 weeks in Kibera observing the many problems present there every day. But I’d have to say that Chris and Irene were probably right in their assessment of Mitumba.
There is a team here for two weeks from the United States that planned to visit a school in Mitumba to do a short Vacation Bible School program. I'm usually hesitant about things like this because I don't see much value in going somewhere for one day to be loving to children and then leave that afternoon to more than likely never see them again. However, I thought it would be important for me to see Mitumba, so I could get a better scope of the different slums in Nairobi. I also realized along the way that the children do remember these things, and although I still am not sold to the idea, it can be a good way to share the gospel authentically with a child for the first time. The school was like a pavilion with some sheet metal covering the sides. There was nothing in the room except for some wooden benches and a single chalkboard. There were about 7 or 8 teachers for over 400 students. The uniforms the children were wearing were all torn and falling apart. Many children did not have shoes or were wearing ones that didn’t match or were so broken that their toes were sticking out. I’ve heard that a lot of Kenyans have tougher feet because they’re more used to walking on rockier grounds, but there were many parts of the slum where the ground was covered in a mucky mixture of garbage and fecal matter…I don’t think even the toughest of feet can combat that kind of mixture. Walking through the slum, you could see that a lot of the children were not attending school at all. Probably the worst thing I observed was right outside of the school classroom when a baby of maybe a year or so was sitting by itself, covered in urine with snot dripping all down its nose. Karen saw it and began to attempt to clean it and figure out who it belonged to. Then a girl of about 7 came out of the classroom and picked it up to go change it. The girl was its older cousin, taking care of it in between classes because it had nobody else to look after it during the day.
Mitumba had a generally more depressing vibe to it than Kibera. There are many parts of Kibera that I actually find very lively and exciting, but Mitumba was the kind of place that made me feel pretty uncomfortable the entire time I was there. There really aren’t any NGO’s or non-profits involved in aiding the Mitumba slum either. First Love had a presence in the school for a while, running a feeding program for the students there like the one at Raila Education Centre in Kibera, but had to leave because the property the school is on had some kind of lawsuit against it, and it put First Love's NGO status in jeopardy. It's been said that people in Mitumba dream of moving to Kibera.
I kept thinking about that small child sitting by itself in the dirt, abandoned and unsure of what to do. I couldn't imagine where it had come from and where it would be that night. The unfortunate thing here is that a lot of efforts made to help end up not working. Apparently tons of shoes have been sent to kids at this school, but they always end up walking around barefoot a few weeks or months later. Usually, parents or guardians take them to wear them themselves or sell them. Sometimes it seems like a lost cause when you see efforts like this not even really helping. I think what they lack is people that really care, who can look into the eyes of the beast and not run away at the gruesome, inhumane sight. I'm not sure if I'll be back in Mitumba myself, but I think a lot of what I saw is very applicable a few kilometers down the road in Kibera. Give them your time, give them your heart, let God do the rest.

Monday, June 13, 2011

New Realities

There’s something about being in the same place for an extended period of time that redefines your reality. 3 weeks is by no means a very long time, but realities can even be created in a matter of days or hours, given the circumstances you are placed in. Under heavy circumstances, realities are formed much quicker than they are under light circumstances. For example, during military training iterations, realities are created within a matter of two-hours as every fiber of your being begins to tick towards the manner in which a mission is supposed to be carried out. We know there is an objective at the end of the lane so our focus becomes that objective and the rest of reality moves into the periphery.
It comes as no surprise that since coming to Kenya and being immersed in a completely different culture, my reality has also shifted. Being in Kibera each day is like being in a completely different world, and I'm constantly trying to wrap my head around what is happening there. At times it seems like one of the most depressing places on earth, but at other times it seems like a real community.  
It’s getting hard to justify some of my regular habits because my mind reverts to Kibera. When I eat I know that I should eat everything on my plate because I don’t want to waste what some are starving to have. But on the converse, when I eat a whole plate of food that was served to me, I still feel bad because I know that it is more food than people in Kibera are getting in perhaps several days or even a week. It’s a difficult balancing act because I come back to Karen to see comfort, but the comfort is actually more uncomfortable than the discomfort of Kibera at times.
There is a little boy from the Raila Education Centre in Kibera who runs up to me as soon as he spots me every day that I come. He can’t speak a word of English other than the usual chorus of “How are you? How are you?” that you hear from young Kenyan children when they see a white person. Every time he runs up to me a huge smile spreads across his face and he starts to laugh and squeak with excitement as he shows everyone that he found the Mzungu. His two blackened and chipped front teeth made me consider dentistry the first time I saw him (even though I have no interest whatsoever in prodding around in people’s mouths). You get to a place like this and you just want to help, even if your ideas of how to do this get really irrational. Last night, a really gracious group of Americans got in for a short term trip of two weeks. Their hearts are similar to mine in that they greatly desire to help people in this area. I went along with them today as they got their first tour of Kibera this morning, and along the way a young man stopped us to try and claim some support for his college education. I've never had to face a request like this myself walking in Kibera because I'm young and single, but a married couple is a more visible opportunity for a student like this because they assume the couple has a decent amount of money to their name. He seemed like a nice kid, but the problem is that handing a random person cash to go to school is not always reliable, nor does it help to develop the person in any of the intangible character values that are really much more imprtant. He showed us his high school graduation papers and college acceptance letter, but the difficulty is that you still can't be sure that you're money is even going to his education because you don't have any relationship built (which culminates trust) having met someone right on the streets. My friends that are interning for First Love with me at the school are all in similar situations as the young man we met on the street. I'm convinced that if you're going to support anybody for school, it's better to spend your money wisely by investing in the future of someone you have built a relationship with, and you know is going to use their education for something positive beyond. The work they are doing for First Love is also developing these character traits I spoke of earlier. Relationships are where you need to go first when assessing these situations. That's where the Gospel is also going to be carried though your acts of service.
All of these thoughts came at an interesting time because I was able to hear a great sermon on compassion at the church I visited this Sunday. The message he gave literally defined compassion, something I've been growing to understand more and more since I've been here. Compassion is a great thing, the Bible calls us to have compassion for the poor - Christ is the prime example of this. But our response to compassion is where I believe it is often a bit more confusing. We really want to serve when we're filled with compassion, but we have to be smart about what we're doing. For me, its taken a few weeks of research and relationship building for me to even begin getting a glimpse of how I can actually help someone in this area, but I'm starting to see how carefully planned and orchestrated service in particular areas of need are able to make a difference.    

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Photos

If you're on facebook you can view some photos I've taken so far. I had to pick and choose some of them because I have too many to add, but I'll continue to add them there as I take more. This should bring some of the stories to life a bit more.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ebb and Flow

This morning I woke up to my phone ringing around 7am. It was Karen calling from her apartment upstairs. "Are you awake yet?" she said. "Yea," I responded, trying to sound as if I had already been up, fighting the urge to let out a yawn. "Okay, can you be ready in 15 minutes for an adventure in town?" I woke up to this, "Of course," was my reply. Thanks to my training from the army, I know how to get up and out of bed very fast, so 15 minutes was not a problem for me at all. When I knocked on Karen's door, she informed me that her and George needed to go into town to pick up their Certificates of Good Conduct, a piece of paperwork needed for them to be able to drive the bus that is supposed to arrive for First Love to use in just a couple weeks. I would tag along with them to get another view of downtown Nairobi. The trip shouldn't have taken long, but Nairobi is plagued with some of the worst traffic in the world because of its many fiesty drivers, and its use of traffic circles instead of street lights. The drive actually ended up being about 3 hours, but luckily I still really enjoy being able to take in the sights and sounds of Nairobi and its people. After this errand, we headed straight into Kibera for another day working the feeding program.
There are about 4 other interns my age who work for First Love helping with the feeding program. All of them have grown up in Kenya, so I have really enjoyed being able to develop friendships with them and share stories about our lives on opposite sides of the world. I'm also really getting the hang of how everything works now, so the mornings fly by when we're preparing and serving food to the school children.
 In the afternoon, a couple of the students in secondary school took me out to a different part of Kibera that I hadn't yet seen. These two particular students are in their Form 4 year of secondary school, the equivalent of being seniors in high school. School starts at 6am and ends at 6pm for them. In November they will take their exams to determine if they will pass secondary school and be eligible to move on to a college or university. The exams can be very stressful for secondary school students because they are so vitally important for the students to be able to graduate and try to make a better life for themselves.
Benjamin and Victor were the names of the two students. We were headed to where Benjamin currently lives. Like most parts of Kibera, the journey required navigating through a maze narrow alleys, mucky streams, garbage infested walkways, and small marketplaces. When we got to his shack, he welcomed me in and told me to take a seat. Benjamin's place was very similar to Eric's; it had sheets hanging from the cieling to divide certain areas of the single room. The difference was that Benjamin actually lives by himself there. I was confused when he told me this, for two reasons. The first being that he is still in high school, and the second that I couldn't imagine how he paid rent. The answer to the question of rent was that his older brother is paying for him to live there so he can finish secondary school. The answer to the question of why he lives by himself, well that one is actually not as hard to fathom. When you're an orphan living in one of the largest slums in the world trying to get educated so you can leave, you learn to become independent really fast. Benjamin and Victor are both very similar in this regard, they are very independent and mature for their age because they have to live as adults to survive.
Benjamin asked me what soda I would drink as I was sitting down. I responded that a coca-cola would be great, not realizing this meant he had to go purchase one from a vendor on the street. I quickly reached for my wallet to pull out 50 shillings to cover the cost, but Benjamin and Victor insisted that I put my money away. They wanted to split the cost between the two of them to purchase sodas for us, this was part of their custom when having a guest over, ad they wouldn't have me take this away from them.
We discussed some Kenyan politics and I asked a few question about some of the problems people face in Kibera as we drank our coca-colas. Ben and Victor are really knowledgeable about these things. They have grown up in it and hope to get educated so that one day they can work towards improving it. This is what sustainable development looks like. As a generation of leaders is educated and empowered, change will start to occur. It takes a long time, but the results are already visible in some parts of Kibera. There are lots of NGO's in the slum, many started by Kenyans who grew up living in the slums themselves. The government, though still far from fully engaged, has made several adjustments that have improved the state of Kibera. For example, within the past year, they put up street lights in Kibera. The lights have helped reduce crime siginificantly at night, so the streets are now a bit safer than they once were.
Ben mentioned during our conversation that a lot of people start small businesses with whatever skill they may have so they can earn a living. He showed me a cell phone carrying case that one of his neighbors had him using beads she had sewn together. I love the idea of people using their skills to start something like that, so I wanted to see what this neighbor was up to. We walked across the way to his neighbor's shack, and inside she was hard at work behind the sewing machine. On her wooden coffe table were all kinds of keychains, necklaces, belts, and bracelets she had made by hand using beads and thread. I sifted through all of the items, amazed by how she had so carefully made each thing. I figured it was a courtesy to purchase something from her since I had entered her home as such a tourist. I asked how much for a keychain of the Kenyan flag. She responded that it was 300 shillings without batting an eyelash. It seemed a bit high, but I still pulled out my wallet and paid up. As we left, Benjamin said to me that the price she charged was definitely high, "Kenyans enjoy bargaining for lower prices at places like that." He was right, had I been in my right state of mind and not so infatuated with seeing the small-scale entrepreneurship in action, I may have actually realized that I was paying too much. This is precisely why Kenyans in the marketplace pursue Wazunga, white people, so heavily; because they know they can charge us prices that are much higher than they would normally charge and we'll think nothing of it. Not my proudest moment there. The good things is that I only spent about $3.50 in US dollars and she probably really needed the money more than I did, but it was still bugging me because I had only contributed to the Mzungu stereotype they already have. So I guess there are still a few ebbs to my flows, but at least I'm starting to catch the rhythm here a bit more.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

About $1.50 a Day

A lot of people have heard the statistic that over half of the world lives on about $2 or less per day. This fact had been ingrained into my brain pretty much every day before I came here. So I knew it to be true, but I didn't fully understand it until I met Eric.
Eric is an intern for First Love around my age. He gets up at 6am every morning and walks from his shack in Kibera to help prepare and serve food for the children at Raila Education Centre, the school First Love started the feeding program at. Eric is an orphan. He was supported by First Love to go to school at Raila from a young age and finished high school last November. While in high school he was given permission to sleep at the school because he had no other place to stay. He is currently trying to figure out a way to pay for college so he can study social work and community development.
When I first met Eric he greeted me with big handshake and a hug. It was clear that he would be somebody I was going to get to know better during my time here. He basically showed me the ropes of how the feeding program works, and answered every question for me that I could think to ask about Kibera. What I didn't know at the time was that he lived in Kibera himself. I didn't find this out until a few days later when he was showing me through all the streets and alleys of the slum. I think what struck me the most was that he was so overly giving, caring, and hard-working. Sometimes its easier to assume that people who are in poverty got there by their own means (i.e. they were lazy, addicted to drugs/alcohol, a criminal, etc). But I've found through the example of Eric and a lot of other people I've met in Kibera that this is simply not true. Some of the hardest working people can be found in the slums, but their efforts simply don't equate to what our efforts do because of their circumstances. What amazes me every day is that Eric keeps such a positive attitude about life, and he still gives out of his poverty, something absolutely biblical (Mark 12:41-42).
When I arrived to the school yesterday, Eric was the first to greet me as usual. He quickly helped me to get engaged into how I could help with preparing the food for the children. While we work, he often teaches me Swahili, or just answers my silly Mzungu questions. After we had served the kids, he took me on a Matatu (crazy vans that you can ride for real cheap) to the supermarket so I could purchase some things I needed. When we were there, I realized that I had been needing some sunglasses, so I went to the sunglasses counter and tried on a few pairs. When I found a pair I was good with, I asked how much they were, and the clerk gave me a really high price, one that I probably wouldn't even pay in the US. Eric told me that they often do this with Mzungus at stores because they know they can swindle us out of more money. He said we could go to a place on the street and get some, but the plan this time would be to have Eric pretend that he was the customer so they would give him a low price. It worked, twice actually, on different items. Eric and I laughed about the brilliance of our plan as we walked back to the school. As we got back, I asked Eric if he would show me where he lives. Since Karen had some errands to run in the afternoon, she would be leaving later anyway so I'd still be able to catch a ride back to my place later on. Eric agreed and we walked to where he lives in the slum. His shack is located in a part of the slum called, 'Olympic'. When I stepped into his shack all I could see was a small sofa and a wooden coffee table in about a 6x6ft space. There were sheets on the other two sides, serving as room dividers so I couldn't tell how far back the room went. He invited me in to take a seat and showed me that all the sheets were covering were two beds. The full room was about 10x10ft.
It's customary in Kenya to serve somebody chai tea if they are a guest in your home. Eric wanted to prepare some chai for us, but that unfortunately required that he have fuel for his small stove (kind of like the ones I used to use in boy scouts on camping trips), milk, and chai leaves. The chai leaves he had in a small cupboard used to keep a few bowls and cups, but the other pieces he didn't have because he simply couldn't afford. I told him that I would pay for them if we went to the street market. We left his shack and walked up the street to make the purchases. It cost me about 100 shillings to pay for both items, about $1.20. Then, for our dinner we went to purchase chapati, a pan-fried bread that's sort of like a tortilla, but thicker and better tasting. This cost me 20 shillings for both of us to get one, about 25 cents more. We then walked back to Eric's shack and he prepared the chai for us to drink as we ate our chapati. Eric lives with two other men in his shack. They split the cost of 1300 shillings every month for living expenses, about 16 dollars. Beyond this, Eric doesn't usually know how he'll afford to pay for food daily. He eats at the school when he helps with the feeding program, and then purchases something for supper on the street or ingredients to cook something if he has the money. Other than a small stipend he gets from First Love for helping them out, he doesn't have much other income. Eric and I had a good time hanging out in his shack that afternoon. He thanked me for paying for our meal.
It's crazy to be friends with someone in extreme poverty. Sometimes I forget that his circumstances are so radically different than mine because he never complains or draws attention to it. Even simple tasks like washing dishes or going to the bathroom are a major procedure in the slums. When I got back to the compound that night, I was honestly pretty hungry from the meager dinner Eric and I had had. But I simply couldn't bring myself to eat anything, knowing that Eric wouldn't be eating any more himself in that day. I guess thats what compassion looks like, and it hasn't ever really hit me until I've come face to face with reality instead of reading about it in books or the news. A full measure of compassion simply cannot be attained until we've seen what they've seen, tasted what they taste, and worked as they work. I can't say that I'm even fully there yet because I'm still in much more comfortable conditions than anyone living in Kibera, but what I have seen has had a profound effect on the way I perceive life and humanity.
I will see Eric tomorrow and the next day and he will be living the same way and still managing to survive and keep upbeat about life. His life requires a dependence on God for even physical needs. He relies on God for literally his daily bread. Let his life be an example to all of us when we lack faith or are plagued by apathy. Some people in the world who live on much less may be more blessed in intangible ways. About $1.50 a day shouldn't be enough for anyone to survive, but as Christ broke the loaves of bread to serve thousands, he uses this to serve some in the slums. I still believe we need to play our part too. The Bible says, "To whom much is given, much is required" (Luke 12:48), so it is clear that we who are in places of greater financial security ought to be playing our part to help our neighbors, but at the same time we need to make sure that we are living a life fully immersed in the awesome power of Christ too. I guess Christ wasn't lying when he said it would be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom...

Note: Eric gave me permission to share this information about his life. I try to be cautious when writing personal details about the lives of others because I don't want it to seem as though I'm exploiting someone for my project. I've learned a lot from Eric and I hope you have too.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Test Drive

Being that I spent last weekend up-country, I wasn't really sure what this weekend would entail when I woke up Saturday morning in my apartment on the compound. I grabbed some breakfast and headed outside to see what kinds of games the kids were playing that I could join in with. After playing a game that was some kind of mix of dodgeball and monkey in the middle for awhile, I noticed that Selah, the car mechanic who had been working on the broken van, was sitting in the van by the office building. I went up to say hello and see how the van was coming along and he told me that he and George were about to take it out, "Come for the test drive," he said to me. Figuring I didn't really have much else to do, I climbed in and grabbed a seat. It couldn't hurt to take a little ride around the block this morning.
When George climbed in he said something about giving this van the ultimate test drive, but I didn't really know what he was talking about until we started driving out of Nairobi and into Rift Valley. We weren't just headed out for a little drive around the block, we were headed into the bush. Right on.
The Ngong Hills are located at the southwestern part of Nairobi. Once we passed those, we came through a town called Kiseria, and it was as if the whole world had opened up. The road began to take us through one of the most amazing mountain ranges I had ever seen, into Maasai territory. The Maasai are a tribal people group that inhabit these lands. They're often depicted in magazines, TV, or movies because they wear vibrant colored clothing, have lots of jewelry, and jump really high in tribal gatherings. Driving through the steep roads, we'd occasionally see a Maasai walking alongside the mountain with a walking stick. George narrated during the trip where we were and what these lands were known for, Selah had never been out here before either, so it was a new experience for both of us. The more we continued, the more amazing the landscape became. I've been pretty fanatical about taking pictures since I've been here, but since this trip happened so spontaneously I didn't even have my camera to capture any of it. Part of me liked this though, I felt like a picture could hardly do justice to the landscape the was enveloping our van as we drove through the middle of it. Eventually, at a spot about 60km away from Lake Magadi, we pulled over the van on the side of the road, and George motioned to me to get out and come look. We walked over and climbed a few rocks to look out. I felt like Simba in the Lion King when Mufasa was showing him the pridelands. "This is Africa," George said to me. And he was spot on, this was more amazing than anything I could have ever imagined. The trees, grasslands, rocks, mountains, everything the light was hitting was amazing. George explained to me that some animals could be found out here, but most are found further out, in Masai Mara, deeper in the bush away from humans. I wished we could've stayed for awhile to continue exploring, but a few minutes later we were back in the van headed back from where we came from.
About 1km later though, George spotted a Maasai homestead and motioned to stop the van again. I wasn't exactly sure what he was up to, but he told us to come have a look. We walked up to the fence, if that's what they call it. Surrounding their property was bushels of rolled up thorn vines standing about 4 feet high. They stretched around in a circle with a diameter of probably about 50-75 meters. There was an opening at the front of it with what looked like a gate, more vines that could be used to enclose the ring at night. The father of the family approached, and George greeted him in Swahili, introducing the three of us in Swahili and asking if he would show us around. The Maasai was really friendly, welcoming us in and showing us the area. As we walked in I could see that there was another ring in the middle made of the same vines that was used to keep goats and cattle. There were also about 4 huts, each standing about 5 feet tall and spaced out aroud the circle. We walked up to the first hut, and out came a bunch of children. They had lots of flies hovering around their faces, and apparently it is against custom to swat them away, so they stood unphased by them. When they approached us, they bowed their heads. George placed his palm on their heads as they did this. Maasai children greet this way to elders to show respect. I did the same, and then smiled at them, which made them laugh.
The huts here are made differently than the ones I saw last weekend. They are made of sticks and bonded together using cow dung. When it dries, the structure becomes very sturdy. He invited us inside, and I could hardly see as I stepped in through the narrow walls. There were a few slits for light, but it was otherwise totally dark. We stepped into what was their kitchen area, and saw that the mother, dressed in vibrant clothing and jewelry was cradling a baby. They had us sit down and welcomed us. They wanted to offer us something to drink. Chai is usually the customary drink you have when you visit someone's home in Kenya, but they didn't have chai here. Instead, they pulled out a long gourd and began to pour cups of sour milk for us. George assured me that this is great for the digestive system. The first sip was the most difficult for me to get down. It had a really sour taste to it and a texture that was thick enough to leave some pasty residue on my teeth even after I had swallowed, forcing me to lick the rest off. I looked into the cup, unsure of how I would ever manage to finish the whole thing, but knew it would be rude not to. I took another sip, trying to force it down quickly, but realizing the taste was unavoidable. The whole time I continued to smile and show appreciation however, recognizing that this was incredibly kind of them to be giving to us out of their humble circumstances. The father brought out a cup of sugar a minute later so we could make the drink a bit sweeter. I thought this would help, stirring the mixture together, but when I took another sip it tasted no different. As I continued force-feeding myself, it seemed as though the drink was getting chunkier too. A few minutes later, I downed it, just after George and Selah. Handing the father my cup, I thanked him for it, "Asante." George told me later that the Maasai pretty much live off of what they can get from the goats and cattle they raise, sour milk, meat, and blood...they don't like to waste anything. As we exited, the father showed us around the other huts before we left. I counted ten children at that point who were outside, there may have been more in the huts. George slipped the father 200 shillings, about $2.50 in US dollars, but it seemed like it must have meant a lot to him because he was very thankful.  As we climbed into the van, I began to consider how difficult life must be for them. The nearest neighbor was somewhere between 10-20km away and the trip to get water every morning apparently takes about 6 hours. This lifestyle was again, much different than anything I had ever seen, and made me feel a lot more similar to people that live in Nairobi.
On the way back, we ended up picking up some Maasai people who were walking to town, to give them a lift. The van was soon filled. Here I was, sitting in a van with two Kenyans in front of me that I'd know for two weeks, and about 7 Maasai hitchhikers behind me that I'd never met. And honestly, I was loving every second of it. "This is Africa", I thought to myself.
The drive back was just as incredible. We dropped off the people when we got to the town, Kiseria, just outside of the mountains. Driving back to Nairobi, the van survived, I was able to hold down the sour milk in my stomach, and images of the vast beauty of Kenya kept flashing through my mind. It was a good day for a test drive.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Random Days

The past few days have been atypical, but I guess its all relative since I don't necessarily have much of a routine established yet. As an intern for First Love, I've come to see that this means I can pretty much find myself helping out or tagging along for a number of different random things that the organization needs to run efficiently. And there are definitely a number of things, sometimes things I would never think about.
Wednesday - June 1 - was pretty atypical because it was Madaraka Day, the date when Kenya attained internal self rule. It wasn't so much the holiday that made it atypical, in fact there was really nothing that I observed at all that would have pointed towards it being a historically significant day. What made it different was that schools and public offices were closed, which meant the kids were on the compound all day instead of at school. I'm not sure if this is typical of all Kenyan children, but the ones on this compound all wake up really early. I thought that I was on top of things waking up at 7am Wednesday morning, but as I peered out the window, several children were already out and about. They definitely are not in the least bit lazy, their idea of a day off started with them working on building goal posts and using sand to mark up a soccer field. After this task was complete, the game of soccer, or "football" as they call it ensued. I never played much soccer growing up, but I certainly got my share of it that day. We played for about 3 hours straight and by the end of it, I was sunburned and thoroughly worked out, both of which seemed to confuse the kids quite a bit. The rest of the day involved me playing basketball with some of them, teaching the basics of baseball to some of them, reading books to some of them, and later having some of them teach me how to speak more Swahili. I've found that whenever I get into a rut where I'm not sure what to ask them, I can request more Swahili lessons. The kids seem to enjoy it a lot because it gives them a chance to be the teacher and showcase what they know and have learned. In the evening, the children gather every night to spend time singing worship songs, sharing scripture, and praying with one another. Phillip, one of the First Love staff, helps out with this every night, but it is basically run completely by the children themselves. They play the bongo drums and lead the songs, they have assignments for who is to read the verse every night, and who is to lead the prayer. I took an opportunity on Wednesday evening to speak during this gathering. The children range from ages 5-14, so its difficult to deliver a message that would reach all of them, but I thought back to where I was when I was their ages and realized that I never really sought out the Lord until I was older than all of them are now. They are in a unique position because their lives have clearly been blessed by the Lord completely. They are orphans who have been raised out of poverty and put in an environment that fosters growth as a Christian and as a person. My message to them was simply to seek God with their whole hearts because He has clearly chosen them for great things, and many of them have already begun to really learn who he is at really young ages. I raised the point that we should be prepared to give an answer if someone asked us who Jesus is. But even this is not quite enough because God speaks to the heart, so we also need to be able to answer the question, who is Jesus to you and how has been present in your life?
Contrary to what I would've thought going into this trip, the children are actually pretty willing to listen to mostly anything I say, and follow almost anything I do. Some of this is because of my age, but a lot of it is because I'm much different than them and they find this intriguing. Its actually worked to my advantage being a mzungu around the kids I guess.
Switching gears slightly, I'll fast forward to today. Today was a prime example of the randomness of being a First Love intern. I usually start off my day by going over to the office to see what Chris is planning on doing and if he needs help with anything. He sent me to go with George to the industrial area of Nairobi to get a broken van piece fixed for one of the vans used to pick up the kids. Navigating Nairobi is somewhat of a mystery to me because there aren't really addresses. Some roads have street names listed, but the particular place we were headed to actually had no street name, so we ended up searching through the insanely crowded Nairobi streets of the industrial area to find the shop. When we finally did, the price they were charging for the job was much overpriced so we ended up going to a different place altogether in the city. The experience of it was pretty wild, but I was glad to get a chance to visit part of downtown Nairobi and see the hustle and bustle of business there. By the time we got back it was already almost time to head out to pick up the kids from their schools. I've tagged along with George once before for this, but the whole process takes three back-and-forth trips and totals almost three hours of traveling. What makes it completely worth it is seeing the smiling faces of the kids when they see that we have come for them. They don't have parents, so we, the First Love staff, have to be the ones to act as their parents. Its a joy that I guess I can't fully explain, but feel blessed in a lot of ways to be able to be that figure after such a short time of being here.
There's something about never really knowing what the next day will have in store that makes me slightly uncomfortable, but at the same time, it makes every day an adventure, and one that I have to commit completely to the Lord before stepping foot outside. I guess every day of my life should be more like that...