Africa Update #3: Nairobi, Kenya

IMG_2659Driving through Nairobi you can’t help but notice the influence of the West.  For example, in contrast to Addis, Ethiopia there seems to be more of a structured traffic routine with bustling roundabouts and white traffic lines that are followed, for the most part, that is until someone gets impatient with the unprecedented traffic here and forges their own lane on the side of the road. Then, before you know it, a caravan of vehicles are following close behind. Kenyan men and women sit beside expats in Java Houses while sipping away at steamy cups of coffee waiting to be served Kenyan versions of American burgers and Mexican burritos.  Old Kenyan women dressed in bright colored traditional African clothing can be seen walking along side young Kenyan women dressed in modern day pant suits and high heals; two generations desperately trying to stake their claim and relevancy.  In this emerging city black puffs of exhaust from used cars that have been imported from Japan and Dubai saturate the air, causing the smog to hang heavy filling the lungs. Heightened security personnel are scattered about due to the recent activity of Al Shabaab over the past year. It seems one cannot enter a public place, without their person being scanned for bombs and their purses and backpacks searched for weapons.  Likewise, a day does not seem to go by without conversation, either by way of news or people, surrounding the Ebola outbreak. Discussions center on whether Nairobi is either ready to handle an Ebola outbreak or perhaps potentially putting the world at further risk by not closing up its access to West Africa.

IMG_2604However, if you drive only twenty or thirty minutes outside center city the influence of the West begins to steadily fade and you are reminded that although Nairobi, Kenya may be looked at as one of Africa’s strongest and most developed countries, it is still developing in comparison to the West.  Slowly, almost without noticing at first, asphalt roads become bumpy dirt pathways that send each car bouncing up and down as if they were buoys cast out intIMG_2701o the ocean. Billows of smoke from burning trash can be seen coming up from the earth, giving the illusion of mini erupting volcanos along the sides of the roads. Goats, big and small roam the streets like free-men and trash covers the ground like confetti. Mothers are seen walking the street with their children attached to their backs like wrapped parcels to be delivered.

There are so many things that I could share with you about my time here in Nairobi so far. For example, I could tell you about the afternoon we spent in the home of a South Sudanese refugee with her nine children and memories of her dead husband because of war. The story couldn’t be told though without mentioning that four IMG_2610of those children aren’t even hers. They too are refugees from South Sudan who were abandoned.

I could share about our time spent with 50+ girls rescued from female genitalia mutilation and early marriage. Or the boys who have been swept up and taken off the streets after running away from their villages. In each of these places boys and girls are being fed, protected, schooled, empowered and discipled to know Jesus. I could share with you the stories of human trauma and torture we learned about that the majority of refugees living here in Nairobi faced in their home countires: rape, beatings, watching loved ones die in front of them–and things so grotesque I won’t even write about them here.

IMG_2693Or Kibera, the slum we visited with the assistance of two armed guards. Kibera is considered to be the largest slum in Nairobi with a population of 400,000. It’s a place where paths of dirt and sewage mesh together making it impossible to avoid the latter as you walk. Houses in this place are identified by scrapes of arranged metal or mounds of clay. The stench of excrement is so ripe that it follows you where ever you go. I can only think of two things that act as an oasis in this wasteland: A chorus of children that can be heard nearly around every corner chanting, “How are you?” in their African-English accent as weIMG_2665 pass by (seemingly their only known English phrase) and a school full of children where the teachers are volunteers who grew up in the slum, made it out to be educated, and chose to come back to live and teach children with the hopes of giving them a better life.

There are other things I want to share with you and mostly people I want to introduce you to. People like Beatrice and George who work as missionaries here in Kenya among their own people saving children and helping to disciple them. Or, Hezron a young man who grew up in an orphanage after his single mother died and now makes his living making and selling soap so that children in orphanages, just like the one he grew up in, can have clean bars of soap to wash themselves.IMG_2621

There are so many others I have met along the way who have given up families, mothers, brothers, sisters, homes and lands for the sake of being Salt and Light. People who have dedicated their lives to helping restore the whole of a person–body, mind, and soul. People who are spending their lives making the person and work of Jesus known.

I want to introduce you to… Samuel.  Yes, Samuel!  However, it’s  too late at the moment and the mosquitos are much too thick to introduce you to him now, but next time, maybe…

 

Africa Update #2: Ethiopia

Last time I checked in with you I was headed to Ethiopia, Addis to be specific. So, where do I begin? I could start by explaining to you how no more than 24 hours after arriving in Ethiopia a moderate to severe pain in my mouth indicated to me that something wasn’t quite right. While at a local Ethiopian restaurant, where Habesha dancers filled the platform in front of us and ethnic music filled the air, laying the foundation for the dances they performed, men in uniformed attired whisked through the room all evening long at lightning speed delivering delicious platters of Injera filled with earthy spices, sauces and meat meant to be eaten with the hands only.

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I wasn’t more than halfway through eating this savory delight when the pain in my mouth sent me running off to the bathroom like Nancy Drew in search of the mystery. To my discovery, I found what I had suspected, my back molar was cracked, all the way down to the gum-line.

It was at that present moment that the reality of being in a foreign country, a developing-foreign country at that, came sweeping through my mind. And with that reality, a swarm of questions came rushing into my analytical brain. What do I do? Where can I go to get it fixed? How much will it cost me? Do they take credit cards?…Probably not. Do they even have certified dentists in Ethiopia? And, if they do, is that something I want to experience??

Being only four days into my trip with 17 left to go, and the possible risk of infection, it seemed as though I had no other option but to brave an Ethiopian dentist. Convincing myself that this was only a minor hiccup in my trip, I quickly made my way back to my table and whispered my slight complication to the expat sitting next to me. She informed me that Ethiopian medical care is less than desirable and perhaps I should wait until returning to Kenya? With shoulders slightly slumped from defeat, I denied the offer at a second serving of Injera that came my way. In parting that evening she suggested that perhaps I could go to a local pharmacy, where prescriptions aren’t needed in the country, and purchase an antibiotic just in case infection sets in. So, promptly the next day, for only ten US dollars I purchased an antibiotic that I can hardly pronounce the name of from an Ethiopian man, who hardly spoke English. Here I sit, back in Kenya, with a cracked tooth and 12 days left to my trip. I’ve resorted to chewing every meal on the other side of my mouth and hoping that infection doesn’t set in by the time I make it back home and I don’t have to chance the mystery antibiotic.

Aside from my tooth toboggle, Ethiopia was fantastic and overwhelming all at the same time. Unfortunately, taking pictures while there was something I could not do with a lot of freedom; therefore, my camera had to stay packed away almost entirely except on occasion when I made it look like I was talking on my phone while secretly snapping photos. But, Oh how I wish you could see what it was that I saw.

IMG_2567Sewage that runs along the dirt roads of the souks where people buy their fruits and vegetables while men and women crowd the narrow roads. Or the foam whipped macchiato’s made of steamed milk and sharp Ethiopian coffee (claimed by most to be the best in the world) that can be found nearly around every corner. Perhaps I could present you to the flea-invested dog eating the head of a goat outside my compound?

Or the dusty worn-down beggars set against the beautiful Somali women wrapped in head scarves that give the appearance of having been touched by the bright colored palette of VanGough himself. Or the English school set in the middle of a Somali neighborhood where Somali men and women come to learn English because as many of them told me, ‘Without education, you have nothing.‘

I’d take you with me deep into the market place to a 12×12 foot room with a dirt floor known as a ‘salon’ where Somali women gather to unveil themselves to either have their hair done or have themselves painted with henna, while passionately discussing in their language the confusions and frustrations of their husbands having more than one wife (and then turning to me and my two American friends to ask our opinion).

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And no experience of Addis would be complete without participating in the traffic, which has no rules or standards, creating instead the most chaotic game of Frogger ever seen, except in this case, every car is the frog. I’d absolutely have to show you the mountains juxtaposed to the bustling city below trying so desperately to catch up to the rest of the developing world, yet so far behind.

Lastly, I wish I could introduce to you the people who are there, who have left everything behind in the State to share their lives, knowledge, resources, homes and love with the people of Ethiopia.

Africa Update #1

Disclaimer: Don’t get all excited, those of you who asked me to update my blog while away. Here’s my first update and honestly, it very well could be my last. I can’t promise anything. I hate to write unless in the mood. So we’ll see.

From the moment I headed out of my house yesterday morning for the airport, to the time I landed in Nairobi tonight, I spent approximately 27 hours in travel. Let’s back up and recount my day.

I woke up in Syracuse yesterday morning sick with a wicked sore throat and super head cold. I quickly ran to the drug store after finishing up some last minute packing to purchase psuedephed. Having traveled so often I knew that with a head cold like this I was bound to have my ears plug up along the way on at least one of the three flights that awaited me. Sadly, I was turned away at the cash register because in my rushed scurry out the door I forgot to grab my ID that’s needed to purchase the apparent ‘addiction-drug’ (Darn teenagers, they ruin everything!) So, a tad disappointed and mildly frustrated at myself I left the ghetto Rite Aid in my ghetto neighborhood with no other real choice but to play it ghetto myself. I grabbed a pack of gum and winged it. Twenty-seven hours later, I am writing this update with ears that are so plugged I’d bet a cow that I’d register as legally deaf by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Anyway, the story continues.

On our first flight out of Syracuse I spilled orange juice all over myself, soaking through my jeans all the way to my undergarments! Did I pack a carry on? Yes. Did I pack an extra set of clothes in my carry on? No. Why? Because I’m a moron. So, I spent the rest of the trip going from soaked, to wet, to damp, to sticky, to faintly smelling like an overripe orange.

On my second flight I met a 60 something year old man sitting across the isle next to me who is originally from Cosovo but heading to Albania on holiday for two months. According to him, he’s headed there for two reasons: beaches and women! That’s when I politely excused myself from the conversation, stuck in my earbuds, and watched two movies back to back.

During my layover I purchased some medicine for my plugged ears and congestion. After paying a whopping $16 the Amsterdam cashier put my purchases in a sealed bag where I was instructed that I could not actually use the medicine until I reached my final destination…which was twelve more hours from that point! I mean, couldn’t she see by my loud and incomprehensible mumbles that I had gone deaf on my previous flight?! Had she no regard, no sympathy for the hearing impaired?? To top it off, I was informed that if I was suspected of breaking the seal on the bag beforehand, my $16 remedies would be confiscated.

On my third and final flight I met a 60 something year old woman sitting next to me with very thick wire framed glasses. Nonetheless, she was very jovial and nice. I found that she was headed to Kenya for the third year in a row to work with a missionary in the north. She fashioned herself in two shades of brown. Army brown ‘swishy’ pants on the bottom and a strong forest brown on top. Sported across the middle of this browntasticness was a bright red and yellow fanny pack around her waist, which no doubt she purchased from a street vendor during her first trip to Africa. And to complete the ensemble, a bottle of hand sanitizer dangled freely from the front of it. I figure It’s okay though; she’s going to work with Nomadic people, who wear pieces of sheet as clothing, if they even wear clothing. So, she’ll probably actually be the most fashionably dressed in Northern Kenya.

After chatting with her for a bit I allowed myself only two hours of sleep in this 27 hour travel time. My little trick when traveling oversees is to deprive my body of sleep so that when I land at my final destination I’ll be so exhausted that it won’t matter that my body knows it’s actually 4pm in the afternoon in Syracuse because my mind and eyes, like Nairobi, will insist on it being 11pm. After waking up from my brief nap I was handed butterscotch ice cream with actual chunks of butterscotch! Who says airplane food sucks?! I think not.

Lastly, as I exited the airport in Nairobi a sea of Kenyan men stood out front  with signs held up indicating the names of people they were responsible for picking up. I finally stumbled upon my sign and reintroduced myself to a Kenyan man named Joseph who was my driver this evening. I say reintroduced because I met this man here in Kenya exactly four years ago, this very exact week, in this very exact place…That’s all I’ll say about that.

So my African adventure begins…headed to my mosquito-netting bed to be up in six hours to make my way to Ethiopia.

S…

I love words and often find myself getting lost in the labyrinth of their meanings and connotations. In fact, at times, I have found myself so entangled in the nuances of word choice that I have entered into passionate debates over semantics–convinced that it was my ‘moral’ duty to ‘fairly’ represent something in the words that are used to describe it (I’m a real party animal, I know).

Allow me to give you an example.

Every woman wants to be described as pretty (or, at least I haven’t met one who doesn’t). However, if you asked said woman, ‘Woman, would you rather be pretty or beautiful?’ I would be willing to stake all that I own (which I realize isn’t much) on the fact that she would choose beautiful.  And why?  Because of the power of diction.  Although in their most shallow definitions, pretty and beautiful can be seen as synonyms of one another, I passionately argue the fact that they indeed are not!  The word beautiful has layers of meaning and connotations that the word pretty could never hold.  Pretty will forever long and desire to be seen as Beautiful but deep down she knows it is an impossible acquisition.  Likewise, as nice as Pretty is, Beautiful has absolutely no desire to digress to Pretty’s standards.  Because to be beautiful implies not merely a physical appearance, but a spiritual, emotional, and character make-up that the word pretty could never connote. And so, there will forever be a chasm between Pretty and Beautiful that can never be bridged.

That’s the power of diction.

Likewise, every now and then someone comes along and captures the feeling of a word so perfectly it stops you right where you are, and takes your breath away…

‘Sorrow found me when I was young. Sorrow waited Sorrow won. Sorrow that put me on the pill. It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk…Sorrow’s my body on the waste. Sorrow’s a girl inside my cage. I live in a city Sorrow built. It’s in my honey it’s in my milk.’ (‘Sorrow’ by The National).

…and you wonder to yourself, ‘How is that possible? How can they do that? Their words are an exact replica of the feeling inside of me. And some how, something so painful is articulated so…beautifully. And then you can’t help but wonder, if you are irretrievably broken for thinking so.

I find the word Sorrow to be a beautifully sad word.  How so much beauty and sadness can be paired together in one word, is beyond me. What is it about the word Sorrow that I find beautiful? For one, there’s an ease to the way it rolls off the tongue when saying it. Mostly though, it’s the letter S. I find the letter S to be an attractive letter. It’s one of those letters in which you can’t help but let your eyes trace over every curve of…from the top of it, to the bottom. Not to mention, there are a multitude of words that start with the letter S that are fantastically beautiful in their own right.

For starters, Sophia. The name reminds me of what William Wordsworth wrote about; a field of bright yellow daffodils dancing spritely in the morning breeze, tossing their heads proudly to-and-fro. If I was to ever have a daughter, I would like to name her Sophia.  I picture myself walking hand and hand with beautiful little Sophia, who dons thick dark hair, big bright eyes, and the most magnetic smile. I picture myself crawling into bed next to her at night and reading to her until she hops on the back of a purple unicorn that whisks her through kingdoms of marshmallows and fluff, and doesn’t return ‘til morning. I picture myself hiking with her through the woods, and then gathering her up in my arms when she’s skinned her knee, teaching her how to love and serve others passionately, and hugging her so tightly that she exclaims, ‘Momma, I can’t breath!’ To which I quietly reply, ‘Shhhh, let me hug you just a little longer, sweetie.’

Summer nights. Especially the kind that press in close, kissing my naked shoulder in the form of a warm gentle breeze, as I stand peering onward towards the night sky that’s been painted in broad brush strokes of sultry reds and burnt oranges by the master artist Himself. Where, in the distance, the silhouette of a man can be seen tapping away at a golden apparatus, intoxicating the air with an invisible love potion as men and women intertwine hands, becoming lovers.

And of course, the symphony.  Although, the beauty of a symphony is not found and enjoyed by the natural eye.  Instead, its beauty is most acutely experienced as one closes her eyes and the rhythm and sound of each individual instrument fluidly melds together, forming a fantastically frightening cacophony of melody creating an exquisite musical-other-world with the power to reach into the deep recesses of the soul, moving the listener from the inside out.

Sophia. Summer. Symphony. Packaged inside each of those words are meanings, connotations, stories even, that extend far beyond the word itself giving it fuller meaning and beauty. There are other words beginning with the letter S that just have a way of drawing you in. Did your ever notice? They do it without asking your permission.  Instead, the magnetic force surrounding them, pulls you in, closer…and closer…Secrets. Seduction. Sex. Serendipity. Snuggle. Sleep. Sorrow.

The word Sorrow, unlike its other synonyms has a depth to it that carries such profound weight, gravity, heaviness that its friends cannot compare. And here’s why, because packaged in that one word lies layers of grief, despair, loss and anguish.

One day, if not already, everyone of us will fall prostrate at the feet of Sorrow.  Almost indefinitely by force. Submission to Sorrow, in this life, cannot be escaped.  No matter how far away you run, no matter how many conscience ‘right’ choices you make, no matter how many layers of insulation you put between yourself and the world–Sorrow, cloaking herself in beauty and sadness, will come.

No one desires Sorrow. And those of us who have felt the sting of it would prefer it never came to us, at all. But, here’s a truth: Sorrow is a reminder that all is not right in the world, and that things are not as they should be. It reminds us that:

Death is the enemy of Life.

Poverty is the antagonist of Wealth.

War is the adversary of Peace.

Abandonment is the betrayer of Love.

Abuse is the foe of Protection.

Illness is the opponent of Health.

But, all is not lost. Let me reveal to you the other side. You see, the sunbeam in this black shroud of Sorrow is found in the God-man, Jesus.

Jesus, was known as a man of many sorrows. But why? Is it because he was aware of his impending torturous crucifixion that mockingly awaited him? No. It’s because He, a perfect man, came to Earth, an unbelievably broken place, filled with completely broken people. And it was the brokenness of these people, of His people, their diseases; poverty; death; illnesses; loneliness; betrayals; broken relationships, which grieved his big, enormous heart so much that he could not help but feel sorrow at their condition.

That’s why he can be found weeping over the death of his dear friend Lazarus, or insisting on finding the ‘unclean’ woman in a sea of people who had rejected her, or kneeling at eye level to the woman caught in adultery, or removing himself from the crowds that followed him to remote places in order to offer prayers of sorrow to his father in Heaven. In fact, Jesus even states, just before one of his last recorded prayers, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” Here’s why: He knew that the human condition had become so grossly damaged, and the Earth so unbelievably vandalized that it brought him great sorrow. He knew only one thing could repair it all. A great exchange.

An exchange of his perfection for our brokenness.

His beauty for our inner disfigurement.

His righteousness for our shame.

His life for our death (that we should have died).

His acceptance of us at the cost of his rejection and abandonment by the world.

His love for us for the payment of his abuse and battery by those who crucified him.

After all, that is why he came to Earth in the first place, is it not? To set right all that is wrong, repair all that is broken and redeem all that is lost. To give us the comfort of knowing that although our sorrows are a reminder that this life is a distortion of what was meant to be, the end has already been written–where every tear is wiped away, mourning is turned to laughter and Sorrow, like a caterpillar, undergos an amazing metamorphosis, becoming beautiful everlasting Joy.