Saturday, November 19, 2011

New Blog Site! -

Hello, faithful readers!  I just wanted to let you all know that I have a new blog site.  I am no longer working with ERace Poverty, and am independent while working towards my master's degree at the University of Washington in Seattle.  New posts are coming soon, and all the past posts from this site have been transferred.  Bookmark and keep checking in!  Big love and thanks to you all.  Be good to yourselves and those around you.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The World Through My Eyes

Doing my best to fit in with the rest of the students at Samro School after giving my graduation speech during the Friday assembly.

I intended to write a re-entry update much earlier than this, but I could never seem to muster up the energy or focus during my many plane and train rides.  So now I sit in a middle seat on an Alaska Airlines flight from Portland, Oregon to Los Angeles.  Since I last wrote, I have spent some last, precious days with my family in Ilula and traveled just a bit in Kenya on my way to Nairobi for my flight out on July 29th.  The time in Iula consisted of little more than cups of chai, games with the kids, and many conversations of where we had been together, and where we were going.  Before my flight, I spent a few days with my close friend, Kigen in Nakuru and Nairobi, which was a much needed opportunity to relax and unwind while organizing my experiences from the previous six months.  After my flight landed at JFK in New York, I spent 6 days in New York City, another 5 days in Seattle, and the past couple days in Salem and Portland.  Throughout this time, I have been expecting and preparing for the difficulties I have come to know as inevitabilities of readjusting to life in America.  While there have been some challenges psychologically, emotionally, and physically, they have been very modest and somewhat infrequent compared to years past.  I spent time with people in each city that matter to me a great deal and understand who I am and where I have been quite well.  This has made the readjustment much smoother for me in many ways, as they have allowed me to talk at length about my experiences, have asked a lot of good questions (not just about actual experiences, but much more about how those experiences affected me personally and how I reacted to them internally), and have also helped catch me up on life here at home by just talking about what has been going on in their world.  The latter is probably the most overlooked, and possibly the most important piece of a smooth transition for me, as long as the people I am hearing from are those on the same wavelength as me.  I am heading down to LA now to spend time with many people that fit that description, which gives me a great deal of excitement and peace.  I will be involved in the wedding of one of my best friends, a former college teammate and roommate, and will see many friends from what seems like a former life of mine of five years living in LA and Orange County.  After ten days down there, I will be returning home to Oregon for roughly a week, before heading back up to Seattle to settle in and get ready for my master’s program to begin at the University of Washington.  So, in the midst of all this re-entry travel, now seems like a great time to reflect on my time in Kenya and offer some personal observations about readjusting to life in America.  Understand that this is written with an elevated level of emotional sensitivity, and don’t take anything as too intense, no matter how much I may make it sound that way.

Sitting in my desk with my teachers, parents, and fellow class 3 students at Samro School on my last day of class

Being asked countless times how my time in Africa was, I have had a chance to verbally work through it with a lot of different people.  I must say I am overall very, very pleased with how things went.  Traveling there by myself, moving around a ton, implementing a fairly involved project in a rural Kenyan village, and spending a decent amount of time in South Sudan seeking a new project did not come without personal and professional challenges, but I really feel all those challenges ultimately have been or will be conquered and used in positive ways.  I learned a ton about the people of Kenya and South Sudan, about project implementation and community mobilization, and about myself, how I react and respond to certain kinds of challenges.  I learned a few years ago that you can never be more yourself than when all the familiarity and comfort of home are stripped away, and you are forced to face who you are and how you behave at your very core.  This is a very uncomfortable situation, uncomfortable beyond anything I have experienced prior, and really beyond what I can articulate, but it has provided the foundation for me to learn some of the most profound lessons I have learned to this point in my young life, about myself and the people and places I am surrounded by.  For this reason, embracing this reality and making sure you get at least a few hours as the only foreigner with locals is some of the first advice I offer to anyone traveling to Africa for the first time. 

Partaking in a Kalenjin celebratory jumping dance with Nickson after receiving my gifts from the community during my farewell ceremony our last night in Ilula together.

These personal lessons are the first things I think of and work through as I re-enter, but something that is different this time from trips past is that I actually was there to implement a project.  On that end, I have to say I couldn’t be much more pleased than I am with how that process went.  The borehole was constructed and is operational, and there is now a huge garden, two fruit tree orchards, a passion fruit field, a tree nursery, and many eucalyptus trees planted for future harvest in Ilula.  None of that was there 7 months ago when I made my way to this village for the third time, and all of it will have a huge impact on the lives of the residents, particularly the nearly 100 formerly orphaned children that became my little brothers and sisters over the past few years.  Implementing this project was also not without its challenges, some expected, some surprising.  Because I afforded myself enough time there and worked so closely with the locals, I think most of those challenges were addressed in positive ways that yielded locally understood and sustainable solutions.  There are still a few unanswered questions and unfinished tasks, but, because it is now well understood that this is their own project that I am no longer directly responsible for, I am confident these questions and tasks will be respectively answered and completed in due time.  I wrote often about having to learn hard lessons that in a management situation in that context, to really help the project succeed I had to find the balance between bringing ideas and motivation, and letting the local staff really be the ones to own it.  Although that is an art I haven’t mastered yet, I feel that I am now at least very aware of indicators and implications of missing that balance on either end.  This has led to many positive strategic conversations with some very bright people, and will serve me and those I work with in the future very well.  

Taking a look out at Lake Nakuru National Park from Out of Africa Viewpoint.

So, what have I been going through and learning since leaving Kenya and arriving back to the US?  First of all, I will not write any of this in absolute, final terms, because I am very aware that many of the toughest challenges and biggest lessons have not yet presented themselves, and only will once I move back to Seattle for good.  At that point I will be faced with a daily life there, forced to make decisions regarding routine and responsibilities which ultimately are evidence of my values and character.  With that said, I have been amazed by how smooth the transition has been in many ways.  I have not had many random laughing fits, very temporary bouts of depression, or inexplicable tear streams, as I had become accustomed to in the few months after returning from my first big journey.  One very profound and memorable lesson I remember learning during that time is that, even though I had returned to the place and people that held the life I missed so dearly while overseas by myself, the dynamics of that life had forever changed and it was no longer available to me.  I was struck by the fact that I had spent a good amount of energy fighting the discomfort and longing for the comfortable life I had left behind, only to come back to find that it no longer existed.  My friends had made changes in their living and working situations while I was gone, and in many ways I had to start all over myself.  That was unexpected and caused a lot of internal grief for me then, but ultimately led to a lot of positive personal reflection and evaluation.  In the days leading up to my departure from Kenya last month, I read back through my old journal entries from that time period to make myself aware of what I was getting into, which I think has helped me a great deal in not overreacting to any similar feelings.  I have been blessed by so many great conversations with wonderful people over lattes and delicious meals, which has helped me to walk through some of this and get the support I need.

A family of giraffes spending the afternoon eating trees and playing games

Going away and doing the things I have been doing for the past seven months also has allowed me to learn a lot about the relationships I have.  Inevitably, in a situation such as this, some friends you consider very close will show that they have little interest in going out of their way to communicate with and support you.  At the same time, some people you think of as little more than acquaintances will be in your corner more than many friends.  Accepting that this is a reality and not getting your feelings too hurt by it is of huge importance, I have found, to making the most of the time you have away and giving yourself the best chance for a smooth transition back home.  The framework of this trip provided plenty of both of the above, but I haven’t let it upset me too much to this point.  I realize that what I have chosen to commit my life to does not excite or even make sense to many people, and that is alright.  I can either let that increase stress and negativity in my life, or I can accept it for what it is and move forward to the best of my ability, surrounding myself with people who understand, support, and challenge me, whether or not they understand or support a trip such as this.  I have chosen the latter, and would say my transition and overall quality of life are better as a result.

My friend, Kigen, taking a look at a waterfall feeding one of the main streams through Lake Nakuru National Park

A few things have surprised me in the transition home, mostly in how I have reacted to seeing or experiencing them.  First of all, I was horrified at the presence of pain and struggle in New York, and surprised at my reaction being so strong to it.  If you remember, in an attempt to understand a life of impoverishment in America better, I spent a weekend being “homeless” in New York City a few years ago.  During that 48-hour stretch, I was astounded at the intense sadness and loneliness I experienced, very aware of the painfully ironic state of sitting in the most densely populated city in the country while feeling the most desperate loneliness I ever have up to or since then.  I think that understanding and those feelings resurfaced when I found myself seemingly unable to escape the presence of downtrodden, presumably mentally and physically ill people in subway stations and on the streets around the city.  My heart broke afresh each and every time I came across one, and I found myself feeling helpless and incredibly uneasy.  These feelings always present themselves in some capacity and at some level whenever I encounter human suffering, but, coming from where I had just come from, being confronted by intense human suffering almost daily in Africa, I was surprised at the level I felt them in America.  As I worked through this, I discovered that it was the apparent loneliness, a loneliness that I had felt in a diluted way a few years back, that really made it tough for me.  When people in rural Africa are suffering, for the most part they are suffering together in a community, which I realize doesn’t reduce their physical suffering substantially, but it does ease a lot of the emotional and psychological anguish, which is arguably more unbearable.  As I learned through my homeless weekend in 2008, and have tried to practice since, the best thing you can do when confronted by that lonely, suffering person on the street is to simply acknowledge their inherent value in being a human being.  I craved human connection and being treated as an equal to everyone else more than I ever did food, likely because I only went 48 hours without a real meal and knew I was going back to my apartment in Brooklyn to indulge.  Even so, I can only assume the same desire for human connection is true for a majority of those whose reality is living on the streets and begging for their very survival.  I have had some of the most interesting and delightful conversations with people on the street, who seemed to want nothing more than cash or a sandwich, and have seen outward agony turn to inward joy as a result, even for just a few minutes.

Something else that has been surprising, if not troubling, for me since returning is that I have found that on some level I actually enjoy the fact that I can be judged by what I look like and what I am wearing.  This is what most of us would define as American superficiality, and it is something I have not identified with, even been repulsed by for years.  Maybe just because it is a part of the familiar life I have missed for months, or maybe because it affords me the opportunity to simply blend in and not have to verbally explain who I am to everyone I come across, but either way it has actually been refreshing.  I am sure this will wear off soon and I will soon be back on my soapbox, ranting about treating each person the same, regardless of their appearance and apparent ability to contribute to your life in a way you see as valuable. 

Some white rhinos we came across grazing near the shore of the lake.  I am amazed how big and strong some animals can become on a diet of strictly grass.

Those of you who know me know that I have been blessed (or cursed, if you see it as so) with a very casual and laid back demeanor, earning me the nickname “The Dude” in many friend circles.  This outlook on life and personal conduct has become magnified since leaving on my most recent wanderings through Africa.  I find myself always sarcastically saying to others that life is so hard and that if we just worry more and try harder, I’m sure everything will be exactly as we want it to be.  The fact is that experiencing the way of life in East Africa and collectively facing problems I consider to be much graver than those most of us face here has caused me to avoid stressful thinking and people.  This very well could either catch up to me or return to my own natured and nurtured level as I return to work and begin graduate school, but for now I have to note my observation of elevated, sometimes unbearable levels of self-imposed stress in our fair country.  Along with this is the observation of the stark contrast between my two homes in levels of genuine social interaction.  I have told a few people of my struggle to readjust to the fact that most people here really do not care how you are doing when they ask.  People do not usually make a point to greet everyone in a group of people, if they only know or wish to talk to one of them.  We are all too busy or too uncomfortable with that type of interaction to do so, which has been engrained through years of observing and following societal values and norms.  I am not suggesting that you set yourself of for misunderstanding or mockery by ignoring these norms on a grand scale, but please just keep this in mind when you see me, knowing that I am comfortable to shake your hand, give you a hug, hear how your life is going, and tell you how mine is, regardless of how well I know you.  If you can gather up the courage to do so outside of our interactions, please feel free.

A view of the lake from Baboon Cliff, where we had the picnic breakfast we packed while taking in the sunrise

I am now finishing this entry in a Starbucks in Marina Del Rey, California, on a cool, overcast afternoon, listening to my emotional music Pandora station, observing countless people come in and out.  For some reason, that just seems fitting to me as I make observations about the differences between life as I know it in East Africa and America.  Thanks for reading, and accept my apologies if this long entry seems a bit fragmented and disorganized, but it is just my honest reactions and observations during this strange and perplexing readjustment phase I now find myself in.  I’m not sure when you will hear from me again, but I will do my best to keep everyone updated on my progress in school and toward the next project I work on, which could take many forms.  Let me just close this by saying a huge thanks to everyone in Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan, whether they are able to read this or not, for allowing me to barge into their lives and shake things up the way I did.  They were perfect hosts who taught me more about so many things than they could ever imagine.  Let me also say a huge thank you to everyone who supported this project in various ways, because without each of you and all you do, the world would be a lot less wonderful than it is.  To those of you who have supported me personally in any way, thank you because my own little world would suffer the same fate without each of you.  To those reading this who have been intrigued or inspired in any way, please do yourself and the rest of the world a favor by following that interest or inspiration to its end.  If you don’t know what that looks like, email me and let’s talk about it.  And, as you know I am compelled to close each entry with, each and every one of you please be good to yourselves and those around you.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Final Chapter

In the middle of the independence celebration in Juba, just after the flag reached the top of the pole and the long fight for independence had officially ended.

I am having a hard time organizing my thoughts and feelings right now.  As I sit on the verandah outside my room in Ilula, Kenya, I feel stuck between many different worlds, not at all in a bad way, but more just an increasingly confusing way.  I have just returned from an extended journey to South Sudan and soon, in less than two weeks now, I will be returning home to the US, but I can’t help but feel wonderfully at peace and ease back here in what has been my second home for the past few years.  There is so much to digest from nearly the past month in Juba, and even more in the weeks and months that lie ahead as I return to life in America and begin school again.  I have continually found one of the most challenging aspects of travel of this nature for myself to just be able to stay present in where I am, who I am with, and what I am doing.  There is constantly so much to reflect on and look forward to that I often am not even aware of what I have at the moment until it passes into the category of reflection, but every once in a while I find myself just laughing at where life has taken me and the situations it has put me in. 

This sign represents the mood of Juba Town very well.  I was told they have forgiven, but not forgotten as they move forward united in their struggle as a new nation.

One of those situations was celebrating independence with all our brothers and sisters in South Sudan just one week ago.   I wish I could find a way to put into words what the energy was like in the build up to independence, and especially in the square on July 9th, but I am afraid those words do not exist.  The difference in Juba Town just from two months ago when I was there was astounding; the roads and fields had been cleaned up, existing buildings painted an almost uniform white and blue, new buildings constructed, even street lights were being installed.  It was quite clear that the government understood all eyes around the world would be on Juba very soon, and they wanted to make a good impression.  In the end, as observed by a friend of mine who has lived there for some time, it is still a dirty, developing town, so only those of us who had been there prior, a group I can hardly include myself in, would appreciate the drastic change, but it was a great start and their efforts were noticeable and appreciated nonetheless.  The international news and South Sudanese diaspora communities converged on Juba from around the world, making every day an opportunity to meet new and interesting people from nearly every continent.  This was an opportunity I did not waste, walking what must have been 20km per day all over Juba, stopping at different hotels, restaurants, and offices along the way to see who was around and what their stories were.  I heard from many returnees, who had fled their homes on foot, either during or before unannounced and brutal attacks were unleashed, ended up in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, and somehow survived to make it back home to see a day they dreamed of for years.  There were also those who stayed behind and fought in the bush for anywhere from a few days to years, putting the value of freedom for their people above their own safety and livelihoods.  There were also reporters, journalists, and filmmakers who have covered this situation and countless others around the globe, who were able to offer insight based on their experience.  I have always believed that experience is the best teacher, and I have to say that I could have never learned all I did about this place, these people, and just life in general if I had read every single report and watched every single documentary a million times over.  It was seeing the places and the faces involved, and hearing personal reactions and opinions that really taught me what I learned.  You can easily forget facts or statistics, but you cannot so easily forget experiences that represent those same facts and statistics.

With some new friends I met in Juba.  These guys fled the war years ago and lived in refugee camps and slums for years before returning home to promote peace and youth development through art.

After all the build-up and talk about independence, the day finally came.  We arrived at the Dr. John Garang Mausoleum, the site of the celebration, around 10am and the crowds had already gathered.  We walked into a sea of joy and jubilation, expressed through singing, dancing, chanting, flag waving, and impromptu parading.  I am not sure of the temperature that day, but it was one of the warmest days during our stay, made almost unbearably hot and steamy by the presence of hundreds of thousands of celebrating southerners.  After an hour of strong commitment to a good spot to stand and watch it all unfold, I had to remove myself to get some air in an attempt to avoid fainting, a fate many had already succumb to.  It wasn’t until around 1pm that all the dignitaries had safely arrived and the military parade began, signifying the beginning of the celebration.  The crowds that had dispersed while waiting all came rushing back, and the cheering, flag waving, and unique screaming calls of joy of South Sudanese women reached a new high.  From where we were standing, just on the corner outside of the square, we couldn’t hear anything from the ceremony itself, so after the parade, we found ourselves waiting in silence for the flag to be raised.  Less than an hour later, the flag began its ascent of the tallest, stand-alone flag pole in the square, arousing the crowd to rush the previously blocked off street outside the square.  Of course I went rushing in with them, and found myself in the middle of the most incredible celebration I have ever witnessed.  Screams and cheers and chants filled the air, accompanying the singing of the new national anthem of the Republic of South Sudan, tears ran down faces, and medics carried many overheated and overjoyed unconscious bodies away to safety.  I vicariously felt just an ounce of their pride and emotion as I stood in the middle of it all, feeling that time was standing still and may never start back up again.  I have no idea how long I was there, maybe 10 minutes, maybe an hour, but next thing I knew I was walking dizzyingly away toward the fountain on the corner again.  Only when I saw my party partner for the day, Samuel, did I come to and realize where I had just been and what I had been celebrating.  We walked the hour-long back route to our place, passed by countless celebrators along the way.  We picked up a big bottle of water along the way and took the rest of the afternoon to rehydrate and digest the morning everyone had been waiting months, years, even decades for.

In the midst of the crowd waiting for the flag to be raised and officially become an independent country.

There was more than just waiting for independence and talking with strangers throughout the previous four weeks, during which time I found myself back on the basketball courts in Juba with the local players many times.  When I played with them a couple months ago, I think I was much more aware in the moment of what I was doing, and therefore not able to fully experience it.  This time I found myself lost in the games, aware only of what was happening on the court, shouting instructions and communicating strategy to my teammates, much like I used to years ago when I played competitively.  I wasn’t aware this time, like last time, that everyone who had gathered around the court was watching, wondering, and even laughing at the one white guy on the court.  It wasn’t until the games finished that I noticed that the innumerable obvious differences between me and my teammates and opponents had all melted into just one similarity, self-expression through sport, for the duration of each game.  It didn’t matter how out of my element I was everywhere else, at every other time in South Sudan; all that mattered was that within the confines of that 94-foot-by-50-foot concrete rectangle we were all exactly the same in any and every way that truly matters.  I would never have been able to connect with the guys the way I did if I had simply started a conversation with them on the streets of Juba, or even on the sidelines of the court.  This experiential reminder of the power of sport to bring people together was extremely important for me to be reaffirmed in my commitment to use sport as a platform for community development, and I am now more focused than ever on doing so.

Enjoying a competitive game with some aspiring young basketball players, and now new friends.

So now what?  I am back in Kenya for about two weeks before flying back to my home country for the first time in six months.  Only half of those two weeks will be spent here in Ilula, while the other half will be spent with my good friend, Kigen, in Nairobi and the coast of Kenya.  Both of us need a few days to really relax and unwind from busy schedules before jumping back into more busy schedules, so I am very much looking forward to this time.  Though I am heading back to the states soon, I still have another couple months of moving around and being unsettled ahead of me.  Before I start school in September, I will be in New York for nearly a week to reconnect with friends and former colleagues, in Seattle for nearly another week to do the same, in Salem to finally unpack and spend time with my family, in LA to visit friends and be a part of a wedding of one of my very best friends, in Salem again to soak up some more family time, and finally back up to Seattle to hopefully settle in a place and prepare for the beginning of classes.  As for the week I have here in Ilula, I hope to wrap up everything with the borehole project, making sure everything and everyone is in place for sustained and successful operation of the tree nursery, garden, and fruit trees, but mostly I hope to simply spend time with my wonderful family here.  I arrived back here a few nights ago, exhausted from the stay in Juba and the journey back, but as soon as the kids heard my voice and excitedly ran to hug me, I felt rejuvenated and very much at peace in my home.  That is what I want the next week to be all about, which I don’t imagine will be much of a problem. 

Hanging out with our neighbors in our compound in Juba.  These guys are from all over the place and have all converged on Juba searching for a better life with opportunities for employment.

I will try to write again before I leave, but if I fail to do so, and if this is the last you will hear from me in Africa, let me just convey my most sincere appreciation for joining me on this journey.  I hope you have enjoyed it and learned even 1% of what I have.  Without each and every one of you, this journey either would not have been possible or wouldn’t have been worth it.  To those of you who have financially supported me and my vision, I can’t thank you enough, and I hope you have seen a return that has made your investment in me and the people of Ilula worth it.  To those of you who have followed along and encouraged me in any number of ways, that means more to me than you know.  Being physically alone on this journey for the most part and facing some of the challenges I faced, I know there is no way I could have stood up time after time and been a part of all I was without knowing you were all right there with me, rooting for me and these people.  This journey, which has taken me more than 25,000 miles, put me on three continents, in 6 countries and countless towns and villages, and challenged me in ways I have never been before, has been exhausting and invigorating throughout.  I knew, as I did three years ago when I set out on my first journey of this nature, that I was intentionally putting myself in situations that I simply did not have the strength, stamina, or wisdom to handle on my own.  I would need more of it all from somewhere, and I always got it at just the right time in just the right way.  I am convinced that God’s preferred mode of intervention is through people, so, whether you believe in Him or not, thank you all for being that vehicle for Him to work through.  We are made to live together and thrive in community, and I hope you all feel that we have thrived together with the people of Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan.  I am beyond excited to get back home and see and hug each one of you, so please send me a message and let me know when and where that can happen.  Otherwise, as always, be good to yourselves and those around you. 

A sign near the airport honoring Dr. John Garang, the former leader of the SPLA and father of the fight for  independence, and a speech he gave shortly after the signing of the CPA, which gave Southerners the right to vote for their independence this year.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Have you thought about....?

Rolling through Kipkenyo... Jeff greeting everybody from the back of the truck

Habari zano rafiki? (How are you, friends?) You reply, “Mzuri sana!” (Very well!)
Though I call you friends I may not know most of you…. Jeff’s blog has been hijacked. I’m the one (the white, mzungu one looking very similar, except for the long hair) with him in the picture above. I thought since I just finished spending 16 days with him in Kenya that it would be good to bring some outside perspective on what is going on there. Though Jeff and I have communicated often about life in Kenya, I still really didn’t know what he did. I didn’t know what life was like. I didn’t really have an understanding for who the children are that he sees regularly, or what he meant by tree nurseries, bore holes, and the training center. But being there gave me incredible perspective, understanding, and experience. Have you thought about going to join him?

My time there was a mix of experiences. We had times with all sorts of different people. We would walk with the kids to school in the morning (though it’s only about a 200 meter walk); and then in evening we would talk with them before bed. During the day there were plenty of cups of chai with different folks, negotiations with banana tree farm owners, visiting and praying for people in the hospital and in rural villages, more chai, bumpy rides in mid 90’s trucks and SUVs that make you praise God each time they start, trips into Eldoret (city of about 1 million) and Kabernet (city of significantly less than 1 million), hunting in the bush, more chai, basketball with the kids, motivational speaking to children at schools, strategic planning for current projects (like the tree nursery, bore hole piping, and fruit orchard) and for future projects (like Sudan), processing how to incentivize/reward the parents who are caring for the fruit orchard, more chai. Do you get the picture? Jeff’s hands , head, and heart are in many places when he’s in Africa. And those are just some of things that happened in the two weeks I was in town. The evenings would always end with chai at his adopted parent’s home (3 room – sitting room, bedroom, kitchen/bedroom). David and Prisca (with their youngest son and Jeff in the picture below) are literally Jeff’s family away from his family, and they are a wonderful couple who love him very much. Have you thought about going to join Jeff the next time he goes to Africa?

Jeff with his Kenyan family

It was such a blessing to go and be a part of Jeff’s journey in Kenya. It is so clear that the work he is doing there matters. 3 years ago there was no bore hole, no vegetable garden, no tree nursery, and no fruit orchard. In the course of that time he’s helped to raise money, and more importantly, raise belief in their ability to be self-sustaining and creative.

Most of the people who have gotten to know Jeff told me that he is now Kenyan. They fondly refer to him as one of them. That is no easy task in a place where you stand out so contrastingly from everybody else. But Jeff has made it almost impossible to not be accepted because of the way he has chosen to jump in, embrace the people there, and sought to help them maximize the tools and the gifts that they already have. And he keeps coming back. Have you thought about joining him next time he goes to Africa?

One of the things that one group of people there told us was that once you visit them one time, you have to come back at least two more times. I wonder how many people only come once? Thankfully I know someone who has been 3 times, and counting. Jeff’s ability to make a difference in Kenya is a combination of things: God’s direction and provision of opportunity, his spirit and gifts/talents, his persistent pursuit in helping these people maximize all they do, and that he keeps going back. Have you thought about joining him the next time he goes?

Do you notice a trend?

Jeff and Joshua walking to school

I haven’t even shared about how I was impacted by my time in Kenya, but know that it was immensely powerful and challenging. I’ll save my stories; so unless you go, you won’t know what it’s like. It’s worth it and I guarantee you won’t come back the same. You’ll have greater appreciation and understanding for Jeff’s work, for the Kenyan people, and for how you personally fit into that picture. Because whether you realize it or not, we are all in the same picture, inter-connected, even from thousands of miles away. Those people in Kenya (and around the world) are my brothers and sisters. And yours as well. They are dying to meet you, to learn from you, and to share with you.

With our friend Nickson, the day after our hunting excursion

Have you thought about joining Jeff in Africa?

Stop thinking about it and figure out how you can plan to go with him next summer. As you’ve witnessed from a distance – the time is now. Nothing he’s done would have happened if he had only thought about it. He took the initiative and made it happen. And with God’s grace, it happened. But it must have been INCREDIBLY AWKWARD AND DIFFICULT WHEN HE FIRST GOT THERE. After seeing it in person, you have no idea how much I admire his initiative in going and setting up the many projects. They are changing lives and empowering people for the better. Jeff has done the hard work – now you could go and ride his coattails to meeting many great people, seeing interesting places, and realizing that there is a wonderful opportunity to use some of our gifts (resources/education/knowledge) to help maximize the gifts of others around the world.

Stop thinking about joining Jeff and GO. You won’t be sorry.

Jeff and Isaac, working on the tree nursery

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Some Rest for the Weary

I have to be honest - I really don't feel like writing right now, nor do I know how to organize my thoughts and experiences from the past month to relay them to you adequately.  I feel like writing this is making the phone call to that friend of yours who you haven't talked to in so long that you know the conversation will be really long and exhausting.  You want to talk to your friend, but you just don't know where to start and you don't know if you have the energy.  At any rate, here is the figurative phone call, so I hope at least a handful of you figuratively pick up the phone.  Also, let me apologize for the weird text colors.  It showed up that way and I don't have the energy right now to figure out why it is like that or how to change it. 

Greeting the children at Kamwago Primary School.  

During the past month of my absence from my blog, I have slept on 9 different beds/floors in 7 different towns/villages in two countries, and must have traveled in the neighborhood of 1,000 kilometers on rough roads in the process.  Needless to say that I am immensely enjoying the day today, which has consisted of little more than walking my little buddy, Joshua, to school in the morning, taking two meals, and going to school to collect my most recent class 3 Kiswahili exam.  I honestly don’t think I have left the room outside of those activities.  The finally consistent rains have just given me a nice excuse to do so, and have nourished the thirsty crops, rousing hope for the local farmers in the process.  So, where have I been, what have I been up to, and what have I been learning in the past month?  Let us start back at the beginning.  The day after I last wrote, I went to a village called Kamwago, which lies on the beautiful edge of the escarpment in Chepkorio, overlooking Simit and the Kerio Valley, the thumb on the hand of the Great Rift Valley.  Samuel, the man I have been here learning with and from, has his home there, and I also have another friend there, coincidentally and sometimes confusingly named Samuel (Jubilee), who graduated from the Kenya Anti-Alcohol program when I first arrived in Kenya three years ago.  I always make a point to go to Kamwago when I am in country to see Samuel’s home and greet his very old and even tougher mother, and to visit Jubilee’s family.  Seeing how well Jubilee is doing and how much of a role model and leader he has become within his community always warms my heart and inspires me.  This time, I also visited two local primary schools to speak with the children and teachers, and just walked around the whole village to greet all the curious onlookers.  Staying in a Kalenjin (one of the major tribes in Kenya) village means that plenty of mursik (sour milk aged in a charcoal-coated gourd hanging on the wall of the kitchen hut) will accompany each meal.  This was the case again last month, and I am happy to report that my gag reflex has been repressed, and I am even beginning to enjoy the treat with only minor stomach issues.  I say all these things lightheartedly, and very much enjoy all my visits to Kamwago and other villages.  I couldn’t be more thankful to all of my gracious hosts, certainly not the least of whom are Jubilee and his lovely wife.

With Samuel Jubilee and his wife outside their home in Kamwago at the conclusion of my visit with them.

The morning after returning from Kamwago, I boarded a Kampala Coach bus bound for Kampala, Uganda, to visit friends of mine there for about the next 10 days.  This was such a nice break from life here, though it didn’t end up being quite as relaxing and brainless as I had hoped.  All of my friends there work for international organizations, so I was able to talk with all of them about the work they are doing, and even tag along on a few meetings to see how they operate.  Though I only had a couple days while there to just relax as I am today, I was reminded of just how easy it is to be with Wazungu (white people) who speak and think about life very similarly to myself.  I had forgotten what it was like to interact with Americans (and Europeans) on a regular basis, and was happy to be reminded of just how much less energy it takes for me.  I am not saying the way we speak and think about life is superior in any way, nor that I dislike communicating with Africans, rather just observing how much easier it is for me personally to interact in a way that is familiar and comfortable.  Spending time with my friends in Kampala, and meeting new ones, was such a treat for me and did me a lot of good in many ways.  Many of them are scattering to new assignments or new jobs altogether around the globe, but I know we will stay in touch and meet up again sometime, somewhere.  During my time in Uganda, I also was able to go up to Gulu, where the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had been running rampant, kidnapping children, turning some into soldiers while killing others, and burning entire villages for the better part of two decades.  The LRA has left Uganda in recent years to move into Southern Sudan and Congo, so it was great to get to go there to see how the area is rebuilding.  I was told that, at the peak, there were over 1 million people living in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps, but that number is now down to about 20,000 and shrinking.  Although I didn’t get to go see much of the area, it is hard to go too long in the north without meeting someone who has a story to tell about when their village was invaded by the LRA and how that has affected them.  It was also great to meet the team that is heading up efforts to resettle the people and rehabilitate and reintegrate former child soldiers into their families and society at large.  It really helps put all the problems of my tough life in perspective.

Playing football with the kids at one of the primary schools in Sauri.  As you can see, I was a brick wall in the goal.

After a sleepless bus ride through the middle of the night, I arrived back in Eldoret before morning chai.  I had just enough time to take two cups while I greeted everyone back here in Ilula, unpack from Uganda and repack for the valley, and jump in the truck heading to Cheptebo.  After a solid nap, I had two good days of meetings with the two men I will be returning to South Sudan with to plan our activities there.  Once we returned to Ilula, I had two days to check in with all the staff on the progress and challenges of implementing all of our projects here before heading out for another couple days in Western Kenya.  I had made contact with the manager of the Sauri Millennium Village months ago after meeting with the program manager at Columbia University to discuss their MDP program.  The Millennium Village is essentially the collective effort of many organizations, including Columbia University, The Earth Institute, and the UNDP, to provide an on-the-ground example of how the Millennium Development Goals can be achieved.  If you don’t know what any of that stuff is, don’t worry about it; it is all just to say that it was a good opportunity for me to spend a couple days learning from the “experts” and see in action a lot of programs and projects that we don’t (yet) have the resources to pull off.  There is a lot of debate around the true success, practicality, and transferability of the Millennium Villages (there are a dozen of them throughout Sub-Saharan Africa), but I wanted to go see for myself before making any judgments.  Even if it turned out to be something I do not want to emulate, I could still learn a lot of lessons from their successes and failures.  All in all, though, I do have to say that they have a really well thought out process of community entry, implementation, scale-up, and phase-out, and a wonderfully committed and generous staff.  I can’t imagine any other organization that has the firepower they have to be able to even come close to do things the way they do, but there is a lot to be learned from each program type nonetheless.  Who am I to make this assessment, anyway?

Some of local children in Sauri pumping water from one of the many wells installed by MVP.

The day after arriving back from Sauri, my good friend, John, who has been supporting me in so many ways for the past three years, as I have tried to figure out what we are dealing with out here and how best to do so.  I have been anxiously awaiting his arrival for months, since he told me he was definitely going to be able to come.  Countless people have told me how much they want to come visit me here over the years, but John (Olinjer – I have called him this for years, so it is too weird for me to start calling him John just for the sake of this entry) is the first to actually make the trip, much to the delight of all my family here.  They have been telling me for so long that they want to meet my friends and family, so when I told them that one was finally coming, they couldn’t contain their excitement.  I think I have had to answer the kids as to when he is coming about 10 times per day since I first told them.  Olinjer also went beyond just coming to visit by raising money for the fruit tree seedlings we needed to plant the fruit tree orchards.  Because of the cost, we were working out a plan to slowly build up to having two orchards by using income from the tree nursery and garden to purchase the seedlings, but thanks to Olinjer, we now have 91 banana trees, 60 avocado trees, 56 orange trees, 8 guava trees, and 8 loquat trees planted in two different orchards.  We also have 550 passion fruit stems planted and 382 eucalyptus trees coming soon, all fenced in three different locations.  This was such a blessing to all of us, especially those who live here and will enjoy the fruits for years to come.  To see this vision I have worked on together with the staff here in Ilula for years start to come to fruition is so exciting and inspiring.  What is even more exciting is to see how the staff here has really fallen into their roles in managing and carrying out the tasks that needed to be done in order to get to this point.  As I have mentioned before, probably too often, that has been one of the main challenges for me since I arrived – just to get everyone on the same page and to have them stop seeing me as the boss of projects, who they need to report to and wait on for decisions.  I may have been the one to organize our collective dream on paper and share it with those who could help make it a reality, but it is certainly not my project.  It is their project, and they now truly understand that they are the ones who can and will make it a long term success – not me.  I know when I return here next year or in the years after, I will not recognize the lush, productive compound, which used to be producing little more than a few seasonal vegetables and tree seedlings per year, but will then be producing thousands fruits, vegetables, and seedlings to support the programs here.  Wow. 

Olinjer with some proud new owners of their very own fruit trees.

So, since Olinjer arrived we have been pretty busy, from running around to collect tree seedlings and fencing materials, visiting two nearby communities, and taking Kiprotich, my new little brother here, now over 4 months old, on his first outing to town and his parents’ home.  We even made it back to Kapkokwon, the village that hosted me for my first bush hunting excursion.  We found out a few days before we were to go that there had been an accident involving the matatu (small private bus transport) that travels between Kapkokwon and Kabarnet, the nearest town.  As it was told to me, the matatu’s gearing and brakes didn’t engage as it was travelling down a big hill along the escarpment, leaving it coasting and unable to slow its quickly building speed.  It went off the road on one corner and rolled over many times, luckily stopping short of the edge of the escarpment, though still scattering all of the 22 passengers (the vehicle only has 11 seats, but it is standard to fit as many as possible) along the road and in the bush.  Two people died, a young mother of four children and a 2-day-old baby that had just been discharged from the hospital for its first visit to its home, and the others were held in the hospital for at least one night.  One was released the next day and 19 remained for treatment and monitoring.  By the time we arrived, 5 days after the accident, only 3 remained in the hospital, one with a broken arm and fluid in his lungs, one with a fractured pelvis, and one with a dislocated pelvis.  The first thing we did when we arrived in Kabarnet was go to the hospital to visit them and pray with them.  I am always amazed and uncomfortable at how receptive and appreciative people are when a white person shows up at times like this.  I felt the same way when we attended the funeral planning at the bereaved family and were asked to share with and encourage them.  In light of the life I have lived so far, I feel like I have nothing to offer to someone in that situation, outside of general encouragement and sorrow for their loss, but after being put in that position so many times, I have begun to feel less uncomfortable and reserved, and am pleased to know that, in some strange way, it does actually help them to feel better.

Olinjer and I with Isaac, our host in Kapkokwon, and his mother, who is even tougher than she looks.

Outside of visiting the hospital and families affected by the accident, we also went for hunting trip in a different bush than last time and visited three churches.  Again, our hunting trip was unsuccessful, this time without even a single arrow fired.  We only encountered two animals, one small antelope and one hyena, but neither cooperated with the chase team to come toward the sharp shooters.  I again was on the sharp shooter team, more because I was insistent, in my misguided need to feel like a real man, than because of actual sharp shooting skills.  We spent a few hours in the bush, continuously covering different areas in hopes that we would find all the animals that had been hiding all day.  The closest I got to an animal was when a chameleon was climbing on the small tree next to my first hiding spot.  We did also chase some monkeys along the escarpment, but hardly got close enough for a good look.  Once our testosterone returned to levels normal enough to allow us to call it a day, we stopped and had shooting competitions on some cacti, just to prove to ourselves and each other how manly we could have been if we had only had a shot at an animal.  I was later told by one of the men that we were unsuccessful because Mama Sirma, the woman of the house, blessed us with both hands, rather than just the right hand.  You live and you learn, I guess.  

The sharp shooter team. I can't remember if we were about to shoot an antelope or posing for a staged photo at this point.

Being able to go back to see everyone in Kapkokwon was such a blessing, and especially to share the experience with Olinjer.  Having him here has been so wonderful in so many ways, and it will be sad to have him leave so quickly.  Being able to experience and learn all that I have here has been incredible, but to show my world here and process it with someone who knows me so well has really been special.  I couldn’t feel more fortunate or thankful to have a friend like him supporting me so well for so long.  We travel by matatu to Nairobi on Friday, and when he flies back to the US on Sunday, I will fly with Samuel back to Juba, Sudan for the next three weeks.  While there, we are hoping to spend one to two weeks in villages throughout Yirol, the area in Lakes State we stayed in for only a couple days last visit.  There is a lot to learn from the people there, and many friends to be made.  I am even told that there is a goat waiting to be slaughtered in honor of our stay in Adior.  Outside of just spending as much time with the people in villages to learn about their plight, we will also be in Juba enough to meet with different people and get to know the work of other organizations based there.  Of course, we will also be in Freedom Square in Juba to celebrate Independence Day for South Sudan on July 9th.  I will have more for you when I get back “home” from South Sudan on July 11th.  My flight back to the states is on July 29th, so I will have less than three weeks remaining here once I get back, half of which will be here with my family in Ilula, and the other half with my friend in Nairobi, Mombasa and Malindi (beaches), and one of the smaller game parks.  It is crazy to think of how little time I have remaining here before it is time to get back to reality, or at least a different reality.  Next Monday I have to try to find an internet cafĂ© to register for my first term of classes at UW, which will make that coming reality feel all the more real.  For now, I need to take a bath and get to supper before they wonder what happened to me.  Thanks for figuratively picking up the figurative phone call.  I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did and will be ready for another one in a month.  Otherwise, enjoy the beginning of summer in America and be good to yourselves and those around you.