Monday, June 14, 2021

We had lived in Kenya only a few weeks and—Wham!


Early the next morning, while I was outside on my little trip to the choo (outhouse), I took in more of our surroundings, seeing what was hard to see the night before in the dark. The Mwakodis’ house sat on a little peak surrounded by forest. They didn’t live in a village—their house seemed to be the only one around. A narrow dirt trail passed by in front of the house.


Our first full day with Mwakodis was a Sunday and, as Bwana had told us the night before, we would be heading to church.


Bwana and Mama put on their one set of fine clothes. Dave and I had only the camping gear we’d brought on our orientation course, so I wore a denim skirt, T-shirt, socks, and hiking boots. Kenyan men seldom wore short pants so Dave wore long trousers and a button-down shirt with a tie.


When the four of us walked out the door, Bwana said, “We will take the vehicle.”


You’ll remember that our orientation directors, Brian and Jenny, by design, had left our group of orientees on our own and that Dave had been elected our group’s point man, someone to be our spokesman or advocate during those three weeks, the go-to person if anyone had trouble. With that responsibility, Dave also was given The Pearl of Africa, the group’s old Toyota Land Cruiser, to use for official business, not our own convenience. We were supposed to experience this last phase of orientation in the same way as the others in our group, which meant we were supposed to walk everywhere like everyone else.


So when Bwana said, “We will take the vehicle,” Dave and I knew that wasn’t a good idea. Dave said,  No, we can walk.”


Bwana, who didn’t understand why we had The Pearl, smiled and repeated, “We will take the vehicle.”


Dave and I looked at each other briefly and somehow communicated with our eyes: This was Bwana’s home and we were his guests. This was Bwana’s territory and we’d better do things his way. So we drove.


We meandered among the forested hills for three miles on a narrow dirt track. The Taita Hills reminded me of the place we’d lived for the previous fourteen years: the Olympic Mountains and their foothills near Port Angeles, about the same elevation and covered with green.


Tropical plants grew in the Taita Hills—papaya, citrus, and banana trees—but I also spotted plants that grew back home in the Pacific Northwest: bracken ferns, purple lobelia, berry vines, pine trees, and cedar.


We came to a small clearing in the forest and spotted the Anglican Church, a small stick-and-mud/plaster building, the same color as the earth.


Bwana and Mama led us to the door and when we stepped inside, we interrupted the children’s class. I’m pretty sure we were the first white people ever in their church (and maybe the last) and we wazungu caused a stir—I mean a big stir.


Each little face turned our direction. Their song leader scurried to regain the children’s attention. Eventually, she convinced them to sing a couple more songs, though they turned and watched us while they sang.


I loved hearing the children sing. Their voices filled the room—a sharp contrast to so many Sunday school children back home who rarely sing louder than a whimper.


In the break between Sunday school and the church service, people welcomed us with courtesy, but we knew they found us curious—and very white—beings. For the first time in my life, I found myself a member of the minority race.


For the three-hour worship service, we sat on hand-hewn plank benches. The congregation spoke Swahili in their prayers, songs, and Scripture readings, but I suspect they spoke the Taita language in conversations and the sermon.


I had no idea what people said. For all I knew, the pastor might have preached in Chinese.


Dave and I had lived in Kenya only a few weeks and—


God gave us a first-hand experience

like that of millions of people around the world,

week after week, year after year.

Without a Bible in a language they understand,

they walk out of their churches

with little or no understanding of Scripture readings

or their pastor’s sermon.

I had known this in theory,

but that day I personally experienced

why people need Bibles in their own languages—

and why we came to Africa:

to help with the work of Bible translation.


Monday, June 7, 2021

With only fond memories of the red plastic basin-turned-toilet-seat


Dave and I opened our eyes the next morning and looked around our little room, aided by a few glints of sunlight creeping in through rustic wooden shutters covering a tiny window opening (no glass). Our room was small—I mean, dinky. Miniature. (Later that day we measured our bedroom: seven feet square.)


But my first order of business was to hurry to the choo and empty my bladder.


The Mwakodis had no running water or toilet, only a pit latrine in a stick-and-mud enclosure some distance from their house. So, after slipping on a T-shirt, skirt, socks, and boots, I grabbed my roll of toilet paper and headed out across a clearing on the forested mountainside.


You might recall that I was not a big fan of pit latrines. (Click on I could envision how men could aim for that hole in the ground, but what about women?)


Stepping inside the Mwakodi’s pit latrine, I was overcome with fond, fond memories of . . . not past pit latrines, but of the red plastic basin-turned-toilet-seat that our friend Joy had made back in Maasai-land. Why hadn’t I thought to make one of my own for this phase of our orientation??


Even better would’ve been those outhouses with black toilet seats back at Naivasha. I should have appreciated them much more back then. Compared to pit latrines, they were things of beauty.


Our bed, three feet wide and five feet, seven inches long, had both a headboard and footboard. My husband, Dave, stands over six feet tall so that bed posed a problem, but he did what our orientation director, Brian, taught us—he developed a coping mechanism. He put a suitcase along his side of the bed and put one foot on it, and he spread-eagled the other foot across to the other corner of the bed.


That left me one corner in which to curl up.


That miniature room also housed two large storage barrels, a suitcase that belonged to Bwana and Mama Mwakodi, a chair with another of their suitcases, and our belongings—suitcases, backpacks, and canteens.


Bwana could speak Swahili and a little English, but Mama didn’t know English and didn’t speak Swahili much either. Apparently, she and Bwana talked to each other in the Taita language.


They served us a piece of bread and cups of tea for breakfast, always smiling, acting genuinely honored to have us in their home. What gracious folks they were!


And then Bwana said, “We will leave soon for church.”


And thus began the first day of our three-week stay with Bwana and Mama Mwakodi, three weeks packed with altogether new experiences, a number of challenges, and a chance to hang out with two of the nicest folks God ever created.

Our bedroom at the Mwakodis' home: 

Monday, May 31, 2021

I was a stranger and you welcomed me


Dave and I and our fellow orientees had been in training for two months and we’d soon learn how well prepared we were for the third and final phase of our orientation: Each family would be on its own, scattered throughout remote African villages in mountains named the Taita Hills.


We would no longer have the comfort of living alongside our fellow orientees. Our directors, Brian and Jenny, would leave the area—but only after dropping off each family (or single person) in their new settings.


Dave and I were the last of our group to arrive at our new “home.”

Well after dark on Saturday, November 6, Brian pulled The Pearl (our group’s trusty Toyota Land Cruiser) to a stop high in the Taita Hills. We hadn’t seen another dwelling or signs of humans for quite a while. Trees and darkness surrounded us, but The Pearl’s headlights shone on a little mud-plaster house.


Brian walked to the door and spoke to the people inside. Then he turned and ambled back to us.


“They didn’t get word you’d be living with them,” he said. “It’ll take them a few minutes to get ready.”


Only later did I realize that they had already gone to bed.


Before long, Brian introduced us to our hosts, an older couple, Rafael Mwakodi, whom we called Bwana, and his wife, whom we called Mama. Looking back on it, I suspect this “older” couple was younger than we were.


Brian said goodbye and headed out into the still dark of night. The “village living” phase of our orientation course had begun.


In the dim glow of a kerosene lamp, we visited with Bwana and Mama, all smiles. Bless the Mwakodis’ hearts—I would not have smiled if foreigners awakened me at night and announced their three-week stay.


After a few minutes, they led us to our room, and Dave and I settled in for the night.


Only much later did Dave tell me that the Mwakodis had moved out of their own bedroom to let us have it and that they slept on the floor in another room. That makes me want to cry. In Bwana and Mama, I beheld the sacrificial heart of God Himself. (From Chapter 3 of Grandma’s Letters from Africa)


And, looking back, I recognize that Bwana and Mama, and their home for three weeks, were part of “God’s hundred times as much —an answer to my daughter Karen’s prayer based on Matthew 19:29:


“Everyone who has left houses

or brothers or sisters

or father or mother or children

or fields for my sake

will receive a hundred times as much. . . .”


You see, before Dave and I left the States and moved to Africa, everything within me screamed that it was not right for us to leave our 21-year-old daughter, Karen, alone at that point in her life. But God had made it clear that it was okay for us to go. It broke my heart. It broke my young Karen’s tender heart, too.


 But in Karen's guest post, “When Jesus’ words are difficult, sharp, and real,” Karen wrote this about the last night she spent with us in the States:


“I prayed that [Matthew 19:29] for my mom that night. I asked God to give her a hundredfold for all her sadness, for all she was leaving behind. I remember writing that verse down to give her. I wanted her to know that I understood, that I trusted God, that I believed Him and His promisesfor myself and for her.”


Neither Karen nor I knew what, specifically, 

those “hundred times as much” blessings might be, 

but now I can say for sure: 

Bwana and Mama Mwakodi were part of 

the hundred times as much

directly from God’s hand.


Jesus was speaking of people like the Mwakodis 

when he said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” 

(Matthew 25:35).


Monday, May 24, 2021

The beginning of our biggest test yet


You remember those knot-in-your-stomach times when the rubber hits the road, when you know you’ll be tested and tried.


You had trained and studied and prepared, you had prayed and worried and prayed some more.


And the day came when you had to see for yourself

whether your training and preparation were enough

whether your faith was adequate,

whether God was adequate,

whether you were adequate.


Well, that’s where Dave and I were—on the threshold of our big test—one that would last three weeks.


You see, we and our fellow orientees had been in training for two months and the time had come for us to see how well prepared we were for the third and final phase of our orientation: Each family would be on its own, scattered throughout remote African villages. We would no longer have the comfort of living alongside our fellow orientees. Our directors, Brian and Jenny, would leave the area.


But someone in our group needed to be in charge—in case of an emergency—so Brian called a meeting and had us vote.


Our fellow orientees chose Dave to be the Samaki kubwa, the big fish.


So, we all loaded up our tents and supplies and left Maasai-land. I remember our stay there as a mellow time, a serene time, a gentle time—for the most part anyway. I had enjoyed the quiet, the clean air, and the slow, simple lifestyle.


Our handful of vehicles headed toward the Taita Hills—a mountain range at an elevation around 7,000 feet—in southeastern Kenya, close to the majestic and famous Mt. Kilimanjaro. We left the desert and entered a lush, verdant region.


Before we all went on our separate ways on our own, our group congregated in Dembwa at the base of the Taita Hills, a small town close to a main highway and a bustling civilization. Town and regional officials welcomed us with lunch and speeches. And in good African style, both Dave and Brian gave speeches, too. (See photo below.)


We had gathered in the yard of a new elementary school with six or eight classrooms and, since Dave was an educator, he was curious about the classrooms. Since the children didn’t have classes that day, we stepped inside one room.


Concrete floors and walls kept the temperature nice and cool, but the school had no electricity—teachers and students depended on sunlight through windows.


The classroom was furnished with a slate blackboard and rough-hewn desks and stools.


A world map hung on the wallthe classroom’s only educational material.


The room had no textbooks, dictionaries, or anything else. In place of books, we noticed pencils and thin tablets in which children had written lecture notes from their teacher.


We found it hard to grasp the poverty displayed in that school—it seemed unthinkable—but we also knew the teachers, students, and their families placed a high value on education. They were doing the best they could with their meager resources.


On that day, little did we know that this school was superior to many others across the continent.


And so, with a knot in our stomachs

and with wonderings if we’d stand the tests,

and curiosity about what awaited us in the Taita Hills,

we were off on yet another adventure.

How good to know God was with us on it.

The Lord Himself goes before youahead of you

and He will stay with you.

He won’t leave you alone, He won’t forsake you.

Don’t be afraid. Don’t be discouraged.”

(Deuteronomy 31:8)

Dave and other speech-givers in Dembwa


Monday, May 17, 2021

Germs? Or angel dust?


It was one thing for us expatriates to sit around a table with other ex-pats and learn about respecting and valuing the culture new to usand it was altogether another thing to live it out.


And so it was that one Sunday during our orientation course, Shel Arensen, a missionary with AIM (Africa Inland Mission), invited us to go to church with him and the Dorobo people. (You remember Shel—recently I told you about his novel, The Dust of Africa. I heartily recommend it!)


A few of us piled into Shel’s sturdy four-wheel-drive and we set out. Eventually the tarmac wore out, leaving just a lumpy, dusty track, but hakuna matata—no worries—Shel grew up in Africa. He patiently maneuvered the vehicle with ease—over, around, and through.


Eventually he pulled to a halt near the remote Dorobo village and we climbed out, a little nervous, wondering what awaited us.


A dozen people hurried down the hill to greet us with handshakes and broad grins.


Shy children looked up at us and then turned toward each other and giggled.


The adults spoke back and forth with Shel. We didn’t understand their language, but their smiles sent the message that they were pleased we had come.


Our new Dorobo friends led us up a dirt path toward their church. Along the way, children grabbed our hands and when they did, I heard the echo of our orientation director’s brief comment before we left camp. Brian had mentioned that some among the Dorobo have a reputation for poor personal hygiene.


Now, I’m a germ freak so when the children grabbed my hands, I wanted to pull away. At that moment, respecting and valuing the Dorobo culture seemed impossible.


But something—probably God—stopped me. Instead, with mixed emotions, I silently prayed the prayer my sister-in-law, Nancy, taught me, Oh, God, please cause my immune system to work well.


Shel told us the Dorobo Christians built their place of worship with pride and excitement and he led us inside it, a dim room about ten feet square, constructed of sticks and mud, with a dirt floor.


Under the corrugated tin roof, they had strung wires from corner to corner and had hung things on them—dried flowers, ferns, moss, squares of colored toilet tissue, and lined notebook paper on which someone had practiced penmanship.


On the walls, they had tacked pages out of European and American magazines—ads for coffee, pantyhose, and nail polish.


They’d built hand-hewn benches around the walls and when our group joined them, we packed that little room.


The Dorobo worshiped God with their songs, sometimes in Swahili, sometimes in Maa. They listened to Shel’s Bible stories and studied his pictures. He talked with them at length to be sure they understood the lessons and knew how to apply them to their lives.


Looking back on it now, I never imagined I’d visit a rural village or worship in a church like the Dorobo church, but I’m so glad I did.


On our drive back to our orientation campsite,

it occurred to me that despite the remote setting

and my germophobic tendencies,

the Dorobo people blessed us.


They welcomed us and invited us to worship God with them.

Nothing could be finer than that.


Cross-cultural living can have its “moments,”

but it can also lead us to discover joy, beauty,

and a richness we would miss otherwise.


Maybe the stuff on those children’s hands was angel dust.


Monday, May 10, 2021

Turning our American mindset upside down


Our three-month orientation course, called Kenya Safari, helped us make sense of our new settings, to adjust and flourish.


It equipped us and our fellow new missionaries to transition into the work we came to do.


And—this is crucial—our orientation taught us expatriates to respect and value the culture new to us—to learn Africans’ world views and social norms and values and expectations.


But we needed to go beyond just appreciating their ways of doing things: We needed to understand the importance of not offending the host country’s people—our new coworkers and neighbors. Our job was to respectfully model our behavior after theirs. We needed to fit in.


That required us to turn our American mindset upside down.

It required us to humble ourselves.


Cultural humility gives up the role of expert,” writes Marilyn R. Gardner, “instead seeing ourselves as students of our host culture. It puts us on our knees, the best posture possible for learning. . . .


Cultural humility demands self-evaluation and critique,” Marilyn continues, “constant effort to understand the view of another before we react. It requires that we recognize our own tendency toward cultural superiority” (Between Worlds, Marilyn R. Gardner; also posted on Facebook February 5, 2021).


We discovered that what is polite (or at least acceptable) in one culture could be rude in another. For example, Africans are people-oriented and Americans are not, and, in Kenya, everyone shakes hands when they say hello and goodbye. If we fail to do so, we insult them. Learning to always shake hands was important—and yet it was not easy for us Americans to remember. We had to be very intentional in order to not upset anyone.


Here’s another example of the difference between the way Americans and Africans think. You might have heard it—it’s making the rounds on Facebook. It’s a story illustrating “ubuntu,” the concept that “an authentic human being is part of a larger and more important relational, communal, societal, environmental and spiritual world” (African Journal of Social Work).


The story, which might or might not have come from Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, goes something like this:


A non-African anthropologist gathered a group of children around him after placing a basket of fruit at the base of a tree some distance away. He told them that when he gave the signal, they were to run to the tree, and he promised that the first to get there would win the fruit.

The anthropologist probably said something like, “On your mark. Get set. GO!”

But to his surprise, the children grasped hands, ran together to the tree, and sat down and shared the fruit.

The anthropologist questioned them: “Why didn’t one of you run ahead? You could have had all the fruit for yourself.”

Ubuntu,” they replied. “How can one of us be happy if the others are sad?


Sometimes ubuntu is translated “I am because we are,” or “is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean ‘the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.’” (Wikipedia)


The story was an eye-opener for the anthropologist. Similar stories from African cultures continue to baffle us Americans, too—although if we understood and applied the Bible’s teachings, I have a hunch we’d be more inclined to do what those African kids did.


Throughout our orientation course, we learned to:



stretch our thinking,

and, perhaps most important: scrutinize our assumptions.


We had frequent opportunities to stand back and examine our American ways, including our American Christian ways.


And many times the African way seemed better than ours.

We had much to learn from Africans.


Monday, May 3, 2021

An American learning how to eat in Africa


We cooked meals over an open fire alongside our narrow, shallow stream in the desert at a place you can’t find on the map.


There in southwestern Kenya, among the Maasai, for six weeks fifty of us camped in tents, counting orientees, children, and staff.


Our crew had set up the kitchen tent and cooking fire under fig trees, to take advantage of their shade, but baboons overhead threw figs at us. Our Kenyan staff hollered to drive them away, but they sat there with defiance in their eyes and kept pelting us.


One morning while I crouched beside the fire, cooking breakfast for our group, a baboon up in a tree pooped into the pot of food. I threw the whole thing out and began again.


Can God spread a table in the desert?” the Israelites grumbled against God (Psalm 78:19). Yes, He gave them manna in their desert, and He gave us chapatis in ours—round, flat, bread-like, and fried in lard. Unleavened, and with a dense, rubbery consistency, chapatis are a staple throughout Kenya.


God also gave us ugali, a thick, stiff porridge of white cornmeal. We Americans found it flavorless because Kenyans don’t put salt or sugar in it, but they love it and eat large mounds a couple of times a day.


We also sampled dik-dik, ostrich eggsone equals ten chicken eggs—and warthog, a gift from our Maasai friends who shot it with bows and arrows. It tasted delicious, tender and moist.


We learned hands-on things like how to soak vegetables and fruit in bleach-water to kill amoebas and other critters that could have made us really, really sick.


Our menu also included Marmite (sometimes called Vegemite, depending on the continent), a dark brown sticky substance the Brits and New Zealanders among us spread on their bread and butter. They were wild about it, but we Americans found it nasty.


And lest anyone believes that when a hen lays eggs, they look just like they do when we buy them at our North American supermarkets—No way! Before we cracked our eggs, we washed off straw, poop, and an occasional feather, and—since people didn’t refrigerate eggs and there was no such thing as a “use by” date—we tested them for freshness. We poured water into a container and dropped an egg in; a fresh egg would sink to the bottom, but a spoiled egg would float.


Our dining room, which adjoined the kitchen tent area under the trees, consisted of wooden folding tables and canvas safari chairs. I used both hands to eat. One hand navigated a fork, the other waved above my plate to protect it from flies, figs, and baboon droppings from above.


We also learned that what we call Jell-O is called “jelly” in Africa. And what we call jelly, Africans call “jam.” How confusing for us Americans!


Hamburger is called “mince.”


French fries are called “chips.”


Potato chips are called “crisps.”


Zucchinis are called “corgettes.”


Green peppers are called “capsicum.”


And corn is called “maize.”


Oh, dear . . . . We had so much to learn!