Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Driving through the lovely Taita Hills one last time

Our final days of village living wound down and my thoughts centered on two things: (1) how eager I was to leave the Taita Hills and get on with life in a more civilized locale, and (2) Bwana and Mama Mwakodi’s extreme generosity despite their poverty. I will always remember how content they were with the little they did have. They had exhibited joy and kindness that material possessions could not add to or detract from.  

And I will always remember the ways Bwana Mwakodi and his wife had shown us:

Nevertheless, living in their home felt awkward because of cultural and language differences. From the outset, I had counted the days until we could leave. During the final few days I even counted hours.

My thoughts went back to the first day of our three-month orientation. With only a vague idea of what to expect during the orientation, I knew I’d never experienced anything like it and that I’d need more strength, stamina, and tenacity—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—than I’d ever needed before.

For two years I had prayed, and prayed, and prayed, and psyched myself up for the orientation but, by the day of our departure, I still didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself.

Nevertheless, somehow (well, not somehow, but by God’s grace) my worries and doubts coexisted with faith that God would get me through if only I’d depend on Him and cooperate with Him.

The Bible says, “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15, NKJV). I had told God I’d keep my mouth shut and take care of the quietness part if He’d take care of the confidence part.

So, armed with one very small chocolate bar and my friend Esther’s instructions on how to stare down a leopard, on September 9 Dave and I had set out on our three-month orientation, Kenya Safari. (From Grandma’s Letters from Africa, Chapter 1)  

And then, when November 29 arrived,

I looked back with a soaring heart.

God had shown me His loving, strengthening,

calming presence every single day.

Indeed He showed that

He gives strength to the weary

and increases the power of the weak (Isaiah 40:29).

What a reason to rejoice!

That final day in the Taita Hills, I celebratedI ate the last ragged square of my chocolate bar. (I had oh-so-carefully made that one little Cadbury’s bar last me through three months of stresses and surprises!) 

We shook hands with Bwana and Mama. Asante sana! (thank you very much) we said, and we really meant it.

We climbed into The Pearl, waved goodbye, called out Kwaherini! (goodbye!), and then Dave motored down through the lovely Taita Hills for the last time.

(You might enjoy looking over a Google Map of the area: check out “Dembwa, Kenya” and “Wundanyi, Kenya.” Zoom out a little and see how close the Taita Hills are to Mt. Kilimanjaro!)

We gathered with our fellow trainees at Dembwa, the little village at the foot of the hills where that segment of our odyssey—the most demanding part of our orientation—had started.

The day we drove out of the Taita Hills was a happy, happy day for me, though I have only the best memories of our stay there.

The Taita people had shown us what it looked like to live as people after God’s own heart.  (From Grandma’s Letters from Africa, Chapter 3)  


Friday, October 29, 2021

We screamed and braced ourselves

Dave was responsible to line up a bus to transport our orientation group out of the Taita Hills on November 29 at the end of the final three weeks of our training—the most challenging part.


So, a week in advance, we set out in the Pearl for Mombasa, a large seaport on the Indian Ocean, passing numerous baobab trees—which can be ancient.

Baobabs are known for their strange appearance. According to an old Arabic legend, "the devil plucked up the baobab, thrust its branches into the earth, and left its roots in the air."

Also known as the “Tree of Life,” each can hold over a thousand gallons of water, a real gift to both humans and wildlife during dry times. Baobabs also offer shelter as well as nutrition from its fruit and leaves.


The highway, the major link between the coast and the capital city, was scarred with the usual thousands of potholes so Dave drove just fast enough to skim over the high points, the way our orientation director, Brian, had taught him.


The highway was busy with enormous lorries (trucks) that belched out black exhaust while hauling their loads to or from the seaport. (Click on this link to watch a few seconds of lorries traveling to the coast along that same highway. Notice the lack of a good shoulder. Also notice that nowadays the lorries aren’t belching black exhaust! Hooray!)


At one point, Dave pulled out around one of those lorries and accelerated to pass it—or “overtake” it, as they say in Kenya—when before our eyes, hidden just beyond the crest of a slight rise, we spotted something much larger than a pothole.


At sixty miles an hour, we sped alongside that truck toward a gap where an entire section of pavement had gone missing from the centerline to the far side of the highway—maybe five or six feet across and more than a foot deep

And unmarked, mind you! No warning given to drivers!


Instinctively we knew we’d hit that hole within three or four seconds.


We both screamed and braced ourselves. (That time, I didn’t even have time to envision a newspaper headline to announce our deaths.)


But to our utter amazement

The Pearl soared right over that massive gap 

and sped on down the highway.


My heart still races when I relive those moments.


When we arrived in Mombasa and found the bus company, Dave stepped inside to make arrangements, but I stayed in the car park (parking lot) adjoining a junkyard full of wrecked buses.


When Dave finished inside, he walked back to The Pearl with a puzzled look on his face.


“I took care of the paperwork, but where are the buses?” he asked.


We looked around, but we could see only the wrecked ones in the junkyard.


The man who helped Dave must have overheard us because he stepped outside and told us that indeed those were the buses.


After he moved out of earshot, we sighed and shook our heads.


Dave moaned,

“That guy promises someone will show up

with a bus for us.”

We wondered if he would.

(From Chapter 3, Grandma’s Letters from Africa)


Wednesday, October 20, 2021

My heart nearly stopped. Had The Pearl gasped her last breath?

The Pearl of Africa was a superb vehicle. That old Toyota Land Cruiser could drive through streams, slog through deep mud resembling greased peanut butter, cling to a steep rock face on a hillside, and somehow adhere to a tiny point of a mountaintop, preventing our certain deaths.


You’ll remember that on the first day Dave and I spent in our final segment of our three-month orientation, The Pearl wouldn’t start. Yet someone—we didn’t know who—had scheduled important appointments for Dave, as our group’s leader, with the District Commissioner, the Bishop, and the police. Brian, our orientation director, had explained that relating with those officials would assure them our group had no suspicious motives.


Brian impressed upon us that establishing a good relationship with them was of great importance.


But we couldn’t get The Pearl started! Aaaargh!


And we had no one nearby to help—we were in a remote, sparsely populated forest in steep mountains at about 6,000 feet.


We'd have to push to get her started.

Looking around, we were keenly aware that only thirty feet away we would come to a drop-off of nearly five hundred feet. It was going to be tricky. Mighty tricky.


Bwana Mwakodi and I pushed while Dave steered The Pearl and worked the clutch, but she wouldn’t start. We pushed again. That Toyota Land Cruiser was a sturdy, heavy vehicle!


Winded, we strained and shoved, but The Pearl still wouldn’t start. The nearest mechanic was probably dozens of kilometers away.


I looked at Dave. He looked as sick as I felt.


We had only one option: turn The Pearl around and face it downhill. However, whether we turned to the right or to the left, we had to push The Pearl uphill to turn it around.


If and when we got the back wheels up on the hill, we had to avoid yet another drop-off. Bwana and I tried and tried, but didn’t have enough muscle to push The Pearl uphill.


Then, as if by a miracle, a man stepped out of the forest. And then another, and another, all of them Bwana’s friends and neighbors. For an hour, we struggled and groaned and sweated and eventually managed to turn The Pearl around, facing downhill.


We pushed once again and that time it chugged and sputtered—and came to life! Oh, what a sublime sound!


From that day forward,

we always parked The Pearl facing downhill

so we could get her started by pushing.


Nevertheless, our adventures with The Pearl continued. One morning we climbed in and expected her to chug to life by compression after I pushed it wobbling down the hill—but it did not.


My heart nearly stopped. I looked over at Dave. He looked pale.


Had The Pearl gasped her last breath?


Dave looked around for a way to avoid pushing her uphill backward to try again. He scouted out a steep, forested trail beyond the Mwakodis’ house, one we’d never driven before.


It took travelers away from civilization, but it was a downhill slope, so the two of us pushed The Pearl that direction. Dave jumped in at the last moment and worked the clutch—but it didn’t start.


That left us stuck worse than ever before.


What should we do? We could push it further down into that unpopulated mountain valley and hope it would start, but if we had already tried twice without success, why should we expect The Pearl to come to life the third time?


If it still didn’t start, towing it out would be all the harder, if not impossible.


We were so stressed we felt sick. Faint-hearted.


We felt so alone, so isolated—and in fact, we were. No one was around to help this time.


After nervous deliberation, lots of sighing, and silent praying, we decided to push once more before we gave up—and . . .


. . . and The Pearl sputtered to life. Hooray! It’s hard to find words for the enormous relief we felt. Tears stung my eyes.


At that point, Dave faced another challenge: he had to back The Pearl up that narrow steep trail, up and up and up, until he got to the dirt road at the Mwakodis’ place.


“Ah,” Dave sighed, “the perils of The Pearl.”


My stomach still knots when I remember that day. I can feel again the light-headedness, the cold sweat.


But once again, we had witnessed that:


God had worked on our behalf,

confirming His promise

for those He sends to do His work:


“Do not be afraid or discouraged

for the Lord will personally go ahead of you.

He will be with you.

He will neither fail you nor abandon you.”

(Deuteronomy 31:8)


(From Chapter 3, Grandma’s Letters from Africa)


Monday, October 11, 2021

The Perils of the Pearl--again: “ We’re about to fall off the mountainside.”


While Dave and I lived with the Mwakodis, rain fell in the Taita Hills—a big blessing—but maneuvering The Pearl on roads afterward resembled driving through greased peanut butter.


Dave endured more than one anxious moment slipping and sliding up a steep hill through deep gunk. One day he wondered aloud, “Will we ever get to the top of this?”


Another day we got a punctured tire, and The Pearl broke down twice.


The roads were so bad that at the end of a long day, holding on for dear life, our bodies felt bruised.


On days like that, we had to fight through any number of challenges. It was easy to get discouraged.


But we couldn’t give up!


What we faced those days reminds me of Hebrews 12:1 which tells us to run with perseverance and endurance the race that God has placed before us—and never to give up.


There in the Taita Hills, if a family didn’t own a car (and my estimation is that most didn’t), they didn’t need a road so, in that case, Dave just pointed The Pearl in the right direction.


One day, with The Pearl chock full of people on our way to a trainee’s host’s home, we had to drive across the steep rock face of a hillside. To my amazement, even though The Pearl tipped at a steep angle, it clung to the rock. The Pearl’s stability and agility astounded me.


Eventually we reached the house, perched on a boulder-strewn peak. We dropped off our friend and then, there on that rocky little point, Dave began to turn The Pearl around.


I knew it wouldn’t be easy because I couldn’t see any flat ground and the land dropped off in every direction. I had turned to speak to a fellow passenger when suddenly Dave hollered, “Everyone sit perfectly still!”


I had never heard him yell like that. Something was wrong.


The Pearl faced downhill at a steep angle, toward a deep ravine, and Dave whispered to me,


“The Pearl’s about to fall off the mountainside.”


It was as if the cords of death surrounded us—sought to entangle us. Destruction overwhelmed us, the cords of the grave coiled around us. But in our distress, we cried out to God for help, and He heard us (Psalm 18:4-6).


I could hardly breathe, much less speak, but eventually I pulled myself together enough to ask Dave if we passengers should get out.


“No!” he yelled. “Everybody sit perfectly still!”


He told me he would put The Pearl in four-wheel drive. I didn’t know what that required, and maybe he didn’t either, but again he warned us not to move.


In fact, he himself sat perfectly still.

His face and neck glistened with sweat.


When I saw Dave petrified at the wheel,

I envisioned newspaper headlines in Kenya

and across the United States,

“Missionaries die when vehicle plunges off mountain.”


I felt faint. I couldn’t watch. I had to look down.


After a tense few moments,

by God’s grace and in His power,

Dave composed himself, planned what to do,

no doubt rehearsed in his mind

how to work the clutch,

and then he bravely took action.


Seconds later he backed The Pearl up and away from the drop-off in front of us, stopping before it backed too far toward the drop-off behind us.


He inched The Pearl back and forth, and kidogo, kidogo—little by little—he turned it around.


Our mighty, compassionate God had done for us what He did for David in Old Testament times:


He reached down from above,

pulled us away from that precarious,

pointy, mountain peak,

and He took us to a safe place.

He had made our feet, and The Pearl’s wheels,

like a deer that does not stumble;

He helped us stand secure on that steep mountain.

(Psalm 18:16-33)


No one said much for the rest of the trip, and it took a long time for my heartbeat to return to normal. (From Chapter 3, Grandma’s Letters from Africa)


How precious are the words from Psalm 121:2-3, 8: 

The Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth . . .

will not let you fall. . . .

The Lord guards you as you come and go,

now and forever.

(God’s Word Translation)


Saturday, September 25, 2021

Cross-cultural considerations: Underwear


“Heading west from Voi town

along the road to Taveta on the Tanzanian border,

east of Mount Kilimanjaro, you'd be forgiven for thinking

that the entirety of Taita-Taveta District . . .  

is merely flat and featureless scrubland,

dominated by dusty orange sand,

a few clumps of thorn trees, and not much else.

Yet if you turn right at Mwaktau, 25km west of Voi,

a switchback tarmac road to the district capital of Wundanyi

begins a rapid ascent into [the Taita Hills,]

a surprisingly fertile, . . . beautiful land, replete with

vertiginous cliffs, rushing rivulets and waterfalls.

Beautiful in its own right,

the contrast with the dreary semi-desertic plains below

is astonishing.” (Jens Finke)


The beautiful Taita Hills are more than hills—they’re mountains, some of which are close to 7,000 feet. During the final stage of our orientation course, Dave and I lived in a sparsely populated area high in those lush mountains.


And the day came when we needed to wash our laundry.


Bwana Mwakodi said he’d show us the nearest water source. We followed him down a steep, meandering path through the forest, descending about five hundred feet.


At the bottom, he led us through dense undergrowth to a spring. Clear, fresh water! What a treat after that stream in Maasai-land.


Bwana hiked back up the hill while we scrubbed, rinsed, and wrung out our laundry. My husband Dave’s participation no doubt caused gossip to echo back and forth among the hills. I could imagine the voices, “A man doing women’s work!”


Afterward, we began the hike back up the very steep hill with our heavy wet laundry and a couple of water jugs. Dave held one side of the basin and I held the other but, to our surprise, we really struggled. That basin was heavy and that hill seemed almost vertical. I suppose the elevation had something to do with our difficulty.


An elderly man and a couple of women hiked up behind us. They greeted us in Swahili and visited like Africans always do, and then they reached for our laundry basin and water jugs.


We objected, but they kindly insisted.


One of them, a petite woman, lifted the basin to the top of her head, balanced it perfectly, and, without effort, scurried up the hill. We were stunned at her strength.


Dave and I huffed and puffed up the path behind them.


When we arrived back at the Mwakodis’ place, sweaty and breathless, we gave our new friends a few shillings to thank them for their labor.


They would have carried our water and basin even without getting paid, but no doubt appreciated the money and we were grateful for their help—but even more, in them I glimpsed God Himself. In Psalm 68:19, David said that God bears our burdens, and those dear people came alongside us that day and, like God, helped us bear our heavy loads.


Once again, I was overwhelmed by people’s kindness

over and over again, and

recalling how Bwana and Mama Mwakodi bought—for us

groceries they couldn’t afford. 

Nothing could have prepared me for the Taita people’s generosity.


We strung a clothesline between The Pearl and a tree and soon we had clean, dry clothes. Sweet!


Only later did we learn

that hanging one’s underwear where everyone can see it

is a no-no in Kenyan culture.




Monday, September 6, 2021

Charity Upside Down


I was only beginning to grasp Africans’ great generosity, even during their own desperate times. It seemed so different from everything I had known and experienced.


Let me tell you about a time when Ugandan kids, living in extreme poverty, donated funds to an American charity.


That’s right. Desperately needy Ugandan kids donated to Americans.


A pretty amazing guy, Bob Goff, founder of Restore International (now Love Does), started a school in Uganda for kids in destitution. Boys at Restore International received an education and also grew and sold crops.


About that time, Bob’s friend, Donald Miller, founded The Mentoring Project, which worked with fatherless kids in Portland, Oregon.


When the Ugandan boys heard about The Mentoring Project, they wanted to send money to help those fatherless kids.


Justin Zoradi, Marketing Director for The Mentoring Project, writes:


“When we heard this news we were shocked, and a little unnerved.


What were these young men thinking?


Are we seriously going to accept donations from kids in Uganda? Many of these students were former child soldiers, their lives upended by poverty, conflict, and civil unrest, and now they want to give to The Mentoring Project?


If you’re like me,

when you hear such stories your heart races

and you want to cry out, “No! That’s not right!

They need to keep their money for their own needs!"


Bob Goff, however, turns the idea of charity upside down.


Justin writes:


“It’s easy to . . . assume it’s not in the best interest of The Mentoring Project to accept donations from young people who are, for the most part, in a much harder situation than the fatherless boys in Portland.


“But in talking to Bob . . .  we realized that accepting the contributions and allowing Ugandan youth the opportunity to give generously is the most empowering thing we can do.”


“Bob described these students as the future leaders of Uganda and how this donation is a powerful incentive for the development of their country. The gift is a boost for us, but also an act of nation-building for them. . . .


“We’ve learned that there is something meaningful and deeply enriching in the act of giving itself, regardless of the amount.


“Remember the parable Jesus told

about the widow who gave her last coin

to the poor in Mark 12?

In the same vein, let’s not take away

the opportunity for the boys from Uganda

to be blessed by God and experience the joy of giving. . . .”


Yes, indeed, Bob Goff turns the idea of charity upside down!


“Exactly in line with the Beatitudes,

he [Jesus] was describing and inviting his followers

to enter an upside-down world, an inside-out world,

a world where all the things people normally assume

about human flourishing, including human virtue,

are set aside and a new order is established.”

(Virtue Reborn, by Tom Wright)