Monday, May 31, 2010

“One Little Lamb”

We heard the various stories of the WEEP women. It was a repeat of the day before. Young mothers who had either been widowed or whose husbands had left them when they found out their wives were HIV positive. They all had children and no means to support them.

One of these children was Sondra. She attached herself to Michelle and me as soon as we met her. We continued throughout the day to tell her our names, but she insisted on calling us “muzungu” no matter what we told her. In Swahili, “muzungu” literally means one who travels, but most Kenyans will call any white person by that name. I suppose, at times, it can be taken as a bit of a derogatory term, but Sondra always said it with such a grin on her face, all we could do was grin back at her.

She followed us everywhere we went that day. During lunch, I held her in my lap. Later, I pulled out some paper from my back pack and drew pictures with her. I tried to get her to tell me what I was drawing, such as giraffe, which would be “twiga” in Swahili, or tree, which would be “miti”. No matter what the picture was, though, after I pointed to it and said its name, she would point at me and say “muzungu”. She was such a little goof ball.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

“Fearing for my Life”

About that time, Vickie asked me to run to her jeep to get the pile of quilts we had brought with to distribute to the women. I don’t know where my team mates Michelle and Cathy were at the time, all I remembered were the stern instructions that Jen and Dave had repeatedly given us. “Don’t go anywhere by yourself at anytime for any reason.” We had also been told how the slums were filled with crime and any white person was seen as someone with great wealth, so be extra careful there.

I looked at Vickie and took the keys to the Jeep which she was offering me. Surely she knew what she was doing, she wouldn’t possibly tell me to do something that would endanger me.

I went out the front door of the church and looked up the gentle slope to where the Jeep was parked about a block away. The dirt-packed alley wasn’t filled with people, but there were a few milling about and others walking determinedly to their destination. It was the middle of the day, the sun was shining. Certainly I could make it there and back safely.

I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer and walked to the vehicle as quickly as I could. Being as it wasn’t the most modern car, I had to unlock the driver side door first to get at the latch to open the back hatch. As I came back around the side of the Jeep to the unlocked hatch, a man was suddenly in my path.

“What are you doing?” He said and then he froze just as I had. I stared at the quilts, my goal, and held my breath not daring to look at the tall black man next to me.

“Oh, you must be with Momma Vickie. I am sorry if I scared you. Can I help you?”

“No, thank you. I’m fine.” He still helped me unload the quilts and piled them in my arms. I locked the Jeep again and strode back to the church. It wasn’t until I was back inside that it dawned on me that the man had been watching Vickie’s car, keeping it safe. And Vickie had known that he would be there and that I would be safe as well.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

“More WEEP women”

Tuesday morning the plan was for us to go to Mathare slum. Vickie was going to work with the women of a new WEEP project she was starting. Cathy, Michelle and I opted to go with her. The rest of the team jumped on the bus with Jen and Dave to visit one of the schools and a group who works with AIDS patients in Mathare.

When we were told we were going to a slum, I wondered where we were yesterday. That sure fit my definition of a slum, but little did I know. As we drove into Mathare slum, it was like entering a different world, like something you would only see on a movie set.

Vickie parked her jeep only a few blocks into the slum, because that was where the road ended. We walked only another block or so to the new WEEP project. Here, the women were making school uniforms for the children of Mathare.

It is another one of those things that an outsider cannot comprehend. The children in general wear rags or at best donated used clothes sent from the United States or Europe. When they go to school, however, they need to wear uniforms. When a family cannot afford food, how can they be expected to purchase school uniforms? Not only because of that do a lot of kids not go to school, but their parents also have to pay for their books. Yet Kenya is proud to offer a free education to its school-age children. I can’t quite figure that one out.

Vickie, too, could see that it was a huge problem. So, through HEART, she started a program in Mathare where widows with AIDS would sew school uniforms. They would earn an income from the sales and the families would have access to more affordable uniforms.

The building that was set up for their sewing room was medium size, but felt pretty cramped with six sewing machines and eight women. None of them have ever sewn before and because fabric is so expensive for them, they were practicing on paper bags. The walls of the room were lined with these small perfect clothes all made out of paper. The women were so proud of their accomplishments so far. That week they were supposed to be getting their first real fabric. The first uniforms they would sew would be for their own children. And for the first time ever their children would be able to go to school.

Mary is the woman of who locally runs this WEEP program. She is a pastor’s wife and a trained social worker. When she first moved into the slum with her husband, she felt so useless. There was so much work to do, so much despair but she didn’t know where to begin. Once she connected with Vickie, they were able to indentify young mothers in need of just such a project.

Mary’s church was just across the alley from the project’s sewing room and we ate lunch of peanut butter sandwiches and bananas there while Vickie shared the numbers with Mary. I wish I could remember the exact figures. If I recall correctly, Vickie estimated that within a month of the project being fully operational, the women would each be making the equivalent of $30 a month. Rent usually ran around $22.50 a month for most of the tiny cement rooms in the slums. I could see the wheels spinning in Mary’s head when she heard the numbers. Her eyes got big and a smile spread across her sweet face. “They can each afford their own place to live with their children,” she said.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

What is your Definition of a Slum

I have to admit it. Growing up in the rural countryside of northern Wisconsin, I haven’t spent much time in a really big city. And when I have been in places such as Detroit or Chicago or Denver, it was mostly in nice neighborhoods. I have over the years driven through some rather questionable areas though. They look basically the same as any other neighborhood, but much more rundown, dreary and kind of scary.

In Africa, and probably a lot of other places in the third world, the word slum has a whole different meaning. It’s not a place that was once a part of the city and was just neglected. The slums in Nairobi are just big bad places where the poor and destitute were allowed to settle so that the city at large would not have to deal with them.

Kibera slum, south west of the center of Nairobi, is thought to be one of the largest slums in the world. If you do a search for it on Google Earth, you can see this huge area, about the size of New York City’s Central Park, filled with structures made of scraps of corrugated metal and pieces of plywood. Even from the grainy satellite shot, you can see, even sense, the desolation. Population estimates run as high as 1.5 million people, depending on the time of year.

Mathare slum, on the north east side of Nairobi, isn’t much better. The population averages around a half million and encompasses several areas, but the view is all pretty much the same. No trees, no roads, just a sea of pitiful buildings, if you can call them buildings. In between those buildings, crammed together as they are, are mounds of garbage, human waste, live chickens and goats, and dead ones. Inside those buildings, entire extended families live in rooms that aren’t more than ten foot square, with no indoor plumbing and only occasionally electricity.

And this is where we went our second day in Kenya on my first trip there in 2006.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

“Morning Devo”

As I believe I already said, every morning one of us was assigned to read a devotion at breakfast. Tuesday, our second day in Kenya, it was Carson’s turn. He was the youngest team member, at 14-years-old, but the tallest, thin and gangly. He said he wasn’t good at leading devotions, so he wrote a poem instead. The rest of us all looked at each, thinking, “give me a Bible passage any time over writing a poem”.

Carson did a great job. Here is his poem, used with permission.

Sometimes I wonder, God…

Where have you gone?

Are you here?

Or is this all wrong?

But when I keep on breathing,

And when singing a song…

I think to myself,

“No, this is not wrong.”

The God I know is one of love…

He sent His Son to forgive us all.

He created everything

Ugliness and all…

Even a place called Kenya.

Now Kenya is a place that is not yet tamed.

The spiders and snakes and the lions too…

Have a chance of eating you!

But once you get past this dire news,

And of God who is watching over you…

It doesn’t really matter whether you are beaten and battered,

Because God loves all and will use you for the better.

Sometimes we fall,

And sometimes we falter…

But God is always there praying for us.

I don’t know how He finds the time

To think of us and make things right…

I make mistakes nearly every day…

But thankfully God is there with a path headed the right way!

Now that you are bored

Of this short poem

I say we eat

So we can get goin’!

Monday, May 24, 2010

>“Youth Center”

After our tour of the VCT, Jane who runs it showed us the new youth center which was in the same building. She then asked to talk to Jen and Dave for just a minute. They told our team to just visit with the kids in the center and they would be right back. We all looked at each other, but it was only a second before Nate jumped right in and asked the boys what they were doing.

The Youth Center was in a room perhaps 30 by 20 foot, with a cement floor and sheets lining the ceiling and most of the walls. In the center of the room was an area which could be set up as a boxing ring. Posts fitted neatly into holes in the floors and ropes held them square. There was also a pool table, a dart board, a manchala game next to the window and a small room with a TV/VCR and movies. A boom box was playing Christian rock music. There were 10-12 youth there and most were teen-age boys who were playing cards at plastic tables with plastic chairs (the kind you might have on your deck).

It didn’t take them long to teach the teen-agers from America how to play their card game. They called it Kenyan poker, even though there was no gambling involved. It was very similar to Uno, where certain cards were wild or meant skip or reverse. Our kids played it every chance they got for the rest of the trip.

As a side note, we always played cards when I was a kid, and so I naturally raised my own kids on playing cards. So Val knows how to shuffle a deck. I had to look this up on line and I am sorry if I offend some of you non-card playing folks, but there actually are websites that teach you how to shuffle cards. How can anyone not know how to do that? Anyway, so I looked it up and Val, as well as one of the other girls Sarah, were shuffling the deck using the Riffle technique, as opposed to the easier and more common Overhand. In Kenya they must only know how to shuffle by Overhand, because the boys at the youth center were fascinated by the way Val and Sarah shuffled cards. It was pretty normal to me, but once again, we were on another continent.

And thus ended our first full day in Kenya, Africa. I had to ask myself, had the mission part of our trip started yet? Well, if teaching boys to shuffle cards counted, then I guess so.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


In Kenya, many people will talk about the importance of knowing their status. This of course refers to whether or not they are HIV positive or negative. Unlike in America, Kenyans can’t just walk into a medical clinic and ask for a blood test. There just are not enough clinics or hospitals and the staff at those facilities is totally overwhelmed with sick patients.

Instead there are clinics set up just to deal with the AIDS crisis. One such place is the “VCT”, which stands for Volunteer Counseling and Testing. At these clinics, not only can a person have their HIV status checked, they also get necessary counseling based on those results.

There is a lot of stigma attached to being HIV positive or having AIDS. When AIDS first burst on the scene in the late 1980’s, people panicked and saw AIDS as the disease that would end mankind, or at least eradicate those individuals who lived a certain lifestyle (and you know what I’m talking about and I’m not going to go there). In America, in the twentieth century, a lot of that fear is gone.

In many parts of the world since there are treatments available, AIDS, though still a serious disease, isn’t the death sentence it used to be. In third world countries, however, that is not yet the case. Without access to proper education, AIDS continues to spread.

At the Ngong VCT we visited our first day in Kenya, we toured the tiny cramped rooms where the testing was done and where counseling took place. I wish I could say that I remembered it all, but all that my mind retains are the interesting posters on the walls, pictures of friendly condoms with smiling faces. The most interesting part is that when I was in Peru on another volunteer trip in 2009, they had almost the same condom posters on the walls of their clinic.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

“WEEP” part 2

To get to the WEEP center we visited that day, our bus took us down narrow, rutted lanes. On both sides of the roads were sheds built from scraps of metal and plywood. In front of many of them were shops which sold everything from shoes to beds to vegetables. People seemed to be everywhere, either walking to some distant destination or just standing about watching us drive by.

When we finally arrived at the project, we wound our way through what seemed like several buildings and then a bare yard. The WEEP women were in a small building of corrugated metal. On one end of the building were their supplies, stacks of netting and finished bed nets. The other end housed eight sewing machines, where several women were hard at work. They seemed to ignore us at first, as they kept sewing without looking up. Soon, however, we found out that they wanted to get as many nets made in a day as they could, and they didn’t want to stop even long enough to share their stories with us.

We did hear them, and though each beautiful woman was totally different, their stories all came back to the same point. And basically it was that they were ready to die when they heard they were HIV positive. They had no hope, no reason to go on. Until they found out about a program that would give them an income and help them get the medication they needed to lick their disease. They literally got out of their death beds and went on to live full, productive lives and give their children that same motivation.

I know you think I am making this up and being over dramatic. But honestly, I am not. We heard the same stories later on in our trip. People with no hope are people with no reason to get up in the morning. And it doesn’t matter if you live in Africa or America.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Our next stop was one of the WEEP projects.

WEEP stands for Women’s Equality Empowerment Program, and was one of Vickie’s first ventures in Kenya. When the AIDS crisis first began gripping Kenya, as well as the rest of the world, after people were diagnosed they often times just went to bed to die, believing that there was no treatment for them. In Africa in 2006, this was still pretty common, especially among women.

So often, when a Kenyan woman tests positive for HIV, if her husband is still in the picture, he will abandon her at that point. Even though he is the most likely suspect as the one who brought the disease into the home. Kenya is still very much a male-dominated country. If something goes wrong in the family, it is the woman’s fault, never the man’s.

Most of these women have small children to care for, but when they go to bed to die, the children have no one to watch over them, and they often end up as street children. It is incredible to hear, but that is what happens. Through programs like WEEP, these women are getting a chance to work and earn an income which all by itself helps them maintain their health and keeps their children at home with them. WEEP also helps to supply them with the antiviral meds they need to live.

The first project which Vickie started for the WEEP women was making bed nets. Up to 36% of children born in Kenya will die from malaria before their first birthday. Malaria is so prevalent in Africa but is such a preventable disease.

Malaria is caused by a parasite and passed from person to person by the bite of a mosquito. Anyone living in northern Wisconsin knows that mosquitoes come out in droves after dark and that they are attracted to stagnant water. Thus we know to stay inside from dusk until dawn unless we are covered in clothing or bug spray and avoid those swampy areas that mosquitoes love. Unfortunately, many Africans don’t know even these simple facts.

The number one activity that has proven most effective in Kenya and other tropical countries, the one item we just don’t routinely see back home, is the use of bed nets. Since they don’t have screens on their windows, and often don’t even have doors, there is no way to keep those nasty mosquitoes out of the house. The only way to keep them from getting to you is by having a net around your bed.

The WEEP program pays these women to sew bed nets which are then given to neighborhood children. The income provides these mothers with a way to support their own children, while giving other children in the community a chance to avoid catching malaria. Various charitable organizations as well as individuals are able to make tax-deductible donations toward the purchase of the bed nets.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

“Brydges Orphanage”

Most of the children were in school when we got off the bus at Brydges Orphange. Those who were there were more than willing to take us each by the hand and show us all around. An 8-year-old boy named Dennis chose me, a girl named Ruth grabbed onto Val.

In the main building there were several bedrooms, a large room used as a dining room and all purpose room, a small kitchen area and a small room that was set up as a store. The children had for sale various crafts that had been made by hand. There were beautiful necklaces and beaded bracelets, interesting carved figures of elephants, hippos and birds, braided potholders, crocheted baskets.

All of the other rooms were bare, with only the most basic of necessities. Each small bedroom had at least three bunk beds and not enough space for anything else. There were several outer buildings, one housed a small library. A few of the children grabbed books and insisted on reading to us.

After 45 minutes or so, Dave and Jen were anxious to get back on the road and started herding us into the bus. The orphans hated to see us go and only the promise that we would see them in a few days allowed us to depart as easily as we did.

Swahili: thank you is "asante"; very is "sana". So to say "thank you very much", you would say "asante sana". (Pronounced pretty much like it looks.)

Monday, May 17, 2010

“Don’t Get Off the Bus”

There is a saying in Kenya. “Americans have clocks, Africans have time.” Basically we were warned right off the bat that time was relative. If we were told that something would happen at nine am, it might happen at nine or ten or eleven. In the journal I kept, I tried to keep track of what time we did things at, but in general, I really had no idea. I’m pretty sure that I eventually stopped wearing my watch, as did the rest of the team, because of the frustration. Meals also just kind of happened; we rarely ate lunch, but once we stopped concentrating on the time, we never missed it.

So, with that in mind, sometime that first morning after we arrived in Nairobi, the 15 members of our team loaded into the bus for the first of many drives. I don’t remember if we were told where we were going, probably because it would not have mattered anyway.

Our first stop was Brydges Orphanage. Later in the week, we were going to be taking the orphans on a field trip and had to stop to pay their fees to the park we were going to. After riding in the bus through narrow, windy, dirty roads, we pulled into a tiny driveway.

Jen and Dave got off the bus and told us to wait there, that we didn’t have time to get out.

Some of the children came out into the yard and waved shyly at us, their round faces filled with smiles. Then they were shooed back inside by one of the women who runs the orphanage. She boarded the bus and introduced herself to us and invited us inside. Jen had snuck up behind her and her gestures undoubtedly said, “No, do not get off the bus”.

We graciously declined the woman’s invitation to come into the orphanage.

Pretty soon another woman got on the bus, introduced herself and graciously asked us to get off and meet the children. Again, Jen was motioning behind her back to not get off the bus.

Then Dave came out, climbed on the bus and said, “Let’s go in for just a minute.”

Time is relative.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

“Looking for Work”

In America, it is not terribly widespread to see estates which are enclosed by six to ten foot high fences. There are probably a lot of those kinds of properties in places like Hollywood, California, places where the rich and famous live. Generally, though people living in America expose their yards and homes to the outside world. In Africa though, it was much more common to keep any home of much value hidden and secure behind a tall barrier.

HEART compound was one of those places.

Every time we left the property in one of HEART’s vehicles, one of the staff would open the huge gate for us and close it behind us. Upon our return, the driver would honk the horn and someone inside would efficiently open the gate again. It was pretty much unheard of to go outside of the fence on foot. It wasn’t that HEART was situated in that bad of a neighborhood either; it was just how things were.

As we found out one day.

We had just arrived back home and the driver had honked the horn. We waited the usual few minutes for the gate to be opened. That few minutes though was enough time for a young woman to approach our bus. As the woman walked along the side of the vehicle towards the driver’s window, all of the team members inside looked at each other with wide eyes and with the same thought. “That woman is carrying a machete.”

And so she was. Though perhaps only in her 20s and of average height and slight build, she was wielding a three foot long machete with a four inch wide blade. She spoke to our driver in Swahili and he answered her in the native language, quickly sending her away.

After we had driven into the compound, we asked him what that had been all about. He said she had come asking for a job. He told her, “It is no way to ask for a job by coming up to a window.”

I’ve never heard that career tip before. Or since.

Friday, May 14, 2010

“The HEART staff”

I feel bad that I didn’t write down more about the wonderful staff who work at the HEART compound. I will tell you at least about the ones I remember.

There were several men who kept up the grounds, one who did most of the cooking, at least three different drivers and at least two women. One of the women, Joyce, made the most wonderful desserts. Her cream puffs were absolutely to die for. None of our team can forget her.

One of the drivers, William, lived in the slums with his wife and children. Since both he and his wife had jobs, they could have afforded to live outside of the slums, in a nice neighborhood, with reliable electricity and running water. Instead, he and his wife had decided it was more important to send their kids to college. So they did whatever they needed to to save money, since taking out student loans is almost unheard of in Kenya. Talking to him made me feel pretty guilty that I always figured my kids would end up paying for their own college educations.

Another one of the drivers, Willie, totally fit in as part of the team, playing with the orphans or loading the bus or hauling water when we were in the middle of nowhere. We could count on him to help out with anything. He also drove our bus into some of the most unimaginable places.

Charles, another one of the drivers, had a beautiful wife, Jane, who was a school teacher. It wasn’t until almost the end of our trip that we heard their story, so guess what? You will have to wait until then to hear more about them.

One thing was common to all of the staff, though. They were always happy and smiling and more than willing to do anything they could to help us out. In addition to all of the rest of the wonderful work which HEART was doing throughout Kenya, giving jobs to the hardworking staff at the home base was an added perk.

Another lesson in Swahili: "Jambo" is a general greeting, like hello.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

“Good Morning”

I have so much more to say about HEART and its work in Kenya, but I am sure you are anxious to hear more about what Val and I were actually doing. Well, things just were not always exciting, but let me at least tell you about our first morning in Africa.

I got up early, of course, as if I wasn’t eight hours out of my time zone. I woke up, wide awake, at 5:30am that first morning and almost all the other mornings. I wandered around the grounds a little bit, absorbing the peace and quiet of the compound. Soon, however, the neighbors’ roosters were crowing and stray dogs were barking. I snuck back into our room and wrote in my journal on the bathroom floor so that I wouldn’t wake up my roommates. Once I got into my routine, I used that 5:30am time period to send e-mail home.

I took a quick and welcomed shower after the water warmed up in our bathroom’s private hot water heater.

The rest of the team eventually got moving and we had breakfast around 8:00. All of our meals at HEART were excellent. Again, I hate to mention it to those who thought we were roughing it the whole time. The first morning I had French toast, sausages, mango, and monkey-fingers. Monkey-fingers became one of my favorite Kenyan foods. They are short, squat bananas, a little denser in texture than a regular banana and just a wee bit sweet. We had them at every breakfast, along with other fantastic fresh fruit.

I think it was that first morning, after we were all finished eating, when Dave and Jen gave our devotion assignments. We were warned at one of the team meetings prior to the trip that we would each be expected to lead devotions one morning. Naturally, I had prepared mine well in advance, only to find out that I wouldn’t get to share it until well into the trip.

After breakfast, we gathered all of the donated supplies we had all brought with and laid them out in the dining room. Oh, my goodness, the tables full of stuff we had. There were t-shirts and underwear for little kids, lots of children’s multivitamins, a few boxes of exam gloves, band-aids, antibiotic ointment, baby wipes, notebooks, crayons, toothpaste, I just can’t even begin to list it all. And the seeds from Cerny’s greenhouse that I snuck illegally into the country which I still get excited about when I think of where they ended up.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

“Our Accommodations”

Jen and Dave Bell, our team leaders, and their son Nate had rooms in the larger of the two homes on the estate. They would be remaining in Nairobi as fulltime missionaries, so needed a place they could truly call home. The rest of our team stayed in the main lodge.

I shared a second floor bedroom with Kari, Amanda and Brie. Val was next door with Michelle and Sarah. Downstairs, Jon and Cathy Reese had a bedroom to themselves. Their son Carson was next door with Brandon and his father Geoff.

As I already said, each of the bedrooms had its own bathroom. Though we had running water, we were constantly reminded to conserve it as much as we could. Military showers were mandatory. Also, to save energy, each room had its own small hot water heater. We were instructed to turn it on 20 minutes prior to taking a shower and then to remember to turn it off afterwards. Also, none of the tap water was safe to drink, so we each had one of those huge bottled water jugs in our room for drinking water and to brush our teeth.

The HEART compound was also about the only place in Kenya with conventional toilets with toilet seats and toilet paper. I have lots of bathroom stories to share as we go along on our journey.

Your first Swahili language lesson: choo - a Kenya bathroom, but think of an outhouse, whether it is outside or inside. Rhymes with "show", hence the phrase we used throughout the trip - "It's choo time"

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

“HEART compound”

Though we did travel around a bit, as you will see, our home-base was the beautiful HEART compound in a northern suburb of Nairobi, Kenya. This is the part I hate to share, in case there is someone out there who donated to our trip, and now they will think we had it so cushy. After some of the trying days we had, though, we needed some place comfortable to come home to.

A European business man built the compound to accommodate his associates for business as well as for pleasure. It was his vision to offer his partners a comfortable place to regroup before and after safaris into the wilds of Kenya.

Unfortunately, he passed away before he was really able to take advantage of the facilities. His family sold the estate to two HEART board members in 2003 for an extremely reasonable price. For the following four years, HEART rented the lodge for $1 a year. In 2007, however, one of these two individuals asked to be paid off for his share (which came to $190,000). Through generous donations and the grace of God, Vickie Winkler, founder of HEART, was able to raise the required funds.

The compound consists of four core buildings. The main lodge has a dining room, two large offices, and seven bedrooms all with attached bathrooms. There are two beautiful homes on the grounds, which accommodate Vickie Winkler and other fulltime missionaries. The last of the chief buildings has a large commercial kitchen, laundry facilities, tons of storage and housing for the fulltime staff.

Not only are the buildings homey and spacious, the grounds are meticulously kept, with breathtakingly beautiful landscaping and gardens. But every time we went anywhere, it was easy to remember where we were, as a large metal gate always opened before us and clanged shut after us. The world beyond the gate was filled with dirt, crime, poverty, and an incredible amount of sorrow.

Monday, May 10, 2010



We arrived at the HEART compound in Nairobi around 9:30 Sunday night. I can’t wait to tell you all about the place we had for our home-base while we were in Africa, but first I need to tell you about the HEART organization.

HEART stands for Health Education Africa Resource Team and was founded by Vickie Winker in 2000 to deal with the AIDS crisis in Africa.

People have a lot of different ideas about what missions work is all about. Medical mission trips have become increasingly popular and obviously occur when a group of people with medical experience provide health care for the poor. Habitat for Humanity is a form of missions which provide housing for the underprivileged. There is a myriad of other such service oriented missions organizations.

The other type of mission trip that people think of consists of Christians or other religious groups sharing their faith with others. Religious missionaries have been around for many centuries and work anywhere in the world, but often times we think of them going into third world countries. Over the years, these religious groups have realized that the best way to get their message across to these people is by providing for their physical needs first.

HEART incorporates both of these modes into the work they do in Nairobi and throughout Kenya. I’ll tell you about the different programs as we encountered them during our two and a half week stay. But I just want to warn you that we covered a lot of ground while we were in Africa, not just physically either. We did a wide variety of work with an assortment of different Kenyans.

Friday, May 7, 2010


We arrived at the airport in Nairobi, Kenya, around 7:30 Sunday evening. It would have been 11:30 am at home.

Getting through immigrations was the first time on the trip that I was nervous. Maybe I watch too much TV or just plain have too active an imagination, but I was so afraid we would be detained. On the plane, they gave us our visas to fill out and I was so worried that I had filled something out wrong on it. As the immigrations person looked at Val’s passport and mine, I was waiting for him to motion over a guard to take us away for questioning. Because, if you know us at all, you realize what suspicious characters Val and I are. I think it was mostly because it was the first time we were separated from the team; everyone else was either waiting their turn behind the designated line on the floor 20 feet behind us, or they had been ushered off already to the baggage claim.

The man at the desk, however, stamped our passports without ceremony and pointed us to the stairs.

At the bottom of the stairs, there seemed to be a lot of chaos. Mostly it was the large number of people from our flight waiting in too small an area for their luggage to arrive.

Jen and Dave instructed us to each grab a cart as we waited for the luggage. Since they were moving to Africa to become fulltime missions, their luggage consisted of 12 large Rubbermaid totes. By yet another miracle the totes all arrived, along with almost everyone else’s belongings. Amanda the teenager from New England was the only one whose luggage hadn’t made it.

We loaded all of the baggage onto the carts. Dave and the people who were going to take us to our destination talked to the customs agents and cleared all of our possessions without inspecting anything. Which was good but that meant that when it was time to go, all 15 of us pushing 10 carts full of luggage between us had to be ushered out the door at one time.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” Dave and the others shouted to us. I pushed my cart as fast as I could, but ran into resistance. A small blond boy, traveling with his parents, had walked in front of me. With the load I had, I hadn’t seen him and had run into him, knocking him over. I felt so bad. But still, I was being called to, “let’s go, let’s go”.

So if there is a boy out there, American or possibly European, and you were around 6 years old in 2006 and remember being run over by some crazy lady at the Nairobi airport, it was probably me. And to this very day, I am still sorry about it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

“Third Flight”

We left Amsterdam at 10:15, Sunday morning, July 30. Another eight hour flight was ahead of us.

This time I sat next to Kari. She had the aisle seat, I was in the middle and next to the window was a rather eccentric man. He traveled a lot and worked on some commission of water for African nations. He was probably in his late 50s or early 60s, thin as a rail and agile. When he wanted to get up from his seat, he just jumped up on the armrests and walked over the top of us.

He was very kind though. When we flew over the Alps, and he found Kari and me straining to look out the window, he offered to take pictures for us. Kari handed over her camera and he started snapping shots. Good thing for digital cameras, because I don’t know how many pictures he took. Kari kept looking at me, clearly saying with her facial expressions, “how am I going to get my camera back?”

The airline did seem to feed us pretty well, I thought. Not that the food tasted all that great, but they did keep offering it to us. Lunch and supper each came in a little box with a little pencil and a sudoku puzzle on the lid. By afternoon, the stewardess even brought candy bars around. Once we found out where the stash of more candy bars was in the back of the plane near the restroom, we decided that Northwest Airlines was all right.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Flying across many time zones always makes me think that, yes, time travel is possible. We left Michigan and flew to Amsterdam in eight hours, and yet 14 hours had actually passed by on my clock. If you got in plane after plane and just continued flying in one direction around the earth, couldn’t you end up at your point of departure before your arrival? (I don’t know what I just said, but I like it, so I am not going to change it.)

In any event, our original schedule gave us a two and a half hour layover in Amsterdam. However, because we left Detroit so late, our time was cut short. We had time to go to the bathroom, brush our teeth and walk to our gate.

I don’t recall much else about that airport. It seemed small and crowded, and not terribly organized. Even when I was waiting for a stall to open up in the restroom, no one seemed to be following the concept of a line. Everyone seemed to just mill about, hoping to be the first one to grab the next open stall, which were floor to ceiling claustrophobic cubicles. Good thing I didn’t have to spend much time in one. (The bathroom stories will continue when we get to Kenya, so you will want to keep coming back to read about them all.)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

“Second Flight”

Once the Bells were on board and the plane had been cleared for takeoff, everyone was instructed to return to their seats. Val had been assigned to sit next to Carson. Carson (who I will tell you all about, along with the rest of the team, in my good time) was the youngest member of the team, at age 14. Val was 16. Since breaking up with her boyfriend the night before, she had continued to cry non-stop.

Carson tried to figure her out, but he was pretty much at a loss. Jen quickly saw to it to change around everyone’s seats, as Val wasn’t the only one having problems at the time. I don’t even remember who I sat next to; all I know is Val sat near Jen and told her her whole story.

I have no idea what time we actually left Detroit, Michigan, but it was quite a while past our scheduled departure time of 5:45 Saturday afternoon. Because of that I have no idea what time we arrived in Amsterdam. All I know is it was an eight hour flight, through the night.

After the stewardesses fed us dinner, they turned down the lights and everyone got comfortable and quiet. I tried watching a few movies, but couldn’t focus. In my journal I wrote that I slept ten minutes. I think I was still delirious when I documented that, because I had to have slept longer than that. Val told me when we landed, that she had slept a couple hours, so that was what really mattered to me at the time.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Leaving Detroit

We started boarding our plane in Detroit on time. Our Mission Team found our seats and started settling in. The flight staff closed the door and the plane slowly backed away from the gate. Then it stopped.

We sat there for a few minutes, until finally someone from the cockpit announced that there was an equipment failure and it would be a few more minutes until it was fixed. Well, I thought to myself, if this plane is taking me across the ocean, if there is something wrong with it, they can take as long as they want to repair it.

After another 15 or 20 minutes, the speaker came on again. There were passengers from another flight that were going to be let on the plane, so we were returning to the gate. Our team members all looked at each other with great excitement. Through a miracle, the Bells, our team leaders who had gotten held up in Ohio, would make this flight after all.

The steward opened the hatch and several total strangers got on. We all stretched and strained to see if anyone else was coming, but then the door closed again.

About that time, Jon got another call on his cell phone. The Bells, racing through the airport, had seen through the window our plane pulling away from the gate and then return. They were re-energized and kept going, realizing that they had a chance to make it on board.

The speaker announced a second time that more passengers were going to be allowed on. The hatch opened again, and Nate Bell's round, sweaty face appeared, followed by his parents, hot and panting. Our team cheered. The total strangers sitting around us were not nearly as pleased, probably knowing that they wouldn’t be able to stretch out now that the plane was full.

We continued to sit on the plane, and I started getting very warm and claustrophobic without any air circulating. Eventually, though, the plane passed all of its equipment checks and was cleared for flight. We were instructed to take our seats. And before we knew it, we were in the air and heading east to Amsterdam. From there we would continue on to Nairobi, Kenya.