Monthly Archives: September 2014

How To See Africa Without Seeing Africa At All

This most recent trip to Kenya was unique for me in a number of ways. It’s the first time I took my wife along. It’s the first time I went to Kenya for the sake of going to Kenya, and not because it was a stopping point to somewhere else. It’s also the first time I went to Kenya at least partially as a tourist. It’s the last aspect that I’d like to focus on today, because as a tourist I was made aware of things that I hadn’t noticed before.

They say that the American interstate highway system was designed to make it possible to go from one end of the country to the other without actually seeing anything. I believe a similar concept is true about the western-geared tourist industry in Africa, and probably elsewhere for that matter.

 

 

My wife and I on Mt Kenya
My wife and I on Mt Kenya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On our third through our sixth days in Kenya, we stayed at a place on Mt Kenya called the Castle Forest Lodge. Now before you jump to conclusions and assume I didn’t like it there, you’d be wrong. The place was absolutely amazing, from the views to the food to the character of the place to the elephants that visited twice in three days.  In fact I will be leaving a glowing review on trip advisor, and I would highly recommend staying there to any vacationer coming to Kenya.  So what’s the problem?

 

The elephants at the Castle Forest Lodge
The elephants at the Castle Forest Lodge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every time I’ve come to Africa previously, I’ve stayed either in a local guest house, or with a family, or in a church. I’ve been immersed in the culture and gotten to know the locals. I’ve discussed local issues with the people who live there, eaten their food. I’ve walked down the road and just explored. I’ve gotten to know the character of Africa. Staying at the Castle Forest Lodge was staying at the western idealized version of Africa. The guests were all white, whether they were from Holland or Canada or elsewhere. The staff were all Kenyans, but they were of course all in subservient positions. It was very, well, colonial. My wife and I walked three kilometers through the forest into the town of Kimunye to catch some of the local culture and watch the work going on in the tea plantations. This was an experience, but the reaction from the locals to two white people walking out of the forest seemed to them a bit disconcerting, and it seemed pretty apparent that this was not something the white guests at the lodge normally do. There is apparently a certain level of insulation between visitor and local. The children of course were thrilled to see us and all of them, and I do mean all, had to shake our hands. The adults were more reserved, as if our presence spelled trouble somehow. Nevertheless we took in the town and the tea fields anyway. We even stopped in at a local bar and had a couple of Stoneys. It was the kind of bar that was truly local, with just a curtain for a door and a television tuned to a channel where everything was in Swahili. Maybe next time the locals won’t be so on edge.

Panorama of the peaks of Mount Kenya
Panorama of the peaks of Mount Kenya

 

 

 

 

But this brings me to my point. The tourist industry is designed so people can see the kind of Africa they WANT to see, not necessarily what Africa is. It delivers an amusement park experience without letting you get to know the people of Africa. Without the people, you no longer have Africa. You really do just have an amusement park. So if you are going to go to Africa, by all means enjoy the sights. Go on a tour, and see the things Africa is famous for. But don’t forget to experience the real Africa. Skip the taxi and ride a matatu or a motorcycle taxi. Walk the streets and go to a local restaurant or a bar. Talk to people on the street. Make friends. One thing that is almost universal in my experience is the friendliness of Africans. Meet the people on their level. Your experience and your understanding of Africa will be richer for it.

Our hut at the Castle Forest Lodge
Our hut at the Castle Forest Lodge

 

 

 

 

The local bar we stopped at in Kimunye
The local bar we stopped at in Kimunye
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I’m Rich, I’m Humble, I’m Better Than You.

Why are rich people rich? Why are poor people poor? How do we alleviate poverty? Why do we alleviate poverty? You ask the questions and you’re going to get different answers depending on whom you ask.

Western thinking tends to either completely deny the spiritual aspect of our lives, or separates the spiritual parts (worship, going to church, evangelism) from the secular parts of our lives (work, business, politics).  Western secularism removes the need for God in our society altogether, and consequently fails to understand how the spiritual is instrumental in poverty alleviation. Furthermore, it forms in our minds a condescending attitude toward the poor, as explained in the book, “When Helping Hurts”, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. Here is a quote from the book.

“The god-complexes of the materially non-poor are also a direct extension of the modern worldview. In a universe without God, the heroes are those who are best able to use their reason to master the material world. In other words, the materially non-poor are the victors in the modern worldview, the gods who have mastered the universe and who can use their superior intelligence and the material possessions they have produced to save mere mortals, namely the materially poor.”

A woman next to open sewage in Kibera, Kenya
A woman next to open sewage in Kibera, Kenya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How often have we heard phrases like, “we’re saving the world,” or “we can save Africa”?  The fact is , you could throw money at Africa all day and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if you go into it with the above attitude. Poverty is alleviated slowly and tediously through love for the materially poor as you work with them in relationship with both them and with God. We help the poor because we love them, not because we’re better than them. And we love them even though they’ve never done anything for us, because Christ set the example by loving us before we ever loved Him. We learn from the poor, as we work with them in relationship, that all the problems in life are not simply a matter of “you need to do something about your situation.” Poverty has as much if not more to do with the spiritual and the psychological as it does with the material. We see that people are materially poor while failing to recognize our own poverty in other ways; broken relationships with family, mixed up priorities, keeping up with the Joneses. These are the things that cause divorce, broken families, heart disease, mental illness, all the ways that we are poor in the United States.  We lose so much of the equation if we try to help the materially poor without being tempered by the humility that comes with recognizing our own poverty. And to this end, poverty alleviation is about working together to alleviate our respective poverties with the realization that we are all fallen creatures in need of forgiveness. To fail to recognize this means that we help the poor out of guilt for our own material success rather than love for the materially poor. To this end, many of us just feel the need to “do something”, whether it does any good or not, because helping the poor is about removing our sense of guilt rather than seeing the poor actually thrive. This is probably subconscious for many people, but I hope that by simply writing it, many will recognize this fact. Helping the poor MUST be done out of love for the poor and love for God, or it will at best be temporary.

Below is a link that humorously portrays some of these western attitudes. Till next time…

The Amnesia Special

You know how in old TV shows, they always have a time where the writers and the actors get lazy? The solution is to have Gilligan get amnesia or BA Barrackus have some horrible injury that causes him to be in a coma. Everyone gathers around and remembers things about them that of course allows them to play clips from old shows to fill up the hour.

Well, I’m not feeling lazy, but I am feeling tired. I just flew in from Kenya less than 24 hours ago, and I’m not feeling profound or witty. So this is my amnesia special. The material is not old, it’s all from the most current trip. But it does allow me to not think very hard about what I’m writing. So gather ’round my hospital bedside and wait for me to wake up, and remember the things about my trip through these pictures (which I can thankfully edit now that I’m home.)

Faith, our sponsor child in Kenya
Faith, our sponsor child in Kenya

 

The girls at the reform school.
The girls at the reform school.

 

Mount Kenya
Mount Kenya

 

Hyenas before dawn
Hyenas before dawn

 

Our sponsor child's grandfather giving respect as we leave
Our sponsor child’s grandfather giving respect as we leave

 

Waterfall on Mount Kenya
Waterfall on Mount Kenya

 

The children of Kibera
The children of Kibera

 

The children of Kibera
The children of Kibera

 

The children of Kibera
The children of Kibera

 

Lion after it's kill
Lion after it’s kill

 

Workers in the tea fields, Kimunye, Kenya
Workers in the tea fields, Kimunye, Kenya

 

Machar, a rapper in Kibera
Machar, a rapper in Kibera

 

Forest elephants on Mount Kenya
Forest elephants on Mount Kenya

 

Low aerial view of Nairobi, Kenya
Low aerial view of Nairobi, Kenya

 

bicycling past the rice fields near Embu, Kenya
bicycling past the rice fields near Embu, Kenya

 

Commercial vehicle, Embu, Kenya
Commercial vehicle, Embu, Kenya

 

Baskets of fresh tea, Kimunye, Kenya
Baskets of fresh tea, Kimunye, Kenya

 

Dawn in Kenya
Dawn in Kenya

 

At the reform school
At the reform school

Congratulations, Your Comfort Zone Just Got Bigger

Part of my joy on this trip to Kenya is having my wife with me, and seeing her discover things for the first time. Previous to this, my wife had never left North America. So this was truly new for her. This was her first time to another continent, first time to a non-first world country, first time going somewhere without the children. It was truly outside of her comfort zone. So I have asked for her help in writing this. I wanted to know first all, what her impressions of Africa were before she left to come here, and her impressions now that she is here. So now I hand this over to her.
“I think my thoughts about Africa before we arrived was that everything was going to be different, I wouldn’t find anything familiar. I thought I would be encountering a culture so foreign that I would feel awkward and out of place most of the time. I am not a person who likes to stand out preferring to blend in. I have huge (that’s an understatement) fears of the unknown. I thought we would be spending 10 days completely out of my comfort zone and I would be uncomfortable most of the time. I am still uncomfortable most of the time, because everything is still new. I am not an adventure seeker, but I no longer fear Kenya. I was able to see something through an entirely different lens.
I think I have been most pleasantly surprised by how hospitable and friendly the people are here. Everywhere we have traveled whether it was Kibera, the girls reform school, or meeting with our sponsor child and all the many hardworking people who are trying to help her have a better life, I have found nothing but kindness and genuine warmth. Even in situations where life seems more than bleak, I didn’t find a spirit of negativity. Look forward, don’t focus on the past. Work hard for your future. Tomorrow brings a new opportunity. These seem to be the attitudes of most I’ve encountered.
I think my favorite part of coming to Kenya has been meeting the people we’ve built relationships with. Had we not built those relationships with the people that have shown us around I would have had a very different experience. It was a comfort for me knowing that those relationships had already been established by our friends who came here shortly before us.
The food has also been wonderful. I haven’t had a bad meal since coming here. I expected bland food and chewy, gristly meat. Instead I got incredibly fresh food with lots of variety.
My least favorite part of this trip has been the lack of certain amenities, especially hot water. In some places we have either boiling hot water to shower in, or cold. In other places we have to wait for a certain time of day for hot water. I’m tired of having my hair in a pony tail. Its also exhausting not hearing English. It’s difficult to build relationships and have a conversation with people who speak English as a second or third language. It’s tiring to communicate. The smoke and the diesel fumes also bother me, especially in downtown Nairobi. I find it hard to breathe.”
I’m also going to add that when I watched my wife get up in front of a group of schoolgirls and start talking, I could tell she was in her element. Before we came here, I saw a lot of fears. I think most of those fears are gone. After all, fear of the unknown is the worst kind, but everything you know, at one time was also unknown.
If she has further thoughts later after some ruminating, I may write a subsequent blog. Till next time…

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I Can’t Get To My Room Because Of The Elephants

I was going to write about the time we had meeting our sponsor child, but I still need time to reflect on this. So I’m going to move on for a bit and talk about some of our experiences afterward. After visiting faith, we traveled up to Mount Kenya to a place called the Castle Forest Lodge. This was our time to stay in a place that looks like the kind of Africa people see on TV. It had lots of natural beauty, if not much African culture. I was told that occasionally the forest elephants would come into the clearing and could be seen from the hotel, but that it was very rare. Well, we must have been very lucky, because on the second evening of our stay they appeared in the clearing and came quite close.
Then on the third evening around dark they came back again. This time they stayed around, though we didn’t realIze it until after dinner. When we finished dinner and went to walk back to our cabin, we saw a few of the staff on the porch. They told us the elephants were in the way, and we couldn’t go back yet. You have to understand just how dark it is at Mount Kenya, so I questioned them about it. One of the staff shined a flashlight, which lit up the side of an elephant not forty yards away, right in the path to my room!
The elephants finally moved, but we heard them grunting and crashing through the underbrush for the next few hours, scaring the cattle and horses in the field next to the hotel. It was truly an amazing experience. Here are a few pictured from the second night. They are uncropped and unedited.

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Passion Over Money

On the same day we went into Kibera, we also traveled outside Nairobi to a rehabilitation school for girls. Here we met a young man named James, who did not let his lack of experience or credentials get in the way. He did not have a university degree or the kind of experience you could put on a resume, but because his God-given passion for teenagers was so evident, he managed to convince a television station to give him his own show geared toward looking to the future instead of letting your past define you.
Even though the television show was his dream, his real passion was kids. He eventually had to choose whether to continue the television show and keep his income, or teach children at risk on a volunteer basis. He chose the latter. I watched James as he taught a class full of girls ages twelve to fourteen. All had some kind of event happen in their lived that had changed them for the worse. Some had been in prison, some had been in prostitution. Many of them were estranged from their families. I watched and listened as James taught them that they had worth, and taught them about legacy, and what kind of difference they will make In their own lives and the world around them based on the choices they make.
James gave up his income to do this, and now walks ten miles each way once a week to teach these girls.
As we prayed for them at the end of class, I saw the longing in their eyes as we prayed that they would be reconciled with their families. With people with a passion like James’s, someday they will be.

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Nairobi National Park

I still have a lot to write about regarding yesterday, but I really need to think about it first, so today I’m being lazy. I’m writing what is easy to write about, and that is today’s trip to Nairobi National Park. This is the ninth time I’ve flown into Nairobi, but until today I had never been to the park. Either there wasn’t enough money, or the logistics was bad, or someone didn’t want to go. Well today we. Remedied that. After all, this was supposed to be my wife and my twentieth anniversary trip before it turned into a missions trip.
We got up before dawn and arrived at the park so early there was no one there yet to let us in, so we were literally the first ones inside the park. I saw more animals by far than I had expected. I even saw a lion that had just finished its kill, which I had no expectation of seeing. Coming early meant that the fog still rolled across the low areas and made for an absolutely beautiful scene before dawn. To finish it off, I got that odd juxtaposition of a giraffe in front of skyscrapers that you can only get in certain parts of. Nairobi National Park. Following are a few of my favorite unedited shots from today.
Tomorrow we go to visit our sponsor child through Compassion International for the first time. More on that later.

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Kibera

My wife is asleep as I write this, the victim of an exhausting day compounded by jetlag. We spent our first day in Kenya in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi and the third largest in Africa I believe. I was here four years ago, and to be quite honest, I was not looking forward to coming back. Four years ago, we did little more than tour through it. If you see Kibera that way, you will get a sense of little more than hopelessness, poverty, and gut-wrenching filth. Many people who live in Nairobi have never been to Kibera, preferring to act like it does not exist. This is where the poorest of the poor live, because you can rent a ten by ten foot shack for about ten dollars a month.
But today I saw new things. Walking through the winding maze of alleys between cardboard and plywood sided shacks, we came to a place where a pastor watches people’s children so that the parents can go to work during the day and not wonder what is happening to their children in a place where physical and sexual abuse are common. He teaches them songs, and engages their minds through teaching that these children would not normally be getting. He sets them on a path to learning from infants up to about age six because without that start, they’re finding that the children from Kibera who do go to school are already behind by the start of kindergarten, having missed out on the basic skills other children learn from their parents by age three. He is cutting off the developmental disability, victim mentality, lack of reasoning skills, and feeling of hopelessness that pervades this place.
As my friend Jimmy pointed out, people believe there is nothing they can do for so long, that the mentality becomes the thing holding them back even when there is a way. It’s like the donkey who stands where he is because he’s tied to a plastic chair. Today I saw hope where I saw none before, and came out with a much greater understanding of where poverty comes from. Today I had little to teach and very much to learn. There was much more to this day, but too much for one post. I will have to ponder a lot of it as well before coming to conclusions worth writing down.
On one last note, to prove that truth is stranger than fiction, today I shot a music video in Kibera for a local rap artist who grew up in the slum.

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Kigali, Rwanda

Our airline took the scenic route this time to Nairobi, and I am sitting in the airplane on the tarmac in Kigali, Rwanda. This is a new one for me. As far as I can tell, Mt Rushmore might be out the window. This is the darkest international airport I’ve ever been to, in the darkest capital city, possibly even darker than Juba. The runway is dark, the tarmac is dark, and I can barely see the control tower. The terminal building is lit about like a parking lot would be after the business has closed. I had hoped to see a bit of Rwanda from the air, but if anyone asks me what Rwanda looks like at night, I’ll just have to tell them, “a bit like Mt Rushmore”

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I’m Done Freaking Out. Let’s Go!

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I remember the first time I was on an airplane to South Sudan. There was a moment when I had a feeling of panic as I thought, “What on Earth am I doing!?”. For my wife, that moment came in the office when she was getting her first round of shots, (and a few times since then). It’s not that there’s anything scary or that we should be worried about. It’s just that everything is going to be new-very new.
First order of business when we get to Kenya is to go to to Kibera. My wife is jumping in with both feet, as Kibera is one of the most difficult places I’ve been. As such, there’s a lot that needs to be done there. The picture above is from my last trip there. Lots of organizations say they work there, but very few actually have a presence. We’re going there to see how our church might help change that.
So tomorrow we leave for Kenya. I will try to keep updates as I can, as Internet can be iffy. The other purpose of today’s blog is to just make sure I can blog from the iPad. There always seem to be issues when I do that, and it’s best to work them out beforehand. Till next time, in Nairobi..

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