Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas in Kenya

I’m not fond of snow. But Christmas without snow is still a bit difficult to get used to. Getting a bit of sunburn the day before Christmas Eve felt weird and wonderful all at the same time.

On Monday afternoon I met some of the ladies from the Chronological Bible Study at the newest restaurant in Karen, called Dari. It sits in a beautiful garden just off Ngong Road. While the service was complete crap, my hot chocolate was divine and the scenery was fabulous. And my friend Kim invited me for Christmas Eve lunch! YEAH! I had already been invited for Christmas Day dinner at my Canadian friend, Jana’s home, but had been hoping for another invitation!

Kim is an America. She and her husband, Joe, are missionaries here and have two adorable children Sophia and Theo. They had friends and neighbors over so there were about 15 of us. It was a nice relaxed sit where you want kind of lunch. Milly tried some new foods. Pork is not a winner in her book. But she is a huge fan of pumpkin pie and wants to know why we don’t make it. Well, there is no such thing as frozen pie crusts and pumpkin from a can here…my friend Kim had made her pies from scratch, including cooking the pumpkin. I told Milly she could go to Kim’s to make pumpkin pies!

Judie opted out of all holiday celebration. She is an introverts, introvert. She recently got a job as a nanny, so she said she just wanted to stay at home. In her defense the people she nanny’s for were invited to the same Christmas day party we were, so I can’t blame her for wanting some down time from her charge, although he is a cut little bugger. His name is Zikomo. He is 8 months old. Every time we have Tamara and Zikomo together we tell them they were destined to be together.

After lunch at Kim’s I headed to Nairobi Hospital to see Josephine, my downstairs neighbor. She has some issues with her back and has lots of pain. She was in the hospital in Karen a few months ago and then went in again this past Sunday. Her son, Martin, was in the compound in the morning so I asked if I could go with him to visit his mom. He was glad for the company. When we arrived Josephine was being moved from her bed in the common ward to a bed in a private room. Martin and I helped pack her up. As we were moving her into her new room another patient, a white woman, passed us in the hall. I spent about an hour with Josephine before another friend of hers arrived. As I was leaving her room, I ran into Joep, a member of my church who is a development worker from the Netherlands. He was on his way to visit Esther, the woman I’d seen earlier in the hall. Esther is a friend of Joep’s sister. She is a volunteer in Niger, where she was involved in a bad horseback riding accident and had to be flown to Kenya for an operation. Joep had never met Esther before and I decided since I was already there I would go visit Esther with Joep. It was a nice visit. And I promised to send Esther some baked goods with Martin the next day. I also introduced her to Josephine as they were both going to be in hospital on Christmas, they might as well know another person nearby to spend a few minutes with to celebrate the day.

I loved the food and fellowship at Kim’s but I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the spirit of Christmas than by visiting people in the hospital. How lonely it must be to be in pain and alone and have no one with whom to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.

Joep gave me a ride to where he turned off to go toward his home and I hopped on a matatu that smelled of the usual Saturday early evening perfume of body odor, booze and cigarettes. I prayed my way home as I usually do when I will get home after dark. God is good.

Tamara in her 11-month old adorableness, was a hit at both parties. Have I mentioned she’s walking! 

Mobile Tamara at 11 months.
She walked at 11 months and 2 days. She now has two nicknames, Houdini and Hoover. We really don’t need to sweep, we just waits until she puts whatever is on the floor in her mouth and then we take it out of her mouth. Better than having to deal with a vacuum bag!

Anyway on Christmas got up and made pancakes for my girls and then headed to church because I was responsible for the welcome team (ushers), who were made up of new recruits because this was not a Sunday service. Which meant I needed to do most of the seating. The auditorium we meet in has a capacity of maybe 250, if you squeeze them in. After most of the seating was done, I did a head count…not counting some of the kids, I came up with 350+ people. Needlesstosay, I didn’t get to hear much of the program.

We went home after church and at about 2 in the afternoon, I woke Tamara up from a nap and we went with my friend Wendy and her two children to Jana’s house. Jana had invited people to arrive starting at around 3p.m. We played games and sang Christmas Carols and visited with the approximately 40 quests until 7p.m. when we finally sat down to eat. The food was marvelous, but Tamara, who had only slept about 40 minutes, was grouchy so I couldn’t really enjoy my food. Milly was supposed to come join us after a friends party but couldn’t find Jana’s in the dark, (she was supposed to come much earlier) so we had to pick her up on the road after rounds of desserts and a conga line that threaded its way through the house. It was a Canadian Christmas, so in true British/Canadian tradition, we all pulled crackers and put on our paper hats, and read our jokes to one another. 

Mine went like this: “What did Adam say to Eve the day before Christmas?”
“It’s Christmas, Eve!”

In those crackers is also a little charm…mine was a snowflake! 
My snowflake cracker pendent.
God has a funny way of always reminding one where ones heart is. To my parents, family and friends back in the states (those of you in the snow especially). I love you and miss you!
Merry Christmas and may you have a blessed New Year!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Life is a series of Journeys

If we have faith enough to set out and follow unknown paths full of risks and rewards, we can find ourselves constantly growing and stretching and being renewed at the end of one for the start of the next journey.  I want to share two journeys with you; Everline’s and mine.
Education is worth the rocky path: Everline’s journey
For those of you who don’t know the story, I met Everline Aoko Okumu almost 12 years ago in Nyaoga. She was the mother of three, wife of James Okumu. She sold vegetables in the market. In one of our first conversations she told me she had dropped out of high school when she’d gotten pregnant and that she was very smart and needed to go back to school but more than that she wanted to go to university. It took a couple of years because she had another child, but I started saving money to send Everline back to school. I don’t remember how many terms I was able to get funds donated to pay for this or when Give Us Wings stepped in to assist her,; what I do know is that I wasn’t going to miss her big day -  the day she finally realized her dream of graduating from university.
Everline and I at her graduation.
Everline attended Macinde Muliru University of Science and Technology in Kagamega. She graduated with a degree in sugar technology. It is a very specialized field. There are only three graduates. The other two are men. She graduated at the top of her class, beating out the two men for top honors!
I didn’t actually get to see her walk across the stage; there were too many people to get anywhere close, but I was there to hug her and give her a high five and remember together our journeys and how far we have come.
Traveling Kenyan-style: Jessica’s journey
Day One: There is something magical about the number four or maybe I just think that 96 hours is enough time get just about anything done. This particular journey is the third time in three years that I have attempted to get to Kisumu and back in four days with a whole lot of work sandwiched between 6 hours of travel to and from Nairobi in that stretch of time. I used all public transport, which while exhausting was not intolerable.
I left early on a Tuesday morning and boarded a matatu (a usually overcrowded van) to take me to Nairobi to catch an Easy Coach to Kisumu. The man who sat next to me was a Christian and turned out to be my knight in shining armor when I needed transport assistance in Kisumu, including where to get off the bus so that the people hosting me the first night would not have to go into Kisumu town to fetch me.
I stayed in Orongo Village, about 8 km outside Kisumu. I had met Mama Florence and her son Charles at a church planting conference near Nairobi. They have a project that helps HIV/AIDS orphans and widows. Charles was waiting at the road. We took piki taxis (motorcycles) to the site of their homes and the project.
Charles showed me around their project site while Mama Florence was interviewed by K24 a Kenyan TV station about the progress of her adult education class. Around 9 pm dinner was served. By this time I was half asleep and famished. After dinner I was asked if I’d like to retire early. It was almost 10 pm. I said yes! I slept in a comfortable bed under a mosquito net. Before I went to bed while Florence and I were talking two bats flew in the room. I have never been so happy to sleep under a net before in my life!
Day Two: I got up in the morning and took a very refreshing bucket shower. Then I ate a couple of fried eggs and finished packing my bag. A piki was called and I was taken back to the main road. The piki driver hailed a matatu for me to Kendu Bay. This leg of journey is okay except for a long stretch that is under construction. The journey took two hours instead of the estimated hour and a half!
My mission for the day was to see Charles Omondi, the boy who used to live with me. He is now back with his grandmother and cousin who lives nearby. When I arrived in Kendu Bay, I located another piki to take me to Nyaoga. It is about a half hour trip. I had arranged for a man from the village to translate for me. James was waiting for me when I arrived. We climbed up the hill and sat down with Justina, Omondi’s 90-something year old grandmother. Omondi’s mother died in childbirth and Justina took him in. Omondi is now 13 and as he has never lived a particularly structured or disciplined existence, he is not easily controlled. His cousin, the education coordinator for sponsored children, the translator who has known him all his life, his grandmother and I tried to come up with a plan for him. Omondi is running out of options. He wants to live with his brothers who can barely take care of themselves much less a rebellious 13 year-old, but he has burned every other bridge. The only other option is some sort of military school, of which there are few in East Africa and none that we know of in Kenya.
Charles Omondi, 13

Selfie with Justina, Omondi's grandmother.
I have known this child since he was about 9 months old. Even though I know it’s not true, I feel somehow responsible for him. But there comes a time when you’ve done all you can that people have to choose for themselves if they want to try to achieve a level of stability and success in life or just survive on the margins. You can’t force people to do what’s best for them. I don’t want to lose this boy, but in reality he was never mine to save in the first place. I did all the counseling I could jam into 30 minutes. He has to make a choice now.
But day two wasn’t over. I hopped on another piki and headed back to Kendu Bay and then back to Orongo to pick up my suitcase. It was quite the journey! Up-country (what Kenyans call pretty much anywhere outside of Nairobi), is very rural and I am even more of an oddity there. The matatu touts had a grand time speaking English. “You going Kisumu mzungu…get in.” When they found out I was only going as far as Orongo they gave me a wider berth…Orongo is a very poor place, not the kind of place mzungus hang out. About half way through this leg, I gave up my seat to a woman with a toddler. They also overfill matatus so that people have to stand in the aisles. I was the only foreigner on the bus. I saw some of the other passengers looking at me, probably wondering why I would give up my seat. I hope a little spark of God’s light filtered through that act to those who observed it. Or maybe just that they will follow the example when they next see someone who needs to sit down more than they do.
I got off the matatu at Kendu Bay and was taken by piki to Orongo where I collected my bag. Mama Florence wasn’t there so I made a deal with the piki driver to take me all the way to Kisumu. I called Ishmael, the man I’d met on the bus to ask if he knew of a good place to stay in Kisumu (I did this while on the back of the piki at about 5 pm). Ishmael told me to meet him at a mall in Kisumu and he took me to a Christian guest house called Shalom House. It was sparse but fine for a night and cheaper than the other places I’d heard of. He told me he would take me to the bus stage in the morning.
I had made plans the night before to meet Danielle, who works for Give Us Wings, for dinner in Kisumu. By the time I got to Shalom House I had very little time to get ready. My face was a shade of brown from dust that I didn’t dare go out without showering first. The piki driver said he knew where the restaurant was. Mind you it was dark by now and I didn’t have a clue as to where I was going. We drove for a while and then the driver said, “ It’s on this road somewhere, right? “ “No,” I said, “ it’s downtown.” After many phone calls to Danielle at the restaurant and driving around in circles downtown we located the restaurant. The driver asked me for extra money since he went out of his way. Seriously! You don’t know where you’re going but you say you do and then you think I should pay you for your ignorance. Sorry! He smiled. He knew that was a long shot.
Danielle and I had a lovely dinner and I went home in a tuk-tuk and sank into an exhausted yet peaceful sleep!
Day Three: Are you tired yet? I certainly was, but I didn’t have to rush off. I got up and had breakfast and Ishmael picked me up as promised around 9:30. He took me back to the mall where he had picked me up the night before. I did email and then headed across the street to get a matatu to Stendikisa, a matatu stage near Vihiga where my foster daughter, Milly is from. She was visiting her family in the village where she grew up. She had been there for almost three weeks.
Milly and Tamara in front of Milly's uncle's house.

Tamara seeing her Nana again after three weeks!
Bathtime village style!
I was not up to the task of keeping this pesky rooster out of the living room!
Milly met me in Stendikisa, and we took a matatu another 30 minutes to her village and then took a piki from the main road to her uncle’s house in a valley. It was quite the journey. She lives in a beautiful setting. I got there around midday. The first meal we ate was around 8p.m. I was beyond hungry but then I thought about the reason people don’t eat in the middle of the day. There is nothing to eat and no money to buy anything to eat. That night we ate sukuma (cooked kale) and ugali (corn-meal mush). I was also given a fried egg, being the honored guest.
Milly and I attempted a walk around her village in the afternoon with her younger sister but it started to rain. I did get to see where Milly went to elementary school. I met Milly’s mom, Rose who has 7 children with Milly being the oldest.

Milly, Tamara and grandma Rose.
I heard drums and singing in the afternoon and asked Milly what that was. She said schools in the area have competitions and they were practicing. We went to watch. I loved hearing Christmas carols sung in Luya. I slept on the floor in the living room with Milly and Tamara. We didn’t have a mosquito net. Luckily I only heard one mosquito in the night.
Day Four: I got up in the morning around 7a.m. and used Wet Ones to shower, put on my wrinkle-proof dress and ate my last apple and hiked up the hill with Milly to catch a matatu to Everline’s graduation.
Instead of taking a matatu, I decided to take a piki because I wanted to be dropped off at the gate of the university and not at some stage in town. It’s a good thing I did, because the traffic was insane!
I didn’t see much of the graduation, but I was able to meet Everline’s mom, and sister and two of her brothers. Her sister has a six year old daughter and has enrolled in teacher’s college, following Everline’s example. Her two brothers are also college graduates. I don’t know if her mother even finished high school.
Everline's mom tries on her cap!
 After graduation, I had to go back and pick up Milly and Tamara from the village and then get back to Kagamega to catch a night bus to Nairobi. Everline’s brother Garrett asked one of his friends to take me to pick up Milly. On the way back there was a torrential rain and hail storm. When we arrived back in Kagamega it had not rained there! I changed in the car. We dropped our bags at the bus station and we went to meet Everline and her other brother and sister at a restaurant. We had a nice dinner and a talk.
This is the end of a chapter in her life and the next pages are blank. She will need every ounce of courage and determination she possesses to take the next steps.
Milly and Tamara did great on the way home. I tripped up some stairs at the last rest stop and banged up both my knees! The rest of the ride home was not pleasant. But today they are not hurting although they are very colorful.
Judie came home Saturday night from Chogoria, where she was visiting friends and family. It was nice to sleep in my bed and know my girls were safe in their beds.
The journey is never easy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a journey of a few days or many years. Some parts turn out better than expected and others are utter failures due to the choices we’ve made. The journey is not as important as the lessons we learn along the way.
There is a certain peace that comes at the end of a journey. I saw everyone and did all I needed to do. Now the blank pages appear again. A new opportunity to be thankful for God’s provision, his faithfulness and his guidance. A new day, a new journey.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Thanksgiving times three

The week before Thanksgiving, I emailed my mom expressing my sadness that I would miss the annual Hasslen celebration of family and friends from all over the world. And worse, I had no one with whom I had been invited to share the day. But in the end……I had not one, not two ,but THREE Thanksgiving celebrations this year, and they couldn’t have been more different from one another.
Here is the highlight reel.
Thanksgiving #1:
I was invited to the home of an American couple, who invite missionaries every year for Thanksgiving. They are in their late 30s and have ten…yes you read that right, 10 marvelous kids!  They are all home-schooled, bright and very engaging. The other guests were also delightful and the food was AMAZING! People brought dishes to share, but Jenny our hostess is from Virginia and cooked up some nice Southern Thanksgiving dishes as well! I decided to walk the couple of miles home to my house because even though I had on my turkey eating pants and was not too full, I had remembered to wear my Keens so that I could walk off some of the food in anticipation for my next Thanksgiving feast on Friday night.
Thanksgiving #2:
My American friend Natalie, 34, started a non-profit in Kenya that trains community organizers. She decided to prepare a vegan (except for the turkey) Thanksgiving feast for her Kenyan staff and some of her expat friends. I told her I would help her cook and host. She had asked me to be at her house around 2pm. When I got close to her house I called her. She told me she had a little more shopping to do and she would pick me up on the way to do her shopping. Being the daughter of a mother who likes to have most of the meal cooked well in advance, I found this act of last minute shopping a bit disconcerting. But this is the new less-uptight-more-go-with-the-flow self, so I hopped in the car and kept my big mouth shut. It didn’t stay shut for long when Natalie described how helpful her househelp had been. Natalie had asked her to take the meat out of the coconut in preparation for a dessert she was making. The househelp, being unfamiliar with coconuts, didn’t understand and the only meat she saw was the rather large chicken (read 10 pound turkey), so she cut it up and boiled it. I kid you not! Never one to panic, when Natalie asked what I thought we should do with the turkey, only one thought came to mind. “We’ll curry it,” I said. And so we had maple-roasted vegetables, greens, arugula salad for which I made a maple vinigrette dressing, mashed lentils and squash, green beans with almonds, cranberry sauce, stuffing and curried turkey. We didn’t start cooking until 4pm and we started eating around 8:45. There was little food left as about 20 people showed up. Natalie made a vegan pumpkin cheese cake, vegan pumpkin muffins and vegan chocolate peanut butter fudge for dessert. She and I divided up the dishes that needed to be made and a Kenyan friend of hers was our sous chef. It was so much fun. We rocked that kitchen…by they way we had very little in the way of the right kinds of pans for cooking, but God is good and the food was delicious and we are still friends. All’s well that starts in chaos.
Thanksgiving #3:
Every year sometime in November or December, Wezesha throws a Thanksgiving celebration for their supporters and uses it as a chance to get all their students together over the holidays. This year it just happened to be on Thanksgiving weekend. It was also special because they had quite a few students graduating and in their last years of high school and they gave very moving testimonies about how Wezesha had assisted them. We ate traditional Kenyan food but this celebration was the most in line with what I think of as being what the holiday of Thanksgiving is all about -  Giving thanks to God for what he has done in our lives, the people he used to make our dreams a reality and the friends and family he gave us to support us along the way. And please know, those of you who have helped support these students, that without you their education would not have been possible!!
In the US, we have a special day for Thanksgiving but we should really celebrate our thankfulness everyday. That’s my excuse for writing about Thanksgiving a week or so after the event!
I am thankful for the time to write today. I’m thankful after a week up country (I’ll write about that next) that my girls and I are home safe and sound, I’m especially thankful for all the busy work details buzzing around in my head. I don’t like to be idle and God has seen that my life is full of meaningful activity. And more than anything I am thankful for each of YOU who makes my work possible.
(I'm uploading this without photos. Will try to post some soon.) 
Thank you God for the ability to be thankful every day!